Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016 MR340 by Robert Bart

My MR340 Adventure

Warning: This is a long account.

“This is crazy,” was the first thought that went through my head after I clicked the registration button. What was I thinking, signing up for a 340-mile paddle race (from Kansas City to St. Charles) when I’ve only been paddling for about a year and a half. I assured myself if I planned this out and paddled as much as possible, I could do this. “I could do this.” I had already begun building a suitable boat, and with the full support of my wife as my ground crew, we began planning. Also, thanks to a good friend of mine (Neil Dickhaus) I had a training boat for practice, and as time would tell, a race boat because my boat would not be complete by race day. Thanks go out to Neil for allowing me to keep and use his kayak for so long a period.

I managed to get 77 miles of paddling in before race day and learned a great deal about what it would take to complete this adventure. We went to classes at the Alpine Shop in Kirkwood, Missouri and discussion forums in Kansas City, both put on by veteran racers. Slowly we began to learn what it takes to race the MR340 and develop a plan. I didn’t really get serious about planning this out until about a month prior when I DNF’d the Missouri Freedom Race put on by
That failure, however, only strengthened my resolve to complete the MR340. I did learn several valuable things from that race. I now knew how fast I could average on the Missouri River, how often I needed to refuel, when to apply sunscreen, what type of clothes to wear, how the boat needed to be loaded, and what needed to be in the boat. Planning now progressed quickly because I had good data and a desire to prove to myself and my wife that this could be done.

There are eight required checkpoint stops on the MR340. I stopped an additional six times to meet my water and food needs. Each stop in the plan had mileage, ETA, and what supplies would be incoming. Meals were planned around my paddling stops. Most stops were quick swap of supplies and back out on the river. A rudder was added to the boat to allow paddling to focus only on forward motion. A new custom deck bag was made to store items for easy access. A phone mount and charging setup was installed to provide GPS data and tracking for the race directors and friends. Texting in and out at check points is a requirement of the race, and a good way to let my wife know when to expect me. If cell phone signal was lost, the contingency was to follow the plan based on the last known departure time. My wife also mapped and printed directions for all stops since cell coverage wasn’t guaranteed. I also carried an extra day’s worth of supplies in the case of vehicle failure.
.Finally, it’s time to race! We headed toward the race start at Kaw Point in Kansas City on Monday morning. It was recommended that we stage the boat as early as possible that day, in order to get a good spot. Security arrived around noon to start watching over boats. When we arrived around 1pm, we found that there was already a flurry of activity and over one hundred boats already staged, including some really neat prototype boats. My favorite was a four person pedal drive boat that was over 25 feet long. The pedals are turning in my head already for a similar type of build (once I finish my current boat…). We managed a spot right off the water that would make things easier the next morning.

With the boat staged, it was off to the hotel a mile away for check-in. This event has become so large that they had to move the check-in and mandatory safety meeting to a nearby hotel. We’re several hours early for the safety meeting so we decide to head to a nearby grocery store for some last minute ice for the cooler, and tomatoes. We ended up in an area of Kansas City known as little Mexico, which means lots of chilies and everything has a Mexican twist to it. So my tomatoes that we needed for my BLTs were tiny, but no less tasty.

After the final supply check, we headed back to the hotel for a pasta dinner prior to the safety meeting. Turns out you can have chicken Alfredo with asparagus, without the chicken or asparagus. So the hotel comped our meal. They were really overwhelmed by our crowd of 2000 people I think. We finished just in time to head downstairs to the massive conference room where the safety meeting would be starting momentarily.

The safety meeting was an hour long affair praising all the sponsors and the 120 volunteers that make this race possible. Too many sponsors to list but the title sponsor was Missouri American Water. Next were the required gear check and finally the safety briefing detailing locations of dredges, bad idea shortcuts, and turbulent water at some of the checkpoints. All checkpoints would have a bright yellow flag during the day and a blinking blue beacon at night.

After the safety meeting we headed back to our sleeping accommodations for the night. I loaded as much gear as I could into the boat so there would be less to do in the morning. This included my deck bag, PFD, emergency supplies, navigation lights, and phone mount. Our budget was tight this year, so we stayed in the back of our SUV. This was a bad idea. It was hot and noisy. People were coming and going nearly all night long, closing doors, and arming cars. A train also passed every two hours. So next year we will stay at the hotel where the safety meeting was, or in a camper maybe. Ear plugs are a must for sleeping in the carThe next morning, we are up at 5am. It’s time to slip into the day’s paddling clothes and move the remainder of my gear (mostly fresh food and water for the morning) down to the boat. Also had some banana bread as a snack to hold me over until it was time to eat breakfast on the boat. By 6am we are ready to launch the boat. So we carry it the last little bit down to the ramp and get in line. This is where one of the tips from the group forum paid off. It was recommended we launch the boat by 6am to avoid the huge line that develops closer to the 7 A.M. start. We were able to launch by 6:07 A.M. So I had plenty of time to paddle over to the opposite bank, eat my breakfast and watch the madness ensue as everyone tries to crowd onto the ramp and get their boats launched. Also had some time to talk with a few veteran racers to learn about their plans for the race and checkout their gear setups.The cannon fires at 7 A.M. after a prayer and the national anthem, and we’re racing! I hang back a bit to let the crazy fast racers go. I have no hope of keeping up with them so why would I want to get in their way by being on the front line. It helps ease the congestion and allows me to position myself for the entry into the mighty Missouri River. The start of the race is actually on the Kansas River and just a few hundred feet to the Missouri River. This is important because the Missouri River moves much faster and when entering from a slower moving river, it can spin you right around. Not a good thing when there are 400 other boats around you all trying to do the same thing. Fortunately, everybody makes it through safe and sound. The safety boats again have nothing to do this year but watch and cheer.

I pass a standup paddle board (SUP) with three people onboard. Two of which are paddling and a third who is sitting in a lawn chair playing a banjo and singing. I can’t help but wonder to myself if I will see these guys again or if they will even make it. (Update: This was Shane Perrin (81) (the oldest racer in the MR340) and crew who are ultra-endurance standup paddlers who have already paddled the Mississippi end to end and done the Texas water safari. They finished this year’s MR340 in 81 hours. Impressive! Never underestimate jovial octogenarians.) I can’t help but wonder the same thing about myself either. The reality of it is, at this point I still have over three hundred and 339 miles to go. Yes! I will make it I tell myself. I’ve tasted the Missouri River in other races. I know what to expect. I know how to deal with barge wakes and capsizing. I know how the channel and its navigation beacons work. I know how wing dikes and bridge pilings work. I’ve trained repeatedly in the heat. I am prepared! Only time will tell if it’s enough.

The first CP is Lexington at river mile marker (MM) 317. The race started at MM 368. That’s a 51-mile paddle right off the cannon. If I paddle at my usual (for the Missouri) 6.5 mph, I should make Lexington by 3pm. Luckily, there’s a convenient boat ramp at Fort Osage to stop at right around lunch time. Not an official checkpoint, but a necessary stop to refuel water and pick up a nice fresh lunch of chicken gyros made by my wonderful wife. This was planned as a quick stop to swap my adventure pack for a fresh one which had all my water and fresh food supplies. I drink the last of my water from the previous pack, stuff trash in the pack, and get it off my back before I roll into the stop, aiming for the TeamBOR flag we made as a marker to help me spot her.

As I come in, my wife steadies me. I toss her the spent pack and she tosses me the fresh one. She then pushes back out away from the boat ramp and yells good luck and I love you. Just like that I’m back out paddling only having lost a couple of minutes. I wish I could say all the stops will be like that.

We didn’t plan to stop at Lexington, but I decide to text my wife and let her know that I’ll stopping in about half an hour for some fresh cold water. I text her half an hour before each stop as a notice of when I expect to be there so she is ready for me. We swap packs, say a few encouraging words, rest for a moment, then back out on the water. A smiling, happy wife is a wonderful thing. It’s twenty-three miles to Waverly, the next official CP at MM 294. This was one of my mini goals. It was exciting to see the mile markers drop below 300. Still 265 miles to go though. I’m just paddling the river one mile at a time. One beautiful bend to the next.

There’s been a thunder storm brewing behind us on the river for the last hour or so. This is the first major test of my resolve and skill. We all begin to pick up the pace as the storm gets closer and closer. Then the wind picks up and the water starts to get choppy. The boats are getting hard to control and I consider pulling over to wait it out. I’m only two miles from Waverly so I decide to tough it out. So do the other boats around me as well. My legs are getting a great workout right now as they are constantly working the rudder to keep the boat pointed down river and the waves that keep crashing over the boat. Eventually, I make it to Waverly about 15 minutes ahead of schedule and without much from the storm but some wind and a show. GPS says I pushed it to a max speed of 8.1 mph. So I take a break at Waverly to stretch and decide to eat one of my delicious brats while I wait. Cue the rain. Fortunately, it’s not a down poor, but good thing I packed the rain coat. They warned us that getting soaked by the rain can cause you to go hypothermic after the storm abates because of the cooler temps that usually follow. I take off in the rain wearing the rain coat as my wife sarcastically asks me why I decided to do this race. I smile and stuff another bite of brat in my mouth and say I love you. The water is now calm enough again and she pushes me off. Before I get too far, I yell back to her and ask for a huge protein bar at Miami. She acknowledges and I paddle off for what seemed like an hour before the storm finally gives way to clear sunny skies.

Then mother nature decides to show us the most beautiful and complete rainbow I’ve ever seen. I enjoy it for a moment while I remove the rain coat and stow it for later. Several paddlers pull out their cameras and snap shots. One more stop to go for the day, but it will be midnight before i get there.
The evening is nice and cool compared to the day, now that the sun is setting. I see Hill’s Island and its nice warm inviting fire coming into view. There are a few boats there pulled up on the sand. It’s not an official checkpoint, but they always send a safety boat there to start a fire to let weary paddlers rest or spend the night in the quiet dark away from trains, cars with alarms, and other noises of life. For a moment, I consider staying the night because it does look really inviting considering just how tired I am. I ultimately decide to press on into the dark of night. For the next two hours I find myself wishing I had stayed back at Hill’s Island and cursing myself for not staying and the absent full moon. They told us there would be a full moon each night. Where the hell is it? Then, around ten o’clock it finally shows itself and I greet it with wonderful relief. I have failed to keep up with the other night paddlers ahead of me and all I see are their dim navigation lights in the distance. So seeing the moon is like having a companion for the night’s travels. It doesn’t talk back, but stares at you and helps you find your way.

I can now see the beacons and mile markers on the north bank and know that I have gone almost one hundred miles. No barges or dredges tonight, just some startled channel catfish. I wonder just how big a fish needs to be in order to push my boat around and force me to make a course correction. I can finally see the blinking blue beacon that signifies my stop for the night. Miami is in site! So I text my wife to let her know I’ll be in around 12:15 A.M. Thank you Monster Energy for keeping me awake. I pull into Miami where my smiling wife and a handful of volunteers eagerly await my arrival. It’s a wonderful thing to have volunteers to help you out of your boat and haul it up to a waiting area for you. My wife helps me out of my PFD and backpack and shuts off my navigation lights. I change out of my wet clothes, eat the protein bar I requested, and use the bathroom. Thankfully all the plumbing is working correctly after 17 hours of sitting in a kayak. The race directors warned us that if we didn’t go like we normally do, that something is wrong and we probably wouldn’t make it to the finish line. Off to sleep then.
The plan is to sleep for the next four hours. Despite being incredibly tired, sleep doesn’t come that easy. Miami is a noisy checkpoint. There are people scurrying everywhere. Volunteers and boy scouts serving food. Vehicles are coming and going, RVs and generators running all night. The port-a-loo is metal with a metal door that goes CLANG every time someone uses it. I’m also laying across the back seat of our SUV. So, even with ear plugs to drown out the noise, it’s still hot and I’m uncomfortable. At some point, we move to a quieter place away from most of the noise, but my sleep still isn’t great. I’m awake just before the 4 A.M. alarm goes off. I tell my wife it’s time to get ready and get back in the boat. No procrastinating here! We both swing back into action and I’m ready to go with fresh supplies and back on the water by 4:45 A.M. I think I was back on the water earlier but that was my official checkout time.

The early morning paddle is calm, serene, and refreshing. This is my new favorite time to paddle. I see barges tied up on the north shore just as the morning sun begins to light the sky. The race directors warned us about these, because there are at least five of them. “Always give barges, even parked ones, a wide berth” they say. It’s only an hour now to my first stop of the day at Dalton Bottoms. Next year I may try to make it here the first night even though it’s another twenty-three miles. It’s a great stop with plenty of amenities and it’s quiet. I arrive as planed at right around 8am. My wife is ready with a smile my breakfast and fresh supplies. It’s a quick stop and back on the river. Breakfast is a delicious surprise of two sausage egg and cheese biscuits from McDonald’s. She had bought them and wrapped them in aluminum foil to keep them warm. These are always a morale booster for me. A perfect way to start off the morning! One of my side goals for today is to keep my feet dry. Yesterday they were soaked and took forever to dry out overnight. Let’s see how long I can keep them that way.

The next stop is Glasgow at MM226, only 13 miles downriver. I’m now under two hundred miles to go! Next is Franklin Island after another 30 miles. Not much to report as it’s pretty much the same as the first day. I also get to paddle with some TeamBOR friends for a while in the afternoon. Chuck Voshen and his wife in a composite canoe are there to keep me company. They are doing great. We see more of a safety boat today as we pass by a dangerous area the RDs told us to avoid. Last year a paddler lost his boat trying to take a short cut behind Franklin Island. He was unhurt, fortunately, but his race was over and his boat never found. Franklin Island is only a little further even though it isn’t an official checkpoint but at MM196 it’s a good place to refuel for the next CP at Katfish Katy’s at MM180. Katfish Katy’s restaurant is closed this year, but the new owners allowed us to use the space as a race checkpoint. This has been a checkpoint since the very first year of the MR340.

This is where it starts to get interesting on the second day. I will pass the first active dredge I’ve seen on the river in just a couple of hours. They warned me about this as I left Katfish Katy’s. It’s not the dredge that worries me. It’s the barges actively moving between the stationary dredge and the shore line. My heart begins to race as I begin to hear the incredible noise it generates long before I even see it. It’s probably another 20 minutes to half an hour before it comes into view, and realize that I’m still almost an hour away. It’s still too far away to even tell if there’s a barge parked there or not. The river is very straight through this stretch. I’m continually watching the other boats in front of me to see what they are doing. I also check behind me frequently for a barge coming to drop an empty container. As I get closer I realize that it is actively filling a container already and there’s a barge docked. So I’m trying to estimate in my head just how full it might be and when that barge is planning on departing. I look down at my watch and notice that it’s a little after 5 P.M. and I’m wondering why the barge is still operating. We were told that they cease operations at 5pm. They must be finishing this load before quitting for the day. The noise is quite loud, even from the far side of the river. I’m almost on top of the dredge now and watching intently for signs that the barge is ready to depart. The container looks like it’s almost at the water line. It’s got to be full. I’m expecting it to start moving any moment.
Fortunately, the barge never moves. I breathe a sigh of relief as I pass out of earshot of the dredge and I think I’m home free. However, around the next bend I see the barge that is headed up river to meet that dredge. I’m already calmed back down from the dredge encounter and I remember to turn around and check the last navigation beacon I just past. It’s solid red, which tells me that the channel is staying on the left side of the river. I’ve still got about half an hour before I intercept it, so I casually make my way to the opposite side of the river because I still want to take advantage of the channel for as long as I can. I finally reach the barge as I reach the far shore. There are no wing dikes to hide behind so I pick up a little speed and head for the point a few hundred feet behind where the barge is now and angle my kayak perpendicular to his wake. We exchange waves as we pass and I’m not worried because he doesn’t seem to be pushing very hard. His wake isn’t bad at all and soon I’m back to paddling down a calm river and enjoying the view of the cliff faces in the setting sun behind me.

My next stop is Cooper’s Landing at MM 170 and its almost dark. I pick up my night paddling supplies, get my navigation lights turned on, and my supplies sorted. We’ve also been told the race directors have an agreement with the barge operators to cease operations after dark during the race. Very nice of them to arrange this and one less thing for us to worry about while night paddling. I hear another paddler pull in and shout “Where’s the Thai food!” Cooper’s Landing has a restaurant that serves delicious Thai food but I have elected to avoid this because I already know what effect Thai food has on my system so I push off and say my good byes to my wife. She doesn’t even get half way up the ramp before I come back in. My rudder is stuck on the deck because the rope that allows me to drop it has come untied. I have her drop it and stow the rope on deck. We’ll fix it at Jeff City when I pull in for the night. I also plug in my power bank and charge my phone while I still have a little light left. I seem to be able to get about 18 hours of battery life. It’s a good thing I packed power banks that my wife has been keeping charged for me.

 It’s now dark and I can see the faint glow of the navigation lights of two boats in front of me. Someone on the north shore is having some fun lighting fireworks as we pass. So I take the time to enjoy it as I put on some bug spray because the mosquitos seem to be bad this evening. I miss and accidentally spray myself in the face. I know… it’s harder than you might think, in the dark, to see where a spray nozzle is pointed. Lots of water spit into the river and I find my spare gloves and wipe it off after realizing that everything else is already covered in bug spray. I think I’ll look for some bug spray wipes for next year. After the bug spray episode, I start hearing high pitched sound pulses around me and I realize that I’m surrounded by bats who are devouring the bugs on the river. I manage to catch a few in my spot light. They are quick and their little ultrasonic echoes are kind of cool when you can hear them. I don’t need any bug spray after that.

My listening to the bats is interrupted by a gaggle of geese having a rave party somewhere on the north shore. I shine my light in their direction but never spot them as they go quiet at my light. Maybe the bug spray and monster energy is making me hallucinate because I also spot the bright lights of a barge headed towards me a long way up river. A few paddlers pull up next to me and we talk about the barge so I’m hopeful that I’m not hallucinating because they see it too. Nothing on the geese though. We watch the navigation lights of a boat closer to the barge and note that they pass to the left of the barge because we didn’t lose their navigation lights during their transit of the barge. Closer and closer we get and I start to hear the rumble of the barge’s engines. My nerves are on edge as I start to pass it but then I realize that its actually anchored to the south shore and the hum is just its generators keeping its beacons shining bright.

Faster paddlers continue to pass me all night long but we exchange quick conversations as they pass and the moon is now back to keep me company. Cloud cover had obscured it for about an hour during my barge transit. Hours seem to pass as I haven’t seen anyone in a while and my only company is a large fish that has come to investigate me and my little kayak. I must have startled it when it bolted off with a huge swirl of water that rocks my boat. I wonder for a moment just how big that fish would have to be in order to push me off course like that. Maybe I’m hallucinating again, but I don’t have time to think about that now as I see another set of bright lights up ahead. Is it my CP for the night, Jeff City! No, it’s not blinking blue and it’s only eleven pm as I check my watch. I have at least another hour to go. It’s a parked dredge and I’m already much closer to it than I thought because its beacon lights are not very bright compared to the barge I just past. Nothing to worry about, just steer clear of it. There’s plenty of river. I prefer passing dredges at night anyway. There’s no active barge traffic lumbering about on the river. Even if it wasn’t very well lit, the very prevalent sound of rushing water is a good indicator of something breaking the surface of the water nearby. Perfect time to turn my headlamp on and scan the water to see what it is. Most of the time it’s just some rocks or trees near the edge. A couple of times it was a buoy marking the inside edge of the channel.
Its eleven thirty and my monster energy drink is gone. Don’t worry I tell myself. I planned it that way so I could sleep at the next stop which is only about forty-five minutes away according to my GPS. The moon is bright overhead which is useful because something curious is going on up ahead. There are two boats floating crossways in the river frantically shining their lamps around. I turn mine on too out of curiosity because I don’t see anything. Just then I spot a dark, black, rectangular object sitting over the water not rocking like the other boats I see. What is it I wonder. It’s not moving nor does it have any navigation lights, it’s just there quiet like a stone. So I shine my massively bright head lamp in its direction but still only see a dark black, ominous rectangle. Just then it starts moving, but its moving so incredibly fast I can’t even move my head fast enough to follow it with my headlamp. It’s not bouncing around like you would think a boat would move on the water. Its movement is smooth and uninterrupted and it’s also not making any noise that I can discern. Even as it passes on the other side of the river, it’s dark, quiet and more importantly there’s no wake. What is it, I wonder. Did I just see a UFO! Or maybe some top secret military vehicle! Am I hallucinating?

Another boat pulls up alongside me. It’s a two person racing canoe. “Did you see that black object moving super-fast across the water” they ask me! “Yes, well I guess I’m not hallucinating if you guys saw it to,” I reply. They also thought they were hallucinating. Relieved, but also a little bit disappointed, we paddle on spurred by a glimpse of the blinking blue beacon that signifies our CP at Jeff City. However, it disappears again and again taunting us as we go around the next couple of bends in the river. The Jeff City bridge has also come into view, along with an active barge moving just under the bridge. It’s nice to know that not all the barges stop for the night. Fortunately, the CP is on the opposite side of the river. I move to the other side of the river and text my wife to let her know I’m half an hour out. She doesn’t reply like normal because she has prepared a bed in the back of our SUV for me to sleep on and has fallen asleep testing it out. Thankfully she has set an alarm based on my planned arrival on her que sheet. By the time I’m on the shore at MM 144 and out of the bathroom, she’s there to greet me and help me to the car.

I strip down and change clothes to dry out. This is when we discover that I have a nasty heat rash on my back. My wife snaps a photo to show me what it looks like then sends the picture for analysis to my teammates watching my progress. While she heads back to the boat for my first aid cream, they confirm its heat rash and nothing major to worry about. Also, it doesn’t hurt at all. It only itches a little.  I’m already asleep by the time she gets back and only vaguely aware of her rubbing it on the rash.
I decide to sleep in a little longer and wake up around 5:00 A.M. well rested and ready to go. Apparently I slept very well. So well in fact, that when I was walking back to my boat, I asked about the fire truck sitting there with its lights flashing. Apparently, while I was snoring rather loudly, they got a report of a capsized canoe that wasn’t so lucky with the same barge that I passed right as I was pulling into Jeff City. She lost control of her canoe in the barge wake and capsized. However, another kayaker saw it happen then lost sight of her after the barge passed. Fearing the worst, they call the safety boats and the Jeff City fire department was there almost immediately with their boats and massive search lights. They quickly located her on a nearby sand bar where she had decided to stay the night and dry out. I slept through this entire event and got some really good sleep. I must have been really tired.

I eat a quick bite of banana nut bread from my wife’s food stash as we’re getting ready to paddle again. I skip the morning monster energy and don’t need the navigation lights as its almost light already. I’m about two hours off schedule so I take my breakfast along instead of picking it up at the next CP in four hours at Chamois MM 118. My wife also expertly adjusts my food plan to account for being off schedule. We had discussed what to do in this eventuality (plan B).
The paddle to Chamois is again a calm and serene morning paddle marked only by passing of some sort of processing plant along the river around MM 130. A gentleman is waving us away from it with a glowing red flashlight and warning us to steer clear of the parked barges there. Thank you for your watchful care whoever you are. The whole morning paddle to Chamois is uneventful with the exception of the bright morning sun! We are paddling due east all morning long and the sun is directly in my face and the glare from the river is almost unbearable. I paddle along the shore line on the channel side as much as possible to cut down on the glare. However, it can’t be avoided when the channel decides to change sides and cross the river. “Why did the channel cross the river?” I ask myself and some nearby paddlers is a composite canoe. “To get to the other side”, I laughingly say. They chuckle a bit to, but it’s a sad laugh as the sun is still beaming us brightly in the face and it’s starting to get hot out. The heat hasn’t been a problem for me so far, but today looks to be different because the heat has come much earlier than yesterday.

Chamois isn’t an official CP, but it breaks up the long seven-hour paddle from Jeff City to Hermann, which is now only about three hours away. I’m grateful for the ice water my wife has put in my pack and all the chilled snacks. They help me deal with the heat. I also rejoice a little as I’m now less than one hundred miles from the finish. My friends in the composite canoe stopped for a swim and some shade at Chamois. My stop was a quick refill of supplies and back out on the river. The blueberry pancake bites my wife had planned to make for me are replace by some delicious blueberry muffins with some fried bacon and hard boiled eggs. My wife has also anticipated the heat and packed me with two extra bottles of Gatorade.
Gatorade wasn’t a big part of my plan, but it will be next year. However, all the sugary sweet stuff is starting to wear on my throat and I can’t drink anymore Gatorade. Maybe I’ll try some sugar free stuff before next year’s race.  A hot tip from one of the veterans I spoke with during one of the early prerace discussion forums was to bring along a tooth brush and tooth paste. Brushing your teeth regularly will help reset your tolerance for sweet stuff. The minty freshness of the tooth paste does help and I’m able to make it through the rest of my Gatorade without incident and maintain my hydration and electrolytes. My urine is still the appropriate color so I know I’m not in trouble. Despite my good hydration and the first aid cream on my back, the heat is really starting to get to me. I open my sunscreen stick only to find that it has melted from its normally viscous solid state and is oozing all over. Fortunately, it still works and when I’m done I stick it in my cooler box on the deck which I hope helps to solidify it for next time.

I also have some good conversation with the frantic paddlers that saw the ominous black object last night on the river. They tell me that they were the ones very near to the object. They also claim to have narrowly avoided a picnic table floating in the water that night. They claimed it was a john boat with two occupants, no navigation lights and a big, but quiet motor. We decide they must have been doing something illegal and the presence of several paddlers on the river must have spooked them, but I still like my description better.

I finally get into Hermann at MM 98 and my wife restocks my supplies while I take a much needed bath in the river to cool off. I’m not the only one either. I spend about 10 minutes just sitting in the water next to the ramp. I also learn that lots of people are calling it and quitting the race during this hot stretch. I’m now about two hours behind schedule and feel like my strength is failing me and for a moment I consider this fate as well. However, my wonderful wife is there with an army of volunteers to pick me up and smile at me and tell me just how good I’m doing. I know I look terrible and that her smile is probably hiding some immense worry for me in my current state, but her encouragement and beautiful smile is enough for me. I tell myself I can do this and I’m more determined than ever to make it to the next stop in Washington. So I push off and continue on. My wife has also offered me an alternative to think about as I paddle on to Washington. She suggests I take a break at Washington and get a shower and sleep at her mom’s house nearby. Deep down, I think she knows that I won’t take this option. It’s only much later when I reach Washington, that I learn just how much her smile was really hiding.
The temperature is slowly starting to drop and while it’s still hot there’s a light but much needed breeze. I also have found a couple of nice paddling companions. An older gentleman from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in a hand built traditional style Nunavut canoe that he built in a community college class back home. I want to take that class! We exchange conversation about boat building and I get to talk about my strip built kayak project that’s still in work. I also get to paddle with two friends from Kansas City in an old vintage aluminum canoe outfitted with a custom built rudder. These two are quite brave and awesome at the same time. One is an ex-marine who never backs down from a challenge. The other is an eagle scout who was just as prepared for this adventure as I am. Their boat numbered 1369 (use your imagination for what that means, hint: separate the first and last two digits then apply some meaning to those two double digit numbers) is aptly named “Boaty McBoat Face” because they wanted the record to show that “Boaty McBoat Face” completed the MR340 unsupported. They are mountain bikers and hockey players who’ve carried two beers with them for the entire journey for toasting at the finish line. They flag down a safety boat on the way to Washington. They ask if everything is alright and if they need some water. However, they are only interested in some ice to keep their toasting beer cold. I will spend the remainder of my adventure paddling with and getting to know them. The conversation makes the time pass more quickly and we are no longer focused on the heat, which has now dropped considerably into the mid-90s and is cooling off quite nicely.

Another barge has appeared down river and the four of us discuss what to do about it. No one seems to know what to do. So I quickly look behind me and spot the last channel marker. It has a red checkered pattern, so I look where it’s pointing across the river on the right side and spot a green checkered channel marker right where it should be. I explain to the others where the channel is and where the barge will be right where we are in about fifteen minutes. We decide to make our way off channel to the right and continue paddling in the slack water. We also give ourselves room to negotiate the barge’s wake. The Canadian in the hand built canoe is much lighter and far more maneuverable so he has no trouble with the wake. My friends in the aluminum canoe are far heavier and seem to cut right through the waves. My foot operated rudder makes it easy to steer into the wake, but the nose of my boat is far pointier so my boat dives right through the waves and water continually crashes over the deck. Just another barge on the river at this point, no big deal.
We can tell we are getting close to Washington at MM 68 as we can now see the top of the Washington hospital. However, we are starting to encounter more frequent boaters out of Washington who have no regard for paddlers and whom fly right past us at full throttle. Some produce wakes much worse than any barge that we’ve yet encountered. Then comes the barge right as we’re approaching Washington, and there’s no time to get over to the enormous sound they’ve created for people to play in a calm water area. Since we’ve learned how to expertly negotiate barge wake, these boats are no problem. The only issue is that they come at you with such speed that you don’t have the time to react like you would with a barge.  I text my wife but still have no signal, the water is very choppy and only the Canadian and I pull in for resupply.
Washington isn’t an official CP this year but it’s a good place to resupply between Hermann and the next CP at Klondike Park. My mother-in-law and daughter are also there waiting with my wife to welcome me into Washington. My wife looks very much relieved that I’m in better spirits now and I find out that she was supper worried about me and cried most of the way to her mom’s house nearby. Thankfully they are there to help cheer her up and made me some mini pizzas for dinner. I also reboot my phone and my signal comes back. I have a bunch of texts from my wife. If only I had a signal, I could have reassured her. Maybe… I remember she has had less sleep than I have. All appears to be well now. Except for two stupid guys on jet skis that are making waves right near the boat ramp. The water is already choppy and these guys are just making it worse. After a quick scolding by my wife, they scurry off up river to play somewhere else. Way to go honey! As I prepare to get back in the boat after a resupply and I hear my mother-in-law say “I told you he wouldn’t take it. He’s going to finish this thing!” My Canadian friend has wandered off the ramp up into town to look for his crew. I don’t see him again for the rest of the race.

After a quick good luck, a hug and a kiss from my wife, daughter, and mother-in-law, I’m back in the boat and angling to catch my friends in Boaty McBoat Face. They aren’t far off and I catch them in less than half an hour. I have less than fifty miles to go! I also attempt to eat the mini pizzas my wife made for me, but I can’t seem to eat them. They aren’t tasting very good going down but force one down anyway because I know I need the calories. I’m also aware that I’ve not been eating enough of my snacks this afternoon and I try to eat something else. Did I mention how much I love brownies and cookies. I also have a root beer with dinner that hits the spot.

I finally catch them and ask if they can turn on my navigation lights. I didn’t notice my wife turning them on at Washington because they tell me they are already on. I also learn that their front red and green light is broken so I stick close to help make them more visible. The time passes quickly and before we know it, its 9:00 P.M. and we’re at the next CP at Klondike MM 56. I also get a call from my parents who thought I was finished because the Raceowl app that I’ve been tracking with hasn’t been able to update my position since I lost signal.
It’s the final stretch and we leave Klondike Park around 9:15 P.M. with another group of paddlers (four  boats in all) ready to finish this race. My wife shares my extra monster energy drinks with them and they are very envious of my support crew and tell her how wonderful she is for helping others out. We start to talk with the two other boats and get to know them a little bit. The plan was to stick together and finish in a group, but these two other boats are clearly faster than us and they soon pull away without noticing us slip back and are only dim specs of light in the distance. Boaty McBoat Face and I stick together after having repaired their front navigation light, they are good company.
The miles are ticking away slowly but we know we’re getting close. We hear helicopters coming and going from a nearby hospital which we can’t quite see. We have a hard time finding the channel because the navigation beacons aren’t showing themselves very well. Even though we use our headlamps to scan the shore, we can’t seem to locate them. We elect to stay in the middle of the river and just listen for rushing water. We pass under the first of three bridges and another paddler catches us on the other side of the river. So we head that direction thinking we might be on the wrong side of the river for the channel. It was a good thing too, as we hear the sound of rushing water ahead of us. We turn on our headlamps and begin scanning the water in front of us. It doesn’t take us long to realize we are about 30 feet from the most enormous wing dike we’ve ever seen! It’s just this huge boat crushing wall of rock! We make a hard left turn and start paddling with all we’ve got left. We’re yelling and carrying on making a bunch of racket as we keep an eye on that ever looming gigantic wing dike. The other paddler who just past us slowed down, I guess watching us and wondering what was going on. It seemed like this wing dike went on forever. We we’re paddling as hard as we could and finally passed the end of the wing dike, adrenaline coursing through every vein in our bodies.
It was 1 A.M. Friday morning and we were now resting and laughing as we conceded that the wing dike may have simply been a ripple in the water and maybe we just hallucinated the whole thing. We couldn’t take that chance though; the risk was too great. We paddle on as we see the second of the three bridges and soon a casino. It’s on the wrong side of the river so it’s not our final destination.

We are all really ready for this adventure to end. It’s been a long voyage and we’ve had a great time. Let’s get out of these stupid boats before we fall out and take a nap with fishes. The miles are creeping by and a text from my wife lets me know that we’re behind schedule and I estimate back to her that I think we’ve got about 45 minutes to go. This will put in around 2 A.M. Friday morning.
We’re completely exhausted but we keep paddling as the Ameristar casino and the final bridge at the finish line slowly come into view. I text my wife excitedly, we’ll be in right around 2 A.M. just as I estimated. We see that final blinking blue beacon and know that our journey is finally about to come to a close. We’re too tired and exhausted to be saddened by this. Finally, we’re at the shore line but there’s no dock, just some wood buried in the mud and several amazing volunteers, my wife is there excited to see me, and Dave Beattie, one of my TeamBOR teammates, has come to support me (literally). I can’t stand on my own at this point, but the volunteers know and expect this. One steadies my boat and two other literally pick me up out of my boat and let me rest on the back so I can swing my weary legs out into the water. They haul me up onto the dock as still more volunteers come down the bank to haul my boat up to the waiting area. still can’t stand on my own. So my wife under one arm and Dave under the other slowly help up the steep bank. They let me walk the last few steps to the finish line marker where I’ll get my photo taken by yet another wonderful volunteer. I’m so tired that I forget about my post-race beer plans. I say good bye to my new friends in Boaty McBoat Face as one’s family has shown up to pick him up. The other’s family won’t be there until morning as she is seven months pregnant and doesn’t like night driving. I shake his hand as its time for me to load up and go home to rest. My wife brings the car closer so we can load the kayak and Dave helps me get it onto the kayak cart I made for portaging. Thankfully Dave is there for one last request and helps get the boat up on top of my SUV then he heads out after a very grateful hug from me for his support. I know he has to be to work in about six hours. We get the boat tied down and depart for home.

I vaguely remember eating some QT taquitos with my wet feet hanging out the window and a few stops as my wife needs to rest because she has had even less sleep than I’ve had. We finally make it home to my mother-in-law’s and decide to leave everything in the car and just go inside, somehow manage showers (more likely just standing under the warm water believing to myself that I have somehow managed enough strength to wash) and then off to sleep. We wake up having slept through most of Friday and realize that it’s already 4 P.M. Just enough time to eat something and head back to Frontier Park for the awards ceremony.The race was won this year by a group of 12 women in a very large dragon boat in 48 hours. They even tipped over once. Everyone cheers for them and all the finishers as they are announced one by one. However, no one gets more cheers and certainly no one deserves more cheers than the 120 volunteers and the countless support crews that made this race possible. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart to all those who helped. I also need to thank my wife for being such a wonderful and amazing support crew. Without your watchful care, I’m sure I would have failed. For, even when my strength failed me, you were there to pick me up and tell me what I needed to hear (hard as it was) to keep me going. We finished this race together, one journey on land and one in the river, but still together. My only job was to keep paddling, you did everything else. My journey may have been 340 miles of river, but yours was double that through many dirt and gravel roads lost to all but time in the middle of nowhere often in the dark. I think you deserved that medal just as much as me.

The medals carry a heavy weight to them as they are harder earned than most save for Olympic medals. I wear it with pride and a smile on my face. I finish 340 miles in 67 hours. I’m 54th in the solo kayak division and 115th overall, but my goal was simply to finish. For that I am happy. One final note, when I cleaned up the boat my boat numbers peeled right off. I think that was the boat’s way of telling me no more. So I thank it one last time as I send it back to its owner and thank Neil Dickhaus one more time for allowing me to use his 14-foot Venture Islay kayak. I plan to get mine done for next year’s race because we’ve already decided that we’ll be back for 2017 MR340!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

2016 Castlewood 8 by Reanna Pearson

Castlewood 8 from a true rookie.

In August of this year I laughed at the idea of doing the Castlewood 8 adventure race.
That Friday night our friends Robert and Cassie Bart had met us for dinner.  After some delicious queso and great conversation, I found myself agreeing to a fourth margarita and to sign up for this year’s Castlewood 8.  Even in my tequila haze, I wasn’t sure I would be able to follow through.  The last two years Kevin has encouraged me to sign up but there’s always been late nights at the animal hospital, exams to study for, or kennel duties that got in the way.  I hadn’t ridden a bike in over 2 years and my main source of exercise was walking the dog.  There was one thing that motivated me the most to join the race - I was sick of listening to Kevin’s AR stories.  Don’t get me wrong, Kevin is a great story teller.  His ability to spin a tale is one of the many things I love about him.  What bothered me was I wanted to be there with him to share these experiences instead of listening to them after the fact.  That night, after closing down the restaurant, we parted ways with the Barts and Kevin and I walked home.  I asked him, “Do you think I could really do the Castlewood 8?”  Without any hesitation he said, “Absolutely, but you have to start training.”  The next day, though, I opted for an ibuprofen and bloody Mary instead of a morning jog.

Nevertheless that night did plant a seed in my head.  What would happen if I did commit to this?  I had three main fears.  Fear number one:  I would embarrass myself in front of a bunch of people.  Fear number two:  I would have to hike-a-bike the whole mountain biking section.  Fear number three:  Kevin would realize I’m a lost cause and never race with me again.  After a large amount of internal debating I finally put on my big girl panties and decided to go for it.  One evening in September I told Kevin to sign us up for Castlewood 8, because the only way I was doing it was with him as my teammate.
I’m a true AR rookie.  I have the physical abilities of a newborn calf.  Once I decided to go for it I started a jogging routine.  Kevin and I kayaked a few times.  I knew my weakest point was mountain biking.  It’s been two years since I’ve been on a bike.  We managed to get in one practice ride at Creve Coeur that was just enough to remind me how much the saddle destroys your ass.  Seriously I couldn’t sit down properly for three days.  It wasn’t until we tried towing that I thought I had any chance to finish this race.  By then race day was around the corner and all that was left to do was to throw myself into it and hope I didn’t end up dead or permanently maimed.
Friday evening we picked up our maps from Alpine Shop.  We meet up with many of the other teams and the fantastic members of Team BOR.  Talking to everyone was very encouraging.  We couldn’t stay long though because there were points to plot and gear to check and double check.

That night it felt like I had just drifted off when the alarm went off at 5 AM.  I stumbled out of bed to get the dog walked and cats fed and then we were off to the bike drop!  Frankly I was more excited to get to McDonalds for my pre-race coffee and biscuit.  It’s a good thing I got my coffee when I did.  I had heard of the pre-race poop before, but I never understood the importance until that morning.
Once we were waiting to start, I couldn’t focus on what was being said over the megaphone.  I fidgeted with my jacket and hat and I couldn’t decide if I wanted to wear either.  Already mini bottles of butterscotch liquor were being passed around by Team BOR.  Kevin noticed my nervous energy and reminded me of our only goal – to have fun.

 Finally it was go time and the only thing I had to focus on was putting one foot in front of the other…then I saw the hill.  Hunter’s Ford Road was something
straight out of my nightmares.  Kevin had me hold on to the back of his Osprey pack to jog up the monster.  I could have died right then and there if Kevin wasn’t there encouraging me.  Somewhere along the way we met up with Team Virtus.  The guys are rapidly becoming my favorite group of adventure racers.  It’s hard to focus on the suck when these jovial fellows are singing, joking, and Bob Jenkins is showing off his ability to urinate while still rambling up a monster hill.  Speaking of urinating outdoors, of all the trials I anticipated and agonized over, I did not foresee what would be one of my greatest challenges.  Turns out, I’m not very good at peeing in the woods.  By the time we got to the Allentown Access Boat Ramp I needed to make a pit stop but that proved to be more difficult than I thought.  First off, I had no idea how far I needed to go out into the woods to pop a squat.  What was the proper etiquette?  After I meandered roughly 500 feet into the bush I found a decent downed tree to hide behind.  Next was the challenge of getting my bushwhacking pants, my tights, and my bike shorts down while simultaneously going into a squatting position without falling over.  FYI, I fell over.  Finally I got situated only to discover that what happened so naturally indoors was not going to happen out here.  In a mild panic I wrangled all my layers back up and headed out of the wood to catch a canoe.
It was just in time too, because I found out that my fiancĂ© had secured us the last two paddles.  The guys left behind were kind enough to push us off the boat ramp and we set off for a trip down the majestic Meremac River.  Having never canoed before, there was some zigging and zagging on our way to the bike drop but overall it was an uneventful journey.  We were able to take in all the scenery that the Meremac had to offer including outhouses, plastic barrels on sand bars, a red camaro that was stuck halfway down a cliff by a tree, and a dead bloated deer under a bridge.  Very romantic.

At the halfway point we began to see the back of the pack ahead of us.  We were actually gaining on them!  My arms were trying to give out by then but I decided to take a page from Team Virtus’ book.  I began singing random songs at the top of my lungs.  This took my mind off of my fatiguing muscles.  Before long we saw the ramp and made our ungraceful approach.  Once we hit land I realized two things: my legs were no longer working right and I really needed to piss.  After punching the checkpoint I was following the navigator over some rocks to get around the canoes.  I was going slow and looked up to see him leaving me behind.  At that moment I slipped and hit my right knee hard on a bastard rock.  I’ll admit, I’m not proud of what I did next.  As people were asking if I was ok I quickly got to my feet and yelled at Kevin.  At that moment I experienced the reality of my first major fear.  I embarrassed myself in front of a group of people by being a total ass to my teammate.
I immediately apologized to Kevin and we made our way to the bike drop off.  I took a deep breath and walked into the woods to attempt a potty break once again.  This time was more successful but with one hitch – I peed on my pant leg.  Lady luck was with me though because it was my right side that I was going to zip off anyway for the mountain biking section.  After some grub we were on the bikes.  Ironically the next checkpoint was near a perfectly good indoor toilet.

From the moment the pavement hit trail at West Tyson I knew I was in trouble.  We followed other teams up the hill and before long we started falling behind.  I must have worn out my legs in the first 5k because I was not making much progress on the rocky terrain with my bike alongside me.  I have never felt that kind of fatigue in my muscles.  I was walking like I was drunk.  Going uphill, everything from my lower back down to my calves was on fire.  At a certain point Kevin offered to take my bike as well as his and I reluctantly gave in, feeling defeated.  My second fear came true – except I wasn’t even hike-a-biking.  I was barely able to walk up these hills!  With my hands free I chewed on some energy bloks and those seemed to help.  Finally we reached a crest and I was able to take my bike back.  The sections I could ride were few and far between and the way my legs were I was very afraid to ride them.  The time between CP 7 and 8 is a bit of a blur.  I think I was just zoned out and cursing the trail every few feet.  Once we made it to the picnic table I wanted to throw the bike back down the mountain, but because it was a loaner I refrained (thank you the Scott Shaw for letting me use your bike by the way!)  It was great to see Amanda and the other volunteers up there.  We set off on foot and got a few more CPs.  Punching a few spots on the passport seemed to wake me up.

After CP 17 my navigator said, “I think we are going to try for something stupid on the way to 15.”  To preface this part, you should know that Kevin often says something like this and it usually ends badly.  Unfortunately this time I was too zoned out to object.  Kevin’s stupid idea was for us to red line to CP 15 through a reentrant and up a steep hill.  Halfway through this hike my shoes were slipping around on my feet because of the slope and I had to stop to tighten them.  At this point I was tired, frustrated, and feeling sorry for myself.  I was having trouble taking my gloves off to tie my shoes and I lost my shit.  Kevin straddled the log I had collapsed on, bent down and tighten my shoe laces.  As he trying to cheer me up tears were welling in my eyes.  Any other person would be surprised or weirded out by my crying on a log in the middle of the woods, but I’m pretty sure Kevin was expecting this at some point.  Honestly I think he was impressed that I lasted this long before the tears came.  With Kevin’s help I pulled myself together we tried to scramble up the steep hill out of the reentrant.
It was so steep and the ground was so loose that I couldn’t get any footing.  I tried to bear crawl up it and slipped even further.  I started to panic that I would be stuck in this hell hole forever.  Kevin told me to sit down, grab the stick to my left and try again.  Turns out you have better luck getting up square on your feet then trying to crawl up.  I feel like this is some vast metaphor for life, but at that point I just wanted to get the fuck out of there.  Finally we got on top of the saddle we were headed for and Kevin said that we could either go down the other side for the checkpoint or head back to the trail.  That’s when I made what Kevin called a “tactical decision.”  I looked down the hill and said hell no.  We also tried and failed to get CP 12.

 At this point I was a bit discouraged.  I wasn’t feeling good about my performance and I was worried about the second leg of mountain biking.  Around this time we ran into Team BOR Fresh Meat with Dave Beattie, Leah, Devon, and Bart.  They looked as miserable as I felt.  I told Kevin how I felt and he said that this race is supposed to be hard.  I looked around and most of the faces I saw either looked tired, confused, or, for those headed downhill on Chubb, terrified.  While I was feeling alone in my misery, actually everyone was suffering just like I was.  This was a very uplifting thought.
Finally we got back to the bikes and I somehow managed to not die on the way back down the mountain.  Kevin even managed to show off a bit over the rocky terrain.  We ended up coming down at the same spot we went in and I got to enjoy the indoor bathroom.  The effect on my moral was remarkable.  Also knowing that the mountain bikes section was over was a big relief.  We loaded our bikes on the canoes and made the quick trip across the river to the gear check that we passed with flying colors.

There is was great to see Tamara Taylor there to see us into the next leg of the course.  This leg of the race was my favorite because of one piece of equipment – the tow.  Thanks to Kevin’s massive quads, we made good time though the Route 66 State Park, knocking out checkpoints one by one.  Then we raced back to The Legends and we were making such good time I forgot about the last major challenge in this race until we were right under it.  The race finale was a endless hill into the manicured community of The Legends.  Halfway up I didn’t think we were going to make it.  My legs were beyond useless.  Kevin stood up on his bike and powered down.  I haven’t mentioned yet that Kevin was doing all of this while battling a sinus infection.  Why I was trying to stay upright on the bike he was burning his lungs.  When all seemed lost the amazing volunteers including Tamara pulled up beside us and started honking their horns and shouting encouragement.  We made it to the top, coasted down another hill and right back up the next one.  Next thing we saw was the Alpine Shop Arch.  At a respectable 7 hours and 30 minutes we ended our race.

Our ending photograph shows Kevin and me with helmets askew and thousand yard stares.  We were both so happy to be done.  After changing and loading bikes I was just able to grab the last baked potato for us to share.  There was one last great moment in store.  The members of Team BOR all stood up after the awards.  In a mock ceremonious tone, Scott Shaw declared there was some unfinished business at the table.  I turned to Kevin just in time to see him pull out a shiny new pair of plastic blue testicles on a keychain.  If he had been on one knee it would have been just as romantic as when he proposed.
Afterwards there was a good little bit of bull shitting between all the racers before we went our separate ways.  Although I was half comatose I had to appreciate the community aspect of the sport.

   The next morning I woke up sore all over and asking Kevin when the next race is and if he would do it with me. At Castlewood 8 we didn’t clear the course, I embarrassed myself and had to hike-a-bike for 90% of the mountain bike sections, but my last fear was completely unfounded.  Kevin said, “Absolutely, but you have to start training.”

Note from the Captain:  Reanna did wonderful for a true beginner in his race.  I had a great time watching her push herself to her limits and then beyond.  Hopefully we can work on things like peeing in the woods for the next race.  Thanks again Alpine Shop and Osprey packs for a great race!