340 Miles to Immortality (Part I)
What an incredible adventure.
I learned of the MR340 for the first time back in the end of April. Less than a week later I had signed up and stopped shaving. I knew that an undertaking this herculean would require all my strength. And there is nothing stronger than a magnificently fierce beard. But my beard and I would not be alone. To his ever lasting credit, my friend Josh Colbeck jumped at the chance to join me. He stepped up to the challenge and proved himself worthy at every turn.
Josh Colbeck - Savage
The MR 340 is firmly entrenched on my life's highlight reel.
Oh, wait, what's this blasphemy you speak? You're not familiar with the MR 340? You've never heard of the longest, most-grueling, continuous kayak race on the planet? Shave your face immediately while I enlighten you. This is the longest, most-grueling, continuous kayak race on the planet Earth. The "MR" stands for the Missouri River, one of the greatest rivers on this continent; the river that Lewis & Clark's expedition (two truly indomitable spirits) followed upstream to start their journey into history. The "340" stands for 340 miles. That is the distance. You must propel yourself three hundred and forty miles. No motor. No sail. No tying up with other boats. You have to paddle yourself down river. In the words emblazoned on the tie-dye t-shirt I got paddling the Nolichucky River years ago: "Paddle or Die."
This race starts at 8am on a Tuesday morning, timed to coincide with the full moon. Appropriate considering only savages could complete such an undertaking. The race time limit expires at midnight on Friday night. You have exactly 88 hours to paddle 340 miles down the Missouri River from Kaw Point in Kansas City, KS to St. Charles, MO. Sleep if you can.
Fear not, this race of maniacs is strictly voluntary. Your average person doesn't tackle a challenge like this. Can't handle it. Though our beards were still growing and not yet fully developed, we thought we stood a chance.
Josh and I were fully excited, but a little unsure of what paddling such distance would be like physically. Having worked together for two years, we knew our personalities were extremely compatible, and I was thankful for that. During times of extreme stress and discomfort, you need other people with positive attitudes, people who can find that gallows humor and help you make the best of a shitty situation. Josh and I both have that adventurous spirit. Which explains why we both jumped at this challenge. And to us, this was a personal challenge. Like this race was created specifically with the thought of calling us out in mind. You can't have Sam Jackson's wallet from Pulp Fiction if you can't back it up. You know what his wallet says on it...
This isn't some float trip where your drunk ass floats mindlessly on the river trying to untie bikini tops while dodging empty beer cans. Every year, the AVERAGE is more than 30% of people fail to complete this race. Oh, but you ran a marathon once? Neat. (Seriously though, good for you!) That's 26.2 long miles. You probably did that in 4-6 hours. How many people that started the race didn't finish? 8? Out of thousands? If 300 people attempt the MR 340, you can count on 100 or more dropping out along the way. Bit off more than they could chew.
So we did what every great explorer has done before us. We gathered as much information as we could. We read books, online forums, checked and rechecked our gear, and did several training paddles. We focused on the last stretch of the race, which also happened to be the one nearest our home. We were also very fortunate that this race was in our backyard. It's not like we were driving across country for our first look at the river on race day. We were fortunate to get direct experience on the Missouri River ahead of time. The last section of the race, from Washington, MO to St. Charles, MO, is 40 miles by river. During our training runs we learned the importance of getting comfortable in the pain box, minimizing shore time, of river levels impacting overall speed, and on one paddle, just how much the elements are out of our control.
We also knew that to complete the MR340 you need to paddle at night, so having never done that, we knew we needed to practice beforehand. So, along with our buddy John Pollihan, we put in at Washington at 9pm, eventually finishing a little after 5am in St. Charles. It was the best paddle we'd done yet. The weather was phenomenal, low 70s, and a clear night with lots of stars and a super moon literally casting shadows on the river. The tranquil river quietly flowed towards St. Charles and we paddled gently with it. It was a glorious time on the river.
Emboldened by our successes and our growing, yet still immature beards(<1.5"), we decided to try a longer stretch, 77 miles, from the Gasconade River just West of Hermann, MO back to St. Charles. We paddled the first mile or so and made it to the confluence of the MO. As soon as we entered the bigger river, we were smacked in the face with gusting winds, 20-25+ miles per hour. Being inches off the mighty river in a tiny floating kayak was not a fun place to be. At least, not if you were planning on paddling 76 more miles. The wind was so fierce that it created 2' waves that crested into foaming whitecaps all over the river. If you stopped paddling, you started floating backwards. Quickly. UP river. Against the current (3mph). It took us much cussing and effort just to make it 8 miles down river to Hermann in 3 hours. This blew up our time table for the training run as we had obligations the next morning that we were now hopelessly behind schedule to meet. Luckily we were able to call a friend to pick us up and aborted our paddling there. Though our evening ended with BBQ and whiskey at Hendrix BBQ in St. Charles, the river defeated us that day.
And our beards grew longer, but that defeat lay heavy on our hearts as the race drew closer...
(Continued in: PART II)