August 26, 2014

The Racing News

by John Brady August 24th, 2014
*disclaimer - I borrowed a few photos from the MR340 facebook page and credited the photographer for each. ~MC

The week before last, I participated as ground support crew in the 9th Annual Missouri River 340, the longest continuous paddling race on the planet. This race, open to many classes of paddle propelled craft, is organized by and sponsored in chief by Missouri American Water and is intended to be both a grueling contest of paddlers and their ability to complete, unaided, the race course from Kansas City, Kansas to St. Charles, MO, a distance of 340 miles. It is also held to heighten awareness of the great and unique resource that bisects our state and provides drinking water to more than half of its inhabitants.

I have participated in the past a number of times as crew on one of the safety boats required by the U.S. Coast Guard as a condition of the race permit. This year, I had agreed to be the sole support for my son, who was entered for the first time. I promised myself early on to do the support job to the best of my ability, but also to try to maintain awareness of the feel of the race and the racers from a new, ground-based perspective. To that end, I tried to notice the little new things I saw and heard and to keep some sort of record of them to recall later. I say “try to” as the combined effects of the hustle of maintaining support for my son and the consequential sleep deprivation worked against a coherent record after the first day. Here are some of the snippets of my impressions during the race.

Boone Brady, photo by John Brady

photo by Jennifer Owens

Day One
The start of some 258 boats from the mouth of the Kaw (Kansas) River was, as usual, quite a spectacle. The cheering, squirming mass of fresh paddlers churned the water to froth as they sought either a leading position or safe haven from the chaos. A flitting drone aircraft, like a high-tech dragonfly, darted overhead recording video of the melee. Amidst the bumping, darting boats, the strongest and fastest craft soon bore to the lead in this, perhaps the most dangerous, fraction of the long course ahead. The near carnage resulted in only three boats being upset and they, too, were soon underway to thread the five bridges in the next mile of the Missouri.

                                                                                                                        photo by Melanie Cheney

                                                                                                                     photo by Melanie Cheney
LaBenite Park - I snuck in to this unofficial viewing area to see if my son was still afloat. He was and waved off any assistance or concern with a look of grim determination. The weather, unusual for August in Missouri, was beneficent, cloudy and only 85 degrees. At this point, all but the very fastest boats were still clumped together in a string around two miles long.

photo by Karen Thomas
Napoleon - I caught the near-leaders here, still stroking fast and rhythmically as they had at the start. Sometime later, along came my charge, still needing nothing, still paddling resolutely. I figured then that he had adjusted to his pace and took a look around the crowd of viewers. An extended family, noticeably absent of adult men but including two or three women and many young children, all clad in matching lime green tee shirts set up next to me and the very youngest proceeded to attempt the most realistic near tumbles down the bank into the river. Their shrieks of joy, when mingled with their mother’s constant shouted cautions set the tone for a circus-like atmosphere. I moved on to quieter quarters.

Lexington - A huge parking lot was near full of the vehicles of support crews and onlookers. It looked like many were locals out for the yearly spectacle. The clouds had burned off and the temperature was up a few degrees. A grandmotherly sort worried aloud if her relative was drinking enough and using sun screen. I got a lesson in smart phone technology from the checkpoint official. Did you know they can access aviation meteorology forecasts that can predict where and when the likelihood of fog will be present? I resupplied my son, scolded him for not eating and drinking enough and headed off for more ice and the next checkpoint.

Waverly - My son arrived at dusk, very tired but willing to go on as he wanted to get used to navigating at night. This is where I really had to let go and trust his abilities and common sense. He was prepared to spend some rest time before the next check point with light sleeping gear. I pushed him off with an unexpected tightness in my throat. The check point was not a place to linger as it straddles a busy railroad track and has a resident gang of bully mosquitoes that train all year for their part of this event.

Miami - I got in just after dark and scored a premier parking place at the crowded lot-near the ramp and amenities but semi-secluded and relatively quiet. I got the tent-cot set up on a nearly level spot and went to look over the place. This was a real river Shangri-La. Tiki torches lined the path from the ramp to the al fresco café. There were hot and cold foods and beverages for sale and a warming bonfire. Temperatures had dipped into the mid-sixties. I set the alarm on my cell phone and tried to catch a few winks before my son arrived, to no avail. There was just too much caffeine and too many little worries. My biggest worry was a thirty year old one out on a river he does not know in a boat that he is very new to. 


 photo by Constance Allen  

Day Two
He got in half an hour after midnight. I led him to the cot where he asked me to bring him some Ibuprofen. He was asleep five minutes later when I got back. I woke him up to take it. I tidied up his boat, made preps for the morning and tried again to sleep. No dice there. I spent the rest of the night carrying arriving boats up the launch ramp and got him underway at five-thirty a.m. He looked and acted fresh and ready. I felt good in spite of the lack of rest. The feeling of Miami was subdued and laid-back, I suppose from the tired nature of its occupants. There was an intangible air of relief at having survived the first day in the crucible. 

Glasgow - My original plan was for my son to rest at Glasgow. I set up accordingly and went to the ramp to help out. One of the safety boats was laagered there, so I gave them a ride uptown for real breakfast food. They were pretty docile after coming down from the start. Breakfast induced torpor and I loaned my son’s bivouac to one of them. At the ramp, the familial gaggle in their lime green shirts was there, and I noticed for the first time that all of their shirts were captioned with their team name- “Drowning Dads”. Now, is it really a good idea to send the fathers of a brood of really young children, much less their mothers, in support of a boating crew of “Drowning Dads”? I mean, “Dabbling Dads” or “Dueling Dads” maybe, but “Drowning Dads”?. I suppose the ignorance of young childhood is a blessing sometimes.

Drowning Dads crew in Glasgow.  photo by Constance Allen
Traveling between Miami and Glasgow, I experienced one of the most beautiful views of ground fog I have ever seen. As I dropped down into the Mendon Bottoms, the fog was a blanket on the cropland that appeared as a silver lake in the early sun. Here and there its surface rose in tent-like up-wellings, all the same height above the lower surface. The tops of trees appeared as Mangrove islands in a silver lake of mist. That vista was worth the sleepless night to see.

Eerie fog on the river.  photo by Boone Brady

photo by Krystal Phipps
Katfish Katy’s - This whimsically named checkpoint was notable only for the heat and the universally tired nature of the arrivals. I was able to finally fall asleep in the cab of my truck, to be awakened by my son who had just arrived. We ate some “real” barbeque food with his new-found paddling companions and their dad. They were very nice and plain folks from eastern Illinois. They had been encouraging my son when he lagged and he wanted to press on to the next check point with them to motivate him to keep up the pace. I had encouraged him to keep company with just this sort of amiable companions to help pass the time and to have company during the nights. They left an hour before dusk.

Jefferson City - Wilson’s Serenity Point was gleaming like the riverside diamond that it is. Sand beaches, roaring fire and plentiful cool drinks and warm food met me when I arrived after switching vehicles to a van and thirty-foot boat trailer I had agreed to shuttle to the finish line. I am getting a sense here of the deep all-encompassing fatigue of the racers as they arrive. I had seen some of this while in the safety boats before, but here it is palpable to a much greater extent as they stumble in and anguish over whether to rest for a time or go on. 

Some express a near fear of another night on the water, some long to enjoy its beauty again, exhausted as they are. Ground crews reason or cajole as they see fit. All of the ground crews share the fatigue and agonize with the boaters. Then there are those few, tired as the rest and just as toasted by the day that land with a splash, stretch and have a cool drink and are back in their boats as soon as the resupply is done. I am amazed at their pluck as I share their sleeplessness if not their pain. About twenty-five percent of the starters have dropped out by now. Usually that number is near forty percent by Glasgow.

Day Three
My paddler and his companions/motivators arrive at nearly one a.m. Their dad, Jack, is a friendly man who is enjoying a rare respite from farming a very large acreage and his son’s great progress in his first endurance race. Our joy is very similar and I like him immediately, as I do his nineteen year old son. We bed them down immediately, them in a tent shared by three (his son is part of a tandem crew) and my boy in his tent cot. He is nearly delirious with fatigue and cannot talk coherently. He does manage to call his fiancé and mumble that he is OK and loves her. I fumble around and learn how to turn off and charge his smart phone (mine still is the crank up variety).

I pull his boat up, swamp it out and prep it for the day. I sleep fitfully, curled up in the van around the protruding brackets that mount the vacant second bench seat. It’s cool and I miss my pillow which I have given to the cot. I toss for four hours, then get up and prep the boat some more and fix the days supplies. At six, the voyagers are away. My son hugs me and thanks me for my support. In my ignorance of what he needs, I feel that my help is barely adequate but know my presence does him good. No other paddlers are preparing to depart when he leaves. I head off for ice, some foodstuffs and the next stop.

 John Brady prepping his sons boat.  photo by Boone Brady
Hermann - A safety boat crew of friends is on station when I arrive. I bring them fresh pastries from a local bakery. They smile and we chat about the nights doings.

Sometime during the night a drunken fisherman has lost his boat and nearly his life and scared paddlers in the night with his calls for help. He is OK and out of the river but minus his boat. A Highway Patrol boat stops in and we talk about the incident. We have not seen the errant boat pass by. Later in the long, hot day, around two p.m., my paddlers stop in briefly, take an hour for café food courtesy of Jack and depart for the next way point. They are tired but euphoric at their progress. They are on the way to stacking up three 100 mile plus days in a row. This will mean a cake walk on the final day and they are really stoked. 

I leave soon after them. My plan is to drive to the finish and drop the albatross of a thirty-foot trailer and then return to the last check point for the night. The trailer is making it very hard to maneuver and park anywhere near the river and cuts down my options to get things done. The drive to drop the trailer is a daytime nightmare for me. Edgy and extremely sleep deprived, I drive in five o’clock traffic into the city, twitching around the solid traffic and watching the trailer in the mirrors, hoping to avoid contact between the trailer and the aggressive evening drivers. 

I make the drop and get to the last check point in early dusk. I prep the tent cot and help at the ramp for a while. It is manned by a friend of mine but he is resting. The paddlers arrive just after ten p.m. and my son is spent and can barely walk. He makes his call and goes down. I prep the boat and tomorrow’s supplies. The atmosphere is similar to the last overnight stop, hope and despair among the racers and quiet support by the crews. There is an overtone of elation at the finish being only twenty six miles away. A tearful new arrival wants to go on but is tired and scared of the fog. I talk to him for an hour, telling him that safety is more important than finishing a few hours earlier. He goes on.

Day Four
The paddlers are away at six. Very gung-ho they are, too. My rest was fitful as it turned off much cooler and I had given my son the only other available blanket after he complained of being cold last night. I then had none and attempted to sleep curled in a ball around the seat brackets with my head right under a hanging raft of smelly old rain gear. At dawn, my kinks had kinks. I wrap up the gear and take off for the finish line. On the way, a restaurant sign seduces me in to the first hot food of the week. I dawdle. As I arrive at the finish and search vainly for an open parking place, I get a text from my son. “Arrived finish line at 10:25”. I am so disappointed to have missed that moment by just moments. I never expected him so early. He consoles me and we celebrate with a hug and several cold sodas. His mom is there, nearly in tears. We hug him repeatedly.


 photo by Jan Bryant 

The Awards Ceremony
My son is back after a shower and a few hours rest. His fiancé is there and they look so good together. My afternoon was spent pulling boats up the bank and just reliving race moments with friends old and new. The paddling companions depart for the east with the thanks of both me and my son.

As the awards and medals are passed out, applause from the audience is continuous and avid. I notice that my son applauds somewhat gingerly. Each arrived paddler (they are still coming in to the finish as this is going on) is called up to get their trophy or medal and their total time announced. My son has had a great race for someone on their sixth or seventh time in a kayak. He is so happy and I am so happy for him. This is an accomplishment that he will remember for the rest of his life. There are enough tears among the finishers and support crews to go around. A palpable air of elation and camaraderie floats on the air along with just a hint of unwashed flesh.

photo by Dave Marner
I notice the crew in the lime green tees. They are all there. Including the Undrowned Dads.

 photo by Karen Thomas

A collection of photos, stories and videos about the MR340 can be found here:

Kansas City Star photo gallery:

MR340 Facebook photo gallery:

MR340 Race Forum: 

Cindy Hiles Photo Gallery:  

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