After months of preparation and a 3 a.m. wake-up call Tuesday, more than 500 canoeists and kayakers put paddle to water and kicked off the 10th version of what is said to be the longest nonstop river race in the world — the Missouri American Water MR340.
Best friends, couples, beginners and old pros will contend with cramping backs, blistering hands and oppressive heat to make the 340-mile trip down the Missouri River from Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan., to St. Charles, Mo.
Front-runners will fight through physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation to make the dash in under 40 hours, less than half of the allotted 88 hours.
Kirk Freels of Oak Grove is making his sixth solo dash across the state this year, and he has done dozens of sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups every day in hopes of setting a personal record. But he said it’s ultimately a mental grind.
“You get hallucinations,” he said. “You’ll look along the bank and see things that aren’t really there.”
Mitch Anderson and Phil Reed, wrestling coaches from Oakland, Iowa, remembered being startled their first year by a brick wall in the middle of the river.
“We kept trying to reach out and touch it, but it kept moving away,” Reed said. “It turned out it was just a shadow off of the treeline. We tied the boat up and napped a bit after that.”
Anderson and Reed, who have made the trip as a duo and as part of various teams, teamed up with Cole Clement this year in a three-man canoe. Cole’s brother Clay Clement is their ground crew, something many teams rely on for support at the nine checkpoints along the river.
A reliable ground crew can easily become a competitor’s most valuable asset, handling needed food and water so paddlers can focus on the river ahead.
“It gets to be very elemental out there on the river,” Freels said. “You just drink and eat and paddle.”
Scott Mansker, the race’s director and founder, doesn’t compete in the race — he is in charge of the 20 motorboats stationed along the river to keep paddlers safe. But he has made the run many times and said that even pacesetters will take a moment to enjoy the camaraderie and beauty of the river along the way, especially after sunset.
“We always schedule this on a full moon, and there’s always a boat within speaking distance,” Mansker said. “People just pass the night together on the river, and it’s really pretty cool.”
But as some race T-shirts read, “This ain’t no mama’s boy float trip.”
More than 30 percent of the boats that hit the water Tuesday will fall behind the pacesetting motorboat, known as “The Reaper,” and be disqualified. But those that make it to St. Charles will have a great story to tell and some napping to do.
“Usually someone has to pull you out of the water by the end,” Freels said. “You can barely move.”
To follow the race, go to raceowl.com.