Friday, September 1, 2017

MR340: A Very Hard Thing

Thursday April 16th, 2015...the last time I published a race report. Almost 870 days ago. In that time I've done lots of races. Small races. Big races. Ultramarathons, triathlons, and some randos like a run/kayak biathlon in Arkansas. I even started writing race reports for Ironman Canada and the biathlon, as well as an attempted write up of the amazing experience of pacing Brandy Holey through her first 100 miler.

Needless to say, none of these reports were completed. I have always insisted that if I didn't have a compelling story to tell, I would not write. For all of my race reports, I tried as much as possible to include as much rich detail, personal reflection, and even sometimes an explanation of how an event had changed me. But what I found when I was attempting to write about some of these things was that I had more or less seen and done them already(well...I really should have finished the one about pacing was incredible).

For example: Ironman Canada could honestly be summed up like this: "I did an Ironman with bronchitis and it went about as poorly as you would expect. My brother did well though. And I almost saw a bear."

That's kinda it. There's a lot more detail to what happened that day, but it just didn't seem worth telling.

So, now that I've temporarily switched gears from running to ultra-distance kayaking, I feel somewhat confident that I might have a good story to tell, and I am now going to attempt to write it. If you are reading this, then I have succeeded. Yay me.


I suppose this story begins two summers ago. I saw a link to a story about a paddling race across the entire state of Missouri. It was called the MR340 and I immediately knew it was going on my bucket list. I had a running friend, Dee, who also kayaks. I asked her if she had heard of it, and it turns out she had done the race before and had been involved with it as a volunteer for many years. Seeing as how I was in the middle of training not training for the aforementioned Ironman due to illness, I knew it wasn't going to happen any time soon.

Fast forward to the following summer, at my brother's bachelor party at a small alpine lake near Tahoe. The lake house we rented had a handful of boats available for us to use. One afternoon, during a break from the drunken revelry, I decided to take their canoe out for a spin on the lake. It was peaceful and relaxing, and I decided that I absolutely had to own a kayak as soon as possible.

Within a week of returning home, I had purchased a Sun Dolphin Aruba, a 10 foot plastic recreational kayak, and taken it out for its maiden voyage at Shawnee Mission Park. This reinforced the knowledge that I loved being on the water. I brought my new acquisition to the Wednesday night Hump Day 5K paddling race, and then learned exactly what my boat could and couldn't do. It could turn on a dime. It could not move through the water at any significant speed, nor could it glide through the water. If I stopped paddling, the boat stopped almost immediately. I finished my first 5K in around 52 minutes. My next attempt I was able to get a sub-50 minute finish. I started to learn about a thing called "theoretic hull speed" which basically a function of a boat's length and width and describes how fast your boat can go before it starts to climb it's own bow wake and become less and less economical to go faster. To save you some math, I'll just say that my 10 foot boat's "theoretical hull speed" was not impressive.

A boat longer than my car.
Less than 2 months after buying my Sun Dolphin, I found myself driving to Denver to buy a used Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 that I had found on Craigslist for $600. I had begun researching boats almost immediately after getting the Sun Dolphin, with the MR340 being the primary focus. I hadn't even specifically decided I was doing it...but deep down, I knew I wanted a boat that was capable of completing it.

I immediately fell in love with my "new" 17 ft sea kayak and took every opportunity to get it out on the lake. Dee was kind enough to take me out on the Muddy Mo' for the first time for a 15 mile paddle from Parkville to Riverfront Park, KC. She taught me how to read the river, how to interpret channel markers, how to see and hear wing dikes, and about eddies, buoys, and boils(AKA "river farts").

Buffalo River Biathlon - Oct. 2016
As the temperature dropped, I put the kayak in the garage for the winter and began focusing my training on some upcoming ultras that I had high hopes for...a few 50Ks and a heap of mileage building towards 3 Days of Syllamo in March, a 3 day race that had been on my To-Do list for several years. Unfortunately, an insidious bit of scar tissue likely from an old injury slowly reared its head three weeks before Syllamo, and I was out of commission. No amount of ART, massage, or home rehab was able to get my ankle pain free, and now a 100 mile weekend on rugged Arkansas trails was completely out of the question. And as of my last run a month or so ago, my ankle still isn't right.
(Update: it's starting to feel better) (Update to the update: A lot better)

This would have normally resulted in unimaginable amounts of despair and frustration, save for the fact that early on the morning of January 1st, I had gone ahead and registered myself for the MR340. I was planning on focusing on running up until Syllamo and then switching gears to kayaking, so this is exactly what I did. I began putting in longer days in the boat, bought more gear, experimented with outfitting my boat, bought more gear, contemplated some shorter ultra-distance paddling races, and bought more gear. I signed up for a 50K paddle in May, which ended up being rescheduled to a weekend I couldn't participate(Gritty Fitty), a 71 mile race(South Dakota Kayak Challenge), and a 62 mile night race(Osage Howler). I continued attending the Hump Day 5Ks as I was able, and slowly shaved my PR down to 36 minutes flat.

And I bought more gear.

Both of my ultra distance events went very well, and by the time August rolled around, I more or less had my setup nailed down. Lights were tested. Nutrition was solid. Everything I needed(and nothing I didn't) was within reach, and hydration was readily accessible and hands-free. I had participated in endless discussions on the MR340 facebook group regarding all manner of topics and had even lusted after boats I will likely never be able to afford. But luckily I still liked my boat. I was ready.

The Plan

Over the months leading up to the race, I had done a lot of planning and guesswork regarding how my race might pan out. Based on a rough estimation of my abilities, I set out a loose goal of finishing in 70 hours. That would allow a lot of wiggle room for beating the 88 hour time limit, and in a 4 day race...a lot can go wrong, or simply not go as expected. Perhaps that is a laughable understatement.

But I had a plan.

Day One starting at Kaw Point (mile 0) in Kansas City would see me stopping in Napoleon (mile 33) for a quick refuel and refill, skipping the first checkpoint in Lexington, stopping in Waverly(mile 75) for a refill, refuel, and stretch, pushing on to Miami(mile 106) for 30-60 minutes, then on to Glasgow(mile 142) for a 2-3 hour stop early in the morning on Day Two for some good food, a shower, and a power nap.

I would wake up feeling refreshed and recharged and would then push to Franklin Island(mile 172) for a solo stop to allow my amazing ground crew to grab some rest at a hotel in Columbia. I would then continue on to Cooper's Landing(mile 198) for some delicious Thai food at a restaurant by the boat ramp, and then a quick shuttle to the aforementioned hotel for a solid sleep through the afternoon heat. I would come back late that night to push off into the dark for Jeff City(mile 224) for about an hour's stay at the amazing Wilson Serenity Point early in the morning on Day Three. I would then push on to Chamois(mile 250) and meet up with a friend who lives there and had agreed to let me and my ground crew sleep and shower at her house.

That afternoon, I would leave for Hermann(mile 270) for some delicious bratwurst in the evening and then embark upon my longest single stretch of the race. 41 night miles from Hermann to Klondike(mile 311) the last stop before the finish. The final stretch would see one more sunrise on Day 4 and despite any fatigue or pain I was feeling, I would be fueled by the euphoria of my imminent finish, and the final 27 miles would breeze by as I cruised into St. Charles(mile 340) for my glorious 70 hour finish.

Now let us all take a moment of quiet contemplation to consider this impeccable and ironclad plan. And now let us all take several more moments to attempt to stifle snickers, giggles, snorts, and the curling up of the corners of our mouths before we break into outright uncontrollable laughter.

For this was The Plan.

Now I will tell you what actually happened.

The 2017 MR340 - August 8-11

Boat staged and ready to go
The night before, I brought my boat down to Kaw Point and staged it near the boat ramp. I then walked around and looked at all the other boats. Some shiny, fancy, and fast looking...others rugged, tough, and home-made. Some looked like they had no business in a 340 mile kayak race, but evidence after the fact shows that some of the people badasses in these boats finished before me. I then headed over to the hotel to check in for the race and meet up with Ron Ladzinksi, with whom I had arranged to purchase a single blade oar as my backup paddle in the event my shoulders decided to implode mid-race(a strong possibility) and to have an option to switch things up if when I began to fatigue. It was a Thetis paddle...hand-made, bamboo, lightweight, and simply beautiful.

Later that evening, my ground crew consisting of Janee and her boyfriend Brian met me at the hotel for the mandatory safety meeting. After the meeting, we went over The Plan one more time, they asked some last minute questions, and we all headed home to sleep. We planned to meet around 5:30 am to do final boat prep and launch around 6:30 for the 7 am solo racer start.

Kaw Point - Day One

Surprisingly enough, I slept decently that night, though a few nights earlier that week had been consumed with thrashing around in bed while my brain over-analyzed every possible worry and detail of taking on this challenge. Melatonin is not the hero Gotham deserves, but it is the one it needs.

I arrived a little late to Kaw Point, but still had plenty of time to go over the boat one more time to make sure I had everything I needed, say my goodbyes, carry the boat down to the ramp, and shove off to sit in the water for 20 minutes until the gun went off. During that time, I paddled over to where my friends Dee and Gina were floating and had a little nervous small talk. I tried not to think about the enormity of a challenge that lay ahead of me, and just tried to drink it all in. Several hundred boats of all solo paddlers all spread out along a 50 yard section of the Kansas River, just upstream of the confluence with the Missouri River. Some paddling back and forth to warm up, but most just idly paddling enough to stay in place against the relatively weak current of the Kaw.

Solo paddlers coming through Kansas City. Photo by Mike Perkins

Time ticked away until the announcer started counting down. 7:00 came with loud cheers from the crowd as the fast people started churning up the water paddling into the confluence of the Missouri River, and the rest of us just kinda floated that direction to avoid the expected washing machine cluster-cuss that often results in at least a few boats dumping their occupants. Luckily, I ran into no issues and I was soon into the faster current of the MO sorting out my nerves and trying to get into some sort of groove. This was hampered by the fact that I had downloaded the MR340 Pro Paddler race app but hadn't actually used it yet, so I spent a good 10-15 minutes at the start of the race fiddling with it and trying to figure out how to make it work right.

I spent the early miles paddling with Dee and Gina, but realizing they are simply faster than me I decided to let them pull away so I could move at my own easy pace. I had been told roughly half a billion times not to go out too hard or I would jeopardize my race, or at the very least, regret it heartily towards the end. As if I wouldn't otherwise be full of regret after 50 hours of paddling.
FYI: The guy in the 10 ft plastic boat beat me. Photo by Mike Perkins
The first stretch passed by rather uneventfully. My planned stop at Napoleon represented the halfway point between the start and my second stop in Waverly. And before I knew it, I was pulling into the boat ramp more or less on schedule to top off my water and briefly stretch the legs. Janee was there waiting for me and got me in and out quickly and efficiently. The initial shoulder soreness had come and gone as my body warmed up and I was cruising pretty well at this point. I had decided to skip the first official checkpoint in Lexington because it is known to be very crowded and being on the opposite side of the river from the channel(aka on the slow side of the river) it would be a time consuming stop. As I passed Lexington, I fiddled with the race app on my phone to make sure it was automatically texting race officials to check me in and out of the checkpoint. I had configured it to give audio alerts when sending these texts as well as hourly status texts to my ground crew and loved ones(girlfriend and mother) and was pleased to hear it say "Lexington In" followed shortly by "Lexington Out".

At this point, I had decided ahead of time that I would switch out my double blade paddle to my new single blade, mostly to give the ol' shoulders a rest for a bit, but also learn how to single blade in a kayak for the first time ever. What's that Golden Rule about trying or not trying new things during a race? Who can remember such nonsense? The first few miles involved a good amount of splashing water around, into my boat, and onto myself. I had received some very limited instruction from Ron about the recovery portion of the stroke, but other than that I was kinda figuring it out for myself. I basically paddling on one side until that side got tired, then I'd switch to the other side. It wasn't a very good strategy, and I never really got into a great rhythm, but it passed the miles and worked a different set of muscles. There was really nothing of interest in the 25 or so miles between Lexington and Waverly.

I pulled into Waverly around 7 pm, around an hour behind schedule, but nothing to worry about yet. I spent about 15-20 minutes there and shoved off towards Miami. This next stretch was one of my favorites of the entire race. The sun dipped low in the sky and resulted in a very spectacular sunset. As dusk grew to darkness, the mosquitos and other small insects started to come out. Luckily, I had invested in some mosquito netting for my face. I felt ridiculous wearing it until I overheard another paddler say how much he wished he had one. I brought my phone out and plugged it into a portable charger so I could keep the display on overnight and use its navigational feature which helps you stay in the channel. I couldn't do this during the day because it would overheat the phone and cause it to shut down. This feature proved to be a huge benefit as I would otherwise have been helpless to stay in the fast water in the near pitch black. Once the full moon came up, however, it got a lot easier to keep my bearings. And it was a welcome and beautiful distraction from the drudgery of endless paddling. My spirits were high, my energy was high, and I was moving really well. I was looking forward to a good stop in Miami and then pushing on through the night with a shower and a nap in the morning as my reward.

I pulled into Miami close to midnight and around 60-90 minutes behind schedule, but still not worried. I got some good food from the concessions tent and hit the bathroom. I was there for about an hour, but I was antsy to get back on the river. A lot of people were settling down to camp there for the night, but I was confident in my decision to push on to Glasgow through the night.

I was confident in that decision up until I pushed on to Glasgow. Within the first mile I realized a handful of things. There were VERY few other boats near me. It seemed REALLY dark. And I was suddenly SO tired. My thoughts were overtaken by the notion that I had just made a terrible mistake. I felt incredibly alone and borderline unsafe, but the darkness probably amplified that notion, because there was no real danger with such a calm river and great visibility. But my mind was suddenly in the gutter and the 35 mile stretch seemed daunting. I began to get bleary eyed and sleepy, and at one point I felt like nodding off until a massive Asian carp churned up the water by my boat creating a very loud and startling sound. I was wiiiiide awake after that, as I spent the next hour waiting for another monster fish to jump out of the water and knock me out of my boat.

This was the first of several moments in my race where I contemplated quitting. And it was still only Day One. How could I push through 3-4 days of this? I eventually ended up in a small group of paddlers, some I caught up to, some that caught up to me, and none seemed interested in leaving the group. The company provided a sense of security, just in case something were to happen, I was not alone. Despite the small comfort, I was still not in a very happy place mentally. The air cooled and as we approached dawn, I began to see patches of fog on the river. Visibility was still great, but I knew that if the fog grew thicker, I'd have to pull off the river. If I could just make it to Glasgow before that happened. The foggy patches grew larger and more frequent. I began scanning the banks for good spots to sleep if it came to that. Nothing looked very inviting. I'd be wrapping myself in an emergency blanket on wet grass, best case scenario, but more than likely wet stinky mud. I did not relish the idea, so I kept moving and my worries grew.

Around 4 am, still two hours from Glasgow, I saw some lights on the left side of the river. It looked like some boats had pulled off, and then I realized it was a boat ramp! I had completely forgotten about Dalton Bottoms, one of the public river access points between Miami and Glasgow. I paddled across and pulled up to the ramp. It was not a staffed ramp, but it did have primitive campsites and was ground crew accessible. I asked a guy who was standing at the ramp if he thought the fog was going to get thicker. He may have just been some random dude, but as far as I knew, he was an Expert Fog Predictor. He said it was pretty likely that the fog would get worse. That was all the convincing I needed. I got out of my boat and he helped me carry it up the ramp. I texted Janee that I was at Dalton Bottoms, sent her my location, and told her to come get me so I could sleep in the back of the car until morning. She replied that she would be there in an hour.

I found a spot on the wet grass of the campsite, laid down my seat pad and PFD for padding, wrapped my crappy emergency blanket around me, then kinda sorta fell asleep in the most uncomfortable position possible, and woke up 30 minutes later shivering. Luckily, somebody at a nearby campsite had built a fire, so I walked over to them and pitifully asked if I could stand near their fire. Not only did she welcome me into her circle of warmth, she gave me HER camp chair AND a blanket. Normally I might have hemmed and hawed, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly blah blah blah" but I was freezing and sleep deprived and immediately slumped into her chair and let this angel bundle up a smelly soggy stranger in her warm fuzzy blanket. Compared to sleeping on wet grass, it was heaven. Janee arrived about 10 minutes later and I climbed into the back of her SUV where she had an air mattress and a sleeping bag, and I zonked hard for the next 3-4 hours.

 Day Two

Debbie, me, Janee, and Jim
I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed and though I was still pretty cold, I felt good enough to get back in the boat and paddle the 13 miles to Glasgow. I had planned to nap and shower there anyway, it just seems I needed the nap a little earlier than I planned. Pushing off from Dalton Bottoms I was chilly, sore, and stiff, but a couple hours down the river and I finally reached Glasgow around 10:45 on Day Two. I got some good food in my belly and was pleasantly surprised to see Jim and Debbie Megerson at this stop! They were there to cheer for a different paddler and just happened to notice my boat sitting at the ramp. Debbie came and gave me one of her signature hugs. Seriously, they're amazing. They warm the body and soul and soothe the nerves. The first time I received one was at mile 97 of the Ozark Trail 100 ultramarathon. (I didn't even know her then, but she was working the aid station and had promised a friend that she would take care of me. It was amazing.) I got my shower and felt human again for the first time in about 20 hours.

Post-shower Jesus pose

Pushing off from Glasgow
I was feeling good as I left Glasgow shortly before noon. I was more than 5 hours behind schedule as far as The Plan dictated, but I had more or less lost interest in adhering to it. I had already gone to the deep dark place where paddlers quit and had made it out intact. I just wanted to finish. If that meant going slow, sleeping more, and taking all 88 hours, so be it. Not too long into the 30 mile stretch to Franklin Island, it started heating up. And I took stock of myself. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. This leg was one of the toughest of my entire race. I couldn't maintain any sort of rhythm and I felt constantly out of breath and was likely low on sodium. The funny thing about being low on sodium is that you aren't always able to think as logically as you would normally. So while the intelligent astute Danny would have quickly pegged the problem, slammed a few S-caps and tore into my salty snacks, the fatigued and hyponatremic Danny just kinda slogged onward wondering what was wrong. At one point the 12 person dragon boat which had passed me on Day One and camped with me at Dalton Bottoms passed me again. We exchanged pleasantries as they powered past me. I decided at that moment that I wasn't too proud to draft, so I pulled directly onto their stern and hung on for the next few miles while I chatted with their rudder man. Eventually I was too gassed to even stay in their slipstream and I wished them well as they pulled away. It was a nice break to the grind and lifted my spirits ever so slightly.

I arrived at Franklin Island exhausted and starving. I planned to eat fast and use the bathroom so I could get moving again. I was happy to see Dee there, and I initially thought maybe I wasn't doing so bad if I had caught up to her, but then she told me she had dropped. She had a recent death in the family and told me that she simply didn't have the emotional reserves to finish the race. I'm not sure I would have understood that before doing this race, but only a day and a half in, it made perfect sense. This race was hard enough when you didn't have something weighing you down, I couldn't imagine spending 6+ hours at a time alone in a boat with something so heartbreaking constantly on my mind. She was instead going to spend the rest of the week helping out other paddlers.

I stiffly wandered over to the food tent and got a ham sandwich and some chips and...some...other stuff. Again, some strangers offered me their camp chair so I could sit and relax while I ate. I chatted with them about...stuff? I know for sure at one point we were lightheartedly ribbing each other about KU vs MU loyalties, after which one lady jokingly demanded her chair back. I finished my food and went to use the bathroom before getting back on the water. After doing my business, I left the portajohn and overheard a fellow paddler tell his friend, "I fell asleep in my boat once. I woke up in the water. It was one of the scariest moments of my life." I immediately realized how badly I needed a nap. I walked back over to the group that had let me use their chair. I asked if I could borrow their blanket to take a nap. Again, without hesitation they gladly offered it. I spread it out on the ground, set an alarm for 30 minutes and immediately fell asleep curled up on my side.

I woke up feeling way more refreshed than a 30 minute nap should possibly allow. It was around 6 pm and in the past 38 or so hours, I had slept MAYBE 4 hours. But that nap did the trick. Dee helped me carry my boat back down the ramp and pushed me off for the next 26 mile stretch to Cooper's Landing, just outside of Columbia, MO. I once again decided to switch to my single blade paddle, except this time I opted for a more balanced approach of switching sides every 20 strokes. This strategy, as it turns out, was absolute gold. I immediately settled into possibly the best rhythm of my entire race thus far. Counting in my head gave me something mindless to focus on(that makes sense...right?) and switching BEFORE the muscles on one side became fatigued helped me keep the cadence high and strokes powerful. I was motoring! This leg absolutely flew by and before I knew it, I spotted the riverside bluffs which let me know I was approaching Columbia! Here the river turned south and crossed under the I-70 bridge. Before I passed the bridge, I noticed that there was some sort of park and pavilion at the top of the bluffs. There was a group of people a few hundred feet above the river who were cheering for paddlers...or possibly heckling us. One person yelled, "WAY TO GO LEWIS AND CLARK!" to which I replied "LEWIS AND CLARK WERE GOING THE OTHER WAY!". I seemed clever at the time. Shortly after crossing under I-70, I glanced behind me to see an absolutely jaw-dropping sunset. I was reluctant to disturb my groove, but this was worth turning my boat around to get a good picture.

There is apparently a Facebook group called "Look At The Front Of My Kayak"

Stopping to take in the sunset allowed a tandem kayak I had passed earlier to catch back up to me. I paddled with them for a few miles, chatting about the race, and a bit about life in general. They were two guys who had bought their boat with the express purpose of doing this race once, selling it, and never kayaking ever again. I mentioned I might be interested in buying their boat after they were done, though had I been at all in touch with Real Life at that moment, I would have realized I didn't have any money for such a thing.

I paddled on into the night and as dusk faded, the bats came out. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. All skimming the surface of the water in a barely visible frenzy as they devoured the same mosquitoes that had tormented us the prior night. I still put on my netting, but I could tell their presence was diminished. I have always considered myself an appreciator of bats, but this night especially so.

The last few miles into Cooper's Landing, the visibility got crappy as the sun was down, the moon hadn't risen yet, and the trees cast shadows over a good portion of the river. I once again powered up the navigational display on the race app to stay in the friendly waters and avoid wing dikes. I was very much looking forward to my first full night's sleep at a hotel in Columbia, which Janee had decided to book, and I was happy to finally spot the blue light marking Cooper's Landing. I had been warned that the approach to this boat ramp was tricky and that I should swing way wide to avoid hitting a wing dike. Well, I swung wide...too wide...and very nearly couldn't make it back to the ramp fighting against the current. I finally crossed the fast water, but ended up getting my boat stuck on some rocks that were just past the ramp. After a few panicked moments, I was able to scoot my boat off of the rocks and paddle up to the ramp.

My arrival shortly after 10 pm was originally when I planned to be leaving this checkpoint, putting me a good 7 hours behind The Plan..which I again didn't give a shit about. We carried the boat up the ramp, stowed it for the night, and bought some delicious Thai food from a food truck that lived at the ramp, and I bought a local beer from the general store. It was a satisfying end to Day Two as Janee drove me to the hotel in Columbia for some good sleep. Her boyfriend Brian had come to join the ground crew and had brought his son along as well. We arrived, I showered, and I passed out almost instantaneously when my head hit the pillow.

Day Three

Brian gives me a hearty farewell from Cooper's Landing

After a full night's sleep, we arrived back at Cooper's Landing and I geared up to get on the water again. I departed around 8:30 am with Jefferson City my next stop, a mere 26 miles away. This stretch was mostly uneventful, but I did get to see a bald eagle fly low across the water right in front of my boat and swoop up to land on a tree branch. I even got some crappy pictures of it!

The least crappy photo of the bald eagle. 

I was looking forward to Wilson Serenity Point very much, so obviously this leg felt like it took an eternity. Nonetheless, I finally rounded the bend and had Jefferson City and the capitol building in my sights! I pulled up to the river access around 12:30, got food, used the facilities, and took in the sights of this beautiful park. I was back on the water at 1:30, heading another 26 miles downriver to Chamois.

Signing the stump at Wilson Serenity Point

Onward to Chamois!

A few miles after leaving Jefferson City, I began to hear the rumblings and grumblings of an approaching thunderstorm. I wasn't sure where it was coming from or if it was headed towards me, but I kept a wary eye on the sky. I soon realized it was going to pass directly over me as the skies began to darken behind me and the thunder followed the lightning closer and closer. I scanned the side of the river for a suitable place to become Not The Tallest Thing in my vicinity and was pleased to see a nice sheltered section on river right with some tall trees to boot. I pulled out of the current, wedged my boat in between a few rocks, and pulled out my trusty $1 Royals rain poncho. It actually worked perfectly as a make-do spray skirt, keeping the water mostly off of me and mostly out of my boat. There were a few hiccups, as the wind picked up and kept blowing the hood off of my head, forcing me to eventually turn my boat around so it was hitting from behind me. I initially felt silly for pulling off, until I saw the whitecaps on the river that were churned up by the wind and the Too Close For Comfort lightning strikes. Then I was confident in my decision to play it safe.
Makeshift shelter from the storm.
The storm passed in about 10 minutes and I was back on my way to Chamois. The next highlight of this leg was passing the confluence of the Osage and Missouri River. Not only did it provide a noticeable bump in speed, it also was pretty neat to paddle along the threshold where the relatively clear waters of the Osage mixed and mingled with the nasty, brown, soupy Missouri water.

Shortly after 6:00, I arrived in Chamois with my faithful ground crew greeting me and feeding me as per usual. The original plan had me sleeping and showering here, but since I wasn't even remotely tired, I passed on the opportunity with the goal of pushing through the night and hopefully finishing in the early afternoon the following day. I stayed in Chamois about an hour before embarking on the next short leg of 20 miles to Hermann. 

The next leg of my journey was completely serene. I once again was treated to a wonderful sunset and some amazing pitch black sky occasionally lit by far away lightning and some magnificent meteors streaking across the sky. I had been warned that the bridge in Hermann would relentlessly tease me, and those warnings were accurate. The last 5 miles of river leading into Hermann were a straight shot, and over the course of an hour, I slowly watched the lights of the bridge grow from a tiny dot of light into a recognizable shape. At least the navigation was simple...point front of boat towards light...paddle. The other aspect of this leg was the absolute unnerving solitude. I did not encounter a SINGLE other boat between Chamois and Hermann. No other paddlers. No safety boats. Just me and the river. And while I objectively knew there was no real danger, my imagination was once again MORE than happy to envision a number of terrible and unfortunate outcomes for the hero of our story. When I finally pulled into Hermann at around 10:00, I was both relieved to be off of the water, but full of dread regarding the next leg...41 miles straight through the dark and lonely night to Klondike, the final checkpoint of the race.

In Hermann, I was delighted and surprised to discover that my wonderful girlfriend Danielle had made it out this way to join my ground crew for the remainder of the race! She originally had only planned to see me at the finish, but decided to come out the night before instead! I once again got some food in my belly, the highlight of which was one of Hermann's highly-recommended bratwurst and some other snacks. As I sat and ate, my apprehension for the upcoming leg continued to grow. I tossed out the idea of possibly stopping for a nap 30 miles downriver in Washington if I needed it, but the idea of pushing out again into the dark and lonely night was simply terrifying. Then I received a text from race officials announcing that large and strong thunderstorms were expected around 1-2 am. So not only was I contemplating paddling all night, but I'd also have to find shelter in the dark from a thunderstorm that could last hours. With this new bit of information, I was not at all reluctant to call it off for the night. I had booked a hotel in St. Charles for Thursday and Friday night to cover my bases in case I finished super early or super late...or at the very least to give my ground crew a place to rest and sleep while I paddled from Hermann to Klondike. Instead, my ground crew drove me to St. Charles late Thursday night and 4 of us shared a king size bed for about 4 hours of sleep before driving me back to Hermann to continue my journey.

Day Four

This was to save time...not because I'm pathetic. Really.

We arrived back in Hermann and Janee hand-fed me pancakes while I prepped myself and my boat for the final day of paddling. I was still not loving the idea of a 41 mile single push, but I knew once that was over, the final leg from Klondike to the finish would be cake. More on that later.

I hit the water around 6:45 am and the air still had a decent chill. Everything felt wet and miserable, but I got moving. I was on the lookout for Berger Bend, which had been described as a tricky section coming out of Hermann. I navigated it without difficulty and at some point shortly after, I passed another paddler. He hollered a greeting to me and identified himself as Dan, a fellow Hump Day 5K attendee. I remembered chatting with him briefly on Day One when he had told me he was hurting bad because he had pulled a muscle in his side. Here he was on Day Four, still gutting it out, but I could tell he was not in good shape. He had chosen to race this year in a faster, yet slightly less stable boat, and with a poorly functioning set of core muscles, it was all he could do to keep his boat upright and moving forward. 

We chatted for a few miles and as I began to pull ahead of him, he mentioned that he'd like to stick with me for awhile. On one hand, he was moving slower than me, but on the other hand, I hadn't fully recovered from the apprehension of this long stretch of kayaking, so I decided that it would benefit us both greatly to stick it out together for awhile. And I'm sure glad I did! The miles began to tick off as we chatted about life, love, and our favorite Youtube videos. We had gotten a text from race officials warning of a barge coming upriver and he was able to spot it well before I would have. I appreciated having a race veteran for this. Up to this point in my Missouri River paddling experience, I had yet to negotiate a barge wake, and he recommended we quickly find a good spot to pull off and wait for it to pass. I found a perfect spot on river left that was sheltered enough that the wake was completely dissipated before it got to us.

While waiting for the barge to pass, I watched in amazement as Josh Sexton(another HD5K racer) fearlessly charged headlong into the fierce barge wake. Well...after the fact, it didn't look terribly bad and now after having seen one, I am confident I could have stayed on the river and been fine. Dan would not have fared so well in his current condition, so I didn't mind waiting this one out. 

After the wake subsided, we got back on the river and soon passed New Haven, where Dan signaled to his ground crew that he was going to push on to Washington, at which point we agreed to part ways since I would be going all the way to Klondike. Before he stopped, however, he gave me a bit of soul-crushing bad news...the 11 miles I thought I had left to go before hitting Klondike was actually 13 miles. Apparently I had screwed up my race planning math, and even though it was only a measly few miles extra, mentally it may as well have been another 100. I felt sorry for him as he pulled away to negotiate the incredibly tricky approach to the Washington boat ramp which is completely unsheltered from the strong current. If you miss the ramp, you immediately get slammed into a wing dike. He made a good approach but came in really really fast and his ground crew barely caught him and kept him upright(I later found out he did end up finishing!)

Once I saw that he was safely on the ramp, I set my sights to Klondike. I had once again planned to switch over to my single blade paddle to give the shoulders a rest, and hopefully establish a really good groove like I had coming into Cooper's Landing. It didn't really happen, unfortunately. Even with the single blade, I struggled greatly in the final stretch from Washington to Klondike. The day was starting to heat up and I was starting to hit the wall again. 

I finally pulled into Klondike around 1:30 pm, after almost 7 straight hours of paddling, and my girlfriend informed me after the fact that I was NOT in a particularly good mood when I came off the water. Some food and good cheer from my ground crew and other good-natured folk in Klondike went a long way in lifting my spirits before embarking on the final 29 miles to the finish in St. Charles. 

Miraculously, my ground crew was able to do all of this within the space of half an hour and they had me whipped into shape and back on the water at 2 pm. At this point, lacking the "euphoria of my imminent finish" that was originally to fuel me as outlined in The Plan, I decided upon a different tactic to get me through these final miles. I cued up the upbeat Spotify playlist which I had synced to my phone. The same playlist which had carried me through difficult stretches of my 100 miler, as well as the 2nd half of a hard 100K in Texas, and numerous long grind-it-out training runs in my ultramarathon career. The tunes came on and my spirits lifted. I was almost done. I bopped my head and sang loudly. And that's when the neverending headwind began. 

It seemed odd, but I can not remember a single moment in the race when I had a tailwind or a crosswind. For some reason, the wind always seemed to be blowing upriver. And on this final stretch it was unrelenting. The final 29 miles of this race seemed to have cruelty after cruelty piled on, almost as if the race was giving me one last kick in the teeth before it would let me claim victory.

The winds were insane, and only got worse the closer I got to St. Charles. I had been warned by several people about the so-called "Bridge of False Hope", but I counted at least 3 false hope-y bridges, all teasing that I might be almost done, but none actually granting that status. And then there were the local yokels. In their damned fishing boat. They went buzzing by, creating a wake just big enough that I steered my boat into them to be safe. They buzzed upriver...looked at some spot on the side of the river, and then buzzed back. The same boat did this 3 or 4 times between Klondike and St. Charles, and I cursed the sky each and every time. Were they a built in feature of the race...did they do this to every paddler?

And then that fun moment when The Reaper passed me. The Reaper is basically the course sweep which you have to stay in front of...if it beats you to a checkpoint, you are cut from the race. The Damned Reaper sneaks up on me while I'm jamming out to my tunes and just motors on by when I've got 10 miles left. After quite nearly shitting myself, I cut off my tunes to yell out to them, asking if I had somehow lost track of the 5 hours of buffer I thought I had, and if I was about to DNF. They assured me they were not currently in Reaping mode and that I was doing just fine. 


I continued passing Bridges of False Hope and the river pointed me north into another brutal headwind. Gritting my teeth, I fought the tempest to cross over to river left and the shelter of the trees lining that side. Then I made the final right turn into the home straightaway, and saw like 3 more Bridges of False Hope off in the distance. I knew I only had a few miles left, but what I thought I knew about the course conflicted with what I saw, and from where I sat, it looked like much farther. It turns out I didn't have to go all the way past the farthest bridge in the distance, and I might have completely missed the finish line on river left if I hadn't seen the boat in front of me cross over to get there.

FINALLY! I saw the finish line!

I crossed under the Bridge of Actual, For-Real, No Bullshit Hope and began crossing over towards the finish line, of course battling the absolute worst headwind anybody has ever faced...ever. I saw my ground crew...actually, I heard my ground crew before I could make out any faces...and I saw their pom poms(courtesy of Janee). I exulted not so much in my glorious finish, but in the simple fact that I would very shortly stop paddling, get out of my boat, and not get back in again for a long time.

I fought the headwind and current that tried to push me downriver past the boat ramp and into oblivion. And I finally came close enough that my momentum carried me to the volunteers waiting to catch my boat and help me out of the water. 

Then...83 hours and 15 minutes after the starting gun at Kaw Point...I stopped paddling. And it was exactly as amazing as I imagined it would be. 

On stiff legs, I staggered up onto dry land for the last time. I gave smelly hugs to my girlfriend, ground crew, and a few other paddling friends who cheered me in to the finish. I took shit-eating-grin finish line photos. I ate some mexican food and drank a beer. I vowed to never ever do this again...a vow which lasted roughly 12 hours before I started contemplating how I would make next year's race better and faster. New strategy? New boat? More training? Who knows!?!?

Best. Damn. Ground. Crew. 

I attended the post-race awards ceremony during which I received my finisher medal and cheered for others who had done much MUCH better than me. After saying my goodbyes and thank yous, showering and changing, we loaded my boat back onto my car and Danielle drove us home.

Happy Danny with his new hardware

The hardware


In the days following, many of my friends who are familiar with my more insane athletic exploits were keen to know how this challenge ranked in difficulty. This race definitely lands squarely in the Top Five hardest things I've ever done. Not for severity of pain, or physical difficulty, but simply for the sheer mental fortitude required to push through 4 days of nonstop paddling, physical and emotional exhaustion, isolation, paranoid fear, and countless other "little" things which all add up to profound extended misery. The fact that I already wanted to quit less than 24 hours in speaks volumes. I have never *wanted* to quit a race before in my life. I've had races that went poorly, and I've had races where I wished they would be over sooner, but never once did I consider simply giving up. 

This race tested me in ways I had not been tested through thousands of miles of running, 4 full Ironmans, and countless ultramarathons up to 100 miles. As many have said, this race is all about guts, grit, and stubborn persistence. This race is also about finding ways to manage the inevitable discomfort and misery, and my race preparations, boat setup, and even a last minute Golden Rule breaking purchase certainly helped me to that end. Additionally, one thing I absolutely love about this race is that literally anybody, with any boat, can finish this race. Out of shape paddlers in crappy boats finished ahead of me. Well-trained and fit paddlers in really expensive boats finished behind me. As it turns out, the river doesn't care how long you trained or how much you spent on your rig. Your heart and determination are all that really matter. 

In summary, it was an absolutely incredible experience. I am about 99% certain that I'm not smart enough to learn my lesson, and shortly after midnight on January 1st 2018, I will be registering for this madness once again.

Thanks for reading!

See you on the river,
Danny Loental

My Missouri River skid mark

The Journey: Definitely something wrong with the race app in the middle there.