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A flag printed with the words "Race Official" fluttered on the back of Mansker's boat. It's a title he took on three years ago, when he decided to start an adventure race on a river that is feared or reviled by most who live near it. He called his race the Missouri River 340, for the number of miles between Kansas City and the place just before the river pours into the Mississippi. The Olathe, Kansas, native thought he'd be lucky to interest a handful of other river rats in paddling across the state in 100 hours or less. That first year, fifteen signed up and nine made it the length of the race. In 2007 the buzz for a race often called simply the MR340 started to build, and the field jumped to 75 racers. This year the race had grown so popular that Mansker was forced to cut off registration at 215 people, who would travel in 145 boats.
Click here for Carolyn Szczepanski’s account of how she reported this article and more tales from the race, including Richard Lovell’s fight with the river – and cancer.
When racers have a problem, the cell phone in Mansker's pocket rings. Just after he floated past the white dome of the Missouri capitol that night, he got a call. The woman on the other end was frantic.
He knew that Hilary Kelly wasn't prone to hysterics. As a Marine, the 28-year-old horse trainer did two tours in Iraq. The Leavenworth, Kansas, native had been paddling local waters for nearly twenty years. If any racer on the water could endure the heat and ignore the pain, it was Kelly. But just after 10 p.m., having cruised past Hermann, she spotted a barge on the right side of the river.
Before the paddlers put an oar in the water, Mansker made sure they knew the dangers posed by towboats. The giant tugs push metal barges that haul as much as 60 semi trucks. It's tough to gauge how fast a barge is moving or guess its trajectory. During the race in 2007, a couple from California misjudged a fuel barge. Their kayak was sucked under the massive barge. They clawed hand-over-hand under the hull, breaking free before they were diced by the boat's propellers. Their kayak was spit out the other end, virtually shredded.
Kelly knew that story and, seeing the barge ahead, thought she could skirt the rough water in its wake by angling to the left. After nearly 60 hours on the river, maybe she misjudged the current, which suddenly wrenched Kelly toward the barge. Before she called Mansker, she started praying. Then she let loose a stream of obscenities. With the tip of her kayak just ten feet from the barge, all she could think was, I'm going to die.
She tried to paddle upstream, but the current worked like a treadmill. All her strength could only keep her in one spot. After what seemed like nearly an hour, she knew her stamina had nearly run out. She lunged for a log and hoped it would hold her weight.
Gripping the log in one hand, she called Mansker with the other. Kelly told him she wasn't sure she'd be able to battle upstream if she slipped back into the current. She told him he might be on the line as she drowned. Then her tears stopped. "Oh my God, it's happening again," she shouted. Then the phone dropped into her lap.
Over the previous three days, Mansker had gotten plenty of distress calls. A twenty-year-old from Illinois gulped down too much Red Bull at the start and had to be pulled into a safety boat to steady his skyrocketing heart rate. A paddler from Kansas City stretched out on a picnic table and woke up in the middle of a heat-induced seizure that jettisoned him headfirst onto the ground — and into an ambulance.
The MR340 is a daunting task — and not just for the racers. With a skeleton staff of three organizers, fuel costs for safety boats and permits for river use and postrace festivities, Mansker says the event profited only $600 last year. That money got the ball rolling for the 2008 race. By the start of the year the $100 registration fees had started arriving again.
It takes a determined sense of adventure to pay for this kind of pain. During the MR340, racers paddle through the oppressive midday heat after staying up all night. They struggle to navigate the difficult currents of the Missouri River when darkness is compounded by mist and hallucinations cloud their sight. They vomit. They bleed. Their asses go numb.
But most of the paddlers gut it out to the end. Veteran paddlers who compete in ultradistance challenges around the country plow through the entire 340 miles at a near sprint. The rest are just amateur athletes looking for a little action.
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