Of the 215 who signed up this year, 154 finished the race.

Including Hilary Kelly.

"Real people do this," Mansker told the paddlers before they started. "And it's worth it."


Hilary Kelly (right) battled a dangerous current that threatened to sweep her under a barge.
Nicole Reinertson
Hilary Kelly (right) battled a dangerous current that threatened to sweep her under a barge.
Team Belize started strong and led Team Texas before illness and frustration caused several members to jump ship.
Nicole Reinertson
Team Belize started strong and led Team Texas before illness and frustration caused several members to jump ship.

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Click on the photo for a slideshow from the Missouri River 340.

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.

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At 3 a.m. Wednesday, a small fire burned at Cooper's Landing, the race's halfway point. A few race volunteers stared vacantly at the embers, trying to stay awake with disjointed conversation and a steady stream of cigarettes.

The high temperatures that brutalized some racers to the point of heat exhaustion during the first day had given way to a starry sky. The moon set in a golden glow over the trees, throwing just enough light to make out rocky bluffs and the lazy sandbars that mark this stretch of the river. All they could hear were croaking toads and water rushing over the wing dike near the boat ramp. But upstream, past Plowboy Bend, the two top teams were battling for the lead.

The leaders of Team Texas and Team Belize knew from the start that their fierce competition wouldn't be settled until the final few feet of the 340-mile marathon. Both teams were competing in six-man kayaks, each filled with experienced paddlers able to push their pace to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate for 30-plus hours between Kansas City and St. Charles.

Unlike many of the amateur athletes and weekend warriors in the MR340, these twelve men were among the top competitors on the ultrapaddling circuit. Some are record holders in contests such as the Texas Water Safari, a punishing 260-mile race in which paddlers have to jump logs, navigate impossible bends and carry their boats between bodies of water. All travel the country to compete in long-distance races throughout the year.

They carry water jugs engineered with long straws that allow them to drink without losing a stroke. To keep them on track, five guys in the Texas boat carry GPS devices. To save precious seconds, they fling their empty bottles onto the shore at checkpoints, where their support crew rushes to shove Tupperware containers of fresh fruit and cookies in the tight space in front of each seat. They have no time for sleep.

West Hansen, who builds custom barns in the Lone Star State, is the Texas squad's captain. A two-time veteran of the MR340, he won the men's solo division in 2006 and the men's tandem in 2007. Both times he was so far ahead that he didn't see other competitors for hours.

John Bugge, the leader for Team Belize, is a plumber in Texas. Each of the young men in his boat has won national kayaking championships back in Belize.

Through most of the first day, the Belize team had held a comfortable lead of more than ten minutes. But as the sun started going down, one of the Belize paddlers started vomiting. He couldn't keep down even a swig of Gatorade without retching.

As night fell Hansen spotted the Belize taillights. He could tell they were in trouble. Their strokes were quick and labored. He could see that one of the team's paddlers had his head down.

The time was right to psych them out.

The Texas team started singing songs inspired by the night — "Moon River," "Bad Moon Rising." Hansen lobbed jokes at the other boat.

"Hey, John — knock knock," Hansen shouted to Bugge.

No response.

At 2 a.m., the Belize team left its sick member on the shore of Franklin Island. The support team for another contestant would shuttle him to the next checkpoint.

As a veteran of the race, Hansen knew he had an advantage over Bugge, who had never paddled the Big Muddy. It's tough at night to navigate the Missouri River's wide banks, partly submerged dikes and unpredictable currents. So he convinced the Belize team that the next checkpoint was on the opposite side of the river. That put them neck-and-neck as they rounded Plowboy Bend.

Just before 4 a.m. the volunteers at Cooper's Landing spotted the two white bow lights moving through the water. Then they heard a shout.

"Hard left! Hard left!" Hansen yelled from the front of the Texas boat.

The volunteers tried to warn them to ease into the boat ramp, which was flanked on the outer edge by a partly exposed wing dike. Neither team heard him, and both teams crashed into the jagged rocks. Racers from both teams cursed in English and Belize Creole. A Texas crewman tripped backward and splashed into the water as he tried to sign in.

Onshore, two Belize team members told Bugge they couldn't go on. He argued with one of them to stay in the race. "You're not gonna go," he said. "You're the best one we've got."

After four minutes of chaos, the Texas team took off, their white shirts contrasted against the black water, like ghosts floating through the low mist.

One minute later the Belize boat pushed away — with three empty seats. Two paddlers in red spandex stood onshore. Warming up by the campfire, Johnathan Madrill and Jerry Rhaburn exchanged heated words in Creole. Rhaburn was frustrated that they carried the dead weight of their sick teammate for more than eight hours before leaving him on Franklin Island.

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