By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
At 3:30 p.m., the two Grumpy Old Men stood again at the water. Miller still had chills. Uncertain and frustrated, he sat next to the boat, propped his elbows on his knees and bowed his head into his hands.
"I'll be throwing up on the way," he said. "I'm really, really, really sick."
Charlie told him the decision was his. "I don't want you passing out in the damn boat," he said.
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.
Miller sat in silence for a moment. Then he said he shouldn't risk it. A split second after standing up, Miller looked disoriented. "I think I'm going to fall," he said weakly.
Several onlookers scooped him under the arms, helping him up the ramp and into the small shop next to the landing, where river rats buy beer and cigarettes and pay $10 a night to camp. In a back room, they tried to get him to drink electrolyte fluid. But he was still too sick.
"I'm thinking 911," Nate said.
The Grumpy Old Men pulled out of Cooper's Landing just after 4 p.m. in their green van with race slogans painted in shoe polish on the windows. They headed to a motel.
On the final day of the MR340, race officials Travis Worley and John Munger cruised the last 50 miles of the course in the motorboat. Logs and buoys can be mistaken for overturned kayaks, so they used binoculars to inspect everything poking up from the water.
They passed a kayaker with his chin to his chest. "Try to get a wave out of him," Worley shouted back to Munger. After a few seconds, the man looked up and flashed a thumbs up.
As they eased around another kayaker downstream, Worley yelled out: "Last day on the river. Soak it up, man."
"It breaks my heart," the paddler dryly replied.
The last 40 miles to the finish line cut both ways for racers. Adrenaline kicked in, but the miles seemed longer.
In the stretch, the Z Team dug in. All four of the boat's crew members, from Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas, had completed the race in 2007. This year, they wanted to push as hard as they could. They called their craft the party barge. They sang "I Feel Good" at the top of their lungs — until they didn't feel good anymore. Then the Rocky theme took over. At one checkpoint, the crowd at the bank went ominously silent when they heard a guttural shout from the top of the ramp. A few raced up to see what had happened.
"I just had to get that out," Z Team member Dan Grubbs said with a grin.
But this was no joy ride. The team agreed to stop only quickly at the required checkpoints. That meant no extended naps. At 28 hours in, when trees started to look like sea creatures and logs resembled bears, Z Team's Christina Glauner just kept her eyes moving. A frequently shifting gaze, she explained, doesn't get tripped up by hallucinations.
That also meant no coming ashore just to relieve their bladders. Serious racers, including Z Team's Di McHenry, shelled out a few bucks ahead of time for a "urine director" that would allow the women to pee into a Tupperware container or a jar stashed under their seats. Guys like Grubbs learn to pitch their bodies to the side or just let loose while paddling. Glauner said their four-man boat became a bit of a chemistry experiment — river water mixed with urine in the blue foam lining the middle of the kayak.
Getting through such a long race isn't just about strategy; it's about pain management. To keep his aches in check, Grubbs took four Advil or Tylenol every four hours. Ibuprofen is so common on the river that it's not called a painkiller; it's just "Vitamin I."
Raw blisters, softened from hours marinating in river spray, are just the beginning. Some racers apply duct tape directly to their skin to cut down on the chafing from life vests or seat backs. Gripping a paddle for hundreds of miles puts so much pressure on racers' hands that fingernails pop off. It's not uncommon for racers' glutes or toes to go numb — and stay that way for weeks afterward. Even sitting on a foam pad left a bumpy indentation on Glauner's backside for days.
By the time the number of miles left in the 340-mile race had dropped to double digits, the Z Team was in plenty of pain. McHenry and Grubbs boosted their prescription to "Vitamin V" — Vicodin.
Z Team powered into St. Charles just before 11:30 Thursday morning, the eighth overall finisher.
But few racers dispersed afterward. On Friday afternoon the MR340 participants traded stories over dinner at the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Nature Center. One Blue Springs man stricken with dysentery during the race last year stood with a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other — no digestive mishap this time.
Carter Johnson, who finished half a day before any other solo male racer, had discarded his soggy white thermals and now looked every bit the California computer programmer, with his ball cap turned backward and the first few buttons open on his shirt. Having secured a new MR340 record — 37 hours and 46 minutes — his next challenge, he said, would be a race in Peru for which participants build their own log rafts and float down the Amazon.