The rules of the Missouri River 340 are simple:
Paddle from Kansas City to St. Charles in 100 hours or less. You can accept food and supplies at stops along the way, but not on the water.
Beneath this superficial simplicity are dozens of human dramas. For 100 hours each summer, the ribbon of water through Missouri’s midsection becomes a 340-mile mirror that reflects each paddler’s inner being. Those who confront the river’s uncompromising realities head-on garner something that is rare in a world of pre-packaged, sanitized experiences—an authentic adventure.
Here are a few personal stories from last summer’s world’s longest nonstop water race.
West Hansen, 45, Austin, Texas
Custom Builder, Men’s Tandem—44:27
After majoring in psychology in college, Hansen worked in that field for 15 years before changing direction and devoting his time to building custom horse barns. He played football in high school and was a cheerleader in college. He took up competitive paddling in 1992 because it let him combine his love of athletic competition and nature.
One of the nation’s top ultra-marathon water racers, Hansen competes in dozens of events annually. He won the men’s solo division in the 2006 MR340, but found it “kind of lonely.” He and partner Richard Steppe won the men’s tandem division last year.
“It’s beautiful,” Hansen said of the Missouri River. “I love the hills and cliffs. It’s daunting because of its size; it’s such a mass of water. While it doesn’t require as much technical skill as a smaller, faster river, it does require quite a bit of alertness.”
Hansen isn’t young or especially fast. What sets him apart is his capacity to work through pain. He attributes this to the larger perspective that comes with age.
“When you are little and you scrape a knee, all you know is that you are in pain now. As you get older, you have to do more difficult things like school, jobs and marriage. It changes your perspective. When you are out there and hurting, you realize there are more important things than the pain you are going through right now.”
Erin Magee, 44, Martindale, Texas
Secretary, Texas State University, Women’s Solo—55:33
Magee’s story supports Hansen’s theory about ultra-marathoners. “I got into it for all the wrong reasons and stayed in it for all the right ones,” she said.
“The wrong reason to do any kind of ultra-distance event is to impress somebody else. At some point, the race becomes so long that you come face to face with whatever is within you that made you think it was important to impress someone who is not present.
“When I took up the sport,” she continued, “I was an alcoholic. I was trying to impress my then-husband, who was a paddler. At 27 or 28 I was a couch potato. To get inside his walls, I was going to get in a boat, and maybe he would get off my back. I got in the boat and never got out.”
Magee competes in 30 to 40 paddling events, triathlons and marathons annually. She learned about the MR340 from Hansen.
“West came home from the first year’s event and told me about this big water with nobody around,” she said. “It sounded like a soloist’s paradise. I came to Missouri to find my place in the world instead of my place among a bunch of rocks in a 50-footwide river.”
She described the MR340 as “an awesome event for someone who wants to find out something about what’s inside them.
Ann Grove, 66, Benecia, Calif.
Physical Therapist, Mixed Tandem—did not finish
For Ann Grove and partner Wayne Kocher, just surviving the race was a triumph. They were paddling down the dark, fog-shrouded river above Hermann early July 26—Wayne’s 70th birthday—when they saw the lights of a towboat pushing barges upriver. They tried to cross in front of the barge to the opposite side of the river.
“We didn’t know it was there until it was 10 feet away,” said Grove. “I yelled, ‘Wayne!’ and we hit and were thrown under the barge.”
In the churning water, sand and mud, the couple desperately clawed their way along the bottom of the barge toward its edge.
“I was running out of air,” she said. “I gulped some water, and I thought, ‘If I get out of this and don’t get dysentery I am going to live to be 130.’”
They both emerged on the same side, but couldn’t hear one another’s frantic calls at first. Just as they found each other, the barge crew threw a rope and pulled them to safety. Their $5,500 outrigger kayak washed up on wing dikes in pieces, ending the race after a grueling 250-mile paddle. They escaped with only bruises.
“We were fortunate,” said Grove. “The river was beautiful, and people were just outstanding in their concern. Their warmth was amazing. I have never been hugged so much in my life. You don’t always finish what you go after, but the effort along the way is worth it.
Katie Pfefferkorn, 22, Chaffee, Mo.
Chemical Engineering Major, MU, Women’s Solo—58:57
Pfefferkorn is a self-proclaimed “sucker for new adventures.” She entered the first MR340 on a lark, using a borrowed boat, and finished second. It was her first paddling competition, and she beat the 100-hour deadline by a mere 24 minutes. This year she finished second again, but she almost cut her time in half.
She gave Magee, who is one of the nation’s top women competitors, a run for her money, passing her in the night about 100 miles into the race. Pfefferkorn’s time in the lead was brief, but she continued to pressure the front-runner, arriving at the Carl R. Noren Access in Jefferson City just as Magee was getting up from a nap.
“I didn’t expect to do that well,” confesses Pfefferkorn, whose goal was to finish in under 80 hours. “After sitting at the boat ramp the first night, I decided I wanted to do it in as few nights as possible. Paddling is hard if you’re not with someone, and sleeping is difficult, so it became my priority just knocking out checkpoints left and right.”
Pfefferkorn paid for the remarkable improvement in her performance with badly blistered hands. “Paddling wasn’t too painful, but repositioning the paddle was agony. I didn’t put on ChapStick or sun screen that last day, because I didn’t want to take my hands off my paddle.”
Why would somone subject themselves to that sort of pain?
“You find out a lot about how you deal with adversity,” she said. “You learn so much about overcoming obstacles and where you get your motivation from when things get tough. Those are things that transfer to other parts of your life.”
Christina Glauner, 33, Lawrence, Kan.
Customer Claims Representative, Women’s Solo—96:12
Glauner enjoyed her experience in the women’s tandem division of the 2006 MR340 so much that she bought a solo kayak three weeks later and began training for 2007. She paddled her new boat almost every weekend to get ready.
She and her former tandem partner, Edie Jackson, wanted to stay together and shave as many hours as possible off their first-year time of 100 hours, 32 minutes. When Jackson had to withdraw the second day, Glauner threw herself into paddling. She made excellent time, but ultimately decided that being alone didn’t suit her and changed her approach.
“This year was a joyride instead of a hardship,” said Glauner. “I had gotten through a lot of checkpoints early and decided to blow all those banked hours. I had a great time getting to know people and relaxing. I actually felt as good on the last day as I did on the first day.”
One of the factors contributing to her enjoyment was a change in her nutritional strategy. While other paddlers were downing power drinks concocted of fruit, yogurt, avocado and raw eggs, she asked her ground crew to bring her as much greasy fast food as possible.
“The first year, Edie and I tried to eat really healthy through the whole race.” Glauner said. “We had a miserable time being able to eat at all after the first day. This year I ate lots of big old cheeseburgers, french fries….It tasted the best, and I felt the best afterwards.”
Glauner’s most rewarding experience was spending time with two other solo paddlers, Richard Lovell and Mark Handley.
“They made my race great,” she said. “Being around that kind of friendship was really inspiring. I was really lucky to be able to paddle with them.”
Richard Lovell, 55, Kansas City, Mo.
Disabled, Men’s Solo—97:6
Lovell worked in computer technology until throat cancer forced him to quit. He was undergoing radiation treatment when the first MR340 got underway in 2006, but he followed the race at the first few checkpoints and set his mind to enter the race the next year.
He already had a long-term love affair with the river, which is chronicled on his website, www.missouririvertrips.com. He had never owned a kayak, but he bought one and trained as best he could during cancer treatment. Race organizers were surprised when they received his registration for the 2007 race. They were more surprised the night before the race began, when he mentioned that he was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer.
Lovell said planning for the race helped get him through a difficult year.
“I didn’t know that I would even be able to complete it, let alone in 100 hours,” he said, “but I love the Missouri River. The cancer moved to my lungs before we caught it, and this could be my last chance to get on the river.”
Paddling all 340 miles with Lovell was his long-time friend Mark Handley. Lovell’s daughter, Cathy Lovell, provided ground support, preparing food and pitching tents for them each night.
Race organizer Scott Mansker said it was both disturbing and uplifting to watch Lovell and Handley confront a challenge that defeats many young, healthy paddlers. At one point, Lovell’s kayak ran into a wing dike. It broke Mansker’s heart to see the frail but game Lovell struggling to keep up with demands of the grueling race.
“Richard was absolutely determined to finish the race,” Mansker said. “He and Mark would strategize, and Mark was always there, watching over him like a guardian angel. It was beautiful to watch.”
“The best part of [the] race was getting to see the river, even at night,” said Lovell. “It was good to be back out there again. From the very beginning, I knew I would not win the race. I just wanted to be there for the river, and if I could do it in 100 hours, that would be even better.”
Lovell and Handley finished dead last. Lovell’s hands and backside were blistered, but he was triumphant. When his kayak touched shore in St. Charles, everyone cheered.
Lovell had surgery on one of his lungs the September following the race, and was scheduled to have surgery on the other the next month. He planned a paddling trip from St. Joseph to Kansas City to take place between the two surgeries, and was hoping to be in this year’s MR340.
“Part of the lure of the race is knowing that there is such treasure to be tapped into,” said Glauner. “Everyone’s story is different, even though they are doing the same thing. Taking part in those other stories is exciting, and knowing that you are writing your own story is motivating.”
This year’s MR340 is set for July 15 through 19. For more information, visit online, or call (913) 244-4666.