When Scott Mansker launched the Missouri River 340 (MR340), a nonstop paddle race across the Show Me State, he started with a trickle.
“It was just a website we put up,” said Mansker. “We didn’t really advertise anything. It had never been done before, so we kind of wanted a small trial run. I figured it would be a couple boats and me.”
He ended up with 15 people in 11 canoes and kayaks. That meant Mansker had to apply for permits and operate a safety boat rather than paddle himself.
It worked out, though. A photo from the second day of the 340-mile race along the historic and wildly beautiful “Big Muddy” landed on the cover of USA Today.
Since that first race in 2005, Mansker hasn’t stopped encountering unexpected twists and turns in route to making the race an internationally known event with hundreds of participants. In 2010, National Geographic included the race on its list of “Best American Adventures.”
As Mansker has learned, though, organizing or paddling a race that starts in Kansas City and ends in St. Charles, Missouri, requires not only endurance but an ability to adapt.
“I look back at pictures of that first race, and it’s like I was some kid out there. But I’m 50 now, and I’ve really grown up. It’s taken over our lives for 13 years,” said Mansker, who lives in Overland Park, Kansas.
That journey has included four years where Mansker had to reschedule the race because the river was over the flood stage. This year, he originally set the MR340 for July 16 to 19, but then heavy rain and snow melt led to flooding along the river in Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas.
In June, he announced that he had spoken with staff at the Army Corp of Engineers and needed to postpone the race because the river would still be in a “dangerous condition” in July. Mansker rescheduled it for September 10 to 13 and hoped for dry weather.
He had more than 700 people in 500 boats signed up for this year’s race, but after the postponement, he said he expected to have only between 200 and 240 boats. Those who dropped out received vouchers for 2020.
“It definitely hurts the race’s financial situation, and we’ll feel it the most next year when we have all these vouchers. There will already be 300 boats on the roster when we start,” said Mansker.
He also is unsure what stage the river will be at in 2020 — or beyond that. In April, Bloomberg ran a column with the headline, “The Missouri River Is Just Going to Keep On Flooding.”
“I don’t know if [the flooding] is the new normal or what, but it certainly makes putting races like this on more difficult,” said Mansker.
Still, he’s committed to the MR340, not only because it’s become a full-time job for him — after 27 years as a teacher, he took a two-year unpaid sabbatical in 2017 — but also because of his affinity for the Missouri River, the inspiring moments he has observed, and the letters racers have sent to him.
“It sounds so corny every time I say it…but after every single race, I’ll get letters saying, ‘Thank you so much for putting this event on; it has changed my life. I’m a different person for having done this,’” Mansker said.
Mark Handley and Richard Lovell’s entrance in the race made for one of those inspiring stories. In the inaugural year, Mansker was traveling down the river when he stopped at Fort Osage, an early 19th-century trading post located in present-day Sibley, Missouri, to talk with some paddlers. Lovell was sitting there and told Mansker, “I’m going to do this race next year.”
“Your first impression when you heard him talk was that he might have had a few beers. What I came to learn later is that he’d had cancer and part of his tongue had been removed, so he had a hard time speaking clearly,” Mansker said.
Sure enough, the next year Handley and Lovell, friends from high school who were now both in their 50s, each entered in solo kayaks. Lovell knew the river well from years of volunteering at cleanups with the nonprofit Missouri River Relief, shooting photos of the river, and maintaining a website for prospective paddlers with tips and directions to access points on the river.
“He knew all the towns and all the little places that I’d never even been to before,” said Handley, who spent 40 years as a wholesaler for Anheuser-Busch in Kansas City.
Lovell had just finished a round of chemotherapy for lung cancer.
“He was worn out physically, and I don’t know how he did it,” said Handley. “He still had a glean in his eye because he was on the river.
He “did it” in part because of Handley, who “kind of looked out for Richard and shepherded him down the river, at night and during the day, just kind of keeping him on the right path and helping him get in and out of his boat at boat ramps,” said Mansker.
He had set a 100-hour time limit for the race that year. The two men crossed the finish line at about 97 hours.
“Everyone at the finish line was just in tears,” Mansker recalled.
Lovell’s website is no longer active. He died in 2010 from cancer. That year, Handley competed in a 20-person canoe that broke the MR340 record in 38 hours, five minutes. He now operates a motorized safety boat, looking out for racers in distress.
Cheri Becker knows how the river can warp your perception. A personal trainer and ultramarathon runner, she had plenty of experience with physically-taxing events and sleep deprivation. Before her first race last year, she invested time to train properly, including doing a 112-mile paddle at night on the river to see what that would look and feel like.
It ended up looking like a giant bird swooping over her shoulder, a possible panda sighting, and “deer the size of a hamster.”
Hallucinations are common among racers at night. Worst of all was a barge that appeared to be moving but was actually stationary. Becker was focused on the barge and overlooked a tree floating down the river. She saw it too late and ran into it, ending up soaked and with a boat full of water.
She pulled into a stop in Glasgow, Missouri, and was a “big, shaky mess.”
Still, she got back on the river and managed to stay awake in part by singing songs from “Hamilton” with a friend and fellow racer. She finished in 12th place in the women’s solo division, “which I thought was pretty good for my first attempt.”
“The whole experience was full of good things, moments shared with thousands of people,” said Becker, 51. “There were a couple guys out there picking up trash. They’re doing service. They’re hauling all this trash out of the river while they’re doing the 340.
“In the 340 community, there are no strangers. You just meet people and step right in alongside them for them for a while,” she added.
Becker said she thinks she’ll do the race again — though she’s not sure if will be solo or in tandem with others.
“I feel like I could go back in and improve on the time I put down,” she said.
Dylan McHardy has certainly improved his times since his first race in 2015. His family had deep connections to paddling — his grandparents did the Great American Canoe Race in the ’70s from Kansas City to New Orleans, and his grandfather designed aluminum racing canoes — but McHardy did not start really paddling until about five years ago when he got divorced and moved back to Springfield, Missouri, from Mississippi.
A friend, Jim Short, looked at him and said, “‘You ever think about paddling?’ I never had done anything but recreational paddling, so he got me in a boat and showed me the strokes: the single blade, the double blade.”
The two entered the MR340 for the first time in 2015 but did not finish. Short passed a kidney stone and was “in extreme pain.”
In 2016, Short became ill and started projectile vomiting, and they again did not finish. Heart issues forced Short to stop competing in the race, but he now serves as part of McHardy’s support crew.
“We just talk about it all the time — technique, strategy, training, nutrition — it’s such a big part of our friendship,” said McHardy, a biomedical technician.
That tutelage has paid off. In 2017, McHardy and Joe Mann won the overall title as the first boat across the finish line. Last year, McHardy was part of a team of five that finished the race in 33 hours and 1 minute, beat the previous course record by 90 minutes. That meant that, for the second year in a row, his name would be engraved on the MR340 Cup, a trophy modeled after the NHL’s Stanley Cup.
So, what’s his goal for 2019?
“I want to get our names on the cup one more time,” said McHardy, who will compete in a team of four. “I keep telling myself that if I win this again, I’ll do a different race, but I keep coming back to it.”
FUB Bombs and Lizard Brain
“The first time you go into a long event [like the MR340] you think, ‘this is crazy.’ You really worry if you’re going to be able to cut the mustard. You have to be alert not to be undermined by fear, uncertainty, and doubt,” said race finisher Dr. David Crane. (He calls these “FUD bombs.”) “It’s at that time that you’ve got to make the mental switch to ‘lizard brain’. I’d describe lizard brain as the time when your body is working independently of emotion, so the whole system can survive.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Featured Image: Start of the MR340 in Kansas City by Mark Handley.