The MR340 is the world’s longest nonstop paddle race. Each summer, competitors from around the globe gather at Mile Marker 367.5 on the Missouri River in Kansas City to take the 340-mile course downstream to Mile Marker 29 in St. Charles, Missouri. This past summer, racers Dr. David Crane and Scott Croom completed the endurance race in a pedal-powered Hobie Tandem Island kayak in 77 hours. We spoke with them about the experience and asked what advice they have for would-be participants.

How did you prepare physically for the MR340?

“The effects of an endurance race like this are so significant on the body that their impact can be apparent for months. Which is why, typically, you can’t train to the extent of the actual race. You do have to have a certain physical base. Then, you won’t sustain long-term recovery problems,” Dr. Crane said.

Beginning in March, the pair got together and trained together eight times before the race. Because Croom is in Columbia and Crane is in St. Louis, they typically met halfway in between. The longest training session they did at any one time was 15 hours — paddling and pedaling straight from Jefferson City to Washington, Missouri.

On their own, Crane and Croom worked to stay as sport specific as possible in their training, paddling and either biking or stepping in order to mimic the pedaling motion of the kayak. For Crane, a typical training session included a two-hour paddle and then a short run or bike ride.

The two trained during the heat of the day. Critical to a successful summertime race is getting acclimated to the daytime high temperatures, said Crane. The MR340 has a high drop rate, and Crane suspects this is because racers don’t prepare for the extreme heat they may experience, which greatly impacts hydration and nutrition.

And what about the mental side of training?

“The first time you go into a long event, 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,” Crane said. (He calls these “FUD bombs.”)

“It’s the FUD bombs that make you wonder about your sanity when you are about to start a big endeavor, or when you focus on how much more you still have to go,” he said. “When the FUD bombs bombard you, you need to get back to either noticing what you’re doing at that moment, checking your body systems or both.”

When he trains, Crane checks his systems and watches for his limits. His goal is to find the limit and just peek over the edge. “The physical training is the base that allows a person to understand what he or she can do, and as long as we pay attention to those body systems, we can almost always do more than we think we can,” he said.

What was your goal for this event?

Back when he was 28, Crane said he wanted to win, be the strongest and fastest, and have everybody know it. But at 45, having had brushes with mortality, he’s more humble and finds himself simply looking for poignant moments.

“What I really want to experience is joy amidst these long events. So often, it’s when you’re tired, sore and nauseated that those really poignant moments appear in your life and mean so much. Even eating a Jolly Rancher can become a really momentous thing,” Crane said.

Even though some people might not think the Missouri River is not prettiest place to paddle, “after a long night of paddling and feeling incredible fatigue, when that warm glow appears in the east, the sunrise can be one of those momentous times.”

When did you start to feel fatigue?

“For the first 14 hours, typically, everyone is jazzed,” Crane said. “Then, you start to get what I call ‘hangry,’ which is hungry and angry, and things start to hurt.

“Because of the training we’d done, I didn’t start to hurt physically until after 48 hours,” he said. “But, after 14 hours, I felt the mental stress and started to wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s at that time that you’ve got to make the mental switch to the ‘lizard brain.’”

Pardon me, but could you define that?

“I’d describe ‘lizard brain’ as the time when your body is working independently of emotion, so the whole system can survive,” Crane said. “When things start to hurt or don’t go the way you expected, you get mad. You have to let go of the anger or fear and make that mental switch.”

And how do you make the switch to lizard brain?

“It just happens, but you can’t resist it. You have to let it happen. That’s why you train so much, so that the physical pain is nothing new. The training lets you know that you can get through it, so that you don’t have to buy into the FUD bombs when they start.”

Beside the physical and mental foundation, how else did you prepare?

Crane said he modified his kayak for the race by shedding the craft’s sail and outriggers and adding a bimini top to protect he and Croom against the summer sun.

Along the length of the bimini top, he ran plastic tubing to carry water for misting. The person in the rear seat had to reach back and pump the garden sprayer to fill it up with river water. Five to six pumps allowed them 20 minutes of mist.

For safety, they also had to rig the boat with running lights. Finally, Crane also outfitted their kayak with a Lowrance fishfinder and loaded a GPS program. The unit showed depth, speed and marked the main channel, which helped them to avoid the wing dykes. Crane said this proved particularly helpful for nighttime navigation. In fact, at night, he found they were able help other boats that didn’t have nav systems on board.

What did you learn on the river?

“I have a new appreciation for life on the river,” he said. “From the water, I saw human and ecological systems that I never saw on land, even though I grew up in Washington, Missouri, a river town.

“I saw the anglers and hunters that use the river, how the river towns are situated to the river, how animals come down for water and cooling, and the barge traffic moving goods further inland. I saw how completely integrated life is with our water.”

What was the hardest part of the trip?

“One of the hardest times was waking up after just two or three hours of sleep in the van,” Crane said. “My brother, John, drove a small RV that gave us a place to crash and kept us supplied. After working almost non-stop for 20 hours, we came ashore. Despite the fatigue, we had to plan the next section of our trip, chart our course and get resupplied with food and water. Then, we would crawl into our air-conditioned bunks and slide into those cool sheets.

“The next thing we knew, John was waking us up. It was still dark outside. I woke up with cottonmouth, my breath stunk — and I really stunk. And the worst part was, when I woke up, my ‘lizard brain’ was off and all those FUD bombs came back. I had to force my body back into that boat. Fortunately, once I got down to the riverfront and saw other guys and gals taking off, I thought, ‘They’re ahead of us. We gotta catch up!’”

In contrast, what was the best part of the trip?

“Paddling at night with the other kayakers was one of the best parts. All you could see were the trees silhouetted against the night sky and the stars above. Because you were in the dark, you had to rely on your other senses. People got subdued, the competitiveness dissipated for those hours,” said Crane. “And those kayakers that didn’t have GPS, they depended on others to help them navigate and stay in the channel. We came together in support of each other.”

The sense of community must have been intense. What is your overall favorite memory of the MR340?

“It was the third day of the race. We’d just pulled out of Columbia, Missouri. We’d slept for a couple of hours, woke up at 3 a.m. and had a quick breakfast. There were still a couple of hours to paddle before morning light. Just before dawn, there was stillness on the water. It was palpable. Then, the sky burst into full color, and that’s when we knew. We knew we could finish the race. In the quiet of dawn, I had this depth of perception that offered me profound perspective. Those are the moments I wait for.”

The MR340 will take place this year from July 23 to 26, 2013. Follow the race on our Facebook page:

Author: Amy Narishkin is the owner of St. Louis Sail & Paddle.