Some took home cash prizes, and some collected titles, but every racer who completed the third Missouri River 340 won something beyond price -- membership in the elite group who can say they finished the world's longest nonstop river race.
The Missouri River 340 is a race for canoes and kayaks. A six-man team calling themselves Team Texas posted this year's fastest time, finishing the race in an amazing 36 hours and 19 minutes. That is an average of 9.4 miles per hour, including stops to eat, drink and tend to other physical necessities. The previous record was last year's winning time of 44 hours, 27 minutes, set by Texans West Hansen, 45, and Richard Steppe, 49, competing in the men's tandem division. Hansen was the first finisher as a solo paddler in 2006 -- the races' first year -- with a time of 53:40.
Other top finishers were:
Men's Solo Division (83 entries): Carter Johnson, Sausalito, Calif., 37:46; Women's Solo Division (seven entries): Katie Pfefferkorn, Ottumwa, Iowa, 50:00; Women's Tandem Division (two entries): RED2 - Tabatha Adkins, Gower, Mo., and Chris Jump, Lawrence, Kan., 78:00; Men's Tandem Division (49 entries): Safari Boot Camp -- Phil Bowden, San Marcos, Texas and Lee Deviney, Austin, Texas, 42:32; Mixed Tandem Division (seven entries): Immersing Ourselves -- Mike Massey, Bellingham, Wash., and Jana Shannon, Durham, N.C., 65:24; Team Division (three entries): Team Texas -- West Hansen, Richard Steppe, David Anderson, David Kelly, Jeff Glock, Mike Rendon, 36:19.
Thirty-five individual or team entrants did not finish the race. The latest finish was 87 hours.
This is the Missouri River 340's third year. The first event drew 15 entries -- five tandem teams and 10 solo paddlers. Last year entries were capped at 76. Organizers limited entries to 150 this year. In all, more than 200 paddlers from 18 states, plus Canada, Belize and Japan, competed.
Sponsors provided cash prizes in some divisions for the first time this year. Prizes in the women's solo and men's tandem divisions were $500 for first, $100 for second and $50 for third in the women's solo division and $500 for first, $350 for second and $150 for third in the men's solo division. The first-place finishers in the team division split a $2,000 prize.
The paddling ultramarathon is the brainchild of Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant. They conceived the race as a way to focus attention on the recreational potential of Missouri's namesake river.
Mansker, Payzant and a small cadre of Missouri River enthusiasts organized the first event on a shoestring. They decided to require participants to finish the race in 100 hours for two reasons. One was to make the event more interesting. The other was to prevent the field of competitors from getting too strung out.
Contestants whose late arrivals at checkpoints make clear that they will not meet the 100-hour deadline are eliminated from competition. This prevents the field from stretching halfway across the state, making it difficult to safely administer the race.
In theory, the Missouri River 340 is simplicity itself. Start at Kaw Point across the river from Kansas City at 8 a.m. one day in mid-July. Finish not later than noon four days later. In reality, however, things get complicated.
Not least of the complications are the limits of the human body and mind. Muscles and joints grow tender after days of nonstop exertion. The skin of even calloused hands grows soft from wetting. Blisters form and sheets of skin slough off. Racers forego applying sun screen and even drinking rather than prying their hands painfully from paddles and having to grip them again. Sleep deprivation impairs thinking. Hallucinations are commonplace.
Then there is the river itself. Broad and placid in calm weather, it can turn violent when thunderstorms sweep across miles of open water. Darkness and fog turn navigation buoys, side channels and barges into formidable obstacles.
Although the river's current is a steady 3.5 mph, this advantage often is canceled out by wind. When there is no wind, the summer sun bakes relentlessly, sapping moisture and energy from those who paddle through the heat of the day. Dusk and dawn are cooler, but they also are attended by swarms of gnats and other flying insects, prompting veteran racers to don goggles so they can keep their eyes open.
Why would anyone do this? Self-discovery is the most common answer. The Missouri River 340 is an elemental touchstone, revealing strengths and weaknesses and revealing reserves of physical and emotional strength as nothing in everyday life can do.
Proceeds from entry fees are used to pay event expenses, including insurance, trophies, medals, T-shirts, safety boats, fuel and equipment rental fees.
Funds remaining after payment of this year's expenses will go to Missouri River Relief, a nonprofit organization that conducts clean-ups on the Missouri River. The group has held 25 such events, bringing together more than 5,000 volunteers.
They have collected 341 tons of trash, ranging from aluminum cans to junked automobiles.
Organizers say they are looking at dates in early August for the 2009 Missouri River 340. For more information about the Missouri River 340, visit rivermiles.com/mr340/.