Missouri River 340, July 12 – 15, 2022
#4933 – Mark Fingerhut – Epic V7 Surfski
56:00:09, 51st place overall, 20th solo men’s kayak
Going into my 6th MR340, 2nd solo, I felt pretty good about what to expect. In 2021, I helped support Paddle Stop New Haven’s 10-person dragon boat and really appreciated seeing the race from a new perspective. As a racer in previous years, I normally don’t get a chance to see a ton of other boats or their setups, or interact with ground crews to get good ideas, or appreciate what it takes to actually put this race on. I feel like that support experience certainly helped in prep for this year. The biggest wild card going in was going to be weather…and the choice of a boat.
The plan all along was to use the Mostar, the gorgeous 20ft cedar strip kayak built by Shane at Paddle Stop that I used both in my 2019 descent of the Missouri River, as well as in my last MR340 in 2020, a 57.5 hour finish. Earlier in the spring, I happened upon a local posting of an Epic V7 for sale at a reasonable price. I’ve always been intrigued by surfskis, but never had the chance to paddle one. I hopped to it and bought it, which also included a nice Epic mid-wing paddle. The V7 model is rotomolded, so can be treated more roughly than the other delicate, more expensive models, and is slightly heavier, more stable and a quicker learning curve. That said, I didn’t consider paddling the boat in this year’s 340 until I had a lot more saddle time and felt more comfortable.
In preparation for the race, I paddled quite often: weekly Tuesday night 5k races with the local crew at Creve Coeur Lake, day/night trips of varying lengths on the Missouri between Hermann and the confluence, the Mississippi above St. Louis, short/higher intensity paddles upstream then back on the Meramec River, among others. I also participated in the inaugural MR140 in Minnesota back in June, which turned out to be a terrific tune up. I paddled my Current Designs Nomad in that race, mainly for added stability and comfort on an unknown river with unknown support and multiple portages. After the 140, I realized I could have easily done that race in my surfski, so why not consider the ski for the 340???
Wanting one more true test of this boat under my belt, a couple weeks ago, I did a 70 mile speed run from downtown St. Louis to Chester, IL on the Mississippi. This stretch would have everything the 340 would have in a condensed form: darkness, navigation challenges, barge wakes galore, fluid/gear management, technology setup, etc. The run was quite successful, departing St. Louis at 4pm, arriving in Chester at 2am in the wake of 4 consecutive big barges. I felt comfortable in the boat, quite stable, I was able to haul enough gear, and was pretty excited with the pace I was able to maintain. The Mostar was out; the V7 was in.
After the traditional pre-race KC barbeque binge (this time at Slaps BBQ) and a pretty good night sleep, I was up with my wife/ground crew Sara, stuffing bladders with water and Gatorade, scarfing some breakfast and hitting the water at Kaw Point. I’ll forever be a fan of putting in at the confluence point vs. dealing with the lines at the ramp. Sara’s done support over the years for me and other paddler friends, but this was her first time seeing the spectacle of the starting line, so I was excited for her to take it all in. I paddled around the crowd leading up to the 7am start, greeting so many paddlers I’ve had the privilege to get to know over the years, either from the local St. Louis community, friends from KC, or just those I see at the 340 every time I do it. It’s a tangible uplifting feeling knowing you are setting off on this epic challenge with so many others you admire and respect, less of a singular competitive challenge, more of a bond that we’ll tackle this thing together one mile at a time.
After a tapping of paddles to boat to thank the race organizers and volunteers (shout out Dave Amelung), we were off. My modus at the start is to stick hard left on the Kaw and hit the confluence at the highest point, with 99.9% of the boats to my right. That way, I am out in the fast current of the Missouri before anyone else, and sure enough, I was sliding right by the large mass of boats still transitioning from the Kaw morass into the churn of the main channel. I picked up the parked construction barges of the Buck O’Neil bridge just as the picture in the email the night before indicated and set a 6:30/mile pace through the downtown KC speedway of the first few race miles.
The pack I was paddling with thinned pretty quickly, and I could tell I was in a faster boat than I’ve ever paddled this race in before. Instead of paddling with plastic boats and beginner kayaks, I was with the Stellars, the Surfskis, the wielders of wing paddles, the upper level of boats that tend towards the front of the pack. It was new to me. After the fast water of downtown KC, I settled into the low 7 minutes per mile. My technology is quite low-tech: an Amazfit fitness watch that tells me time, distance, and pace. My phone tucked away in my PFD (or later my dry bag) running Race Owl. I’m not a channel tracker/ProPaddler guy, as I’ve rarely found the benefit of it with paddlers usually in sight, as well as knowing the river quite well between KC and STL.
I told Sara I’d text her if for some reason I needed to stop at Napoleon, it would have been only to refill water and Gatorade, but with a 3-liter water bladder, and 1.5 of Gatorade, my supply was sufficient as I passed by before noon. I got to Lexington at 1:15pm and stayed for less than 5 minutes, just getting more water and Gatorade. It was a long hot slog to Waverly, but I am always motivated to get to Waverly Ramp #1 to see my good friend and river rat Rob Kalthoff, who coordinates all the volunteers at what I think is the best run ramp on the race. I was there for about 10 minutes, again refilling water and getting a photo with Rob.
I wasn’t eating a ton throughout the day, maybe a cliff bar here or there, and a quick protein drink at the ramps, but still felt strong and confident arriving at Miami around 8:30pm. I’m pretty sure it’s the earliest I’ve ever arrived there. I also realized how less crowded the ramps are when you are a little bit faster, go figure! I stayed in Miami for about 25 minutes, scarfing some cold Thai noodles Sara had brought from KC and getting the sweet caffeine from a Dr. Pepper. It was on to the 36 miles to Glasgow for a short rest. My race plan in 2020, and for this year was the same: get to Glasgow sometime in the middle of the night, sleep til close to sunrise, paddle all day, get to either Chamois or Hermann, sleep til close to sunrise, then finish the race.
There’s almost nothing I love as much as night paddling, so I enjoyed the 36 miles into Glasgow, talking with a few paddlers, but generally spending my time solo with my thoughts, a little music and a podcast or two that triggered the much-needed endorphins provided by laughter. In the last 5 miles getting into Glasgow, I blew past a pack of 6 to 8 kayaks and arrived just before the rush, 1:48am.
Sara had my rest setup all ready to go. I scarfed two corn dogs from the food truck, got out of wet clothes, then laid down, where Sara used our massage gun to really work out the soreness in my back and shoulders before I popped 2 Aleve and was off to dreamland. The massage gun is now an MVP level piece of gear that I will have along for every race from here on out! I woke up at 4:30am feeling surprisingly spry and fresh.
I got back on the water just as the morning light peeked over the horizon and fog was starting to lift. Lisbon Bottoms was no problem and I passed the still sleeping safety boat crew on Jameson Island. Luckily this notoriously windy stretch was not so this morning and I made good progress towards Franklin. I passed a few boats who had been paddling pretty much all night, commending them on the achievement and wishing them luck. But the fact that I felt fresh as I passed them by and seeing how tired they were, I was happy with my choices so far. I caught up with my good friend and partner in adventuring Dan Strieker on his Timber Longboard SUP right as we got into Franklin in the waves of a passing barge. I had to stop to sit in the shade, eat some food, and just gather my thoughts for about a half hour before heading out again. I was joined by local STL paddling friend Chris Mullee for this stretch.
We had great conversation for the next 25ish miles. Quite amazing how human interaction keeps your mind fresh and off the muscle pain or discomfort of the blazing heat. Chris also suggested I cover my exposed toes and feet with my frogg togg towel, which up to this point, although covered in sun block, were burning up. Thanks Chris! We caught up with Dan again and passed him getting into Cooper’s where Chris stopped for a break and I kept moving.
To deal with the heat during the race, I generally kept to dipping my hat and pouring water over me, draping my frogg togg around my neck here and there. On my way into Jeff City, it was getting pretty bad. I knew of a couple ramps coming up, and I opted to stop at the private ramp just upstream of Hartsburg to cool off. As I pulled in, I saw a couple guys at the top of the ramp and thinking they might have been owners, asked them if I could stop for a dip. They replied, “Sure, not our ramp!” and proceeded to offer me a couple varieties of beers or rum and coke. Under any other circumstances, even during the race, I would have taken them up on it. But with an overheating situation near, I told them no thanks. I fully submerged into the end of the muddy ramp and felt much better. Approaching Jeff City, I passed an upstream sand barge that kicked up some real nice rolling waves which I had a lot of fun crashing through in my ski. Some dread barges on the river, but to me it’s a chance to wake up, get the adrenaline up and put your mind to work navigating the waves!
In Jeff City, I had half a double cheeseburger, about as much as my body would allow me to get down, and a couple other small snacks, before I closed my eyes for a half hour nap. I’ve learned on this race that even these shortest of rests allows my mind to reboot. I close my eyes with scattered thoughts, frustration and worries about the coming stretch of river, and awake with a renewed sense of motivation and clearer thinking. I was back on the river in less than 1.5 hours, prepared to push on to Chamois or further.
The sunset from Jeff City to Chamois was nice, but my mood was soured by the fact I forgot my headlight at Jeff City, Sara forgot to give me a 5-hour energy, the damn bugs that kept flying into my mouth and eyes, as well as my phone really frustrating me by either stopping my podcasts every couple minutes, or continuing to play Rush on my seemingly randomized playlists. Rush – only in moderation, people! I got to Chamois before 10pm and soon learned about the brand new wing dyke that almost blocks the ramp, with the street light from the park shining straight into your eyes. I slightly scraped the wing dyke, then had to restrain myself from snapping at the ramp volunteer that perhaps better direction for paddlers landing here was in order. Hangriness had set in.
I had a good half hour rest in Chamois, ate some delicious sourdough with salami that our baker friend in KC had baked, and set out toward my evening sleep spot in Hermann. It was only in this stretch where I missed having a channel finder. A few times I found myself in slow water, realizing I had gotten out of the channel before making the correction. There were a few other boats far behind me, as well as a few ahead as I began to approach Hermann, arriving at the endlessly viewed bridge at 1am.
After some massage gun and Aleve, back to dreamland til 4am. If there were trains passing all night, that was news to me, I was out. I was back on the water before 5am, for the stretch from Hermann to New Haven. I was really in the home stretch, I know these waters from here to the finish in my sleep! I stopped for a quick 5 minutes in New Haven and said hey to my friend Melissa who was helping at the ramp. As I was pulling out, Shane came down from the Paddle Stop to bid me good luck as well. I booked it to Washington where I figured my good friend Pat Tenny would be waiting for me with breakfast biscuits from Hardee’s which he’s brought for pretty much each of my six 340s. Sure enough, there was Pat, snapping photos with a Hardees bag in his hand. I stopped for a half hour to enjoy a couple and get fluids for the long hot day ahead.
I really suffered in the heat in the short 8 miles from Washington to Klondike. The miles were slow and I struggled to stay cool with river water not quite doing the job. I finally got to Klondike at 11am, where some shade, some ice water, a little food and caffeine seemed to help. All that was left was Klondike to St. Charles, done it 1000 times. Fighting off the heat of the day with my rising adrenaline to finish the race, I powered through, passing the Boone bridge where a random dude stood up there looking at his phone. Hey, was that someone I know? After that I caught a glimpse of two paddle flashes up ahead. While not too competitive normally, at this point in the race, I always use whatever motivation I can find to finish strong and get a cold beer in my hands that much quicker. I picked up the pace as the specks of paddlers in front of me started to grow larger.
I passed the first guy just before the 364 bridge, not even giving him a glance. I just wanted to demoralize him by blowing by. There, standing under the bridge, I spotted the guy who’d been up on the Boone Bridge, oh hey that’s my buddy Keith, paddler from last year’s dragon boat and ringing a bell to bring me to the finish. The next paddler was moving fast and I didn’t know if I’d be able to get him, but I was up for the challenge. I changed my stroke from arm paddling to core paddling, and noticed my speed dropping once again to below 7 min/mile, not seen since the first couple miles of the race. The other paddler was sticking hard river right, which I’d normally do. But seeing as the finish was river left, I cheated a bit and stayed out more into the center of the river. I passed under the I-70 bridge still behind him, but with a direct path to the finish ramp, whereas he had to cross all the way over. I heard the yelling of the welcoming crowd and managed to out kick this guy, coming in 20 seconds before him, at 3pm exactly. I congratulated him, then apologized for the rather unnecessary show of competitiveness. He was luckily in good spirits and dismissed my apology. I soon learned that passing those two paddlers got me into a top 50 overall/top 20 division finish. Whatever it takes to get the beer in my hand faster, I say. Sara soon did just that and a 16oz PBR never tasted so good.
Overall, I consider this a very successful race. I was in a faster boat, but in slower water than previous years, but still managed a personal best by 1.5 hours. I did feel like I had to stop more often, mainly to reload fluids as my boat isn’t set up for hauling a lot. I opted not to do any after market modifications to the boat, no drilling through the deck for tubes or tanks or anything like that. However, my ramp stops were usually pretty brief, I had no issues getting back in the boat. I kind of like that style, as the body gets to get up and stretch more often. For my personal sleep needs, what I did here was about as good as I could expect. Minimum of two hours each night, with a hard reset during the second day. Anything less and I don’t think I’m getting the kind of brain activity that leads to good decisions. Plus, after getting back on the water after sleeping, I am immediately passing by paddlers that’ve been going for many more hours than I. I’ll take the tradeoff.
My nutrition absolutely needs work. I had a tough time getting solid food down throughout the race. I relied on liquid protein shakes mainly, a little bit of turkey jerky, an RX or Cliff Bar here or there, but my eating was reactive rather than proactive. If I do this race again, I’m going to focus a lot more of my prep and attention on a proper nutrition plan that will be more successful.
Once again, the people are what makes this race what it is. The friends and community I have from doing this race through the years, or friends I’ve made through paddling in general is really the spark that keeps me coming back. Yeah, finishing the race is cool, getting a time you can be proud of is ok, but my best moments of this race were Thursday afternoon after I’d finished, or when I came back Friday morning to watch my fellow racers finish – welcoming them in with a high five or a hug, seeing the looks on their faces, having accomplished something epic and something that will likely change their lives, as it has mine.
Huge thank you to my wife Sara for the amazing support, you knew exactly what I needed when I needed it. Thanks to Shane and Stacy at Paddle Stop for being great river friends and running with your dream to bring people to the river. Thanks Steve, Melanie, Kevin and everyone at MO River Relief for all the great work you do. Thanks to Scott, Christina and all the race organizers, I’ll love this event as long as I live. Volunteers, rampers, safety boaters – you are incredible. Thanks to the entire paddling community who continue to amaze me with your generosity, your good advice, your encouragement and support.
Mark Fingerhut, 2022