2020 MR340 Race Recap

Mark Fingerhut – Solo Men’s Kayak – Boat #2456 – Finish time: 57:37

Support/Ground Crew: Matt Frank, Sara Fingerhut, Andy McDonald

2020 Finish
Photo by Denise Damon

After finishing the MR340 four previous times as a member of a tandem team, I felt my next logical step was to attempt the race solo. Having completed a solo descent of the Missouri River from Yellowstone to the Arch last summer, I felt I was ready for the challenge. My plan since last summer was to paddle the MOStar, the 20 foot cedar strip kayak I used last year on my journey in the race.

Prep: I don’t typically undertake a strict training regimen or structured plan. I’ve grown to love paddling and being on pretty much any body of water as much as possible. Even over the winter months, when we sometimes get the freak-50/60 degree winter day, I like to get out on a river or lake nearby. So as the weather started to warm this year, we experienced the unprecedented conditions of a global pandemic. So many weekend activities and events were cancelled and suddenly, my weekends were completely free. As being out on a river or lake far from crowds was one of the safer activities to undertake, that’s where you found me most weekends this spring and into summer. To avoid shuttling in a car with others and keeping socially distant, many times I just drove to a river ramp, paddled upstream as far as I could, then paddle back downstream to the car. I did quite a few of these on the Meramec and a couple on the Mississippi near Alton, IL. Later on in June and July, when safety procedures and mask wearing was pretty much standard, I did a few long paddles on the Missouri shuttled by PaddleStop New Haven. Then this year I also began paddling with a couple regular-meeting groups in St. Louis – the weekly Creve Coeur 5k and monthly Meramec Sunset Race. These are wonderful opportunities to get in quick/high intensity paddle workouts, with the added bonus of being able to compare notes, techniques and tips with very experienced paddlers and all around cool river people.

The things I focus on in training is developing my paddling muscles, callouses on the critical parts of my hands, comfortability within my boat, and anticipated logistic/supply needs for the race. Having spent 96 days in my race boat last summer, I was very comfortable with my setup in the boat, the main difference being I wouldn’t be hauling 250 or so pounds of gear in the MOStar during the race. She would glide like a dream, hopefully. In addition to paddling, I also undertook a loose, low intensity weight-lifting regimen. Three sets of bench, butterflies and triceps every other day of the week. By June and July, I felt like my hand callouses earned last summer had started to come back and I was confident I could complete a gloveless/tapeless MR340.

The Race Plan: The question is posed to me countless times before the 340: what’s your goal? My answer is and will always be, to finish. In my mind, the second someone says a goal other than to finish this race is when things start to go wrong. I’ve been fortunate enough to finish every 340 I’ve started, but there were several times me and my partners were seriously discussing dropping out of the race for various reasons. I will never take finishing this race for granted.

Secondarily to finishing, my competitive nature gets me thinking about what times I’d like to shoot for. In 2010 and 2011, my partners and I finished in the mid-70s hour range. Then in 2015 and 2017, we made it into the mid-60s. Knowing what it takes to hit those numbers, I felt that if everything went perfectly this race, I might be able to go under 60. So I began stating that as a secondary goal.

To make this goal happen, I began to dissect a specific race plan. Breaking up the 340 miles into paddle days and logical places to stop, recharge and refresh. I will first say that I will never consider completing the MR340 on zero sleep. My mind and body don’t possess the strength (or insanity) to skip sleep entirely, so my plan always includes places where a few hours of sleep can be had. In previous years, my teammates and I typically made it a goal on day 1 to make it to the Glasgow checkpoint to stop for some sleep. Two of the four previous times, we were able to do that, however due to various factors, we didn’t arrive there until sunrise on Day 2. Trying to get to sleep as the sun is coming up, the heat starts rising and paddlers/crew noisily start stirring is a pretty terrible experience. So my goal this year was to paddle the 141 miles or so to Glasgow, hopefully arrive there in the 2am to 4am range so I could sleep for a few hours while it was still dark. (The 7am Day 1 start time really helped as well, as having an extra hour of paddling vs. the 8am team start time would improve chances of a decent arrival time in Glasgow.) If I could do this, Day 2 should allow me to arrive in Jefferson City in the late afternoon, grab some food and drink, maybe even a cat nap if absolutely needed, then paddle into the night to a pre-determined point downstream. That would leave a Day 3 paddle of less than 100 miles, and the very realistic possibility of finishing before 7pm, the 60 hour cutoff. I talked this plan over with my support crew and we were set.

To make life easier for my crew, I also prepared and giant tub of gear, organized into separate bags and bundles, with everything I could possibly anticipate needing during the race. Asking your crew to procure something for you during the race that you hadn’t previously prepared is in my mind a very tough ask, should be minimized and be used sparingly, if at all.

The Race: In the days before the race, I was absolutely delighted with what the weather forecast was showing. High temperatures in the day in the low 80s, lows in the 50s at night, little to no chance of storms. Plus, recent rain in the Missouri River basin would ensure a high, fast-flowing current. Going into the race, I knew conditions would be nearly optimal for what a successful race required. I even had to adjust my gear to include more cold-weather attire for the chill we’d experience each night.

On Monday morning, my friend and 2017 340 partner Matt loaded me and our other friend Brett, who had joined up within the previous 3 days with a paddler from Texas after both of their original partners had to drop out, into his truck for the ride to KC. We arrived in time to grab a great sandwich for lunch, head to Boulevard Brewing for some beers on their spectacular deck overlooking the KC skyline, then head to Kaw point to check in. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about transporting my boat, as Shane and Stacy from PaddleStop were hauling boats and paddlers and offered to take my boat as well. We got checked in, I did some last minute prep on my boat including adding navigation lights. We got checked into the nearby Hilton Garden Inn then the three of us headed out to meet up with a few friends for the requisite Kansas City barbeque pre-race meal. We chose Woodyard BBQ, the third consecutive time I’ve eaten here before the race. Back to the hotel where we tailgated outside the hotel for a beer or two, sharing laughs and stories with some other paddlers dealing with the pre-race jitters of anticipation, before heading to bed around 10. There are those who treat the leadup to the race as a sacred time of abstaining from sweets, fatty foods, alcohol, debauchery, etc. The 340 will always be to me first and foremost about fun and connecting with friends and fellow paddlers and I have no shame in enjoying my time going into it, within reason.

5am came quickly and Matt drive me down to Kaw Point with a quick McDonald’s pit stop for a coffee and two sausage McMuffins to provide a base of fatty calories for a full day of paddling. As the main ramp already had a line of boats forming, we opted to take my boat down to the actual point of the confluence to launch. The footing was a little tricky and it was a bit muddy, but I highly recommend this spot as a launch to avoid the chaos of the main ramp.  I paddled upstream, spotting a few friends, wishing them good luck.

Soon enough, we were counted down and the race started. I chose to take the highest line I possibly could leaving the Kaw and entering the Missouri. In years’ past, we’d always been smack in the middle of the massive mess of boats and when the swift current of the Missouri starts absorbing the meandering Kaw, things get very swirly, boats start turning in odd directions, and there is almost always collisions and dumped boats. This time, I hugged the left shore on the Kaw as close as I could, even coming close to clipping the KC Fire Department boat parked right at the point. I easily swing out into the Missouri with nearly every other boat to my right. I believe this helped in getting out to a pretty good lead, passing a lot of boats who were fighting to avoid others and keep from tipping.

Very quickly I settled into a rhythm, checking my watch as I started doing sub 7-minute miles, translating to roughly 8.5 mph. The early race adrenaline is evident in nearly every boat and it’s always a fast start. I truly enjoy the first couple hours of the race, as the boats are bunched together, I make it a point to greet nearly every boat I pass or that passes me, wishing folks good luck or complimenting their boats. As the first few hours passed, my pace began to slow a bit, sliding up towards 7.5 minute miles, sometimes approaching 8. At this point in the race, I just wanted to keep it somewhere in that range. Technology-wise, I operate pretty low-tech. I have an Amazfit watch that I generally use to track speed, distance and heart rate, then have the race-owl tracker going on my phone – which is tucked into my deck back in front of me. I do not use the Pro-Paddler or channel tracking during the race. I would recommend this to relative newcomers to the rivers, but I feel pretty comfortable finding the channel and fast water with a few thousand river miles under my skirt. I also carry a Bluetooth speaker for playing music or podcasts when I find myself paddling alone.

The wind started picking up a bit in the afternoon, but probably only 5 to 8mph headwinds, nothing too serious. I had the great pleasure of paddling alongside some pretty amazing and inspiring women, including first-timer (at 60+) Sherry Isenhart and Ryan Gilliken – who was one of only four finishers at last year’s inaugural Alabama 650 race and who I just learned went on the win this year’s 340 in the Women’s solo kayak division in 48 hours! I also experienced a small manner of celebrity when a few paddlers saw my boat and my name printed on the side and told me they’d followed my trip down the Missouri last summer.

Right at Napoleon, I checked over my shoulder and noticed the eventual first place winner Kraken approaching. I adjusted my track to get closer to them, wishing them good luck and admiring the mad science ingenuity it took to build and operate such a vessel. I passed by Lexington just after 1pm. With typical summer heat, I’d probably need to stop there to refill water and Gatorade, but with the mild temps, I still had ample supply of both and pushed on to Waverly. I got to Waverly around 6pm, 73 miles from the start. I stopped and quickly coordinated a re-supply with Matt. More water, Gatorade, and Spiz (calorie/dietary meal replacement drink). I also had Matt cut me some strips of moleskin, where I was a bit surprised I had blisters already starting to form. He also got me a burger and hot dog from the local boy scout troop tent, that I scarfed down as soon as I got back on the water.

As the afternoon heat began to give way to early evening, things were feeling very good. I maintained a decent pace with the added motivation of reaching Miami before darkness set in – an experience I’d never had on the 340. Between Waverly and Miami, there were three or four separate groups of spectators gathered along the river, watching boats and cheering on the racers. This was new to me, evidence of a growing popularity of this event in the communities along the river. I even half-jokingly inquired about getting a cold beer thrown to me from the bank from the revelers. Alas, beer would have to wait.

I got to Miami at 8:30 with the setting sun still providing daylight; I was excited. I stopped for only two minutes, dumping my Gatorade and picking up and jacket for the chilly night air. With 36 miles to reach Glasgow, my day 1 goal, things were looking very promising to be able to get some much needed sleep. The sun set and it began to get a bit chilly. I paddled for a bit with John Trupka, who I paddle with quite often at Creve Coeur, and I’d like to think I inspired him to push on the Glasgow with me. The only risk of getting to Glasgow at a decent hour was the fog. In 2011, my partner Mike and I were in a similar position and timeframe. Then around midnight, a massive thunderstorm blew through and we spent a harrowing 3 hours sitting on a muddy bank waiting for the wind, rain and lightning to subside, not allowing us to reach Glasgow until 5am. I was determined not to experience a similar delay.

As the curvy strands of fog began to form just above the water, I knew it was a matter of time before visibility would be severely limited. I paddled with a few different boats for a few stretches, happy to keep sight of a light in front of me and behind me. I also had the friendly faces and encouragement of the support boat manned by Steve Schnarr and Elke Bettina of Missouri River Relief. I was happy I decided to grab a rain jacket at Miami, as the fog and paddle splash soaked everything on my boat and myself, however my main core was dry and warm. I also kept awake with some great sing-along music, probably much to the surprise of paddlers within listening distance. I approached the long sweeping curves of the river just above Glasgow and knew it was going to happen. I furiously paddled the last few miles and pulled around 1:30am. 141 miles down, less than 200 to go.

My wife had joined Matt in Glasgow to bolster my support team and I quickly devoured many fried things from the food truck before laying down in my tent for sleep. I set the alarm for around 4:30am and groggily got up and gathered what I needed for the day. Matt and Sara dutifully arose with me to help get me on the water by 5:30. The first light of the day was just over the trees and the fog was still there, though thankfully not terribly thick. I passed through Lisbon Bottoms without incident and into the seemingly endless straightaways near Boonville. I was happy to be in very familiar water here, having done the Freedom Race a couple weeks prior. I had a very quick stop at Franklin Island, grabbing a Coke, a red bull for the afternoon malaise and some gum to rid my mouth of the fried-food hangover mouth funk.

The only two barges of the entire race were encountered between the I-70 bridge and Hartsburg. The first barge kicked up some pretty nice rollers, and I was pretty happy to have some adrenaline powering my fatigued muscles for a bit. Shane Camden engineered my boat to easily handle the rolling, wind-generated waves on the massive lakes of the upper Missouri, so cutting through the rollers after a barge was just plain fun. I was experiencing zombie-like symptoms as I blew by Cooper’s Landing, giving some waves and shouts to some familiar faces. Luckily, just after Coopers I met Chase Wrisinger, a cool guy from Lee’s Summit doing his first race. We had a few common acquaintances, so the conversation flowed and I was able to ignored my increasing muscle soreness and sleepiness for a bit.

Approaching Jefferson City close to 5pm, I could nearly smell the pizza brought for me by Diane Spieker, the mother of Matt’s fiancé who lives in Jeff City. Hitting the beach at Wilson’s Serenity Point, this would be a more leisurely stop. I took my time, downed a couple cherry cokes while enjoying the pizza and planned my next steps.  I could tell my mind was starting to get a little cloudy. I knew from previous years that this was a dangerous place to be.  A lack of sleep and overall body fatigue can lead one to make poor decisions, endangering one’s physical well-being, not to mention the prospect of finishing the race. I briefly thought about taking a short nap at Jeff City before continuing on, but after looking at the cheat sheet, realized Chamois was only 26 miles further. Getting to Chamois, where there was a quiet campsite and even a shower(!), would set me up for a final day of 90 manageable miles to the finish in St. Charles.

I set out from Jeff City as the sun was setting and had a pretty amazing pizza and caffeine-fueled journey to Chamois. With the sun set, the stars came out in full force. Several times, I just leaned back and took in the entire sky, even seeing a couple meteors brilliantly race across nearly the entire view. I put on a few podcasts to keep my mind occupied as there were very few paddlers I encountered on this stretch. As the lights of Chamois welcomed me in, the blood-red moon rose over the trees just ahead. I arrived in Chamois around 10:30pm.

I grabbed one of the best showers of my life while Sara set up my tent. Matt had been relieved by my other friend Andy who drove out from St. Louis. I hit the pillow hard and managed to get a pretty great sleep from around 11:30 til my 3am wake up call.

Sara and Andy graciously hopped into gear at the ungodly hour to get me on the water by 3:45am. I paddled the first few hours completely alone in the stillness of the early morning, finally seeing the bridge of Hermann eight miles away as the morning light slowly appeared. I challenged myself to make it to Hermann before the first speck of sun appeared over the trees, but lost the challenge by a mere minutes. Still, it was one of the most brilliant sunrises I’ve experienced, and one the true moments of transcendence on this race. I was greeted by the friendly masked face of a good friend Jay Doty, who helped pull my boat and welcome me in. I’d paddled for a few days on my long trip last summer with Jay close to St. Louis, and got to know him and hear about the amazing conservation and invasive species battle he conducts. I truly believe that familiar and encouraging faces along the way really provide more motivation and energy than 100 cans of red bulls could ever do.

Andy really came through with a hot cup of coffee and two of the legendary bratwurst prepared by Hermann residents. Nothing has ever hit the spot at 6am like those brats. I was further reassured in my decision to stop at Chamois the night before, as I saw quite a few paddlers who had pushed on to Hermann and were either still sleeping, or slowly emerging and getting ready to set out. With a few hours of paddling under my belt for the day, I quickly got back in the boat and set of on this very familiar home stretch.

The final stop I was planning for the race was New Haven, 20 miles from Hermann. Of course New Haven has become somewhat of a river home for me, where Shane and Stacy operate PaddleStop, where Shane crafts his amazing boards and boats and where I’ve gotten to know quite a few members of the community. Sara had also coordinated with my parents, who were going to greet me at the ramp. I pulled in and stuck around for 15 minutes, catching up with Shane, Stacy and my mom and dad.

Buoyed by the energy of seeing loved ones, I got back on the river and was cruising. I began to do the math in my head, and was quickly realizing a sub-60 time was nearly assured, just being a matter of how far below 60 it would be. I blew past Washington and approached the final checkpoint at Klondike, where Andy was waiting to see if I needed anything. From a distance, I gave him a thumbs up and pointed downriver, I was gonna go for the finish. As I passed Klondike, I noticed another paddler getting into his boat, a wooden strip solo canoe. This was the first time I’d seen another wooden boat during the race. In addition to the standard divisions in the race, other unofficial categories have developed over the years. The most noteworthy of which is the Unofficial Aluminum Boat Division. Shane had half-seriously considered starting a wooden boat division, even going so far as the begin working on a trophy. So when I saw this guy getting in his boat at Klondike, my competitive juices started to flow just a bit. I dropped the hammer and increased my speed, wanting to put distance between me and this guy should he get any ideas of catching up. As I approached Weldon Spring, I looked back and there he was. He’d kept up, even closing the distance. We both caught up to a pedal drive Hobie and talked to the friendly guy for a while. At one point, the other wood boat guy said ‘Good luck, guys’ and took off. I chatted with the Hobie guy for a bit longer before excusing myself to keep the wooden boat within sight.

We approached the highway 40/64 bridge and I was doing my best to keep up. This guy was absolutely cruising. We were back to doing close to 8.5 mph. I expected to bonk at any moment, eating an apple and pounding a red bull to keep my energy up. I kept him within sight, though I was starting to resign myself to finishing just a few minutes behind this guy in what I suspected was the first wooden boat to finish. As we approached the Creve Coeur power plant, I noticed he sort of stopped paddling. Catching up to him, I gave him kudos for keeping such a pace. He then told me he’d re-injured his arm and that I could finish the race uncontested, as he had to slow down. I made sure he was going to be ok and bid him farewell. The adrenaline of the final ten miles or so kept my spirits up and I passed another tandem canoe as I made my way under the final two bridges. I sprinted into the finish just after 4:30pm, finishing in 57:37.

Shockingly, I was pretty sure-footed getting out of the boat and greeting my support crew and friends. I feel like I had more energy than at the finish of any of my other 340s, likely due to finishing in daylight on day 2, as opposed to a late night finish. I grabbed a cold beer and enjoyed the sweet nectar, then grabbed a second one. When the wooden boat approached the finish, I let him get his footing, then handed the wooden boat dude Keith Sappington his well-deserved beer. I congratulated him and thanked him for motivating me to a strong finish. He’d built his boat himself, and I believe there is a higher level of accomplishment upon finishing a MR340 in a boat you built yourself. Well done, Keith!

Summary: Considering overall conditions experienced during the race this week, I don’t feel I will ever finish a 340 faster or with more success than this one. I feel like I maxed out my physical and mental capabilities and I feel satisfied with the result. I certainly had down moments, but they seemed fewer and shorter than in years past. It is absolutely true that every time you do this race, you may learn one important lesson, or 100 small lessons that will make your experience even better the next time. I’ve learned from countless other paddlers little tips and tricks to be successful and I hope to pass along those same things to anyone willing to listen. The sense of accomplishment to anyone who even gets on the starting line of this race, let alone finishing, should not be take lightly. It’s an amazing thing to even consider doing, and I love the community of river rats from one end of the state to the other.

Congratulations to the starters, the finishers and a massive thank you to the real MVPs of the 340: the volunteers, race management and ground crews who make this whole crazy thing happen. Matt, Sara and Andy, you guys are incredible and I truly appreciate you being there for the whims of a mad man. Special thanks to Shane and Stacy at PaddleStop New Haven for the boat and your amazing support on my stupid adventures.

See you on the river!

mf

 

 

 

 

 

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