Race Report – MR140 – Two Paddles Canoe and Kayak Races – June 10-12, 2022
Boat #1007 (Current Designs Nomad) – Paddle Stop New Haven, 19:57:00, 4th place solo men’s unlimited kayak, 10th overall (42 boats started)
As soon as I saw this race posted on the various paddling groups I frequent, I knew it was a race I wanted to do. I’ve paddled many miles on the Mississippi closer to St. Louis, but never up north. Scott Miller, one of the race organizers, is a guy I know through the paddling community and had the chance to paddle a few miles with his 2020 Mississippi Speed Record team when they passed through just above St. Louis. Plus, this would be a great tune-up for my 6th MR340 this coming July.
The biggest decision I had going into the race was boat choice. It was between the Current Designs Nomad, an 18-foot expedition/touring boat that would be plenty comfortable, stable in any waves or chop, and capable of carrying plenty of needed gear. My other choice was a relatively new-to-me Epic v7 surfski, which I knew would be faster, but more exposed, more chance of dumping me in the water, and capable of carrying much less. (Going in, I didn’t know if I’d be able to arrange dedicated support during the race.) One other factor was weather. With projected night temps in the low 50s, I decided the closed cockpit would provide better warmth and comfort while paddling all night.
I did a little bit of research on the race course ahead of time, studying the Mississippi Water Trail PDFs, google maps, and a few Youtube videos of some of the rapids and portages. I tend not to be too religious about race prep, kind of just get out there and see what happens…
I loaded up and drove from St. Louis to the St. Paul area on Thursday morning before the 5pm Friday start. I met up with some friends Bill and Jeff Behrns, Bill also paddling in the 140 with accomplished paddle racer Jeff faithfully supporting his dad.
Friday morning, after a massive IHOP breakfast calorie load, we headed towards the start in Brainerd. We planned to scout a few of the portages and checked out the Sauk Rapids takeout and put-in, as well as the Blanchard Dam portage. It would have been nice to have a bit more time to see more of the choke points, but we felt these were likely the most challenging spots. We arrived before the end of check-in at 2:30 and had plenty of time to organize gear/boats and attend the 3:30 safety meeting. I even had a spare few minutes to walk up to Casey’s for some final carb loading.
With all boats on the water and the 5pm start approaching, we all lined up off the beach of Rice Lake, facing a quick 1.5 mile sprint to the first portage at Brainerd Dam. Scott sounded the siren from a local waterski club’s boat commandeered for the occasion and we took off. My past experience of mass MR340 starts had me on the outside edges of the pack and out of the morass of flying paddles, wayward boats and disturbed water, but turns out, 42 boats taking off is less of a spectacle than 400 boats. Nevertheless, I quickly got up to my normal Tuesday night 5k race pace, pretty much all out paddling. I raced on the edge of the pack, and settled into the top 10 boats. Approaching the steep takeout at Brainerd Dam, I saw a few others ahead of me struggle to keep footing when exiting their boats and trying to quickly pull their boats up the quickly muddying bank. When it was my turn, I very ungracefully hopped out, only to catch a foot on my cockpit lip, fall over my head-first into the water, with my kayak tipping over on top of me. I’m sure it was a funny spectacle to those behind me, but my level of caring was around zero this early in the race and I just laughed it off. I quickly pulled my boat to level ground, emptied the river water, remounted my two wayward bananas, loaded my boat on my C-Tug cart for the short portage and was off.
I patiently waited in line to get back in the water and was soon off. Over the next couple dozen miles, I paddled with a handful of friendly folks, Luke in a nice wooden kayak, a couple Wisconsin gentlemen in a Minn 2, Brooke from Oklahoma and a few others.
Though my career is in technology, I tend to paddle the rivers pretty low tech, stowing my phone in a PFD pocket or deck back, only accessing it to occasionally check the map or change up a playlist or podcast (a small waterproof Bluetooth speaker is required gear on long-ish paddles). I also wear a $50 Amazfit watch that provides me with speed, time, distance travelled and heart rate. Due to my lack of technology, I soon realized I may be at a disadvantage as the course passed through several areas of islands and distinct channels/splits. With the river level relatively high, there was no danger of running aground in a bad channel, but there were certainly channels that had slower currents or were not the most efficient route distance-wise.
Luckily, I soon settled into paddling with Brooke and the first-place SUP paddler Brad from Winnipeg. Both told me they were tracking the channel on their devices so I tried to follow their lead as much as possible. I also did not know how many miles it was between these portages (39.5), also information that they were happy to provide. Several times, Brad pulled in right behind me just off my rudder to draft and use my wake to lower his effort. I was happy to provide a small assist as we talked about paddling in Canada, his upcoming Yukon 1000 race and my sales pitch for the MR340.
During this time, we also paddled by Camp Ripley, apparently a pretty active military base. The far off echo of artillery provided an interesting audio backdrop, and at 9pm, Taps was played from the base PA system, pretty cool.
As Brooke, Brad and I approached the second portage at Little Falls, we got a bit separated, and I soon found my wing paddle scraping the mud and sand of a super wide channel. I struggled to get off the shallows and back into the deeper channel. We spotted some people up on the bridge with a red light who directed us under the bridge to the take-out within spitting distance of the water rushing over the dam.
I hopped out and carted up and was greeted by Jeff and good friend Bernie Arnold, who was also up from St. Louis for the weekend as a race volunteer. Luckily, Bernie’s responsibilities didn’t start til Saturday night, so he pretty much served as my support for the rest of the race. (Bernie – thank you so much, you are an absolute beast!) I quickly filled a water bottle and dropped 2 Nuun tabs (with caffeine!) into it for the long night ahead. I quickly carted down the hill to the put in and shoved off right behind Brad’s SUP. A strong eddy below the dam threatened to push paddlers back into the raging waves, but a minute of hard paddling got me down to the bottom of the eddy and back into the foamy current.
The next section was 9 miles of mostly slack water. Finding myself alone for a good distance, I put on a couple podcasts and kind of zoned out with some steady paddling. After an hour, I started to hit it much harder, and soon caught up to and passed Brad right as we got to Blanchard Dam – around midnight.
After scouting the challenging Blanchard portage earlier in the day, as well as having seen a YouTube video, I quickly carted up and took off down the gravel road, passing a few race volunteers hanging out at a bonfire. I struggled mightily pulling my kayak up the steep bank with inconveniently located stairs. I managed to separate my boat from my wheels and completely flip it over. Cursing my situation, who else appears but Bernie! I told him to go ahead and drive down to meet me at the put in, while I negotiated the rest of the mosquito-ridden portage, only flipping my boat one additional time.
I met Bernie at the put in, grabbed a few food items, a water refill, and switched to a higher backed-PFD than my Astral Green jacket that I started with. At the Blanchard put-in, I struggled to get out into the crashing waves, totally swamping my cockpit and again soaking me in the process. While I contemplated donning the skirt I brought along, in hindsight it wasn’t too bad emptying the cockpit with my plastic bail cup/toilet and sponge.
The next section was a bit of a blur – 24 miles of middle of the night paddling. Brad and I paddled together a lot, then he or I would stop for a drink or a bite, then the other would catch back up, and so on. I again relied here and there on Brad’s direction, or managed to keep an eye on a small red light he had on the back of his PFD. As long as I stayed within eyesight, I could see where he was heading and faithfully follow. At one point, I was ahead of Brad, and soon found myself passing under a surprisingly low bridge. I almost hit a bank of rocks (and a spooked family of Canadian Geese) before flipping on my headlamp at the last second. When I went under the bridge, I saw lights and heard yelling behind me. Momentarily confused, I realized Brad, and another canoe, I think, were calling me back. Sure enough, I was heading up a dead end. I quickly U turned back into the channel and caught back up.
Eventually, we made our way to the Sartell Dam portage, with the flashing red light not appearing around the corner seemingly til last second – around 4am. At the portage, I met Bernie, loaded up and walked down the road with a guy who’d been ahead of me in an Epic v10. It started to rain and picked up quickly during the walk. With faint traces of the coming day in the sky, an awesome volunteer at the put in offered me a coffee. She told me to add a scoop or two of powdered Starbucks to some amazingly hot water. It may have only been caffeine, but it was probably a huge amount of it, because I was getting a good buzz on for the next few hours.
I sprinted the short two miles from Sartell to the Sauk Rapids take-out, loading up for the 1.2 mile portage at 5am in steady rain. With a choice playlist going, I really enjoyed being in that particular moment, pulling a kayak on wheels on a road next to the river, heading towards the rapids, this was my paddlers high, ironically while not paddling, and I took my only photo (selfie) of my race.
I put in just after Brad and the v10 and watched them negotiate the rough water of the lower Sauk Rapids. I chose not to follow their path, paddling hard to river right to avoid the roughest water. My adrenaline was pulsing and I did not realize, it was only a short three mile paddle to the final!! portage at St. Cloud.
I loaded up, then was horrified at the staircase down to the water at the put-in with several twists and no cart to help. I think I avoided any serious gashes on my delicate hull. I put back in the water between two wading fishermen, one of whom snapped a photo as I took off. (At this point, I did break down my cart into pieces and stowed it away in my hatches, having strapped it to my deck fully assembled up to this point in the race.) Nothing but 60 miles of paddling open water to the finish!
The rain soon tapered off, the sun eventually came out, my mind fog burned off a bit and I began to dry out. I again teamed up with Brad, and certainly appreciated his navigation assist at some island chains and channels along the way. We were cranking pretty good, averaging around 7.5 to 8mph. We padded by Clearwater Access, the start of the soon to follow 48 mile race. I saw Bernie waiting there, and yelled to him that all was good and to meet me at the finish. I give huge credit to Bernie for not listening to me, because with around 25 miles left in the race, I started to notice my water supply getting low. I wasn’t panicking, but I was starting to ration a bit, slowing down on my water intake. I noticed my heart rate getting pretty high up, into the 180s. When I drank more water, I noticed it going back down. I deduced I was getting dehydrated and needed to do something if I was going to finish.
Rounding a fast bend in the river to Norin Access, who else do I see but Bernie on the shore, a sight for sore eyes and a thirsty throat. He threw me a spare camelback full of water and I was off again. This was the last I saw of Brad til the finish line. I really paddled hard the last 20 miles. In my mind, I was doing mental math on my place in the race. I searched my memory of the first mile of the race sprinting toward the dam, trying to picture what other solo kayaks were ahead of me. I think it was like 4 or 5. Then I think I passed 2 or 4 overnight. Or maybe 5? Could I be in first place? I’m sure I’m not, but I’m probably top 3, and top 3 get a trophy! Bam – that’s solid motivation.
I paddled the seemingly endless bends approaching Elk River and the eventual finish. I finally saw the last bridge and paddled out to the middle for an extra-wide landing into the finish just before 1pm. I soon found out I was the 4th solo kayaker to finish, just missing a trophy. Brad came in about 10 minutes behind me, and I congratulated him on an epic feat on a SUP and a great overall race. Thanks for being a great paddling partner, sir!
Lessons Learned/Race Feedback
Overall, this was a great experience. It was well organized and volunteers throughout the race and after were super friendly and helpful. I really liked the 5pm start time. And the portages interspersed throughout the race were a nice break to the monotony of endless hours of repetitive motion paddling (hello MR340!). I looked forward to each portage to change the set of muscles I was using, and to stretch and rest a bit.
I might suggest adjusting the timing of the check in/race logistics for Friday. Allowing a later check in, more efficient safety briefing would allow paddlers to take more time scouting some of the course, or even to get some valuable sleep-late (or travel) time that morning. Also, it would be cool to coordinate the shorter races with the 140, so paddlers of all distances get more contact and experience paddling together. (Though I know that was the intent, and there were a lot of fast paddlers on the 140, higher/faster water, etc.) Generally, if the events could be compressed a bit more, including the post-race party, I know more people would stick around after they’d finished the long race a day earlier. But it worked out well nonetheless, I’m very glad I stuck around for the party!
My nutrition/hydration left a lot to be desired, and I likely would have been worse off on a longer race, say 340 miles or so. I had some turkey jerky sticks which I occasionally snacked on, and a few bananas here and there, but my only other calorie consumption was some protein/meal replacement drinks, which certainly did the job. I supplemented calorie intake with more chemical remedies, such as caffeine, nicotine pouches for appetite suppressant and alertness (I know, nasty vice), and two rounds of Ibuprofen for sore muscles. I drank water and Nuun mix throughout the race, but should have been drinking more and planned re-supplies better. Always better to have pre-arranged race support with detailed plans (though that’s not often a luxury I have, especially on a race 9 hours from home!)
When I race on the Missouri, I am always sure to stay in the channel where the fast water is. Even though I don’t use technology to keep me there (ProPaddler App – shout out Jon Marble!!), I’ve got a few thousand miles of paddling under my belt on that river, so I like to think I can spot where the fast water is. I went into this race with the same mindset. But after a dozen miles or so, I realized this river doesn’t behave like the behemoths further downstream. I found very little variance in speed in different spots within the main channel, and following the lead of other paddlers, soon adopted more of a point to point route, vs. looping around the outside of curves.
Anyway, thanks Bernie, thanks Jeff, thanks Scott Miller and all the race organizers and volunteers! I hope to be back next year with a larger contingent of Missouri area paddlers! See you on the river!