Support the Big Muddy

The Kawnivore-

Why not start the week of an ultra endurance race by backpacking in the Rockies of Colorado?  The thought of rest and relaxation prior to the race never really entered our minds.  We had secured the entire week from work for the MR 340, but now that the 340 was being replaced with the Kawnivore, we had Monday through Thursday to fill with another adventure.   We traveled with Josh’s parents to Rocky Mountain National Park and squeezed in a 3 day backpacking trip ending on the Thursday before the race.  The mountain air offered us the rejuvenation we had been looking for and camping at around 11,000 feet provided us a morning of 30 something temperatures, and an afternoon high of around 80.  Absolutely beautiful.   It was a wonderful trip, but probably the worst way to prepare for the heat wave as we re-entered Kansas on Thursday afternoon with a heat index of 106! 

We touched base over the phone with our crew Thursday afternoon.  Melanie Cheney, John Brady, Steve Schnaar, and Jeff Barrow- also serving as safety boats, check point assistance, film crew, and our ground crew.  Despite the uneasiness that was beginning to build as we questioned whether or not we can do this, we knew we had one stellar ground crew.  The nervousness began to set in as we woke up Friday morning stiff from the 3 days of backpacking. 

We arrived in Manhattan Friday afternoon.  The streets were filled with vehicles carrying canoes and kayaks of every dimension.  We felt a little strange; coming from Colorado we had no boat, paddles, or gear of any kind for the race.  Our ground crew was to meet us hauling everything we hoped we needed.  Until now, surrounded by boats and other racers, the reality that we are doing this race still had not completely sunk in. 

We checked in and had time for a big lunch of pasta and pizza at the Old Chicago, then it was off to the safety meeting down the street at the Wareham Theater.  Strolling down the street we caught a glimpse of the river relief van with our canoe strapped to the top.  We had a boat, and an exciting nervous feeling came creeping down my chest.  I turned to look at Sarah and recognized the expression on her face.  I have seen that look many times before.  A calm and reassuring smile; with an excited expression saying…….Let’s Do This!

There were bodies sprawled all over the cool floor of the large theater; racers looking for the last opportunity to get a little rest.  We began with a moment of silence for a fellow paddler that had tragically died training on the river the week prior to the race.  The paddler took his boat through a notch in a low water dam near Topeka.  This spot had claimed multiple lives from the nasty hydraulics through the notch.  It was a mandatory portage, and a point in the race not to be taken lightly. 

We were welcomed to Kansas with a few presentations from speakers around the area, and a  safety video made by Jodi Pfefferkorn showing racers gliding effortlessly down the Missouri River……kind of like a slap in the face for what we were about to endure.   The shallow braided channels of the Kaw weaved through a maze of sandbars.  Every mile of this river would have to be earned, and we knew it!     

With the adjourning of the safety meeting we met with our crew for a quick powwow, our first face to face organizational meeting of the entire trip.  Making our way down to the start of the race, I noticed the outside temperature read 106.  I cranked up the AC in the car, trying to stamp into memory the feeling of cool air blowing in my face.  The parking lot was packed with boats of every caliber ranging from long slender light weight racing kayaks, aluminum canoes, handcrafted wooden boats, and stand up paddle boards; boats varying in size and capacity of 1-8 people.  Our Kevlar Wenonah Escape falls neatly in the middle. It’s not a racing canoe, but designed for wilderness excursions.  Its light weight is ideal for portaging in places like the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, but it also offers speed and maneuverability, features that we hoped would come in handy on this river.  Walking around the boat ramp was interesting to say the least.  Every paddler has their own unique system and set up.  From lights, seats, cushions, camera systems, paddles, to water jugs, food, energy drinks and bars and clothing. It was as diverse as anything I had ever seen.   Our boat had one small cooler for some fruit, protein bars, and soup in a cup along with pockets to hold sunscreen, headlamps, Ibuprofen and a small roll of Tums.  We each had a gallon water jug with tubing and a camelback nozzle that allowed us to drink hands free.  Sarah had asked me before the race if a gallon each would be enough water.  It was only twenty miles to the first checkpoint where we could resupply from our ground crew.  I was sure at the time we wouldn’t drink a gallon of water in twenty miles.      

With ten minutes to go before race time, we pulled the loaded boat down to the starting line.  All the racers were lined up under a bridge, soaking in the last remnants of shade.  A boat pulled next to us with two guys we had met a few times on the Missouri River.  Asking how much we trained for this, we laughed with our reply of “very little”, knowing that we really had not trained at all.  With a sarcastic tone, the man said “you really think you can finish this without training?”  I shrugged my shoulders, and Sarah responded with “It will be a good test of the mind and body, but I believe where there is a will, there is a way.” 


With a huge blast from an antique cannon, we were off.  It was chaotic at first, all the boats racing to spread a little initial distance.  We were speared by a tandem kayak that for some reason was moving horizontal to the flow.  I back stroked hard to prevent them from tipping us and made the decision to let the pack thin out before we continued on.  Just in front of us, a tandem canoe flipped over.  Two older men were scrambling to collect their things and hold on to their water filled boat.  We felt bad that we couldn’t stop to assist, but the traffic of boats was pushing us downstream.  Within a few hundred yards a line of boats had formed and we took our place in the middle of the pack, paddling at a much brisker pace than we originally planned. 

We passed quite a few boats in the first few miles, but we could see the separation from the front of the pack.  We were moving at a faster pace than anticipated but the gps (rigged to the thwart ) was showing a mere 5.5 mph.  One mile had passed, only 93 to go… or so we thought. 

The extremely low water created alternating sandbars along the shoreline that prevented anyone from paddling straight down the river.  On any other trip we would have felt blessed to have such beautiful and long sandbars, but as we weaved and crossed, and crossed back again, like a snake working its way downstream, we began to hate the site of them. 

The first twenty miles went by quickly.  We passed some people; some people passed us.  The two old men that had tipped at the start had caught up to us just a few miles from Wamego, the first check point.  Their boat number was 7571, which they told us was their age.  We were in shock.  It was inspiring to see someone of their age paddling in this heat, and doing such a great job.  They continued on, and we wondered if we would see them again.   The sun was beginning to set, and the sky was absolutely gorgeous.  We were both having a really enjoyable time.      

Within a mile from Wamego (the first check point), we saw a men’s tandem team in a red canoe very similar to ours.  We pushed hard to catch them, as Sarah was enjoying the feeling of passing men’s teams.  As we passed them, their motivation kicked in, increasing their paddling strokes, and we stayed together as we pulled up to the stop.  When we arrived our ground crew and parents were right there to provide us anything we needed.  Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), Josh was out of water!  As we topped off our jugs, we devoured hot dogs that our crew had purchased from a local group working the checkpoint.   I believe I ate one of the hot dogs in three bites.   We rigged the lighting system we had made for the boat.  A stern pole made from a pvc pipe and a peanut butter jar with an led push light inside, a bow and stern light with two mag lights draping across the sides, and a small spotlight, that would later prove to be the most valuable thing on board.   In less than ten minutes from pulling into Wamego, we were back on the water, paddling downstream.     

We were twenty five miles into the race when I noticed a slight nauseating feeling.  Perhaps it was the heat, or the hot dogs.  Just the thought of the hot dogs made my whole body cringe.  I hate hot dogs!  I will never fully understand why I decided to eat hot dogs during an endurance race like this and now I was suffering.  I hadn’t stopped paddling, but I was getting dizzy.  Sarah was motivating me with encouragement, but the feeling of dropping out stabbed me like a knife.  I didn’t think I could go on.  I was belching with every paddle stroke and the nausea was getting worse.  I stopped paddling for a second, but the guilt and the thought of not being able to finish was worse than the nausea.  A few paddle strokes later I felt the re-emergence of the hot dogs.   I threw up along the outside of the canoe between paddle strokes.  A few more minutes of paddling, I threw up again.  This reoccurrence continued about 4 more times.  I shined the light at the gps, and Sarah had increased the intensity that she had been paddling to hold us at 4.5 mph, while trying to convince me to rest.   Miraculously, I was beginning to feel much better.  I was worried about dehydration from losing all my water, especially since the night time temperature was still very warm.  We kept splashing water on ourselves to keep cool, constantly sipping on water, and never stopped paddling. 

Navigating through the night was extremely difficult.  The channel tended to stay on the outside edge of the bend, where logs and rocks waited to gouge the unexpected paddler.  Sarah would shine the spot light for a brief second, and then make a call.  “Left, let’s go left” and I would steer hard to the left.  We could barely make out the shadowed outline of the larger sandbars but the smaller ones were impossible to see without the light.  Faster boats would pass us only to get swamped on a sandbar.  Our plan for the night portion of the race was to follow other racers and watch the direction of their stern lights, but soon we found ourselves at the head of our little pack.  Many faster boats were slowing down to stay behind us.  Our system of using the spot light to quickly make a decision was growing efficient.  

The night was long, and eventually we left all but one boat behind us and no boats could be seen in front of us.  We paddled on, periodically hearing the scraping sound of the sandbars emerging beneath us.  We would hop out, drag across, and jump back in; over and over and over again.  Occasionally we would approach the lights of another boat.  It was quiet, and the silence of approaching other boats produced a mysterious feeling.  Within speaking distance, a question of “is everything all right” would be answered with “yes, we’re alright” or “just taking a break”; the dim lights of the boat fading in the distance.     

Still worried about being dehydrated from earlier, I was drinking a lot of water.  We were not supposed to meet our ground crew until Topeka, which was 40 miles from the last stop.  Maple Hill was the next checkpoint, but we were told it was not very accessible to ground crews.  About five miles from Maple Hill I heard the slurping sound of my camelback tube searching for water.  My water jug was empty.  Sarah had about a quarter of her jug left, and we had 25 miles until we were supposed to meet our ground crew again.  This was a serious concern.   I wasn’t sure how hard we could paddle without water, especially since the night time temperature had not cooled down very much. 

We met a girl paddling a solo kayak that was having a very difficult time navigating through the darkness.  She did not hesitate to pull behind us, paddling hard to stay with us.  She was doing a great job.  We couldn’t see anyone’s faces, just a shadow from the dim stern lights.  We talked to help pass the time, but mostly we just kept paddling.

As we approached Maple Hill, I saw Mel standing on the bank waving and cheering us in.  A huge relief poured over us.  We had the best ground crew ever!  They found their way down the difficult access, and not only saved us, but many other paddlers before us needing water and supplies.  While we were stopped to fill up, the girl that had been following us continued on.  Only stopping for a few minutes, we grabbed what we needed.  It was nearly 2 a.m. and we had twenty more miles until Topeka and the mandatory portage.  We pulled out of the checkpoint in a pack of 10-15 boats.  We were all paddling together for about 20 minutes, when I noticed a boat with a blinking stern light on the opposite side of the river, where there was hardly any water.  The only boat we had seen with a blinking stern light had been the girl following us earlier.  She was having problems navigating again, and was pulling her boat across the sand.  The river was bending in her direction giving us the opportunity to paddle near her.  She did not hesitate to jump behind us again, never saying much, just silently following us.  Continuing on, we came across a boat stuck in the sand, the paddlers looked tired and unmotivated to get out and push their swamped craft.  It was the two men at the beginning of the race who doubted anyone’s ability to finish without training.  We waved and asked if they were ok.  Their frustration seemed to build as they saw us cruise nearly effortlessly by.  Sarah was becoming very efficient at reading the river, and we were cruising along with very minimal walking.  Occasionally, when we did get beached on a sandbar, Sarah would jump out and grab the rope to start pulling, when she would notice me standing off in the distance.  I was consuming a lot of water from fear of cramping or dehydrating, and it was running straight through my system.  Every opportunity I had to get out of the boat, I took it.  Within a few seconds I would sprint back to the boat to help push and jump back in.    

As the night continued, I looked back and noticed we pulled ahead of the pack.  Only two boats remained behind us.  The girl and a solo male kayaker that had caught up with us and was apparently a friend to the girl.  The couple followed us through the night, often complimenting our ability to read the river through the darkness.  Phrases such as “log on the left” or “rock” became so familiar they would be yelled and reacted to in the middle of a sentence with little interruption of thought.   We saw multiple shooting stars, a rising orange moon, fireflies, and the shadows of the trees dancing across the dark water. 

We followed the blinking lights of a radio tower for what seemed to be over 4 hours.  We finally approached it as the light of dawn appeared over the horizon.  We began noticing buildings and could see the waving flag designating a checkpoint, the Topeka portage.  We had survived the night.  The girl in the kayak was looking very tired.  We had determined she was in third place, and just before the checkpoint we came across a woman solo sleeping on a sandbar.  This put her in second place.  As we passed, I looked back to see the resting woman climb in her boat to continue on.  


Our ground crew was waiting to cheer us on at the ramp to portage around the low head dam.  Wet cold towels, breakfast burritos, water, Gatorade, everything we needed but never asked for.  A fantastic crew!  We dismantled our lighting equipment and carried the boat around.  I went back to help the other kayakers that had been paddling with us.  The girl was looking extremely tired and I wondered if she was going to continue.  We spent another 10 minutes at this checkpoint.  Sarah was bouncing up and down saying, “let’s go, let’s do this and get it done!!”  Looking around, I couldn’t see the kayakers.  I wanted to let them know we were leaving, but couldn’t sacrifice the time to look for them.  We pushed off, and paddled on downstream.

The thought of what place we were in never crossed our mind.  I had only seen one mixed tandem in front of us that pulled ahead when I was sick after Wamego.  I knew there were two fast teams that I assumed were in front of that boat, so a rough guess was fourth, but we rarely thought of it, or mentioned it to each other if we did.  Our goal was to finish the race.  Coming around the bend after Topeka, we saw a red men’s tandem canoe.  It was the same canoe we struggled to pass right before the first checkpoint.  Somehow they had gotten in front of us.  It was just what we needed, a short term goal.  As we were paddling to catch them, a men’s tandem was coming up from behind us, paddling a very fast pace.  As their boat passed our left side we saw it was the old men that had tipped from the beginning (boat 7571).  They must have gotten some rest, but were back at it.  We said hello again as they cruised by us, and we followed their pace to pull around the red boat.  After a while, the old men pulled away from us.  We were inspired at the pace they could hold, proving that even at their age, anything is achievable.  Sarah mentioned again that she would like to finish behind them, and we hoped we would see them at the finish line.

Eleven miles later we passed the Tecumseh low water dam, the last checkpoint.  Only twenty miles left in the race.  We hadn’t seen a boat in quite a while, but around the bend we came across the old men taking a break. “See you downstream” we said as we passed them.  We were sure they would catch us again at some point.  Another kayak was in the distance behind us, but gaining on us.  We thought it could be the man who followed us through the night, and perhaps the girl dropped out.  But as he came closer, we realized we had never seen him before.  A bad directional call left us beached on a small sandbar concealed under the water.  The solo kayaker avoided it, and as he passed, Sarah exclaimed “Only 20 miles to go!!”

“What?!!” the man replied, as if very shocked. We assumed he knew how much further he had to go.  But his disappointment was very obvious.   He pulled ahead of us as I used the opportunity of the beached canoe to continue my routine from the night.  We pushed off the sandbar and paddled around the bend where the man was out of his boat lying in the water.  He waved at us, and we laughed.  Apparently he didn’t know how much further he had to go and decided he needed a break.  The sun was back out and bearing down on us.  We avoided the heat by splashing water when we could, but the sweat was consistently rolling down our face.  I had forgotten my sunglasses at the last checkpoint, so I kept my head down when the sun was directly in front of us.  It wasn’t long until the old men came from out of the distance, passing us again and cruising out of sight.  We were again impressed at how fast of a pace they could maintain, as we had not stopped paddling for hardly one stroke, yet they would leave us like we were standing still.  We tried to keep up, but they were too fast, and we watched as they slowly drifted out of sight.   

 An hour had passed by since we last seen the old men or any other boat and we felt like we were slowing down significantly.  We were hot, hungry, and tired.  So tired.  At this point our paddle stokes were thoughtless movements and we felt as if we were floating to the finish line.  With no boats in sight, it was difficult to keep paddling.  Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed a boat catching up to us.  It was the two men in the red canoe.  Not wanting to be caught by them, we found a little motivation to paddle harder.  A few more miles and it appeared as if they were still catching up.  I crammed a protein bar in my mouth while paddling and searched for the energy to paddle harder.  Around the next bend, I found the motivation I was looking for.  A boat was floating along the far side of the river.  We made a goal to catch this boat, thinking it could be the old men.  As we grew closer we noticed two other boats in the distance.  I strained my eyes to see the boat closest to us.  We were still a hundred yards away, but I thought I could recognize it.  “It’s a mixed tandem” I said, “that could be the third place boat.”  This was the first time either of us had mentioned the word “place.”  We struggled and paddled harder until we could clearly see that it was the other mixed tandem.

 “We are going to need a plan if we expect to pass them” I said. 
I knew they had a faster boat and were more experienced paddlers.   So we decided to close as much distance as possible while staying behind them, until we could muster the energy to fly by without looking tired.  But as we got closer, we decided to just pass them while we could.  When we approached, the paddler yelled to us that he had knocked a hole in his boat last night.  It was patched but leaking.  We knew this was the only reason we had caught up to them.  They were still paddling well, and there was a chance that they could beat us even with a leaking boat.  We didn’t want to take any chances.   We kept paddling at a faster pace.  When we went under a bridge, we knew we had ten miles left in the race, and anything could happen.  I saw our ground crew waiving at us from under the bridge.  It wasn’t a checkpoint, but they found a way to get down there to see if we needed anything, and they had my sunglasses.  But if we stopped, our chance at third place would likely be gone, so we cranked up the pace, pausing only a second to waive as we cruised by.  We knew that reading the river wrong could lose any gap we created.  We had witnessed boats fly by us and we have flown by other boats from choosing the wrong route in the river.  I assumed the other mixed tandem was experienced at reading the river, as I knew them to be very experienced racers, which added to the pressure for us to paddle faster.   

Our pace was strong, quickly catching the next boat.  It was another men’s tandem, who appeared to be very tired.  We smiled and commented about it being a beautiful day as we passed by, somehow feeling very strong.  I glanced back to see them pulling to shore.  I think we may have killed their morale.  The mixed tandem was still closely behind us when we hit what we hoped we wouldn’t; a hidden sandbar.    The boat screeched to a stop.  I got out and pushed as I ran beside the canoe until it was free and I could jump back in.  The other mixed tandem missed the hidden sandbar and closed the gap that we worked so hard to gain.  “If we keep this up we’re in trouble” I said.  If it comes to a sprint at the finish, I just knew their faster boat, even though it was leaking, could potentially beat us.  Setting our sights for the next boat, we paddled harder, again trying to separate us from the other mixed tandem.  As we gained a little ground, we could see the boat in front of us was the old men.  We knew they had a faster pace than we had been able to keep, but we struggled harder to keep with them.  What we should have learned much earlier in the race was they were excellent at navigating the river.  We followed their every move as they crossed the river back and forth, weaving through the sandbars.  It appeared this route would be much slower as we weaved across, but there was a current to be found, and if you could stay in it, there was an amazing difference.    

It was working, we were pulling ahead.  We were a few hundred yards in front of the mixed tandem and the red canoe we were worried about was nowhere in sight.  We kept pace with the old men, but they were growing tired as well.  They were pulling to a stop when they finally noticed us behind them.  A rather surprised look was on their face as we said hello again.  Surely wondering how our steady pace was able to catch back up to them.  Apparently they changed their mind from stopping to break and continued to paddle.  We wanted them in front of us, as they were much better at navigating where the best current was.  We eased up and asked if they want around us.  Again shocked, they didn’t say much, but pulled around us.  We followed them, with only three miles left to go.  We were able to keep the fast pace despite a horrific head wind along the remaining miles.  I ran out of water and was sweating profusely, but I knew we had to keep going.  My stomach was cramping and I could barely paddle on the right side from a cramp under my arm.  When we got to a point where I thought we could see the finish line, I glanced over my shoulder to see where the other teams were.   It was a long stretch of river, but not a single boat was in sight.  We did it.  Slightly giving in to the cramps, we let up; cruising the last 100 yards while watching the old men pull ahead once more.  The 94 mile course was over 96 total miles after having to traverse across the river and through the sandbars; and it had ended in a full out sprint.  We finished just as Sarah had wanted back at mile 15, right behind the old men.

Our ground crew and my parents were waiting for us at the finish line.  We pulled in and climbed out of the boat.  The first question someone asked us was if we were still married.  What a crazy question.   We never doubted each other once and provided more encouragement than anyone could have given each other.  We just looked at each other and said of course.   Sarah looked at me and with a smile and said “we did it……….what’s next”?                 

We were right about the assumption.  We placed third in our division.  The next boat behind us came in 30 minutes later.  An hour and a half later, the woman kayaker that had followed us through the night pulled into the finish line.  She placed second in her division.  Nearly 35 boats had to drop from the race for a variety of reasons.  We were almost one of them, but our positive attitudes, patience with each other, encouragement, motivation, and the will to drive on pulled us through.  Not to mention having one heck of a ground crew.  We finished the race better than we had hoped, proving that anything is achievable, if you have the will to do it.