January 16, 2019

It’s 6:59 a.m. and I am at Kaw Point in Kansas City Missouri. Solo crafts are scattered about anxiously waiting to put months of planning and training to the test. 60 seconds…..tandem and group crafts are waiting back for their 8 am start. 30 seconds….I am surely not the only first timer asking myself “what did I get myself into?”……10 seconds….I glance at my GPS…… 0 miles and 340 left to go. 5….4….3…2…1.  As I take my first stroke I laugh, because really….what am I doing? 

Three months prior, back on Maui, I was talking to a buddy about the Yukon 1000 over a cup of joe. Yukon 1000 is a paddling race that takes competitors along the Yukon River in Canada for, you guessed it, 1000 miles. Will was online ordering equipment, and something struck a chord in me. I knew I wasn’t ready to face the wilderness and rapids for 1000 miles, but I wanted a taste of something long and adventurous. Will then began listing off a few endurance races around the U.S. and the MR340 jumped out at me. That night I went online, checked it out, and signed up.

First mistake. I had no boat, no ground crew, no plane ticket, no idea how I was going to pull it off. Here is when “knowing a guy” has its perks. My boyfriend John Puakea, owner of Puakea Designs had just come out with the new Kahele, an OC-1 that is 19 3/4 and I wanted nothing more than to race it in the MR340. What I didn’t know was that a kick-up rudder was required, and the Kahele only has a stern rudder. So after weeks of trial and error, John made it happen (why am I not surprised).

Now it was time to train, but where do I start? Luckily, I decided to spend the summer in Oregon where I grew up and was able to bring my race boat with me. The Willamette River was going to be my training grounds for the months of June and July. I found a course right out of Sellwood Park boat ramp, which allowed me to paddle 16-21 miles each training session. Funny that I grew up here and never took advantage of this beautiful stretch of water.

I’m  sure you’re asking yourself why I would only be training 16-21 miles at a time when I was going to be faced with 340 miles. Believe me, I was asking myself the same question. Although I had been doing my research on what kind of equipment I would need, and planning what food and hydration measures I was going to take, I really had no idea how much mileage was needed in order to train properly. I was also somewhat limited by the amount of time I had to train. I was going into this not knowing what to expect. I have done races in the 20-40 range in the past, so I was no stranger to long distance, but this race was going to be in a whole other bracket. I figured, if I could just do 40 miles about 9 times in 88 hours then training 16-20 miles would roughly give me an idea of what I was in for. Boy was I wrong. Maybe it is just the feeling of a first-time finisher (as MR340 veterans call it), but you can’t prepare yourself enough for something like this. 

As I began racing down the Missouri it was hard not to take off down the line and try to stay in front as soon as the gun went off. As the day progressed, I realized why people warn you not to do this. This year, the river was moving faster than usual at an average speed of 3-4 miles per hour because of the high-water level. In the beginning I was averaging roughly 9 mph at a stroke rate that I thought was sustainable. One quarter way through the race I realized that my body wasn’t going to allow me to maintain this speed the whole way through, As the race went on, I was going anywhere from 6-9 mph depending on the section of the river and whether I was positioned in the navigation channel. One disadvantage I  had was that I was navigating the Missouri by markers, (which I only learned how to read 1/3 of the way through the race), feel for the water, and ripples and texture on the surface. This was very hard to do at night, even with the full moon lighting part of the way.  

Along the river, I met many people with whom I had great conversations until the river miles came between us. There is something about the MR340 community that I will never forget, and that is their commitment to watch over each other. There are 6 mandatory checkpoints that you or your ground crew must check in to as you pass or stop. Since the race goes through various towns, there are hundreds of volunteers from all over the state helping to pull boats up on the shore, offer food and hydration, or just yell out positive encouragement. It really blew me away how much love and dedication goes into this event.

The first leg I paddled 20 hours before taking my 1-hour nap (7am to 3am). Paddling at night was a challenge because the river has wing dikes in various spots that you can often hear but not see. You couldn’t listen to music at night to keep you awake because you had to be able to hear what was coming ahead. Noises sound strange in the night, and in the darkness shadows come alive. I learned this all too well the second night when the hallucinations kicked in. There were plenty of times I wanted to pull over and wait for the sun to rise but I kept singing to myself and pressing on.

Waking up and getting back in the boat at 4am was like pulling teeth. Every inch of my body felt like it was caving in on me. My hands were crippling up and blistering and my backside was bruised and raw. This is where having an amazing ground crew is key. Having someone there to push you and tell you how amazing you are and that you can do this means the world. So as I got back in the boat and paddled into the darkness, I knew with every stroke I was leaving miles behind me. As the sun rose, the sky lit up like fire and gave me the power to press on.

Another 200, another 190, another 180 miles left is all you can think at this point, make it to the next checkpoint, and leave the last one behind. By the time I got through the daylight and the second night came upon me, the hallucinations I had been hearing about began. I must admit, I didn’t really believe all the stories of picnic tables rising from the river, or giant dog monsters with guns hidden amongst the trees, until it happened. It was around 3 am, after I had been paddling for about 40 hours on 1 hour of sleep, that the giant whirlpool (or at least what I thought was) arose. I started to doze off and had to keep slapping my cheeks to stay awake, when I saw a giant tornado in the middle of the river on my right side, swirling into a black hole in the center of the earth trying to suck me in. I completely turned my boat sideways paddling as hard as I could to escape its gravity but couldn’t. I began screaming and panicking until suddenly, I came to my senses and realized it wasn’t there. My heart was racing, and I knew in order to make it 20 more miles to my ground crew I had to think fast.

Did I mention at the last check point I accidentally left my PFD? About 1/2 mile or so behind me I could see red and green lights from another boat. I had to slow down until the lights approached me and engaged in conversation to keep me awake. Although this may have cost me a few places in the end, it was either be safe or be done. The boat ended up being a tandem team of two woman who were no strangers to the MR340. They knew what I was going through and stuck with me until I safely reached my ground crew.

Once onshore, I can’t quite remember anything more than crawling up the cement ramp and passing out instantly, only to be awaken 1 hour later by the painstaking words, “You have to get back in the boat now Jennifer.” So off I went as though sleepwalking back to my misery. But it is amazing how much an hour of sleep can revive you. 

 After paddling over 200 miles, 90 more seemed like a piece of cake, but I had my moments. I had come so far, and the emotions came pouring over me as I watched my GPS reach closer to the magic number. When I rounded that last bend and could see the finish line in sight, a feeling of sadness came over me. My body felt like it couldn’t take anymore and it clenched and ached, but my mind reached this point where I felt like I could continue paddling for miles. It must have been that second wind, or runner’s high as they call it. Knowing I had accomplished what I came here to do with virtually no hydration or nutritional issues brought me to tears. There were people that said I wouldn’t make it, people that told me it was OK if I didn’t. I told myself I would be ok with it if I didn’t, but my mind knew the truth. There’s a fever in my bones that can’t wait for another ultra-marathon paddling race, and now I know that whatever the body experiences, if your mind is strong enough, it can perform at great heights. 

So, when that horn blew at 7am at Kaw Point. and I asked myself, “What am I doing?”  My mind answered, “You are doing what you came here to do and that’s it.”

Read more about this race which takes place July 16-19 in 2019.  https://rivermiles.com/mr340/



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