Words by Phil White | Photos courtesy of Shane Perrin

81-Year-Old Completes MR340 River Race on Three-Man Tandem SUP

“The Grey Beard Adventurer” Races 340 Miles in 81 Hours with Tandem Team

Ask most 81 year olds what they do for fun in July when the heat index hits 108 degrees, and their answer isn’t likely to be, “Paddle 340 miles on a three man SUP board.” But then Dale Sanders isn’t exactly your typical octogenarian. Last year, he became the oldest person to paddle the 2,400-mile length of the Mississippi River from source to sea. And now Sanders has added to his list of achievements by finishing the grueling MR340 race from Kansas City to St. Charles, Missouri.

“The Grey Beard Adventurer” was initially planning to tackle the MR340 as part of a four man team that also included Nathan Woods, Jerico LeFort and SUP distance pioneer Shane Perrin. But just a couple of days before the race, Woods had to drop out for family reasons, and 25 percent of the crew’s paddling power was lost.

“When I heard Nathan couldn’t make it I considered canceling too because I wasn’t sure if three of us could handle such a big board,” Sanders said. “But I had to fulfill my obligation to Shane and Jericho and at least try.”

And try he did.

With more room than expected on the custom board that Perrin and Darren Wolf spent the previous few weeks building, Sanders was able to bring along a small folding chair, so that he could alternate standup paddling with taking strokes from a more restful position. As he did so, Perrin manned the front of the board with LeFort in the middle. As Perrin shifted from front-left to front-right, LeFort moved to the opposite side to keep the big board steady, while Sanders kept paddling from the rear.

Initially, Sanders and his board mates planned to complete the race with several of the other paddlers who swelled this year’s SUP division to a record 15 entrants. But then Lauren Rodriguez decided to take a crack at the women’s record for most moving water miles paddled in 24 hours and Chip Walter accompanied her. Nate Dub – who Perrin paddled 100 miles with last year to raise $7,000 for PTSD awareness – also forged ahead, trying to catch Bart De Zwart as he charged to a new course record, the SUP division win and an astonishing 16th-place overall.

This meant that instead of being part of a SUP flotilla, the three-man team would be by themselves for large portions of the race. Still, having the chance to paddle with two teammates was a refreshing change from the solo slog Perrin is used to during the MR340, La Ruta Maya, the Texas Water Safari and other ultra-distance events.

“Dale, Jericho and I had so much fun,” Perrin said. “We were laughing and joking around, jumping in the water and just having a good time. This year was much easier mentally and physically.”

Those jumps into the river provided welcome relief for Sanders, who said his two biggest challenges were the triple-digit heat and lack of sleep.

“Several years ago I learned to recharge by taking catnaps for a few minutes and I also got about nine hours of sleep at checkpoints,” Sanders said. “Without Shane and Jericho’s positive attitude and high excitement level the lack of sleep would have taken more of a toll.”

Another difficulty the threesome faced was wing dykes, more of which were covered in this year’s race due to high water in spots. When encountering such obstacles, the crew had to quickly adjust their positions and paddle hard to maneuver back into open water. Such exertion left Sanders struggling with “foot and leg fatigue and pain in the joints.” But he was buoyed when the three-man crew met up with fellow standup paddlers Walter, Dub and Phil Rodway and paddled most of the final day with them. Eventually, the crew crossed the finish line in the number of hours that matched Sanders’s age: 81. They may not have broken the kind of time-based records that Perrin is used to besting, but The Grey Beard Adventurer did become the oldest paddler to finish the MR340.

“It’s hard to express the joy, excitement and feeling of accomplishment when you finish a seemingly impossible task like this,” Sanders said. “Shane’s superior padding skills and dedication didn’t surprise me but Jerico was stronger, dedicated and skilled more than I could have ever imagined.”

So, is Sanders satisfied with conquering the Mississippi and the MR340? Not at all. Next year he plans to trade his paddle and board for boots and a backpack as he takes on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. He’d also like to paddle the Missouri River from source to sea. It seems that for this restless wanderer, age is indeed just a number.