By Phil White
Three hundred and forty miles of paddling is nothing to sniff at. But when the 2011 Missouri American Water 340 (aka the MR 340) was delayed from its typical July start until October last year, its entrants breathed a collective sigh of relief. You see, paddling for 60-plus hours is a lot easier when it's 60-something degrees, the bugs have died off and you've snuck in a couple more months of training.
Not so this year. I can reliably say after 11 years in Kansas City, that mid-summer here sucks. It's bad enough when you get that gross stomach sweat carrying bags from the grocery store to your car, so when you're paddling 13 back to back marathons on the water, bugs nipping at you 4,465 times a minute, it really sucks.
Just ask Shane Perrin. Last year, the 36-year-old became the first SUP athlete to attempt the longest river race in the Midwest which, by the way, 99.9 percent of finishers complete sitting down in canoes, kayaks, home-made craft and yes, occasionally even a dragon boat. Despite the skepticism of many of his fellow racers, Perrin not only finished, but also 31st out of all 116 solo racers.
That was when the river was flowing at four miles an hour, still swollen from the flooding that had caused the race delay. This year, nature hatched a plot to really make things uncomfortable, slowing the river's pace to a two-mile-an-hour crawl.
Still, Perrin lined up at the start line (not really a line, more a congregation of 500 craft) in Kansas City, Mo. early on the sunny morning of July 31 determined to best last year's performance. And he had reason to be confident, having become the first paddleboarder in the 50-year history of the Texas Water Safari to take on and tame the brutal 264-mile odyssey, to go with a successful paddle through the Belize jungle in the 170-mile La Ruta Maya.
This year, two other SUP riders had decided to join Perrin. The first withdrew his name a month before the start date, probably figuring that being a newbie + 340 mile course + triple-digit heat = not much fun. The second, Clint Harlan, a 35- year-old from Ozark, Missouri, took to the Missouri River standing on a WaveWalk W Catamaran, instead of a stock or racing SUP board. This was partly because, unlike Perrin and many of the other entrants, Harlan did not have the backup of a ground crew tracking his progress and re-supplying him from the river bank.
"The WaveWalk had everything that I needed for the race, and with it being catamaran style I had the storage in the pontoons to go unsupported," Harlan explained.
Harlan's setup was in stark contrast to that of Perrin, whose 14-foot Pau Hana Crossfit board was customized with a Batman-worthy rubberized coating to prevent damage from obstacles and who, now sponsored by Werner, uses the latest ergonomically-friendly curved paddle shaft.
Not that Perrin relied on technology to get him through this race. Rather, he dedicated six days a week to savage weight-training sessions, endurance paddles and erg intervals to get his body ready. And Perrin's mind might be even tougher – the ability to take hour after hour of growing discomfort and keep going is arguably his best attribute.
Still, a race like the MR340 throws something different at you each time and nothing could prepare Perrin, Harlan and the rest for the unrelenting sun and triple digits they paddled through this year. Of the 500 racers who started, only 300 finished – a much larger dropout than the race's typical 35 percent attrition rate.
With many other racers falling by the wayside, Harlan and Perry kept going, despite the increased vulnerability of a higher center of gravity and less protection against rocks, logs and dykes than enjoyed by their boat-going counterparts.
It was Harlan's first year at the MR340, and he soon wondered if he'd taken on too much, with three toes going numb, several finger nails falling out and a painful biceps tear. Though he was familiar with the course, had more distance racing experience and had trained so hard, Perrin found the going little easier.
"My feet were rubbed raw under the toes and got a weird, itchy rash on them which hurt like hell," Perrin said. "I had to dip them in the water every few miles to put out the fire for a while."
But this setback, the blisters and the heat were not the worst problem Perrin battled. After 100 miles he started having stomach cramps and soon enough nature, ahem, called. And called. And called. Perrin was fueling himself with his typical mid-race stash of energy bars, peanut butter and Gatorade, but for some reason, his body was freaking out. Every time he ate or drank anything, his gut rebelled, leaving him dehydrated with his energy depleted.
"In the end, I was forced to just not drink or eat anything for four hours, which when you're paddling in 100-plus weather is not ideal," he said. "I eventually sorted myself out, and was able to start pushing myself again to make each new checkpoint."
The current continued to stymie Perrin's progress. Last year's four MPH flow isn't particularly quick, but seemed a heck of a lot more rapid than the lazy 2 MPH the racers encountered this year. Despite this slow down and his digestive woes, Perrin crossed the finish line in St. Charles (a suburb of St. Louis) at 1:41 a.m. on Thursday, August 2 in 66:41, just two minutes slower than his time last year and good for 20th in the solo category.
"Shane is a great paddler and this being his second MR340, his performance shows that he continues to improve his technique and training," said MR 340-founder Scott Mansker. "Few choose to race ultra distance on an SUP but Shane is a great ambassador and continues to post impressive performances in some of the toughest races out there."
Harlan finished with the respectable final time of 83 hours and was more than happy with his achievement.
"I wanted to experience the adrenalin highs and most of all I wanted to hit my wall from an emotional, physical, mental and spiritual side and force myself to push through them," he said. "My boat was not fast, did not glide like all the others and I had to work for every inch of the race."