It’s zero-dark-thirty at some unknown ungodly hour on Tuesday night somewhere on the Missouri river, some 18 long hours after the race start in Kansas city at 8:00 am earlier that morning. I was doing pretty well – In 1st place men’s solos, and 3rd place over-all out of 235 human powered boats. Navigating on the Missouri at night wasn’t a problem, and I’ve had plenty of night experience on the water, so I wasn’t at all apprehensive about it. I was, however, worried about fog setting in, because I knew the temperatures were supposed to drop down to the low 60’s that night. Usually, that means fog. And fog plus night is precarious at best. So far though, only light wisps of fog that only added to this mystical environment I was immersed in.
From my front row seat, I observed the full ‘super moon’ rising as a bright orange ball directly over the river in front of me, as numerous shooting stars courtesy of the scheduled Perseid meteor shower, blazed across the sky. What a SHOW! And I had the best seat in the house! This was fantastic.
Then everything changed. First, the amount of debris I was encountering started to increase drastically. This mess consisted of logs, sticks, branches, even entire trees. It wasn’t a problem yet because my 5000 lumen LED torch was highlighting the debris, and I could easily steer my pedal powered boat Critical Power 2 around it. My concern was that if I accidentally struck a log with my prop, it could damage the prop, or worse, rip the prop strut right off the boat. If that happened, I would be mostly dead in the water, and requiring a rescue. I carry an emergency paddle, but my progress using the paddle is very tedious. To add to my concern was the spotty cell service between check points, and I hadn’t seen another paddler, or boat, or another person in hours.
Then the fog suddenly thickened, and diffused the hell out of my spot light. I had to turn the light off, as it was worse than useless. Of course, then I started to collide with EVERY single piece of wood across the mile wide river. BANG! BANG! BANG!. Crap.
At least I could navigate in this fog with my GPS by following a carefully plotted route that marked the exact location of the channel. My plan was to continue to Katfish Katie’s check point which I hoped I would reach by sunrise. I figured that if the fog didn’t lift, at least I would have my precious GPS route to follow. I just needed my prop to last through the debris mine field until I made it to Catfish.
I was reminded of something we learned when I got my private pilot license called the Swiss cheese model of accident causation. Imagine stacking slices of Swiss cheese, and ‘accidents’ can pass through the holes in the cheese. If you make enough cheese stacks, sooner or later, you are going to have a stack where the holes line up, and an accident will “pass through”. The Swiss cheese model of accident causation illustrates that, although many layers of defense lie between hazards and accidents, there are flaws in each layer that, if aligned, can allow the accident to occur. Most aviation incidences are not caused by a single factor. They are usually caused by a number of contributing factors that all conspire to, well, basically spoil your day.
So, thinking about my stacks of Swiss cheese, I wondered what the odds would be that my GPS would crap-out right at this most inopportune time. And that’s exactly what happened. You can’t make this stuff up! My GPS route marking the channel location suddenly ENDED at way point # 231. Poof. My Route markers were gone. No more channel. A nice fat Swiss cheese hole! I had tested this GPS route at home, and it all seemed to work. All 340 miles of it. All 600 way points of it. So why am I only seeing 150 miles of my route??? Using my headlamp for light, I frantically re-started my GPS, but my route definitely stopped right here in the middle of the fog. CRAP!
I can’t stay in the channel because I can’t navigate with my GPS, and I can’t see the channel markers on shore because of the fog, so at least I still have the low-res base map on the GPS. That will keep me out of the rocks, and wing dikes. My strategy was to just stay in the middle of the river.
So I’m moving along at a much slower speed, and cringing as I’m still slamming into all these logs and chunks of wood and garbage. And, I’m trying to stay in the approximate middle of the river by watching my position on the GPS base map. I see what I think might be a check point, or maybe it’s one of the safety boat camps on a sand bar that I heard about during the safety meeting. I could stop there and wait until morning. It’s a HUGE spot light. Way up high, and it’s sweeping back and fourth through the fog across the shore line, and periodically across the river and flashing into my eyes. As I get closer, I see that there are many lights of all colors surrounding this spot light, and I’m hopeful that it signals a boat ramp, town, or refuge or some sort.
It wasn’t until I heard the freight train sound coming directly toward me that I realized that this spot light WAS ON A BARGE!!! A HUGE BARGE IN THE FOG HEADING DIRECTLY TOWARD ME!!!
OK think Greg. What to do… Well, I know the barges stay in the channel because that’s mostly what the channels are for. The channel is an area of fast moving deep water created by wing dikes which are basically rock wall ‘fingers’ that point into the river from inside turns on the river. These wing dikes direct the flow of water to a deep channel which is usually on the outside turn of the river – opposite of the wing dikes. I know the barge must be in the channel, and I can see on my GPS map that he’s moving up river toward me on river right which is a wide outside turn. So, I quickly head to the left side of the river to move as far away from this behemoth as I can get. By watching my position on the GPS, I see that I am about as close to the other side of the river as I comfortably risk going – remember, I can’t see the shore because of the fog, and I’m approximating my position by using the GPS.
So I sort of just hover there anxiously waiting for this barge to pass by. It is moving VERY slowly. It’s HUGE. And loud. Really freaky for a guy who has ZERO big river experience. We were told during the safety meeting to stay away from the barges. Even to pull off the river while they pass. Pulling off the river is a fine idea in theory, but in reality, in the dark, in the fog, with rocky shores, and wing dikes all over the place, pulling off the river seems more dangerous than continuing to navigate down the middle of it. I have no idea what to expect. Is the wake this monster is throwing off going to capsize me?
The barge passes, and absolutely nothing happens. No waves, no wake. nothing. Just calm Missouri river flowing at about 4.5 mph like before. I wait there on the other side of the river and watch the barge slowly move behind me over my right shoulder and then I start to move forward again. Ha! That was easy peasy I think to myself.
Moments later, I’m jolted to a heart pumping state of alertness when I hear the roar of rushing water coming right toward me. Getting louder and getting closer! I can’t see it! What is it?? Then I see a wall of white frothing water directly in front of my bow – and I’m heading toward it, and it ‘seems’ to be moving toward me. I turn my rudder hard to the right and CRANK on the pedals. This rushing, roaring wall of frothing water is now directly on my left hand side and I’m literally sprinting back toward the middle of the river. And then it catches me.
And I’m wondering what the hell am I doing here?
The whole idea about me competing in this crazy race across the state of Missouri, some 340 miles down the Missouri river from Kansas City to St. Louis was sparked by my friend and the current MR340 course record holder Carter Johnson. Carter and I staged a 24 hour head to head race on Whitefish Lake in Montana last fall. Pedal vs. Paddle we called it. The idea was to use the race to provide both of us with motivation to possibly set a new 24 hour distance record, have some fun, and raise some money for our charities. In 2008, I had broken Carters 24 hour distance record on flat water by pedaling Critical Power 2, 153 miles on Whitefish lake in exactly 24 hours. Carter had attempted to take his record back a couple of times since then, but had been unable to do it. As it turned out, the weather did not cooperate with us at all, but we became good friends during the process. Carter then went on to make a 24 hour record attempt of his own in Huntington Beach, CA about a month later and was successful.
While waiting for a decent weather forecast, Carter showed me his GPS track for the Missouri river race and told me that he thought that my boat would be perfect for that race, and that if all went well, and the current conditions were fast, and weather cooperates, that it might be possible for me to break his own course record. Well, the seed was planted, and by early winter I had decided that was to be my summer 2014 goal… To race in the MR340 with Critical Power 2.
My training season got an early start in May when I ventured out to Flathead lake in Montana for a week of training. Flathead is so big and deep that it never freezes. Then, a few weeks later I literally ‘broke’ the ice on Whitefish lake for another training week, and then made repeated trips to Montana during the early summer for more training. I supplemented my Montana lake endurance training trips with days on the Glenmore reservoir in Calgary, plus plenty of high intensity training sessions on my recumbent bike which has been adjusted to mimic the exact same seat geometry as critical power. By July, I felt I was ready.
I had been watching the weather and the river conditions in Missouri, and the good news was that the river current was FAST. This could lead to a new course record – or at least, a shorter race. The bad news was that the river current was fast. It was TOO fast. The Missouri river was in flood stage, and according to the MR340 rules, the race would be postponed if it was in flood stage at any point along the 340 river miles on race day. But, we wouldn’t know for sure until race day, so Helen and I packed up the truck and started our 2500 mile drive to Kansas city.
I was getting pretty nervous by all the reports of debris on the flooding river – some even saying that it was so thick in places that you could walk across the river on the logs!! The water was so high, the wing dikes were submerged under the water. This was bad because I risked gliding over a partially submerged dike thereby destroying my prop. The day before the July 8 race, race director Scott Mansker announced that the race would be moved back 5 weeks to the make-up date of August 12th. Thanks to awesome volunteers like Vicki Richmond, we were able to store CP2 and the truck at the River Relief warehouse in KC and Helen and I flew back to Calgary.
I spent the next 5 weeks back in Calgary logging some serious long miles on my NoCom recumbent bike. I tackled my favorite long ride – the 320 km Highwood loop in a day, then a few days later cycled part way to Jasper and back adding a bit over 200 km per day for 2 days to my training bank. I felt ready. Again.
Helen and I flew back to KC on August 10th, and 2 short days later, I found myself in the cockpit of Critical Power 2, floating on the Kaw river at 8:00 am on Tuesday morning anxiously waiting for the start cannon to fire. It was THE PERFECT day – lower than normal temperatures with a high of (only) 30 degrees C forecasted, sunny skies, no wind, and water levels down to normal.
BOOM went the cannon, and the race was on! I Was situated near the front of the 235 boats hovering in the Kaw with the intention of getting out in front early to avoid the inevitable mashing up of boats at the confluence of the Missouri just ahead. I pedaled hard out toward the river intersection, made a right turn and was up with the lead boats within minutes. In July there were a record 400 boats registered, but due to the race postponement, there were now only 235 boats in the race – still, an impressive number of boats, especially when you see them all crammed into Kay point.
The MR340 was listed as one of National Geographic’s top 40 adventures in 2010. It is so difficult, that historically, 30% of racers won’t finish. The 235 boats registered in this years MR340 August race consisted of 137 men solos, 3 solo pedal drives, and the remaining entrants consisted of teams of 2 to teams of up to 10 paddlers powering a variety of boats from super fast surf skis, to sea kayaks, to 100 lb aluminum Coleman canoes. My official category was the solo men’s pedal drive division, but my ‘real’ race was against the large group of men’s solos. Joining the three solo pedal drive boats, was a 3 person pedal boat team called “Third Wheel”, who was captained by my buddy Scott Reeves. Scott won the solo pedal boat division last year by pedaling a Hobie kayak ‘fin drive’ and finished in a truly impressive 48 hours. I have the same Hobie Mirage drive kayak that Scott used, so I know what an impressive feat he accomplished. In my opinion, and compared to my pedal boat, the Hobie’s are horrible to ‘pedal’ for more than an hour using the ‘push-pull’ levers. I don’t know how he did it. But this year, Scott got together with the designer of Critical power 2 – Human powered boat engineer extraordinaire Rick Willoughby from Australia, and built a proper tandem pedal boat with a third seat in the back for a paddler. This 3 person human powered boat could comfortably cruise at 9 miles per hour including a 4 mile per hour current. Third Wheel was definitely competitive amongst the multi person kayaks and canoes entered in the race, and I was very interested to see how Scott and his team made out.
I was following my GPS channel route and averaging around 10.5 mph which I was very happy with. At that speed, I was pretty much passing everyone. Within a few hours, I had moved up to, and passed uber kayaker West Hanson who had just completed a world first expedition where he kayaked the Volga river in Russia from source to sea. He was a beast, but I was faster. For now. 340 miles is a LONG race and I knew from experience, that ANYTHING can happen. Within 5 hours I was in front of the lead solo Andrew Condie who had to make a quick stop to fix a broken rudder cable. The only boats in front of me at thus point were 2 other team boats.
My plan was to continue without stopping until the first checkpoint before sun set. There are 9 mandatory check points along the 340 mile river course including the start at Kaw point and the finish at St. Charles which is just a few miles before St. Louis. Each racer must provide his / her own support which typically takes the form of food and water, but could encompass a sleep in the car, hotel room for the night, a bar-b-que, massage, emotional therapy session, or whatever is required to ‘reset’ a racer or a team, and get them back on the river. It is not mandatory to actually stop at each boat ramp check point, but visual contact must be made between a support crew member and the race boat.
My entire support TEAM consisted of my wife Helen who has supported me through dozens of ultra endurance events over the last decade. She knows what I need and how to take care of me better than I do most of the time. I had calculated that it would be more efficient to carry more weight in the boat, mostly in the form of water for hydration, and go father before stopping at a checkpoint for reprovisioning, than it would be to stop for a resupply at all the checkpoints. My plan was to take 7 liters of water weighing 15 pounds, and not stop until after the first 100 miles which would put me at the Miami checkpoint, 100 miles and 10 hours into the race. I figured I would arrive at Miami just before sun set where I would pick up another 10 hours of water, navigation lights, headlamp, and warmer clothes.
When you are way out in the lead, the Missouri river gets very lonely. There was nobody around, and the scenery was pretty much the same – thick green trees lining both shores, and a very wide, very brown river of connecting whirl pools in the fast moving channel. Some of the pools actually sported full-on toilet flushing funnel holes. As per Carters advice, I found that I could use the whirl pools like sling shots and pick up a tiny bit of extra speed – or perhaps that was imaginary. Well, at least it gave me something else to do aside from turning the cranks over and over.
It was a hot day, and I was looking forward to the evening where it would cool off a bit. After 10 hours on the river, at around 6:00 pm, I finally reached Miami where Helen met me at the boat ramp and we installed a new water bladder, and got a zip lock bag containing another 3000 calories of bars and gels, my night time navigation lights, a bright flash light, my head lamp, and some warm clothes. I think the entire reprovisioning process took less than 5 minutes, and I was still the lead solo, and 3rd place over all.
So… there I was, in the dark, in the thickening fog, some 16 fatiguing hours into the race, swearing at my malfunctioning GPS, facing a wall of frothing water after the monster barge passed. To say I was frightened would be an understatement.
The gushing water turns out to be the back wash from the barge – probably 200 meters BEHIND the barge. It’s a mile long area of frothing, bubbling, undulating, rough water caused by the barge wake ricocheting back and forth between the two sides of the river. It’s absolute mayhem and my little boat is being tossed about like a toy. I then realize that the ‘rushing wall of water’ was actually a wing dike with the barge wake rolling over it. And I had been heading directly toward it. Of course I was. I was on the far left hand side of the river – as far away from the barge as I could get. As far away from the channel also – on the side of the river with the wing dikes. I was in the wing dikes and hadn’t even realized it. Talk about a close call…
The boiling back wash eventually subsided, and my little boat eventually stopped bouncing up and down, and I realized that everything was OK, I was still alive, and still right-side-up and dry. The backwash wasn’t at all dangerous – at least for my boat which has wide stabilizers. I wouldn’t want to be in a surfski or narrow canoe though. But this was all new to me. And it was happening in the dark, and the fog which didn’t help. These issues with the wing dikes and the debris aren’t problems for the other race participants, as their method of propulsion typically consists of a paddle, not a spinning propeller that is one meter under the water surface. Gliding over a wing dike for me would be game over. For a kayak or canoe, you might scrape the bottom of your hull a bit, but you would be fine.
As far as I now recall, the rest of the night was long, and difficult. I was getting pretty tired trying to keep my speed up over 10 mph which I was no longer able to do. My nerves were getting pretty frazzled by all the debris I was colliding into. I still could not use my high powered flashlight because of the fog. At least I had the GPS map to stay in the middle of the river, but I was missing the channel which was the fastest part of the river. Being out of the channel meant an average speed of at least 1 mph slower. Finally at some point just before sunrise, I reached Katfish Katie’s check point, and I told Helen that I was going to stop for a bit and wait until the fog burned off. We dragged CP2 out of the water, up the ramp, and onto her boat stand. Helen made me a cup of noodles which tasted SO GOOD! Oh my! Salty noodles at 4:00 in the morning after almost 24 hours of hard work really hits the spot. She made me a bed in the back of the truck, and I laid down and tried to sleep. But sleep just wasn’t happening because I kept looking out the window trying to figure out if the fog was lifting.
After about an hour, I decided to hit the river again. Fog or no fog. Helen made me a cup of hot oatmeal, and a cup of hot coffee, then we prepped CP2, and I shoved off down the river for the next 100 mile section.
At some point during the night – perhaps while I was swearing at the logs hitting my prop, or focusing on trying the get my GPS working again, Andrew Condie sneaked past me. I only knew this because Helen told me he arrived, then quickly departed about an hour before I got there. So Andrew was now leading the solo race, and he was a good hour in front of me.
Wednesday was HARD. Rather than trying to keep my speed above 10, I was now trying my best not to let it slip below 9. And it seemed like every time I looked down at the speed indicator on my GPS, it was below 9. And the day was HOT! I was just burning up. A few hours into the day, as the sun was blasting down on me, I started to feel sick, and the thought of eating another Power Bar was making me gag. I knew this was not good because I desperately needed the calories to keep my speed up. Instead, I focused on swallowing the gels which were going down OK, but I was running out of them. I made a quick pit stop at a check point around noon, and exchanged my vomit bars for more gels.
At this quick stop, I met a guy by the name of Matt. Matt was helping Helen manage me, and he was very encouraging. He looked me straight in the eye, and said “Look Greg. This afternoon is going to be very hard. It’s going to get hot, and then the wind is going to pick up. And you are going to be hating life. But just push through, because after that, it will all start to get easier. And Greg – you have to know that you WILL make it, because you will. You don’t think so right now, but trust me, you WILL”. It’s the kind of honest motivation that I respond to. He also warned Helen that I was acting a bit loopy because I was convinced my next stop was Glasgow which was up river, not down river, and that he had made an obvious joke, and I didn’t show any response. I don’t recall any of this! This is the state that I was in by then – probably around 30 hours into the race without any rest or sleep.
So I pushed off and headed down river. I don’t remember much about that afternoon except that at one point, I laid back on my recumbent seat, stretched my legs out and shut my eyes. Just to rest for a second. I thought. BOOM, I was out like a light. I woke up to the sound of rushing water. I opened my eyes and discovered that I had drifted over to a wing dike. That woke me up! And I swore never to do that again.
I finally made it to the Herman checkpoint at 5:00 pm. I had covered 270 miles in 33 hours. And had 70 miles to go to the finish. At this point I was still in 4th place over all, and 2nd place solos, as Andrew was still at least a couple of hours in front of me.
I explained to Helen that according to the forecast, it was going to be cooler that night than the night before, and the chances of thick fog were probably 100%. I thought it would be best to stop at Herman for the night – get some real food into my stomach, and a bed for the night. I would get up very early in the morning, check on the fog and push off for the finish line.
It’s important to mention here that Helen also had not slept a wink in 33 hours, and she was probably more tired than I was in ways. She had to deal with driving back roads trying to find these check points using only some GPS coordinates which was no easy task – even on a full nights sleep. I was incorrectly assuming that she could just follow others who were more familiar with the area, but since I was so far ahead, there were very few support crews at the checkpoints we were checking in at. She also had to deal with me, my needs, my endless texts asking for stuff. So, needless to say, I thought she could use some rest as well.
So that’s what we did. Helen found a Bed and Breakfast in Herman, and booked us a room for the night. We dragged CP2 out of the water, went to the room, had a shower (ooh that felt GOOD!!), then went to a little bistro for dinner and a glass of wine where I enjoyed the BEST HAMBURGER I’VE EVER EATEN IN MY LIFE! And I’m not exaggerating. I’ll never forget that hamburger. It’s amazing how good food tastes when you are so depleted and exhausted. Then I was sound asleep before my head even touched the pillow.
I woke up at 4:30 am, and after a bowl of oatmeal and a coffee, we walked down to the Herman boat ramp which was covered with a blanket of thick FOG! We ended up waiting around until 9:00 am that morning for the fog to finally burn off.
My last 8 hours on the river was actually enjoyable. It’s amazing what a full stomach and good nights sleep will do! It was also nice to finally be able to pedal with some other paddlers, as there were quite a few solos and teams who had passed through Herman over night, and kept going. I caught many of them that day. There were also many teams who stopped in Herman after horrific episodes in the fog that previous night. I got to hear all the stories, and I was happy with my decision to wait out the fog!
I arrived at the St. Charles finish line at 5:12 pm. My final stats:
57 hours, 12 minutes overall time (including my 16 hour ‘vacation’ in Herman)
17 th place men’s solos (out of 167 boats)
32 nd place overall (out of 235 boats)
8.5 mph average moving speed which was the third highest ave speed overall!
1 st place solo pedal drive (out of 3 boats)
First place male solos was Andrew Condie with a finishing time of 39 hours, 16 minutes, over 2 hours behind Carter’s course record. Second place was uber-kayaker West Hansen with a total time of 46 hours, 30 minutes. I need to mention that the first place WOMEN’S solo was Robyn Benincasa from Mark Burnett’s 2000 Eco-Challenge TV series in Borneo. She actually beat West Hansen with a finishing time of 44 hours, 51 minutes.
I’ve got to say that my finish would have been impossible without Helen’s support. It’s a thankless job – almost as hard as my job, but she misses out on the satisfaction that I feel when I accomplish something very physically and mentally difficult.
One of the first things Helen said to me after the finish was that she wants to do the race next year with me on a tandem boat! LOOKOUT TANDEMS, team Kolodziejzyk is coming!!