Helen and I had an absolutely fantastic spring and summer training on Special K putting in well over 650 km on our new tandem pedal powered boat which Rick Willoughby named “Special K’s”. Our season started with a 5 day training vacation in early April at Brentwood Bay Resort in Victora, BC. We docked Special K at the marina just outside of our beautiful hotel and spent each day touring up and down Saanich inlet. Really fun, awesome hotel, and the boat worked perfectly averaging around 10 kph (which was slower than Ricks estimate.)
Other highlights of our training was a week on Whitefish lake, plenty of long training days on Glenmore reservoir, and an amazing day on Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park.
As we approached race day, just like last year, we sat on the edge of our chairs watching the flood forecasts for the Missouri river. But unlike last year, we lucked out, and the river was just below flood stage by race day, so the race was a go.
A big concern for Helen and I leading up to the race was who we could recruit to support us this year. Luckily, my good friend Scott Reeves from Springfield, MO offered to ‘lend’ us Rob Smith who paddled on their 3-man boat “Third Wheel” at last year’s race. Rob had booked vacation days for this years MR340 but couldn’t compete, so we were very lucky to land a race veteran as our support.
There were over 400 boats starting this year, so race director Scott Mansker had the solo boats start at 7:00 am and the team boats start at 8:00. There were 4 pedal boat teams this year: Special K (Helen and I), Scott and Jerico on their new Rick Willoughby tandem (basically, the same as Special K), a new team on a RIck Willoughby designed 4 man pedal boat, and a 2 man pushme-pullyou Hobie mirage drive kayak.
The first 12 hours of the race was HOT! I mean really frikin’ hot. 95 degrees hot. With ungodly high humidity. I recall Scott Reeves advising us to “use the river water to keep ourselves soaked” and we did that, and it SAVED our race. Thanks Scott! Our average speed seemed to be around 10 mph, and I measured the current to be around 4.5 mph – a very fast current. Things generally went well for the first part of the day – we stopped at our planned check points and Rob had new water bladders ready for us, with new food bags. I think by the end of the first day we were probably up near the front of pack and we caught a lot of solos who had started an hour earlier than us. Following the channel mark on the iPhone GPS was a pain during the day because the line is so faint on the screen that I could not see it if the sun was reflecting off the screen from a certain direction. I found it very difficult to stay on the channel, but we managed.
We pedaled for a while with the 4-man team who seemed to be matching our speed.
The first night was a lot of work for me because we encountered a ton of debris and I found it stressful aiming the flashlight at the bow with my left hand, watching for debris while working the rudder with my right, steering around the debris and cranking my neck to the left to keep an eye on the GPS and our track. We hit a LOT of logs and we were lucky there wasn’t any damage.
I was happy that fog wasn’t an issue that first night, but we did get a call from Rob warning us that a big storm was chasing us, and we would have to pull off the river. So we made arrangements to pull off at the next ramp which was still an hour away. Lightning was flashing behind us, and then some light rain had me worried about getting caught in the storm and having to pull into shore before we reached the ramp – something that I did NOT want to do. Pulling off the river isn’t easy. The river is moving very fast, so you need to find an inlet or eddy so the current doesn’t pull you away from shore. Then I worry about damaging the prop in the logs and crap trapped in the eddy, and the mud getting off the boat, etc. Not an easy task in a pedal boat.
A solo guy passed us and informed us that he had just got news that the storm had thankfully changed direction. So we kept going. Luckily there was no fog that first night and we focused hard on keeping our pace up and making it to Katfish Katy’s by early morning to catch an hour of sleep in the car. But, as we approach Katfish, Rob contacted me and advised us to forgo our break at Katfish and to keep going through the early hours of the morning to take advantage of the cooler weather, and delay our break until Jeff city which he told us was only 29 miles away. I knew he was right – and Helen was pretty upset because she was really getting tired and looking forward to that break. Then she was really upset when she did the math and discovered that Jeff city was actually 59 miles away, not 29!
So, we kept going – a very SMART decision. I kept feeling a thump behind me and turned around to ask Helen what was going on. She told me that she kept falling asleep and her foot would drop down and bang on the gear box and wake her up.
We finally made Jeff city, and made our escape from the oppressive heat to the air conditioned truck where Rob had prepared sleep pads for us. Sleep wasn’t really happening for either of us, but that hour break was really awesome. We hopped out of the truck feeling like it was morning (sort of), and after eating some oatmeal and coffee, climbed back onto Special K and shoved off downstream to Herman.
Rob informed us that we were now in first place pedal division because the 4 man team had an emergency when they were unable to ‘revive’ a team member after he passed out due to hyponatremia yikes! (He ended up in ICU but he was thankfully okay)
Our focus for the second day was to make it to Herman for dinner and we decided that our carrot was going to be two cheeseburgers with fries from the awesome burger restaurant that Helen and I ate at last year when I stopped for the night in Herman due to heavy fog. The imagined smell and taste of that hamburger kept us going through the heat of that second day.We made it to Herman, and enjoyed our burgers on a picnic table near shore. Best burger of my life!! As we shoved off just before sunset, Rob gave us 2 icy cold popsicles! Oh man, that just hit the spot!
Our goal at this point was simple – to keep the speed up because I wanted to get to the finish line in St. Charles before 3:00 am when I knew the fog would roll in. And I knew that if we could maintain at least 9 mph without any stops longer than a few minutes we could do it. Just before leaving Herman, I swapped out my grippy prop for the spiny prop, and it felt like such a relief to my heavy legs.
The second night was as stressful as the first – my neck was sore from cranking it to keep an eye on our GPS track, constantly steering around debris, and flashing the flashlight so as not to burn out the batteries. I had a headache from the heat, my ankle was swollen from a sprained ankle injury earlier that winter, and I was developing painful chafing on the inside of my thighs due to the constant water soaking. Helen was complaining about a sore knee, and painful toes due to poor blood flow from the recumbent position. I solved my chafing problem by stripping my shorts right off – then decided to take my shirt off also and went totally nude. Liberating. It was GREAT!
Both Helen and I were really pumped about keeping a good pace and getting this thing finished. Neither of us had problems falling asleep or fighting fatigue for this second night. The temperature was cooling down, and the water was nice and calm. Both of us were enjoying some pretty wild hallucinations toward the end though… I thought I was seeing giant rock Fred Flintstone letters in the trees on shore, and Helen thought she was seeing animals in the trees. All of the various buildings on shore were tiki huts mounted on tall bamboo poles for me.
We finally reached the finish line at St. Charles at about 1:30 am for a final race time of 41 hours, 30 minutes. We had placed first in our division, 2nd mixed tandem team (including paddlers) across the line, we set the record for the fastest pedal finish, and were the 12th over-all boat to finish – including the solos. Out of 400 boats, I am most proud of that 12th over-all accomplishment.
The finish line was majorly anticlimactic. We spent the next couple of hours fumbling around in the mosquito infested swamp which was the finish area at night, trying to pack the boat up and clean out the truck. Not fun. Thankfully, Rob was thinking, and he had phoned around and made a hotel reservation for us which was really difficult because it seemed that all of St. Louis was sold out for the night! Helen and I plugged the hotel address into the GPS and with no sleep in over 48 hours at this point, attempted to navigate to the St. Louis airport Marriott. We arrived at the hotel dirty, red eyed and stinky only to find out that the agent who booked our room made a mistake and assumed that a “room for tonight” meant the night of July 17 because the reservation was made after midnight. They were fully booked! So the agent made some calls and found another hotel for us.
BEST SLEEP OF OUR LIVES!
We woke up at around noon the next day, checked out and met Scott, Rob and family for eggs and pancakes in St. Louis. THE BEST BREAKFAST OF OUR LIVES! Then we drove Rob back to Kansas City (a 5 hour drive retracing our 42 hour river adventure!).
I have to say that I’m so glad to have experienced this race with Helen this year. She was generally a lot more positive than I was. I was stressed out a lot, and constantly worried about something – storms, watching out for barges, fog, breaking equipment by striking debris, Helen’s safety, etc, etc. Also, I knew how long, and how hard the race was because of last year. In my mind, at the time, all I had to look forward to was dozens of hours of increasing pain, fatigue and more worries around every bend. Helen was totally happy, and aside from the disappointment of not being able to sleep at Catfish, she was a real trooper. I remember telling her that I would be 100% OK if we stopped in Herman for the night like I did last year. I stopped last year because of the bad fog forecast, but I can’t say that I would not have stopped anyhow. I would have stopped this year, but Helen said no way – we keep going until we are finished. And I’m so glad for that push because it really wasn’t bad at all. I would also say that we really nailed our nutrition this year by eating REAL food. Last year I tried to stay with bars and gels, but ended up feeling really sick after the first day. When you are fatigued, sore, and tired, the last thing you need is lack of energy due to not eating right and feeling nauseous. None of that this year – it worked perfectly and I NEED TO REMEMBER THIS FOR FUTURE ULTRA ENDURANCE EVENTS.
After the race we talked about doing it again, and we both basically thought “no way in hell”. But a few days later, after some food, and sleep, we were talking about the next race. Maybe we will take next summer off of river racing and plan to MR340 again in 2017. We shall see….
But… I don’t think I’m done with my solo human powered boat endeavors just yet… Stay tuned…
Below are some detailed notes about the race that I don’t want to forget for future reference:
1. We struck far more logs and debris than in training due to the river, especially at night when it was difficult to see the debris. We got into the habit of stopping pedaling as soon as we could feel something strike our relative props. Debris hitting the bow first was never a warning because it usually made no sound due to the sloped hull at the bow which quietly pushed debris aside or under.
THIS IS VERY STRANGE: About mid way through the race, a LOT of river silt clogged the prop blade pivot (slot) and caused the blades to become very “sticky”. Even rotating the blades by hand was an effort. If I struck a log hard enough, one of my blades would become stuck in the FOLDED position and my speed would INCREASE by at LEAST .5 mph! This happened repeatedly, and I found myself actually looking for a log to hit hoping to collapse a prop blade. When the blade was folded back, Helen said that the strut was really flapping up and down (as expected) due to the prop imbalance. However, like I said, we were always way faster. My pedaling resistance would decrease (as expected due to only one blade doing the work), and I am certain that due to the increased RPM, there was NO ADDITIONAL power added to the pedal stroke – if anything, it felt easier – yet speed went UP. This would last for maybe 30 seconds to 1 minute, then I could feel the stuck blade ‘pop’ back out, resistance increase, cadence slow, and speed SLOW down.
I can’t figure out how this speed increase could happen? I think it might be worth a test for you at some point. I think it also happened to Scott.
2. Due to the debris in the water, we encountered far more weeds getting wrapped around the props than during training. It was never heavy enough that you could tell right away when a weed was caught – but a slow gradual accumulation of small bits of weed caught between the bearing tube and prop, or bearing tube and stop. We got into the habit of back pedaling every 10 or 20 minutes and our speed ALWAYS increased after. Which meant that weeds were wrapping around the prop VERY often. At the CP stops, I usually waded into the water and lifted the props out to visually inspect, and I always had to unwrap tiny bits of weed from around the shaft in between the bearing tube ad prop or stop.
I wish there was a better way to visually inspect the prop for weeds, and to clear. We jealously watched the 4 man team periodically reach down, pull up props and shake them off. I asked them about it and they said that they routinely did this every 20 minutes or so, and said that there was weeds on the prop every time.
3. Due to river current, turns, and wind speed and direction, my prop often collided with Helens shaft. If it ever got really bad – ie: sustained push across a strong side wind, then I had Helen insert a block between my prop strut and her seat pedestal which stopped the strut from flexing out to her prop shaft. This was always removed as soon as we change direction, or conditions changed, to allow the strut to flex again in case of grounding when pulling into a CP ramp, or something else.
4. Both Helen and my big toes were going numb when in the shoes, but fine when OUTSIDE of the shoes with feet resting on top of shoes.
5. The adjusting seat angle is VERY BENEFICIAL!! I used it often, as I did in training. I would not build another boat without those telescopic seat back rods.
6. Grease on the couplings did a very good job of keeping the couplings quiet throughout the race. Helens started making a racket, and we periodically splashed water over it to keep the noise down.
7. I changed from the grippy prop to the spare, normally pitched prop at Herman and our speed increased until the finish line. This could be because my legs appreciated the spiny cadence, or the river speed increased from Herman to St. Charles, or a combination of the two.