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The MR340, the world’s longest nonstop river race, ended early for the first time in history

People stand on the banks of the Missouri River while others in canoes and kayaks paddle away from them. The Kansas City skyline is in the background.
Steve Schnarr
Missouri River Relief
Participants faced treacherous weather during this year's MR340 race, forcing organizers to end it early. At one point, paddlers say tree trunks the size of tractor-trailers were floating down the river.

Severe storms and winds kept racers in the MR340, a river race from Kansas City to St. Charles, from finishing the endurance race. But they still plan to celebrate.

The Missouri American Water MR340 — a 340-mile race on the Missouri River — ended early just a day after participants left from Kansas City on their way to St. Charles, Missouri. Severe thunderstorms across the state raised river levels, flooded tributaries, sent large debris down the river and created a lack of moonlight, making it unnavigable.

This is the first time in the MR340’s 18-year history that the race ended early. Steve Schnarr, executive director of Missouri River Relief, the nonprofit that organizes the race, says they had no other choice but to protect the safety of the participants.

“It’s difficult enough if you have a full moon shining to give you light,” Schnarr says. “But when you add a rising river and a whole bunch of driftwood and debris to the equation, and then you realize that it's going to be happening at night, and there's going to be storms that cover the moon and lightning. Those were all factors that were too much risk for our participants to continue the race.”

Still, Schnarr says he was impressed by how participants carried on through the elements.

The lead boat ended its race at New Haven, Missouri, about 50 miles from the finish line. The participants furthest upstream ended at the Dalton Bottoms access point, near Glasgow, Missouri, and about 200 miles from the finish line.

This was Courtney Wasson’s fifth time participating in the race with her husband, Phil. They got out in Boonville, Missouri, about 174 miles into the race. Along the way, they faced heavy winds and saw trees the size of tractor-trailers floating down the river.

“The first 20 miles, it was so windy and it really took an amazing amount of effort to make it to a ramp called Cooley Lake,” Wasson says. “The wind picked up to the point where the water was coming upstream. We were encountering three-foot white caps on the river. And at one point in that wind, the bow of my canoe went underwater into one of those waves.”

Despite the conditions, the couple was paddling at a personal record time this year, making ending the race early even harder.

During a particularly bad storm, the Wassons pulled to the banks of the river with four other boats. They hung onto rocks on the banks while waiting for the lightning and wind to subside. At every checkpoint, Wasson saw people who had to quit the race due to the extreme weather and river conditions. At the first two checkpoints, she noticed capsized boats that were bailing water.

A swirling brown Missouri River rushes by. In the background is a lush, green treeline. The sky above has dark rainclouds.
Courtney Wasson
Courtney and Phil Wasson have competed in the MR340 for five years. This year boasts the worst conditions the couple has ever faced. At one point, Courtney says they encountered three-foot white cap waves on the water.

Schnarr says having to bail was common for racers this year. One of Missouri River Relief’s safety boats, affectionately known as the Reaper, moves along the river at a cutoff pace. Participants have to get to each checkpoint before the Reaper to stay in the race.

“The first checkpoint is called Waverly, and usually the Reaper might pass one or two boats before it gets to Waverly,” Schnarr says. “This time it passed about 50 boats. So there were way more people that were behind the cutoff time than normal, and it's predominantly because of the headwinds they were facing all day long.”

On an average day, the river runs between three and four miles an hour, moving the racers along. At some points, Schnarr says, it was moving only a mile an hour due to strong headwinds.

Four of the last 15 races have been postponed due to weather. In all her time doing the MR340, Wasson says she’s never faced conditions like this year’s.

“We've encountered heat, we've encountered rain, we've encountered storms on the river,” Wasson says. “This was different. I think the combination of wind and flooding makes it treacherous. And then add to it people participating in an endurance race where you’re up for hours on end. Some people hallucinate during this race on a normal day because of a lack of sleep.”

Safety boats spent hours sweeping the race course to make sure people could safely exit the river. According to Schnarr, no one decided to continue the course of the river at their own risk. Instead, groups worked together to get out of the water and to meetup points.

“The level of cooperation of people working together to help make sure that people could get back to their vehicles and move their boats,” Schnarr says. “People in the community that heard this was going on drove down to boat ramps with their trucks and trailers to help people move to where they needed to go. Within hours, everyone was activated. People were getting off the river and making it happen. It was astonishing.”

The Wassons are still debating whether they’ll race next year, but they still plan to participate. They’re open to being someone else’s ground crew or managing a checkpoint along the route. Courtney Wasson wants more people to take advantage of the river and the beauty and resources it provides.

“You're not really racing against people, you're racing with people and you're endeavoring this challenge together,” Wasson says. “There's a lot of camaraderie on the river. The goal is to get more people out on the river. It’s beautiful. Even in the rain and the wind, there were moments when it paused or it was just a nice rain. It was something to treasure and I'm glad we did it.”

Even though the race ended sooner than expected, Missouri River Relief still plans to celebrate. The organization is hosting a finish-line party Friday night in St. Charles, where they will serve food and sell race merchandise. Al Holliday & The East Side Rhythm Band will play just before a ceremony honoring the race participants and the winners of their division — no matter where on the river they might have been.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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