A short article I wrote several years ago after my experience racing in the 2009 Missouri River 340:
Beacons of hope – in college, that’s what a friend and I called our kayaks. The yellow and orange boats stood out in the parking lot, sitting head and shoulders above all the other cars. In that world of academia, as students endlessly studied within the campus confines of the limestone walls, these kayaks were symbols. They were a chance to get away from the academic stress that students too often unnecessarily put on themselves. When people saw those kayaks, and when they see your kayak strapped to your roof as you drive by, their imaginations are captured by the boundless possibilities of adventure that could be had within that very same boat. Their minds subconsciously wander to what could be as they sit in traffic, on their way in to another day at office. They begin to think about some far off body of water with the sun shining down on them, wearing sunglasses, and exploring the unknown. A symbol, a beacon of hope, that’s what a kayak is.
Three months ago I was sitting in my boat on the Chesapeake Bay, tired, weary, and frustrated, screaming and cursing at the wind as it laughed in my face, mocking me, blowing against me and sending waves crashing over my boat. A friend, the same friend from college, and I were on the last day of a six day journey. We paddled from the heart of Pennsylvania and our goal was a point about halfway down the bay, 190 miles from where we started. And on that last day the bay itself was fighting our attempt, questioning our willpower, almost ridiculing us as we struggled on. And it could have thrown so much more at us, but it didn’t; it was only toying with us. As I sat there, tired and beaten down, a thought flashed through my head about this race I had signed up for in August. Would I be able to do it? I would have to paddle almost twice the distance and do it in half the time. I didn’t know if I could do it.
The hazy orange glow of the full moon began rising over the horizon. The warm, humid air settled over the river. Forcing my eyes open as wide as possible, I knew I had to stay awake. I was on my own. If I looked far off in front of me at just the right angle, I thought I could see the dim light of another canoe or kayak. Then it would disappear again. If I looked backwards, it was the same case. Every so often I thought I heard a voice. Maybe it was from a boat, maybe it was people on the shore, and maybe it was in my head. I didn’t know. As I looked at the river bank, straining my heavy eyes in the darkness, the trees began to take shapes. My sleep-deprived imagination took over. Dinosaurs chased other creatures that were half rabbit and half dog. More animals appeared in the trees. Snakes, something from the Chronicles of Narnia, and wolves stood static, yet ready to attack if I strayed too far from the moonlit path down the center of the river. A log floated by, but my eyes only saw the head of an alligator coming up to scan for food. I heard the sound of machines working in the cliffs overhead. More voices. Something was lit up. Were those even people up there, or some kind of underground beings that only came out during night to mine the hills of Missouri for some strange element they needed to survive? There were more lights in the distance and I began to wonder who built a parking garage out in the middle of nowhere, right on top of the Missouri River. I needed to sleep, but I couldn’t. If I closed my eyes for more than a second, I didn’t know when I’d wake up again. I’d end up leaning over, tipping over in my kayak, and it was more than possible that I’d just sleep through it. Even with my life-jacket on, the consequences were something I didn’t want to think about. I put the paddle in the water and just kept going. A few more hours and I’d be at Cooper’s Landing. I could sleep there. But for now I was on my own and I had to stay awake.
I found this race online months ago. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to do it. Three hundred and forty miles in 88 hours. Paddling across the entire state of Missouri. The longest non-stop continuous race in the entire world. Even today, it still doesn’t quite register that I’ve completed something with the words “longest” and “in the entire world” in its description. Rivermiles was right – this was the stuff legends were made of. I had my kayak for about a year and a half, and had done some pretty cool trips, but nothing like this. This would test my entire body, my endurance, my strength, and my willpower. It was challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it. As soon as January 2009 rolled around, I signed up. Besides, I’d be moving to the Kansas City area to begin seminary in the fall and it would be a good way to get acquainted with the Midwest.
The morning of the race I woke up to the sound of rain against my window. The wind was blowing, thunder roared, and lightning lit up the sky every few minutes. I ate a bowl of Cheerios, double checked the kayak, got in my car, and went to pick up my mom from the hotel. Somehow I had convinced her to be my ground crew; she was pretty apprehensive about it at first, but by the time the informational meeting was over, she was ready to go.
We waited out the storm at Kaw Point and after an hour and half delay, the race began. There was no turning back. I was in my boat, surrounded by a hundreds of other people ready to tackle 340 miles. We were all ready to go. Helicopters flew overhead as news agencies covered the event. I glanced over to the shore one last time. The guns fired. I put my paddle in the water, leaving the great Kaw River behind and crossing over into the muddy Missouri River. Fifty miles to the first checkpoint. I could do it.
An intense blunt pain consumed my upper right arm as I awoke at the Herman checkpoint. I could barely move my arm. Paddling nearly 270 miles continuously had finally caught up to me. I felt as if someone had hit my arm with a sledgehammer over and over again, pounding my muscles into a painful pulp. This would be the last day of paddling; I was nearly there. I had to finish, but it crossed my mind that it may not be a good idea to keep going with this kind of pain. My body was telling me something, something more than the fact that it’s not natural to paddle 340 miles in three and a half days. I went back to sleep; maybe it’ll go away, I thought to myself. I still had another hour before I needed to wake up. At the very least, I knew that I’d definitely have to take some ibuprofen that day, something I avoided for most of the trip.
“Finish Line.” I looked up and read the bright red letters on the banner. A crowd was gathered at the boat house in St. Charles. Someone sounded an air horn and the group that was assembled on the shore cheered loudly. For a second I was confused. What were they all cheering about? Then I realized that they were cheering for me, and for all the others who pushed themselves to the limit in this race. And it wasn’t just a random group of people either; it was fellow paddlers, ground crew, and race organizers, people who experienced the pain and difficulty of the race, who knew you just had to keep going and put the paddle in the water one more time. Despite the pain in my arm, which had gone in and out most of the day, I forced my paddle victoriously in the air and smiled. Moments later the tip of my boat hit the shore of St. Charles, Missouri and my mom greeted me at on the bank. I was finished.
There were only a few times the river tried to fight the paddlers with wind, but God quieted it after it had gone on long enough. I was tired and weary, but there was no frustration. There was a celebration. There was food, sleep, and showers. There was a mutual respect and admiration for everyone who participated. There were new friends that had been made. There was the completion of a true adventure as dirty and muddy canoes and kayaks lined the boathouse lawn. Here were those beacons of hope, embodying the journeys that so many people long to take in their lives. And here is where people actually challenged themselves to take that journey. And though they may not know it, this is where people’s minds subconsciously wander when they see that car driving by with a kayak strapped to its roof rack.