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Paddlers Brave Heat Stroke, Exhaustion And 340 Miles Of The Missouri River Just To Finish Last

Mark Hein is taking out a sleeker, more race-worthy kayak this year for his fifth attempt at the Missouri River 340.
Carlos Moreno
Mark Hein is taking out a sleeker, more race-worthy kayak this year for his fifth attempt at the Missouri River 340.

Last year, Josh Blann had every intention of losing the MR340 — and he came pretty close.

The MR340 is an infamous, four-day race every summer across the state of Missouri, with a launch departing from Kaw Point Park in Kansas City, and a finish line all the way in St. Louis.

Blann always wanted to try a long river race, eyeing 100-mile and 200-mile challenges in his home state of Texas. But when he discovered the MR340, the mind-boggling improbability of traveling 340 miles in a kayak or canoe, really any boat powered by paddles, was too powerful to resist.

"It bills itself as the world's longest continuous canoe race," Blann recalls. "And I thought, 'That's crazy. I have to do that.'"

Blann found an accomplice: his brother, who turned 40 in the depths of pandemic misery, when fear and monotony created an existence at once boring and stressful.

Lacking options for celebrating the big milestone, his brother suggested trying one of those crazy river races, and Blann didn't miss a beat. He registered himself, his brother, and a friend to compete in the MR340.

"Now, here's the deal," Blann tells me a year later. "None of us live in the same place. So there was no training involved."

All three did have kayaking experience, and not insignificant experience at that. But they'd never rowed together in the same boat. Which, it turns out, is different. The boat they rented, a special kayak made for racing, belonged to one of the MR340 greats, something they thought might give them an edge.

They didn't realize their mistake until the day before the launch, when they took the boat out for a spin.

"We fell out of the boat immediately," Blann recalls. "It was a disaster. It's like sitting on a pencil."

Their vessel stretched 30 feet long, but only 18 inches wide.

"So basically, we really have a 'come to Jesus' meeting about this boat because we are very worried," Blann says. "We can't even paddle. I mean, literally staying in the boat long enough to go down river a few miles, it's like, we can't function."

The crew decided they had two choices: They could give up, or change their expectations. They picked the latter.

"That's when coming in last for us became a strategy," Blann tells me.

No one does the MR340 for fame or glory. Even a first-place win won't make you a household name.

The official description on the MR340 website reads thusly: "Imagine a race across the entire state of Missouri, just you and your boat thrown against 340 miles of wind, heat, bugs and rain." And that doesn't even mention the loss of sensation in your limbs, sleep deprivation, hallucination, or the messy business of peeing from a kayak — all miseries that this particular river journey has been known to inflict.

To be sure, there are those who compete in the MR340 as true athletes. They train hard to perform feats of endurance most of us could never accomplish. Those boats sit at the front of the pack, take off at the starting line, and are never seen again by the majority of racers. Nothing about that is confusing. It's the pursuit of excellence — I get that.

But how to explain the rest of the 550 boats—and the 800 participants within them—signed up to hit the water this week? For those paddlers, winning isn't even within the realm of possibility. Besides, the Missouri River is no French Riviera.

Vying for last, the Blann crew offers a greater mystery to me.

These three middle aged men with day jobs harbored no hidden winning agenda, launching well behind the frontline for fear of crashing into the real competitors. Whereas most racers abide by the mantra of "stay in the boat," these guys did the opposite.

"We decided we were going to stop all the time. We were going to stop as often as we could," Blann explains.

It got easier the longer they kept at it.

"The first five minutes of paddling, that's pretty miserable," Blann says. "But if you can tell your brain to shut up, your body will go, 'Oh, this is what we do. Now. We paddle all day, OK, this is our life.'"

At that deliriously blissful point, they spotted Mark Hein, a 60-year-old Eagle Scout out on the river alone.

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"The really impressive thing about Mark," Blann recalls, "was that he was using a 12-foot-long recreational boat. And if you don't know anything about race boats or kayak racing, imagine those bicycles that like Lance Armstrong rides. The people who are really good at this stuff, they have kayaks that are the equivalent of that, right? Mark would be riding Peewee Herman's bike. It was like, it was like not built for speed at all."

It was ultimately Hein who thwarted Blann's dream of finishing last.

This was Hein's fourth time attempting the MR340. The first three times, the retired police officer got a DNF: Did Not Finish. By the time he met up with Blann's crew, halfway through the 2020 race, Hein was determined to go all the way.

Hein's MR340 journey began in 2016, when his son was finally old enough to join him. He acquired a used canoe, but it had been stored improperly, leaving it flat on one side.

The father-son duo managed only one full day of paddling. On the second day, Hein's son overheated. "He spent, oh, an hour or so in an ambulance in the parking lot with ice packs stuck all over him," Hein explains.

The same son joined him again in 2017. Again, they lasted one day. "He was trying to be supportive," Hein recalls, "but he just couldn't quite manage that I-really-want-to-do-this look. So we called it while we were still speaking to each other."

In 2018, Hein started racing alone, but spasms in his back and legs spooked him. Hein called his ground crew for a ride home. "I talked myself out of it," he admits. "I defeated myself out there."

2020 was Hein's redemption.

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Unlike Blann, who started last and stayed there, Hein managed to keep with the pack for the first couple of days. That changed in Boonville, where he stopped to meet his crew.

Hein only planned to stop for a little while, but climbing onto the river bank, he realized he'd lost all feeling in his arms. He decided to take some Advil and sleep it off, then hopefully re-join the race in the morning.

Hein's wife likes to tell the story of this part of the race. When she met her husband at that Boonville stop, he looked pretty bad. She helped him get comfortable to rest, but as she drove off, she caught a glimpse in her rearview mirror that she hasn't forgotten: her husband, lying immobilized next to his boat, with a mob of shiny racoon eyes staring at him. She was convinced he'd be eaten.

Fortunately, Hein did not become raccoon food. But having lost six hours to sleep, he pushed off from Boonville in last place.

"It was like, 'Oh, you gotta be kidding me.' And I mean, I definitely was very upset with myself at that point. Nobody else to be upset with," Hein says. "That's the key part by being in the boat by yourself, it was all on me. I berated myself for about 40 minutes along the river."

But then he gave himself a pep talk.

"It was my intent to finish," Hein recalls. Coming out of that setback, a new mantra emerged: "Whether I float face-down next to my kayak or paddle in, I'm going to finish."

From that point on, Blann's boat and Hein's boat took turns leapfrogging to the finish line. Blann's crew would make one of their infamous stops, and Hein would pass them by. They'd get back in their boat, with six paddles to Hein's two, and they'd pass him right back.

They didn't want to pass him. They simply could not physically move their boat more slowly.

"He was our hero," Blann says.

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Blann and his crew wanted to defy the mood of 2020 out on that river: "To get out of the house, to get to do something that kind of makes you feel alive and less miserable for a while, it was truly special and wonderful."

Hein's reasons weren't so different. He'd followed stories about the MR340 for years, having grown up with relatives in towns dotting the Missouri River. But that time-consuming and physically questionable endeavor felt out of reach for a responsible working parent.

"As a society, we're kind of at that point that the average person is fairly limited on what true adventures are available," Hein observes. "If you're filthy rich, you can go into space. If you have a lot of money, you know, I don't want to, but you can climb Mount Everest."

The Missouri River, on the other hand, offers this portal to an unknown world, right in Kansas City's backyard.

"Once it gets dark, you know, other than going through towns, you know, there are no lights, so you are, it's kind of interesting," Hein says. "You're this little speck of light out in middle of nowhere."

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So sure. Hein finished last. But he finished. He tested himself and survived. The kind of adventure some people pay for with wealth, Hein managed to get with mental fortitude, a sense of humor, and the boat equivalent of Pee-Wee Herman's bike.

This year, Hein got a better boat. It's not faster, but it's easier to paddle. Hopefully he won't lose the ability to move his arms.

When the MR340 kicks off on Tuesday—barring any flooding—Blann will be in Texas, wishing he was in Missouri. Now he's the working parent who can't justify the adventure.

Hein will be on the river, though, aiming for anything but last. He knows that crossing the finish line is a victory in itself.
Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Gina Kaufmann