Rob Davis spent last week in a boat on the Missouri River.
The Smith-Cotton athletic director was paddling his way down it, traveling 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles in less than 80 hours.
“My summers are a time for me to get out and do something for myself,” he said.
Davis and more than 500 other competitors in 345 boats were part of the Missouri River 340 (MR340), a race across the state that began at 8 a.m. July 23 at Kaw Point Park in Kansas City. Competitors had until midnight Friday to reach St. Charles.
“It draws everything from guys like me who see if I can do it (against) the elite endurance guys,” Davis said.
Davis has participated in the event four times, and this year wasn’t the only person from Smith-Cotton on the river.
“I went with a friend of mine to visit Rob last year in Waverly, which is one of the check points,” said Smith-Cotton physical education and health teacher Kevin Ditzfeld. “Upon seeing Rob pull in I thought it was a pretty cool deal. I mentioned to Rob that if he wanted to continue to do it I would do it with him.”
Davis had another partner lined up for the tandem division, Chris Crane, so Ditzfeld teamed up with his brother-in-law Brian Eisenloeffel.
Before the race, both Davis and Ditzfeld paddled in shorter events, including the Missouri River Shootout that covers a 51-mile stretch of the river from Kansas City to Lexington.
“A lot of people suggested that you train just by working out, getting in better shape as well as rowing,” Ditzfeld said. “You’re going 340 miles. I don’t think there’s much physical training that you can do to prepare you for 340 miles.”
The Shootout came the day after an early May snowstorm hit Kansas City, and Ditzfeld said that race was difficult but it gave him a chance to understand what the Missouri River had in store for him in this race.
“It takes a little bit to understand channel markers and how to listen to navigational buoys and how to avoid wing dikes and slack water,” he said. “I was fortunate to have Rob with me when I did the shootout because he gave me a crash course on how to understand the river.”
And the river can throw a lot at a competitor. Asian carp are known to fly out of the river and terrorize competitors. There are also parked barges, river traffic and bridge pilings that boats have to avoid, and racers have to be on the lookout for when paddling at night.
“If you catch yourself on the wrong side of the river and hit the wing dike, you could go over or scrape your hull,” Davis said. “You have to be able to deal with those types of things. You have to be really careful and have a spotlight.”
About one third of the way through, Crane had to drop out because of a deltoid injury. Davis continued on, paddling solo in the same two-person boat since race rules don’t allow competitors to change boats mid-race. He had a cooler filled with ice and water that he put in the front of the boat to weigh down the bow and kept on going, finishing the race in 79 hours, 54 minutes.
“I’m used to physical exertion but this is unlike anything I’ve done before,” he said. “You’re paddling and trying to stay awake while you’re paddling. Your shoulders hurt, your back hurts, sitting in the same place makes your backside hurt.”
Davis made it to St. Charles at 3 p.m. Friday, nine hours before the deadline. He had to push to get there, leaving the checkpoint in Columbia at 6 a.m. Thursday and paddling with no sleep for the next 33 hours.
Going without sleep is fairly normal for competitors. Ditzfeld said he and his partner slept for a total of five hours between 6:30 a.m. July 23 when they arrived at the start in Kansas City and the early morning hours Friday when they reached the finish line.
“Some people go nonstop without sleeping, some sleep in their boat,” Ditzfeld said. “We were fortunate to get out and rest our eyes. Even a half hour nap keeps you going.”
The lack of sleep is just one of the mental challenges racers face.
“Grinding through the heat, the bugs, the lack of sleep, going for hours being hungry and knowing you’re not going to be able to eat until your next checkpoint,” Ditzfeld said.
Despite all the challenges and the grueling nature of the event, Ditzfeld plans to go back next summer.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “There was one time during the race I thought this was crazy. Once you finish the race, it’s something that’s pretty magical. You have a feeling that’s indescribable and it’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”