Two local adventurers traveled the Missouri River recently, paddling 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles, Mo. They were competing in the Missouri American Water MR 340 race, or the Missouri 340, which bills itself as the world's longest nonstop river race.

Steve Butler of Urbana and Nathan Willard of Mahomet completed the race, which started July 28.

The race requires that boats be propelled exclusively by paddles. While most of the boats in the race are kayaks or canoes, a few racers paddled the river on stand-up paddleboards, and there was also a division for kayaks powered by pedals rather than paddles. There were also divisions for tandem paddlers and for larger teams.

Butler, 35, canoed and kayaked on Boy Scout trips while growing up. He got his first kayak when he graduated from college, and since then he's acquired "a whole fleet of kayaks."

When he decided to do the Missouri 340, he bought another one on Craigslist that he described as 21 feet long, skinny and not very stable. He added an outrigger to make it more stable and elevated the seat so he could use a single-blade paddle (think oar) rather than a double-blade, which gives him shoulder pain.

Willard, 23, also canoed and kayaked while growing up, on the Sangamon River behind his house. He didn't have a kayak suitable for a long-distance race, so he contacted dealers and found one in Minnesota who loaned him a Stellar kayak called a Surf Ski. The dealer, Joe Zellner, had used the same kayak to win the Missouri 340 in 2012.Blog Photo

"The kayaks are really narrow and real tippy. It was the first time I'd ever been in one like that," Willard said. "It took some getting used to."

To train, both men paddled as much as they could, and they lifted weights and did a lot of core work.

"Paddling is all driven by core strength," Butler said.

Butler paddled the Wabash River before it got above flood stage, then Lake Shelbyville and the upper Kaskaskia River. He worked up to 12- to 15-hour paddles on the weekends.

Willard paddled the Sangamon, Wabash and Vermilion rivers, and often paddled around lakes and at River Bend Forest Preserve in Mahomet.

"Once I decided to do this and really started to look at the science behind it all, I realized I needed to change my kayak stroke," Willard said. "Instead of extending your arms, you keep your arms still and use your core."

While the training was important, Butler said, "the biggest part of this race isn't endurance or strength; it's all in your head. At certain times, it really sucks and you just have to have the mentality to keep going. It's going to hurt and you just have to be OK with that."

Butler has been an endurance athlete for some time, doing triathlons and running marathons and ultramarathons. "I'm used to hurting for long periods of time."

The Missouri 340 has a cutoff time of 88 hours. The race has nine checkpoints along the way, and racers must stop and check in at each one. They also must have a pit crew, which can meet the participant at each checkpoint, or which can be a "virtual" crew that keeps track of the racer electronically and knows the racer's relative location.

Willard's parents were his crew, meeting him along the way. Likewise, Butler's father followed him along the river route. Their crews resupplied them with food at checkpoints.

Willard decided to use Hammer products — an energy drink mix that he put in a water bladder and drank from every 20 minutes throughout the race, and gels that he ate every hour. He also took electrolyte pills.

"There were definitely times when I wanted a cheeseburger, but I stayed away from all that kind of stuff," he said.

Butler went the burger route. He had a cooler of food strapped to his kayak, and he would swap it out at each checkpoint for an identical cooler with more food — fast-food burgers or chicken sandwiches, salty snacks such as Goldfish or Cheez-its, Clif bars, frozen fruit and Powerade. He also kept a gallon jug of drinking water just behind him in the boat.Blog Photo

Both men used GPS to track their speed and elapsed time, but they relied on markers on the river for navigation. They were easy to follow, even at night. The race is held during a full moon. The boats are required to have navigation lights, and both men had headlamps and spotlights but rarely used them, as the moon provided ample light.

The temperatures reached the upper 90s on the first day and many racers dropped out. But a storm that night cooled things off somewhat. Both men pulled off the water to let the storm pass, as did many other racers. Willard said the waves crashing over the top of the boat made it impossible for him to make any progress paddling. He was using all his energy to keep the boat stabilized so it wouldn't flip.

Willard and Butler planned to sleep very little during the race, paddling into the early hours of the morning each day. Willard slept a total of two hours and 15 minutes, taking two 30-minute naps, sleeping about an hour during the heat of the second day, and resting for another 15 minutes several hours before finishing.

"I told my parents before the race started, there are going to be times when I hate you and I'm not going to be happy with anything you do because I'm going to be tired and frustrated. I told them I didn't want to sleep much, if at all. I told them not to let me sleep more than an hour," he said.

Butler slept an hour each night. His strategy was to spend as little time as possible on shore. With the water current, the boat kept moving even if he took a break from paddling.

"Every 15 minutes on shore, you're losing a mile," Butler said. "There were definitely people in a lot faster boats than me and were stronger paddlers, but they were spending a lot of time on shore."

All that time in the boat without sleep took its toll.

"Things got weird by the second night," Butler said. "The hallucinations were strange. I saw ghost barges. At one point, I thought a barge was about to run me over, and I was trying to get out of the way. When I looked back up, there was nothing there. Trees started morphing into people and animals."

That's when he decided to take a break and get some sleep. On the third day, "in the broad daylight, I started seeing animals in the water. I looked at my hands, and it looked like my hands were melting."

The worst day for Willard was the first. The heat caused severe cramps.

"There were a couple times where my whole core cramped up," he said. "There were times where, if I set my paddle down and didn't have it in my hands, my fingers would cramp up as if I was still holding the paddle. My hands would cramp up in a fist and I couldn't get my fingers open. I would have to pry them open with my other hand, and then it would cramp."

By halfway through the race, though, "I was surprised I was doing as well as I was," Willard said.

"I definitely felt tired in my core and abs and arms, but I wasn't at the point where I couldn't take another stroke. I was tired, but I could still go. I never hit a breaking point where I said I'm done because I can't expend any more energy."Blog Photo

He started pushing harder after the second day, trying to break 50 hours. He did so, finishing in 48 hours and 16 minutes. He came in 32nd out of the 252 boats that finished. (There were 431 boats that started.)

Butler put in a hard effort throughout the race. For him, the hardest stretch was the last 20 miles.

"I just hit a wall. The hallucinations kicked back in again. I just started feeling awful," he said. "All my energy disappeared. I just felt drained. That was a rough stretch. Up to that point, I was doing pretty good."

He finished better than he had hoped for, though, in 54 hours and 5 minutes. He was 55th out of the 252 finishing boats.

Willard was awed by the number of volunteers who manned the checkpoints and cheered on the racers, as well as the other competitors.

"It was neat to see all the different stories and all the different people out there," he said.

For Butler, the highlight was a particular stretch of river around Columbia, Mo.

"You're hitting the edge of the Ozarks. There are these big bluffs and these huge white cliffs over the river. That was cool," he said. "That's the best part — being on the water and seeing the sunrise and sunset every day."

Both men said they don't have plans to do the race again next year. But, Willard said, "I'm sure I'll probably start to think about it. I wouldn't be surprised if something spurred me to do it."

Butler has many other long-distance paddles — not necessarily races — on his bucket list. But he'll likely do the Missouri 340 again someday.

"I'm already thinking I can go under 50 hours."

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at

Photos: Top: With the Jefferson City, Mo., skyline -- and the state Capitol -- ahead of him, Nathan Willard of Mahomet paddles on the Missouri River during the Missouri 340 race. Photo provided by Nathan Willard. Middle: Steve Butler of Urbana modified the kayak he raced in the Missouri 340 with an outrigger for stability. Photo provided by Steve Butler. Bottom: Participants in the Missouri 340 race at the start of the race, coming out of the mouth of the Kansas River with the Kansas City skyline in the background. Photo provided by Steve Butler.

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