Finding the right stuff
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Ultra-endurance events are not about winning, it is about finishing. For the few who attempt such contests, it about taking oneself to the limits of endurance, and even beyond, to discover they have “the right stuff.”
“It is all about finishing,” Donna Miles of Cabot said of her experience completing the Missouri American Water
MR-340, a grueling 340-mile endurance canoe/kayak trip from Kansas City, Mo,. to St. Charles on the Missouri River – that must be completed in 88 hours or less.
Until her brother asked her to give the race a try, she had never thought of doing something like this, Miles said in an interview. “I even might be the only one from Arkansas who completed it. There were three [this year], but the other two either did not enter the water or did not get to the first [check] point,” Miles said.
She said she could find no record of an Arkansas competitor in records of the past races.
“She was crazy enough to say ‘yes,’” Miles’ husband, Steve, remarked. By default, he was pressed into service as part of the support group for the pair.
Miles and her brother, Ken Tanner of St. Joseph, Mo., formed the MO/ARK Dynamic Duo, a mixed-tandem kayak team, and finished the race in 81 hours. “Literally on prayer,” Miles said.
It was last August that her brother invited her to join him, Miles said.
Her personal trainer, Brandie Knowles, helped her prepare for the race, Miles said. “I’ve been a hairdresser for 40 years. I had to do something to get ready,” she said.
“I don’t even swim,” Miles said. “I did it because my brother asked me to do it,” she said.
She said she spent time developing her upper arm and back muscles for the effort, but it nearly was not enough.
“I’m 58 years old. [Brandie] took some very flabby arms and put muscles in them,” she said.
By the time of the MR-340 she had paddled about 60 miles in a kayak, Miles said. Twenty miles was on the Arkansas River, “I’ll never do that again,” she remarked.
The intensity and strain are difficult to describe, even to the point of hallucinations, Miles said. “It is a mental game after you get past the first 24 hours,” she said.
“Making the right decisions, knowing what is real and what is not,” she said. “The hallucination factor hits everyone.”
There were lots of stories she could tell about the hallucinations, Miles said. “The first night I saw a semi coming at us,” she said.
Nighttime navigation is a special challenge, Miles said. “Trees take on shapes, you see animals that are not there,” she said.
The animal hazards can be real, Miles said. An Asian flying carp injured one kayaker; the fish hit with enough force to tear his shoulder joint, she recalled.
One other kayaker got to a checkpoint and decided the effort was too much and pulled out of the race. He laid down to rest but never got back up, Miles said.
As a team, she and her brother helped each other through, but the solo boaters had to rely on themselves, she said.
They had frequent requests from solo boaters for help, Miles said. “They’d say, ‘Can you kind of help through this next point? We can’t tell even how to go down the river,’” she recalled.
“Sometimes you cannot tell which way are going,” Miles said. The river is 300 yards wide and at night the trees are not discernible, there are no reference points to judge direction, she said.
Channel marker buoys were a particular danger, Miles said.
“Believe me, you don’t want to be near them. They draw current and they can suck you right into them. They are horrid,” she said.
“At night you have to listen for them. If you get too close they can trap you in the current,” she said.
Dikes, jetties, piers and bridges all presented hazards, Miles said. There were also towboats that created four-foot wakes, she said.
But then, the jetties and dikes became havens from the large waves.
The race began 8 a.m., July 23, “We finished at 12 minutes after five the 26th,” she said.
After days on the river, it came down to fighting the last 11 miles, Miles said.
Ken was having trouble holding the paddle, “He couldn’t do this any more,” she said, mimicking grasping a paddle.
“I was watching my hands, and I couldn’t get them to hit the water hard enough … I just can’t move this kayak,” she said.
“It was 11 miles of hit-and-miss [paddling],” she said.
It was then she texted a call for prayers, Miles said.
After hours of strain, the sight of the finish line made them forget that they were to swing wide of a nearby bridge, under which was cable.
“We just went straight for [finish line] and nearly screwed it up in the last few hundred yards, Miles said.
They hit the cable, and for a few terrible moments it was near certainty that they would capsize, Miles said. After desperate maneuvering they “popped” over the cable, she said.
“I have no idea how we did that. We came in on prayers; we should not have made it, we should not have gotten over that cable,” she said.
Steven said he was watching the two approach, and knew they were in trouble because they were coming straight in. He was watching with binoculars and was prepared for the worst. He saw them hit the cable, struggle briefly, and come clear.
Miles said she insisted they land the kayak sideways. “I said, no, I am not coming out of this one second ahead of him,” she said.
“I got my Sonic root beer,” Miles said of her celebration.
Sleep has been an issue since then, Miles said. The stress is intense, “I’m still having flashbacks. I close my eyes and I am back on the river,” she said.
“You take yourself back through it. You re-live it. I’m back on the river,” she said.
“We were warned to not make decisions for two weeks,” Miles said. On the way home, at a restaurant, she was asked what she wanted to drink. “It was ‘Uhhhh,’ I could not even think of what I wanted to drink,” she said.
“I suspect each time I get back together with my brother we will re-live it,” Miles said.
“No. No. It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Miles said of repeating the feat.
“We found out we have the right stuff … to succeed and continue in life,” she said.
“I am really, really glad I did it… there might be challenges that can be thrown at in the future. I think I can make it through them. Bring it on,” Miles remarked.