Rolling on the River

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Linda LaFontaine didn’t expect to see Dobermans swimming in the Missouri River, and she certainly didn’t expect them to attack her paddles as she kayaked through the dark water. But there they were, maneuvering through the current like sea lions and repeatedly dragging her oars deep below the surface. Oddly, LaFontaine’s teammate, Cami Ronchetto, didn’t see the dogs at all. Instead, Ronchetto was focused on the Easter Island statues towering above the riverbanks. She hadn’t remembered seeing the monolithic human figures on the map — but then again, the past several days had been full of surprises.

The lifelong friends were approaching the end of the Missouri River 340, the world’s longest nonstop river race. The 6-year-old MR340 stretches 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles along the Big Muddy. During the 2009 event, LaFontaine and Ronchetto paddled for 41 hours without resting and experienced nausea, pain, cramps, rashes, blisters, sunburn, numbness and, of course, hallucinations. “The lack of sleep made me see crazy things,” LaFontaine says of the Doberman illusions, although some of her mirages made sense, such as trees and rocks morphing into swimmers or safety boats.

The Carp Target Grannies, as LaFontaine and Ronchetto call themselves, overcame the physical and mental challenges of being on the water to finish their inaugural race in 61 hours and 50 minutes. They won the women’s tandem division, $500 in quarters from race sponsor Tiny Bubbles Laundromat and the Women’s Intersport Network Sportswomen of the Year award. But most importantly, the kayaking duo decided to race again in 2010.

Ronchetto, who became a grandmother in 2009, says, “Doing this race is like having a baby. When it’s all over, you forget the pain and remember how good it felt to stop. Then you start again and say, ‘Why am I doing this again?’ ”

But at 8 a.m. on July 27, the Carp Target Grannies will again be one of 340 teams pushing off from Kaw Point Park in Wyandotte County to head east on the river. Co-race director Scott Mansker says LaFontaine and Ronchetto will likely drop a few hours from their 2009 time simply because they have a year’s experience, which means the pair has a good shot at breaking the women’s tandem record of 61 hours and 9 minutes. But LaFontaine and Ronchetto are looking beyond that record to the exclusive “50-Hour Club” — the group of racers who’ve finished the event in fewer than 50 hours. No women’s tandem team has paddled that quickly yet, and LaFontaine and Ronchetto are pulling out all the stops to earn their place in history.

Last year’s hefty 85-pound kayak was replaced with a sleek 38-pound Huki Surf Ski — a favorite of many world-class paddlers. The canary-colored boat is made of Kevlar and carbon and uses a gull wing for stabilization. Even so, controlling the wispy kayak in rough waters or windy conditions is difficult, even with high-tech paddles. “We are still working on balance,” LaFontaine says. “We can’t talk much — we’re in constant focus.”

The long, slender boat has no cargo space, which means Power Bars tucked into life preserver pockets and carefully-stowed water bottles are about all the woman can carry aboard their tippy vessel. The Carp Target Grannies will rely heavily on their ground crew for everything else. A dedicated group of family and friends, including LaFontaine’s husband, Tom, and Ronchetto’s husband, Jim, will provide moral support, food, coffee and equipment such as bed rolls and cots — although neither LaFontaine nor Ronchetto plans on sleeping much, even at night.

Although paddling in the dark saves time, it’s also dangerous. “The river has many hidden surprises,” Ronchetto says of the wing dykes, dancing navigation buoys, parked barges, bridge pilings and river traffic that are often hard to see and avoid after the sun sets. “One of the worst is the rushing water noise right in front of you and you have no idea if you should go left or right until it’s too late.”

Ronchetto sits in the front of the boat and will likely see any dangers first. “She has outdoor survival skills and is a fine problem solver. I trust her completely to keep us safe,” LaFontaine says of her EMT-trained teammate. “Ronchetto’s definitely the captain of the ship.”

If all goes well, the Carp Target Grannies will register at all nine checkpoints and end their journey at the Lewis & Clark Museum in St. Charles on July 29. Columbia-based Thetis Paddles will award cash prizes to the first- through third-place finishers in the women’s tandem division.

“Paddling is one of the few sports where women can compete on an almost-even basis with men,” says owner and paddle-maker Charlie Lockwood. “The advantage of strength is somewhat negated by the skill necessary to propel the boat.”

Although there are gender divisions in the MR340, there are no age groups. Although 59-year-old LaFontaine and 50-year-old Ronchetto are among the older kayakers, both are confidently optimistic about their athletic capabilities. LaFontaine, a former president of the Columbia Track Club, has been a middle-distance runner since 1984; she also cycles and lifts weights.

“I was not specifically kayak trained but was in overall good physical condition,” LaFontaine says. “Running gave me the endurance needed and the mental toughness to ignore discomfort and block physical pain.”

Ronchetto, who has run marathons and adventure races since the age of 30, shares that mindset. Both women are lifting weights and cross-training to increase their balance, endurance and strength.

LaFontaine and Ronchetto’s ability to get along is just as important as their physical condition. “Taking a long paddle with someone is kind of like taking a cross-country drive with someone — difference being you can’t really get out and walk around and eat and get away from each other,” Ronchetto says. But the Carp Target Grannies rarely become frustrated with one another and have enough in common to talk for hours. In addition to chatting about the things they both enjoy — children, painting, music — the river never fails to keep them entertained. Both women have a sense of wonder and discovery that makes every trip an adventure.

“I’m not sure we’ve ever had a paddle where something interesting hasn’t happened,” Ronchetto says. “Storms, bossy tug boats, curious eagles, fiery fall foliage, snow-covered cliffs, equipment failures, interesting river folk — they all make the Missouri river the soap opera of nature.”

LaFontaine adds river otters, beavers, snow geese, carp and the 2002 Leonid Meteor Shower to the list. “We met at the river at 3 a.m., paddled upstream, rode the current back and watched the meteors fire across the sky,” she remembers. “It was magical.”

Mutual respect is an important part of LaFontaine and Ronchetto’s friendship. Each describes the other as a good, kind person and they are continually inspired by one another to not only to paddle faster and farther but to be better people in general.

“I do not think I would do this event with anyone else,” LaFontaine says. “We had a great time doing the race last year. It was the most challenging, yet most fun event I’ve ever done. Cami said we should always do it, until we’re too old to get in the boat. What a marvelous thought.”

Maybe someday they’ll even sleep at the checkpoints.

MR340: The Rules

Athletes who fail to complete the course in 88 hours or register at any of the nine checkpoints along the route are disqualified. Three and a half days might sound like enough time to travel the state’s width, but a third of the MR340 contestants failed to make the cutoff last year.

Although there are no restrictions on boat size or design, boats must be propelled by paddles only — no sails allowed. All competitors must carry a river map, cell phone, towing ropes, a knife, a first-aid kit, an emergency Mylar blanket, matches, water, navigation lights and flashlights. Gloves, tents, food, sunblock, GPS, radios and duct tape are recommended.

Ground crews may not propel the boat in any way or even touch it while it’s in the water, but they can help with supplies, setting up tents and preparing meals.

All athletes must wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life preservers equipped with whistles and emergency lights.

Paddling at night is not required; athletes who decide to take that risk are required to use navigation lights.

Columbia’s MR340 Athletes

Men’s Solo:

Colin Doggett

Lane Fanguy

Bryan Hopkins

Michael Smith

Women’s Solo:

Renee Simmons

Men’s Tandem:

Cabrewin: Chad Burns, Alan Eyink

Canoeby-Dooby-Do: Ryan Roe, Matt Wightman

CoMotion: Norm Cox, Mark Workman

Eddy Riders: Kory Breuer, Matthew Story

Flying Carp: Matt Kohly, David Woodsmall

Intrepid Rowers: Jamold Little, Jason Smith

Maximum Displacement: David Alexander, Britt Shea

Meatheads: Jerod Smothers, Chris Widmer

Mr. Speed and the Kid: Brent Wade, Ross Wade

Purple Blaze: Thomas Highland, Brett Krautmann

Team Gonzo: Kyle Cook, Douglas Freeman

The Regulators: Ross Hrdina, Jordan Morris

Women’s Tandem:

Carp Target Grannies: Linda LaFontaine, Cami Ronchetto

Meyers-Hagenhoff: Beverly Hagenhoff, Cecily Meyers

Mixed Tandem:

Catfish 87: Katie Hammond, Kent Strodtman

Catfish ‘n’ Annie: Ann McCauley, Scott Melton

Lockwood/Pfefferkorn: Charlie Lockwood, Jodi Pfefferkorn

MoDak: Josh & Sarah Pennington

Papoulias-Buckler: Denny Bucker, Diana Papoulias

Proving ’Em Wrong: Madison & Mallory Moore

Team Random Chimp: Matthew & Rachel Keeler

Woodcock/Woodcock: Brent & Cindy Woodcock

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