By Phil White

Reading about Huck Finn’s leisurely jaunts down the Missouri River is one thing. Making your own downriver adventure a reality is another matter. Scott Mansker emulated Mark Twain’s iconic literary figure on a homemade raft when he was a teenager. Five years ago and a decade of paddling adventures later, Mansker decided to involve others in his desire to get recreational boating back on the Missouri, which in recent years has been dominated by commercial traffic and fishing.

The manifestation of this hope became the longest, non-stop river race in the United States – the Missouri River 340, aka the MR340, which starts in Kansas City, Mo., and ends either 88 hours, or 340 miles later, in St. Charles, Mo. Or even sooner, as was the case at this year’s endurance race, for some. A total of 200 racers gathered to compete, though 140 pulled out when the start date was delayed from July 27 to Aug. 24, due to dangerously high water. (The field promises to be bigger next year as most of these competitors took a free registration pass for the 2011 race.)

Not just a competitive event, the race draws in one of the most diverse fields you will ever see on a river – everyone from elite endurance athletes to recreational paddlers to complete novices who, like Masker years ago, are just intrigued by floating down a giant river in or on a homemade craft.

“Exploring a piece of wilderness right here in the Midwest satisfies many people’s thirst for adventure,” says Mansker’s co-organizer, Karin Thomas. “There’s a special sense of community that’s shown in dozens of stories each year, like the vendor who left food behind at a checkpoint when she packed up and the next day found 27 dollars in a box where those snacks had been.”

MR340 organizers and entrants also display a commitment to raising money for charitable causes. This year the race partnered with Missouri River Relief, which keeps hundreds of miles of river, converted railroad Katy trails, river roads and shoreline clear of trash and other waste.

One of the other causes championed this year is the Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis. When she was a teenager, MR340 racer Christina Glauner, from Lawrence, Kan., received treatment at this facility for six years for chronic pain. She overcame her condition, and while running track in college discovered paddlesports. In 2008, she explored the possibility of forming an all-female canoe crew for the MR340, but quickly the plan snowballed into her and 20 other male and female paddlers entering a dragon boat in this year’s race to benefit Shriners Hospital as Team Beauties and Barnacles.

As this unlikely crew researched dragon boat racing, they discovered that typically these colorfully decorated craft compete over sprint courses, and that the dragon boat endurance record was 82 miles. Glauner and her teammates began 11 months of training and logistics, which culminated in them not only eclipsing this world record by over 250 miles, but also achieving third place overall and becoming only the fifth boat to complete the MR340 in less than 40 hours.

“It’s usually the same seasoned pros in expensive equipment on the podium for races like the MR340, but we proved that anyone can form a successful team,” Glauner says. “Even more importantly, we raised money and awareness for Shriners Hospital, which was even more satisfying to us than any record.”

Other success stories from the 2010 MR340 included husband and wife team Charles and Di McHenry, who won the mixed tandem category against a strong field in a course record of 41 hours, 26 minutes, in this, their fifth year racing the event.

“There are no portages for the MR340 and we didn’t sleep, so it’s a greater challenge than other ultramarathon paddles,” says Di, who in July took advantage of the MR340 start delay to paddle 204 miles in 24 hours on the Missouri River – setting a new world record for women’s solo kayaking. “We just gutted it out and were able to take advantage of the high water and fine weather to set the new record.”

Another record fell in the men’s tandem category, in which West Hansen and David Kelly held off Wally Werderich and Nick Josefik to win by a slender margin of 14 minutes (36:48). In the women’s solo division, Robyn Benincasa also set a new best mark for the event, coming in at 43:06. Santo Albright also made the most of fast conditions to win the men’s solo division by over four hours, finishing in 38:44.