Blake Thornton: No. 1 standup paddleboarder

Darkhorse mathematician sets record in 340-mile river race

It’s safe to say that any river race with a skull-and-crossbones logo isn’t a lazy summer float. And in fact, the Missouri American Water MR340 is a famous test of endurance.

In late July, more than 400 hardy souls in canoes, kayaks, dragon boats, pedal-drive boats and standup paddleboards put into the Missouri River at Kansas City, aiming to paddle 340 miles to St. Charles, Mo., in 88 hours or less. Paddlers had to sign in at nine checkpoints along the route, and were disqualified if they didn’t make it by cutoff times based on an 88-hour pace.

This year, Washington University in St. Louis mathematician Blake Thornton, PhD, finished first in the paddleboard division with a record time of 61 hours and 28 minutes, trimming 3 hours and 24 minutes off the previous record.

Thornton was something of a darkhorse. By his own admission, he came in last in previous paddleboard races, the “Race to the Dome” in Oct. 2014; the “Epic Shootout” in April 2015; and last again in the “Gritty” race on the Kansas River.

“Not only did I come in last in the ‘Epic Shootout,’ ” Thornton said, “I set a record for the longest time to complete the course. The race organizer had my time wrong and had given me an hour. I contacted him, and he basically told me that it wasn’t possible to paddle so slow. My GPS track said otherwise.”

But the annual MR340 is a long enough race that there’s time for luck, strategy and pain tolerance to put a thumb on the scales for a competitor.

The first day of the race, July 28, was oppressively hot, and many competitors dropped out. Thornton, chugging water and eating nuun tablets, was more worried about making the checkpoints. So worried he arrived two hours early at the first two.

At the second checkpoint, his one-man support crew, Mladen Victor Wickherhauser, PhD, professor of mathematics in Arts & Sciences at the university, set him up with boat lights. Thornton continued paddling under a full moon and the fairy lights of other craft bobbing in the distance and lightning strikes on the horizon.

Reaching the third checkpoint at midnight, he wanted to continue but Wickerhauser talked him into a break and he crawled into the back of a minivan to sleep.

“Around 2:30 a.m., the wind rose and by 3 a.m., a major thunderstorm had rolled in. It rained really hard, and those still on the river were hammered,” Thornton said. “Many around me were sleeping on the ground and in tents. They were clobbered, too. Tents were knocked over, and I was very glad we had the minivan.”

The thunderstorm broke the heat, and the next day was a “delightful day of paddling.”

But as he paddled he “did the math” and realized that either he or a paddleboarder named John Straub from Washington state was on pace to set the course record for the paddleboard divsion.

“John was a little faster than me, but he was taking longer breaks at the stops,” Thornton said. “And when he decided to pull over at Katfish Katy’s, the fifth checkpoint, to get some sleep, I decided to keep going.”

Thornton got his night lights set up, paddled another ten miles, met Wickerhauser and stocked up for the night. When he pulled into Jefferson City about midnight, he was still feeling pretty good so Wickerhauser sent him off again, with a sleeping pad, blanket, tarp and dry clothes.

About 2 a.m. that second night, his legs started shaking. “I would stand up and paddle for 20 minutes, and my legs would shake,” he said. “So I would kneel but that was difficult, not as efficient, and it hurt.”

So he pulled off before reaching the seventh checkpoint and tried to sleep wrapped in his blanket and tarp.

He woke to a river that was shrouded in dense fog. But he and another paddler set off anyway using GPS to find their way.

Thornton said he was OK for the first hour and then his legs started shaking again. “I struggled to find the right combination of kneeling, standing and leaning on the water jug that would let me keep paddling,” he said.

Wickerhauser met him at the eighth checkpoint with a jury-rigged, Therm-a-Rest-covered water-jug recliner.

But by the time Thornton made the last checkpoint, he was exhausted. “My standing-sitting-kneeling routine had taken it all out of me and I was just spent,” he said. “I rolled off the board at the checkpoint, scaring the volunteers helping me up the ramp.

By that point he had only 27 miles to go — but those last 27 miles were “the longest on the river,” Thornton said. “When I crossed under the I-64 bridge, I thought I must be close, but the river kept going and going.”

He was revived by shouting, and then realized people were shouting for him. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

“I’m so happy I was able to finish,” he said. “I started the race worried about making the checkpoints. Actually setting a record was beyond my wildest dreams.”