Karen Thomson didn’t want a big party for her upcoming 60th birthday. She wanted to race down the Missouri River in a canoe with her husband, Michael, in the 12th annual MR 340.
The 340-mile kayak and canoe race started on the Missouri River in Kansas City on August 8th and ended on August 11th in St. Charles. About 35 percent of those who enter the annual race, after training and planning, don’t finish it.
“It’s a race. It’s not a float trip,” said Karen.
For many, this may seem like an unusual way to spend a birthday—but for the Thomsons, it’s just another adventure on the road of life. Karen is a marathon runner and Michael has completed several half-marathons. The couple has backpacked and camped across the country in many national parks. Embracing an active lifestyle, they also enjoy fishing and skiing.
The couple runs each morning on the Katy Trail or Bangert Island in St. Charles. For years, they’ve been watching the canoes and kayaks come into St. Charles during the annual Missouri Race 340.
“Last year, with our grandson, James, we went down on a Friday night and watched them come in,” said Karen. “I was turning 60 this year and I told Michael that I didn’t want a big party; I want to do this race.”
And Michael said ‘OK.’ So, Karen signed them up at midnight on New Year’s Day. They hadn’t really trained for the race, so when attending the safety meeting, they got a little nervous.
“Our kids were kind of mad at us for doing this because they said we aren’t ready,” said Karen.
“Everyone has land crews…but we didn’t so we loaded everything into the canoe, giving us an extra 150 lbs.,” said Michael.
The Missouri River only goes about three miles an hour, so reaching each checkpoint required some heavy paddling.
“They have a boat called the Reaper, and if the Reaper passes you at a checkpoint, you’re done,” said Karen. “The first day they try to weed a lot of people out.”
“Karen became quite the paddler,” said Michael. “There’s an art to it.”
The couple reached the first checkpoint with just seven minutes to spare. By the second checkpoint, they had 15 minutes before the Reaper Boat would catch up.
“We got out of the canoe at about 9 p.m., ate a sandwich and I told Karen we need to get back in and paddle all night,” said Michael.
And the couple paddled almost non-stop, sleeping for only a total of seven hours from Tuesday to Friday night.
The first night Michael and Karen slept on a sandbar for a couple of hours. The second night they made the top of a boat ramp their bed. On the third night, the couple took shelter from the rain and slept for a few hours underneath a pavilion in Hermann.
“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” said Karen. “And my son John said, ‘mom, you’re too stubborn to quit.’ ”
Sleep deprivation and total darkness were the hardest parts of the race for Karen and Michael. With only seven hours of sleep over several days, it wore on them. And one night there was no moon for several hours and the couple paddled in complete darkness, hoping not to miss a channel.
Karen said it was absolutely beautiful to see the Missouri countryside.
“The best part of the trip was probably when we went under Highway 70 in Rocheport and it was a beautiful morning,” said Michael. “We finally took the time to stop and make a cup of coffee.”
The Thomson’s completed the Missouri 340 Race in 81 hours and 18 minutes, well before the 88-hour race time limit.
“Those kayaks would zip around us,” said Karen. “No record, but we finished.”
The couple learned a lot after their first experience. One, it helps to have a land crew. Two, don’t bring near as much food because each town sold food as a fundraiser. And three, don’t expect to sleep or relax.
“People asked us if we fought, and I told them there was no time to fight,” said Karen.
“Big shout out to the volunteers and the organizer. It was an amazing race.”
The couple has created a partnership in all areas of their life. And it started with the family business—Thomson Printing.
“In my previous life, I was a graphic designer and Michael was my printer,” said Karen. “When I met him I just thought he was so considerate.”
That was over 30 years ago. The couple has now been married for more than 30 years, and has three grown children and two grandsons.
Thomson Printing, a mid-sized commercial printer and web development company, can handle business printing, small books, catalogs, points of purchase, and promotional items.
“If he can’t do it, he will find someone who can,” said Karen.
Personal attention sets Thomson Printing apart from the competition.
“I’ve worked with many a printer in my day, and he will go above and beyond,” said Karen. “Michael really takes care of his customers.”
Thomson Printing has offices in both St. Charles and the Central West End. Five years ago, the couple’s son John joined the company and runs the web development side of the business.
“Around here, we try to make it a very enjoyable experience,” said Michael.
Karen also works in the print shop “enough to be a nuisance.” But she also teaches at Lindenwood University, in the non-profit school and the accelerated degree program’s Communications Department. She also does workshops and training.
Early childhood education is a topic close to her heart, and she is active with the St. Louis Regional Early Childhood Council.
“I’m very passionate about early childhood,” said Karen. “I feel strongly about investing our time and our money in the 0-5 age range because it’s the most rapid rate of development in a human being’s life. I always say, ‘if you want to change the world, start with early childhood.’ ”
In her spare time, she runs marathons. Karen and her son John are working on running a marathon in each of the 50 states. As of press time, the two have completed marathons in 46 states, most recently in Portland, Oregon.
Michael and Karen are involved in the community, often giving donations anonymously, or offering assistance and price breaks to local nonprofits.
“Michael’s very humble. He’s very sweet and charitable,” said Karen. “Many times he will give, and tell them he doesn’t want his name on it…really just wanting to be a meaningful part of the community.”
So, will the couple brave the Missouri River again next year?
“I thought it was really great fun,” said Karen. “I’d do it again.”
Michael is a little more hesitant. “I’m still deciding,” said Michael.
Photo compliments of the Thompson Family