Eight years later, Shane Perrin still remembers the taunts.
“Get your surfboard out of here.”
“Where’s the beach, bro?”
“There’s no way you’re going to finish on that thing.”
The skepticism he was subjected to by a few narrow-minded paddlers at the start of the MR340 was somewhat understandable. After all, nobody had even attempted the 340-mile course from Kansas City, Missouri to St. Charles, Missouri on a standup paddleboard, let alone completed the grueling, multi-day race. Heck, a lot of the Midwesterners hadn’t even seen someone paddling a SUP before. The MR340 was the domain of canoes, kayaks, rafts and maybe – if a few people were going to get really ambitious – a dragon boat or two. But a paddleboard? No chance.
Despite the naysayers, Perrin ground away on his stock board with a paddle so heavy he nicknamed it “The Hammer.” And sure enough, the gritty paddler from St. Louis defied all expectations (including his own) and finished ahead of many of those same skeptics who’d poured scorn on his groundbreaking attempt.
“Once people could see that a SUP is a viable craft for the river, it opened their eyes,” Perrin said. “Suddenly people were asking me where I got my board and a lot of them wanted to try it out. I’d like to think I made a few converts.”
This experience was only the beginning for Perrin, who soon became a distance racing pioneer. He was the first SUP paddler to attempt and finish the Texas Water Safari, which is billed as the toughest river race on the planet. Then he journeyed to the jungles of Belize and repeated the feat in La Ruta Maya, before completing an epic 530-miler in the Florida Everglades Challenge. On his next three returns to the MR340, Perrin lowered his own SUP course record, and soon became a favorite among the fans and his newly-receptive fellow paddlers. He also established several “firsts” on expeditions between the Caribbean islands and set a world record for distance paddled in 24 hours. The message was clear: SUP is legit and here to stay.
Yet despite his success in evangelizing the sport across the Midwest and proving that standup is just as viable on lakes and rivers as it is in the ocean, Perrin soon tired of all the ultra-races and chasing records. Having proven how far he could push his own physical limits and SUP’s endurance boundaries, he became determined to do even more to cultivate the Midwest paddling community. Perrin also found a way to share his story of bouncing back from a kidney transplant in 2001, so that he could inspire others and show that paddling is for everyone. In 2014, he teamed up with Nathan Woods, an amputee from Oregon, to paddle 164 miles north up the Willamette River from Eugene to Portland.
The following year, Perrin made his return to the MR340 and brought two friends along. With Jerico LeFort and then 81-year-old Dale Sanders (who has since become the oldest man to through-hike the Appalachian Trail), Perrin proceeded to pilot the first tandem SUP board in the race’s history to the finish line. Then in 2016, his hearty crew expanded, with Daren Wolf, Bailey Donahue, TJ Holman, and Madison Davis coming aboard Perrin’s six-person custom-made rig. Through SUP, Holman has lost over 100 pounds, shared his inspirational story back to health with hundreds of people, and recently opened his own watersports shop. This is just one example of the impact Perrin’s inclusive approach is having on the ever-growing Midwest paddling tribe.
When he sat down with his friends to talk about this year’s MR340, Perrin considered sitting the event out entirely because he was burned out. But in the midst of a spirited conversation, he came up with the idea of entering a 12-person team in the 2018 event, his reluctance suddenly replaced by enthusiasm. Perrin also realized that while designing a large enough board would present plenty of logistical challenges, it would be a way to get the most SUP entrants ever into the Midwest’s premier distance race.
At the time, Perrin didn’t know exactly what he was getting himself into. Making a three or six-person board is one thing, but creating a 12-person craft is quite another. Quickly realizing that a single surface wouldn’t work for flotation reasons, Perrin and Wolf – who’d signed on to help him in his shop – settled on a hybrid between a SUP and outrigger canoe, with six people on each side. They began geeking out on paddling forums and hitting up canoe clubs to pick the brains of experienced boat builders. Then the real work began.
Months of chemical burns, aching joints and failed prototypes later, Perrin and Wolf finally finished their build the day before the race. They had to make just one last tweak due to flotation issues, doubling the number of bamboo support struts literally hours before the team (Perrin plus Daren Wolf, Jessica Kiefer, Cami Ronchetto, Linda Sue Lafontaine, Justin Brooke, Dave Grebetz, Brendaly Rodriguez, Beth Burkhardt, Bailey Donahue, Rod Wellington, and Kyle Patrick) congregated at the start line.
“I was exhausted before the race even began!” Perrin said. “Between running my business, spending time with my family and the hundreds of hours we put in on the board, I had no time to train. Then we got only a couple of hours sleep the night before the race because our hotel was overbooked and we had to switch to somewhere else. But once we got on the water, I felt ready.”
The other challenge was bringing together experienced paddlers with newbies and trying to make a cohesive team. Perrin found himself yelling at his crew before they even started the race, which he said led to, “everyone pouting and not speaking to me for a few miles.” But soon enough they’d gotten over his dose of tough love and the rest of the race was marked by comradery instead of conflict.
“We paddled as hard as we could the entire way, but also found time to laugh and joke with each other,” Perrin said. “My favorite moment was when someone started singing to keep our spirits up at four in the morning, and everybody joined in. It felt more like a float trip than a grueling race.”
The crew’s fast finish belied the sheer number of miles they’d paddled, with Perrin’s posse coming in fifth overall (albeit down to 11 paddlers, as Rod Wellington had to drop out due to illness at the 100-mile mark).
A decade into his paddling career, Perrin’s passion for SUP shows no signs of waning. Rather, it has evolved. He’s planning more team racing and is using the imminent debut of his board-shaping venture to extend paddling to adaptive athletes.
“As Nathan and TJ have demonstrated, SUP truly is a sport that anybody can try and enjoy, no matter what perceived limitations people might have placed on them,” he said. “It’s my goal to keep spreading this message as far and wide as I can, and to get as many people involved as possible.”
Such an aim transcends first-finisher feats and records. It’s the stuff legacies are made of.
The article was originally published on Standup Paddling
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