One woman’s first place finish in the MR150
By Scott Hays
Anthea would be the first to say that her overall first-place finish in the MR (Mississippi River) 150 paddling race was not her victory. It was a victory for her and her friend and paddling partner, experienced paddler Jim Pechous, and their ground crew, the father and son team of John and Chris Davey.
Starting out, Anthea said, “I never ever set my sights on winning the whole thing by any means. This was my very first really long endurance race. I’ve never been more than about, maybe, 10 or 12 hours in a boat. And I was like, I don’t even know if I can stay up all night or sit in that thing for 24 hours. So, I didn’t really have high expectations. I wasn’t setting my goals too high. I wanted to win, but really I was more like, ‘I wanna finish this.’
Increasingly popular, long-distance endurance racing has many champion paddlers right here in Illinois, including the co-ed tandem kayak team of Anthea Halpryn and Jim Pechous, who finished first place overall in the 2023 Mississippi River 150 in their Stellar ST21 tandem kayak. The 150 mile “MR 150” begins in Brainerd, Minnesota, heading downriver to the Coon Rapids dam just north of Minneapolis. This was Anthea’s first endurance race, and I recently had a chance to talk with her about her tandem team’s first-place victory.
The first thing I was curious about was, why do this to yourself? Just before launching, Anthea asked herself the same question: “I just want to know what this old lady’s got. Where’s the point that I can’t do it? A couple of years ago, when I was brand new at paddling, I heard about this race, and I don’t know why, but I’m just like, ‘I have to do that race!’”
Starting out, she sized up the competition: “There was another tandem team with two guys in the exact same boat we had, and it’s really fast. It’s a nice boat, but I couldn’t think about that because I didn’t want to jinx it. Of course, I wanted to do well, but dreaming of winning was, well… you know, this is my first race. But I said, ‘Those two guys, that’s my race. I wanna beat those two guys!’” In the end, Anthea added, “We definitely accomplished that. They ended up dropping out!”
The race began June 9th at 3 in the afternoon. There were portages, “but the portages make it nice when you’re on a long stretch like this, and you can actually get out of the kayak and move around a little bit.” But still: “At the portages, it was hustle, hustle. We put the wheels on and got everything situated. We ate while we were hauling the kayak with the strap on, drinking soup or sandwich wraps with one hand at the same time. There was no sitting and having a nice little meal riverside. It was all running.”
Anthea worried about staying awake and paddling the entire night. “I’ve done some night paddles, but not where you’re seeing the sunset and sunrise in the same paddle.”
Then after the sun came up: “There was a point where I was so tired. It was probably around 11 am. So, it’s like the sun’s come back up, and you’ve got through that third burst of energy with the sun coming up. And then it’s just like, is it nap time now? How much longer is it? It got me good, and I was still paddling, just getting tired, and I was just kind of closing my eyes – resting my eyes a little bit as I’m paddling.”
Later, she wondered, “What did I miss all night? That’s a really gorgeous stretch of river, and I wish I could go back and see all the parts I couldn’t see that are probably so pretty. The daytime parts of the river were really, really nice.”
Day two became afternoon, then, “At one checkpoint, our ground crew said, ‘the guy in first is just 3 minutes ahead of you,’ and we’re looking, we’re on a straightaway, and we don’t see him. And I just said, ‘Jim, I don’t think I have what it takes in me to overtake him, second place is good enough for us to win first in our class, and 2nd overall is just fine.’ So we continued at our pace.”
“Then we ended up where we could see him, and he was getting a little closer and a little closer. And I was like, hmm, you know, we’re not going all out, we’re not really trying to catch him, we’re just paddling at our pace, and we’re catching him. So, we got to the last checkpoint, and he asked, ‘where’s the next boat?’ And they’re like, ‘right there.’ I think he was gonna stop for a bit, but he quickly took back off.”
Anthea continued, “Probably about 10 minutes later, we overtook him, and that was definitely the most exciting moment of the race. Just getting right behind him, Jim said, “We’ve practiced our silent 20s” which is just going all out for like 20 seconds. And he’s like, ‘We’re gonna do a silent 20,’ and we just gave it everything. We zoomed past him, and he said something to the effect of, like, ‘I can’t catch you guys’. And then we just literally sprinted the whole last 30 miles. You know, once #2 was in our sight, it’s amazing, I got my fourth wind.”
Just after 2:30 on their second day at Coon Rapids just north of Minneapolis, after slightly over 150 miles of nonstop kayaking, Anthea and Jim finished first place overall, just 23 hours and 32 minutes after starting out the previous day in Brainerd.
On finishing first, Anthea emphasized, “Our ground crew absolutely won. It’s kind of sad they don’t make a special trophy for them because they were absolutely key to us winning: giving us the right fuel, the right motivation, and the light in the middle of the night, all those things so that we could run a good race.”
She went on to say, “It was fun, it was so fun. It was just the best thing I’ve done in my adult life. You know, something that was totally just for myself, something that, you know, what can this old lady do? I guess she can do something!” (for the record: in this old writer’s opinion, Anthea doesn’t qualify as an “old lady”).
I asked Anthea if her experience served as a model for other women in the sport. “I think we’re seeing more women coming into the sport in general. If you actually get into endurance kayaking, it’s a very male-dominated area. So, it’s great to see more women signing up. There are so many races. We just did the IPC Voyager Landing Race, which was 8 miles. Anyone can come out on a beautiful day and do that, and you don’t even have to have a nice racing boat. There are rec classes in all of these races. So, it’s just something that’s really accessible for people. And if you find out that you enjoy paddling distances, then work up and get some better boats that make it easier for you to accomplish that.”
So where does Anthea go from here? “The MR (Missouri River) 340 is the race I’m trying to get to. So that will be next. The first year I do the 340, I’m just looking to finish it. I don’t care what happens. I can be last place, but I’ll finish.”
Of course, that’s what she said when she set out on the MR 150!