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The Best Easy Trail in the World? But, Not That Easy. C&O Canal “Race” Notes. Cumberland, MD to Washington, D.C. ~190 miles (7+ marathons). 65 hours and 15 minutes. November 2-5, 2018. Unsupported Fastest Known Time (FKT) Attempt. Loving the Grind and Seeking Sanctuary in the Shitter.
Public strava track: https://www.strava.com/activities/1948112435
Fueling plan, splits, and gear are described below and detailed in attached photos. I followed the fueling plan exactly until the last 30 miles. I struggled trying to jog with a 13.5 pound camelbak. [Note the time splits are based off the photo time stamps on the attached last 25 photos.]
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park has no entrance fees and provides free campsites with water pumps and clean toilets every 6 miles along the scenic Potomac River making it an ideal location for a long and easy run. Daily Amtrak service also makes a canal run logistically easy, although my hoped for nap never happened and an hour-late train left me in Cumberland at after 8 pm on Friday night searching for caffeine.
“You just spilled your coffee didn’t you?” the McDonalds security guard in Cumberland barked at me after watching me pathetically dump way too much of my remaining coffee all over the table. After a mediocre cleanup attempt, my time to leave was past, and it was off into the dark and menacing drizzle. But, then I couldn’t find the start, and somehow I wandered up onto the railroad tracks. It was going to be a long ways, and I hadn’t even started. After I found the end of the Great Allegheny Passage and started down the dark canal, my feet quickly became soaked from puddles left from the earlier rain as I slowly plodded down the towpath.
Some 55 hours later, nearly, but not close enough to the end of my third largely sleepless night, as I was still around 25 miles from the finish and 5 hours past when I wanted to finish, I felt like I was drowning in an intense rain, could not see in the dark with my headlamp’s flickering beam blocked by the deluge, and the trees danced and weaved together and upward into a massive fence blocking my path as vines morphed into fantastic and menacing beasts. I finally found a branch that remained a branch and managed to poke a hole in the base of my bivy sac so that I could put it over my head and huddle, standing in the marginal shelter of one of the towering fence posts. I no longer knew where I was, or where I was going, or even why I was there. But, then I realized that the outhouse next to Seneca Aqueduct should be less than half a mile away.
It was not that easy as I slowly slogged towards the shitter, and later the finish in Georgetown, but it was good fun and downhill all the way.
My attempt to run the canal was wore or less a steady grind with limited sleep.
Sleep: <2h30 total [45 min Saturday 5:21 am - 6:15am; 15 min Saturday 8:42pm - 9:00 pm; 45 min Sunday 12:16 pm - 1:30pm; 30 min Sunday 10:50 pm- 11:10 pm; 5 min Monday 5:40am - 5:55 am. An $8 emergency bivy was not warm enough for me to sleep at night.
Approximate Paces and Equivalent Marathon Times:
Marathon 1: 14:51 per mile (6 hour 29 min marathon)
Marathon 2: 19:43 per mile (8 hour 37 min marathon)
Marathon 3: 20:58 per mile (9 hour 43 min marathon)
Marathon 4: 24:00 per mile (10 hour 29 min marathon)
Marathon 5: 21:12 per mile (9 hour 15 min marathon)
Marathon 6: 23:19 per mile (10 hour 11 min marathon)
Marathon 7: 21:27 per mile (9 hour 22 min marathon)
Marathon 1 Miles 195 to 155.2. Friday, 9:02 PM to Saturday, 4:21 AM
Hoping to avoid wet feet, I failed after less than half a mile. Hoping to avoid chafing, I had applied lots of Vaseline, but by around mile 15 I had already pulled out the Desitin - zinc oxide. I do not like wet feet.
Worried about water after warning from Mike Wardian. Pump at second planned water stop was missing handle (only non-working pump indicated as working on NPS website the entire route.
Industrial site and several road crossing, as I remembered camping at Irons Mountain on my last bike ride..
Marathon 2 Miles 155.2 to 127.2. Saturday, 4:21 AM to Saturday 1:33PM
Overwhelming need to sleep came on suddenly, and almost without thinking. I was curled up in a pile of leaves along the side of the trail. I set my alarm for 45 minutes and slept perfectly, accidentally hitting the snooze but woke up within 50 minutes total.
Jogged along with a cyclist for awhile just after New Orleans who was planning on biking to DC arriving sometime late in the day on Monday. I was excited that I would beat him. Lots of tents and people hanging out at Campsite near New Orleans. Perfect weather.
Some beautiful spots along the river. devil’s Alley at mile 144.5 I think might be the nicest campsite on the canal. It would be nice to be paddling down the river. Current looking like it was flowing nicely.
Marathon 3 Miles 127.2 to 101.2. Saturday, 1:33 PM to 10:38 PM
Some very cool rock formations, with a highlight at Devils Brow fold. I am not ready for another night, but it quickly becomes dark again way too early.
Things are quite on this stretch as all of the Bikes are off the canal on the separate Western Maryland rail trail, although the noise from the highway seems to be very loud. Tiredness comes on again quickly, but my body is feeling colder.
Just before midnight I pass out for a bit, but I quickly get cold and only get a couple minutes of sleep. If I could bail. I would bail.
Marathon 4 Miles 101.2 to 81.7 (short) Saturday, 10:38 PM to Sunday 6:02AM
The detour around Williamsport is long and frustrating and it is dark as I go through town and down the road.
Things start to get strange at night. My eyes begin seeing things that are not there, and although I had started listening to Stephen King’s green mile I decided it was not a good idea. But walking by graffiti and big cliffs and several large rope swings all of a sudden I saw a dead body hanging up in a tree. I thought or hoped that it was just a shirt or piece of clothing, but I didn’t know and really didn’t want to know.
The trail has many cool stretches in this section with long stretches of cement elevated above big pool where the boats used to go in the river. I want to quit and start thinking about a hotel room in harpers Ferry and taking the Marc train into work on Monday. It is tempting, but Harpers Ferry is still a Kong’s wats away.
Marathon 5 Miles 82.7 to 52. Sunday, 6:02 AM to Sunday 4:53 PM
The second sunrise is slow in coming, but it feels great to be on the JFK 50 course, and then soon after that the C&O 100 route as the sun comes up. Large number of people on the trail as I pass by the bridge to Shepherdstown, WV. On familiar terrain, I love the section of the canal as it approaches Harpers a ferry and there are lots of little rapids in the river, but the section before that seems to stretch on and on forever. My desire to bail I. harpers Ferry fades. After being too cold the night before it is glorious to take a nap in the sun at Hickleberry Hill. It is warm, but I still climb into my bivy sac to sleep. It is a wonderful feeling to be on the Appalachian Trail, and ai see a through hiker who loooks oh so happy. I want to talk to him - but he is going gr he other way.
Marathon 6 Miles 52 to 26.1 Sunday 4:53 PM to Monday 3:57 AM (Time Change)
Things are beginning to get tough as the third evening approaches. I finally get cell reception and decide to check to see if I could get a ride back into DC on Lyft. $82.42 is the fare. Maybe a couple miles more.
A glorious 15 minute nap on a slope alongside the hill. But when I wake up I don’t know if Onam going the right way.
Squeaky pump at night wakes up campers. Only second spot with campers on the trip.
Marathon 7 Miles 26.1 to end [Monday 3:57 AM to Monday, 1:17 PM]
I know the rain is coming but I hope it won’t come soon.Things get way too real. Crazy phantasmagoric ghosts. Insane rain. Cold. Confusion. Shelter by Seneca Aquaduct. Rain and wet and cold and bivy sac on my head. I plod on but the miles don’t go by. It is time to get to work but ai am so far away. I am nearly in a Georgetown but somehow I think I may be lost and gone in the wrong direction. Even with 5 mikes left I don’t know if I can make it, but soon I am on the Fletchers Cove 5k route, and I finally think that I will be able to finish. I am done.
I am incredibly thankful to the National Park Service for the (mostly) working water pumps and (except for one) clean toilets with toilet paper, and the many people who helped provide me with the great fortune of attempting this silly and self-indulgent weekend of fun, including Steve Pollock, who I biked the full canal with back in 2014, Roman Gurule, who met me at the end of this adventur., Jingjing Zhang who watched our kids and paced me to the end of the C&O Canal 100 in 2016, Katie Andrews-Scott who paced me until I dropped out of the C&O Canal 100 in 2015, David Andrews that motivated me to run the JFK 50 miler back in 1999 including 25 miles on the canal, and many, many others.
My goals: 1) Have fun; 2) Do it on my own - no support and no buying anything along the way; 3)Treat it like a race - minimize stopping and sleeping and jog as much as possible. 4) Hopefully finish in under 50 hours.
C&O Canal Fastest Known Times (FKTs)
Unsupported FKT: No known attempt.
Self-support FKT: 6 days 13 minutes. Ray Reynoso
Supported FKT: 1 day 12 hours 26 minutes. Mike Wardian.
Why? A lot cheaper than the Moab 240 ($1195 to register) and a lot easier than running the full 335 miles from Pittsburgh to DC that I had considered for this Fall.
When I posted my intent to run the canal on the FKT website, I noted that former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas reportedly said: “The stretch of 185 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Md., is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the Nation." In 1954, after the Washington Post published an editorial advocating for the paving the canal and turning it into a scenic parkway, Justice Douglas wrote: “One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause [of protecting the canal] with the eloquence of a John Muir,” and he organized a hike of the canal that helped preserve the land. (https://www.nps.gov/…/historycultu…/douglas-hike-of-1954.htm) During my journey, I thought often of the first verse of a song that group of hikers wrote during their trip: “From Cumberland to Washington; Is one-eight-nine they say; That doesn't faze this dauntless band; It's downhill all the way.”
In November 1999, I ran twenty-five miles of the canal during the JFK 50 mile race, and I have spent an unreasonable amount of time since then biking and hiking along the towpath. In April 2015, I dropped out of the C&O Canal 100 Mile run at Noland’s Ferry (C&O Canal Mile 44.6), and in 2016, I successfully finished the C&O Canal 100 in approximately 22 hours, although slowly walking the final 50 miles took approximately 14 hours after I ran the first half in 8 hours. (https://ultrasignup.com/event_splits.aspx?did=34885). I have also previously biked the full length canal five times, including an out-and-back trip over the weekend for my birthday this July.
Fueling plan: It sounds silly, but my initial plan was to bring zero calories and attempt the route on my more-than-sufficient fat reserves. I did a ten-day fast ending a couple weeks ago during which I ran about 80 miles and consumed about 1,000 calories total (~100 calories a day) of almost entirely a form of coconut oil (MCT powder). Later, I went the other direction and actually figured that I should consume a relatively insane 250 or so calories an hour, or about 12,500 calories over the 50 hours. However, I forgot how much food weights, and I was dumbstruck to realize that these 12,500 calories ended up weighing over 6 pounds! In the end, I went with a middle ground approach and decided on bringing a bit less than 8,000 calories (4 pounds) and planned out specifically where I would consume every piece of fuel. I probably would have benefited from some additional calories, especially due to the cold rain, but basing calorie consumption on distance rather than time proved to be very helpful. Bonus: I carried two gels that I found discarded along the Marine Corps Marathon route for my final bush into DC.
Staple food items: 200 calorie bags of almonds from Trader Joes (12); 200 calorie kind bars (12); 390 calorie homemade bags of walnuts, chia seeds, and chocolate chips (5); 150 calorie small bags of pumkin seeds, and fruits and nuts; 190 calorie powdered coffee, MCT powder, and KetoBurst Chocolate BHB Salt (5).
Gear and Pack Weight:
Main pack was a camelbak Mule (1.25 pounds)
Long sleeve shirt (XMP or die)
Mesh tank top
Frogg Toggs Rainjacket
Montane lightweight nylon pants
Underarmour compression shorts
Lightweight ski cap
Lightweight ear band
Socks (3) Injinji 5 finger wool socks, smartwool x2
Discarded at last minute:
Zshow Lightweigth Down Parka (12 ounces)
Champion Running Tights
2 handheld 20 oz bottles (1 amphipod, 1 nathan)
3 collapsible hydrapak water bottles (500, 750, 1L) NOT USED
Suunto Ambit Peak 3 Watch
Watch charging cable
Anker Powercore 20100 (12 ounces)
Kmashi 5000 mah battery (5 ounces)
Foxelli USB Rechargeable headlamp (x2)
Mini usb charging cables x2
Anker 24 W USB Dual Wall Charger
iPhone 6s Plus
Iphone charging cable
Waterproof mp3 player
Charging cable for mp3 player
$8 Emergency Bivy Sac (SE EB122OR Survivor Series Emergency Sleeping Bag Kit)
Weather: The weather forecast had been perfect with lows in the 40s and highs in the low 60s, but on Friday afternoon a big storm system went through and soaked the canal. There was some lingering drizzle and light rain when I started on Friday night, and although it quickly stopped I ended up getting my feet wet quite early in the run. The weather on Saturday was very good, overcast with a high of 60, and Saturday night/Sunday the temperature probably only fell into the 40s, but I ended up quite cold. Sunday the sun came out for a bit, and weather was very pleasant in the 60. However, the weather on Monday morning was brutal with hard rain starting about 4am, and then a solid rain until around 11:30am or so leaving the canal soaked again.
Additional Notes: I love the C&O canal and plan on going back many times in the future. These notes are my attempt to quickly share my thoughts in case anyone else is interested in trying to run the canal, or wanted to hear what this journey entails. Kindly note that my sleep-deprived brian has not yet recovered, but hopefully I will have a chance to clean this draft up in the future.
I am happy with my “win,” even if I was not racing anyone else. A solo event with no known attempts might be easy to “win,” but many monsters and demons almost kept me from finishing (more on the creatures later). Similarly, fastest known times on many routes may be difficult to achieve, but I am not aware of any unsupported attempts to “run” the canal. If I finished and was able to successfully document this attempt, I could be a winner. Eventually, I did stumble to the finish at milepost 0 along the Potomac River, and hopefully I was able to documented the trip well enough to fill the blank space on the inspirational FKT leaderboard (https://fastestknowntime.com/route/co-canal-towpath-md-dc ). Note according to the website “Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. This means you carry everything you need from start to finish except water.” The website FAQs note “Does drinking water from an unnatural source (like a visitor center) still count as unsupported? Good question, and a little controversial. If you want to be pure about it, many in the community would suggest using only natural water sources in an unsupported attempt. On the other hand, if you're walking by a public facility that has a spigot, it seems pointless and arbitrary not to use it. As always, just be clear about exactly what you did.” My plan, that I successfully executed, was to only drink water from the hand pumps at the hiker/biker campsites along the trail, which I believe are consistent with an unsupported attempt on the canal. I did also use the National Park Service bathroom adjacent to the trail detour in Great Falls National Park, although I did not get water from there. (https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/conditions.htm ).
Although there may be some who believe that using the outhouses, or using the outhouses for shelter should be considered as support, I believe that it would clearly be inappropriate and should be illegal not to use the facilities, and my stays in these sanctuaries was always to use these facilities and lasted never more than a handful of peaceful minutes. I believe that a self-supported attempt would likely be considerably faster by relying on, among other places, the bunkhouse and store near the towpath at Mile 124.5, the 24-hour sheetz about ½ mile off canal but near current detour (and maybe the nearby hotel at mile 100), and possibly the deli at point of rocks less than ½ mile off canal at mile 140 for fueling and likely a solid 6 hours or so of sleep.
I would love to see more people out on the towpath in any style, and hearing and reading about running superstar Michael Wardian’s recent supported FKT of the canal definitely provided me with some motivation. (https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/…/local-ultrarunner-mic… ) Wardian described his FKT on the canal as: “probably one of the hardest things I've done, for sure.” Although I had originally planned to run from Pittsburgh to DC, that adventure still awaits.