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Alan’s Big-Time Canal Adventure

By Alan Gowen

An extremely sore calf muscle has kept me from running for the past three weeks. What, I asked myself, can I do to try to maintain some endurance fitness?

Because it’s there? Now that it’s over I’m still not sure why I felt I had to do it. I had done it before and so there was really nothing to prove to myself, or anyone else for that matter. Maybe I’ve fallen under the spell of those demons that torment James and drive him to repeated bouts of insanity on the towpath. Who knows?

Alan with wife Pam before Catoctin 50km

At some point this spring I decided that I wanted to repeat an adventure I had in 2001. Four years ago on July 6, 2001 I had ridden my bike on the 185 mile C & O canal towpath from Cumberland to Georgetown in one day. A big adventure on a beautiful day. I had started in Cumberland at 4:00 AM and pedaled up to the zero milepost in Georgetown at 9:00 PM on the dot.

I vowed to never again spend that much time riding a mountain bike, and so when a friend offered to lend me a touring bike for this year’s planned ride, I jumped at the chance. A touring bike is a road bike, but not a racing bike. It is designed to have more clearance in the frame for slightly wider tires and the mud and debris that might be encountered while, well, touring. It also has accommodations for packs and such. By using a touring bike I would be a lot more comfortable than I would have been on a mountain bike, since the riding position would be the same as the racing bike I ride all the time. Unfortunately my friend took a long time getting the bike ready for me to use. The longest days of the year had passed and I had decided that the ride would be un-doable this year because of daylight concerns. But when Ray finally called on Monday to say the bike was ready I decided for some unknown reason to go ahead and see what would happen.

So, this past Saturday morning Pam and I arrived in Cumberland at 5:15AM, and I pulled onto the towpath at 5:30. I used a headlamp for the first half hour, and since there was no fog to reflect the light from the headlamp making it impossible to see a thing, as had happened to me four years ago, I was able to make pretty good time. Near dawn, the deer and rabbits on the towpath created the biggest safety issues for me, but as the sun rose higher in the sky, large flocks of turkeys were my only companions.

The plan was for Pam to meet me at seven pre-arranged sites, and just before 7:30 I pulled into the first “aid station” at the Paw Paw tunnel. The plan had not included this being the hottest day of the year, and even at this early hour I was soaked with sweat. I have always been able to ride for hours on end on the hottest days without a problem, but the seemingly endless hours as the day wore on in Saturday’s relentless heat did begin to take a toll on me.

My previous elapsed time four years ago for this trip was 17 hours. I was very concerned this time about finishing in Georgetown before it got dark, and therefore kept pushing myself, and keeping my aid station breaks as brief as possible. All day long Pam would greet me with a smile, a laugh, and cold water, turkey and pb&j sandwiches along with that come hither look that helped insure I wouldn’t repeat the horrifying episode of numbness that had scared the daylights out of me the last time I undertook this torture.

Most of my aid stops were 10 minutes or less, but at Williamsport I relaxed under a tree for 20 minutes while I tried to cool down. The road detour around the big slack water south of Williamsport on a portion of the JFK road section was like being in a broiler. It occurred to me as I was climbing up one of those “rolling” hills on Dam #4 Road, after having ridden over 100 miles, that the air quality was probably “Code Yellow” for folks of my age and that I was supposed to be locked in the air conditioning doing nothing.

My energy seemed to ebb and flow just like it does when running, but even though I was able to maintain my pace all day, I was getting very tired and low on energy as the day wore on and the heat took it’s toll. The PB&J I got at Snyder’s landing perked me up quite a bit. When I met Pam at Brunswick I told her about the magic of that PB&J, but she told me that was the last one we had. I felt exhausted when I arrived at White’s Ferry. Pam had arrived there well before me and had gone into their little store there to try to procure another PB&J for me. They had the peanut butter, but no jelly. As I ate that greasy chunky peanut butter on white bread I knew it was a mistake. The next 13 miles of towpath from White’s Ferry to Seneca has without question the worst surface found on the entire length of the towpath. I remember this section from my childhood. All roots and mud, with a twisting little track threading its way through the obstacles. It hasn’t changed in 50 years. Feeling like I was going to puke up that damned peanut butter at any second; this was without question the low point of the day.

When I finally arrived at Seneca I couldn’t eat anything at all. With 22.5 miles to go, this was the last time I would see Pam until the finish, but nothing in the cooler looked appetizing at all. I guess it was the knowledge that I would have a good surface to ride on for the remainder of the trip, along with the relief of knowing that barring a disaster I would finish before dark. As I pulled away from Seneca I seemed to perk up a little, could smell the barn, and from there I just cruised to the finish.

I’ve ridden the towpath as a one-day ride once and as a two-day ride five times. Every time the finish is the same, and this time it was no different. After miles and miles and seemingly endless hours of effort, riding along alone and immersed in the natural world, there’s something rather jarring and yet exciting about suddenly becoming enveloped by the lights, noise and confusion of the city. In the gathering darkness I made my way all the way to the end of the towpath, then rather than ride along Rock Creek Parkway, I reversed direction; turning left and downhill through Washington Harbor, stinking and gritty me cached from head to toe with crusty damp filth, past limos and evening dresses. I quietly pedaled up to the deserted zero milepost at 8:25 PM, making for a trip of 187 miles in14 hours and 55 minutes portal to portal. I was done.

Some thoughts.

1. I had thought that doing this on a Saturday would be undesirable due to the number of folks on the towpath on the weekend. I know how obnoxious it seems when walking slowly or going for a leisurely bike ride on the towpath to be passed when some bell ringing “On Your Left!!” fool on a bike materializes out of nowhere and startles the snot out of me. But much to my surprise, due I guess to the heat, the towpath was basically deserted. Even at Harper’s Ferry where it’s always crowded, I passed only one person. Therefore if you’re going to try this, do it on the hottest day of the year.

2. The upper 120 miles or so of the canal is beautifully maintained. The towpath surface is great and all the grass is cut and trimmed neatly everywhere. The hiker-biker-overnighter campsites were neat and clean and looked almost pristine. The closer I got to Washington however, the less maintenance there was. Grass was un-mowed and things just looked run down. It got so bad that the 6 and 7-mile markers were invisible in the weeds that towered over them.

3. Whereas I probably could have done this unsupported, and used to always do my two-day rides in that fashion, having Pam’s smiling face waiting for me made all the difference in the world. It also made it possible for me to carry next to nothing with me. In addition to two water bottles, Clifbars, S-Caps and GU, I carried a spare tire, pump, multi-tool, identification, money and cell phone.

4. For some reason or other when I felt like I was going to be sick and nothing at all seemed appetizing, plain GU went down OK and fueled me for the last portion of the ride.

Will I do it again? Who knows? I still don’t know exactly why I did it this time, but I have a funny feeling that the towpath has me in its spell.

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