Racing in the Dark

The C&O canal stretches some 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to The District.  It drops 605 feet during that time. The tow path along the canal is maintained by the National park service. It’s very pretty in some places, easy to walk on, and easily accessible. Cyclists, joggers, hikers, and anyone else who likes a little bit of sunshine can be found on the trail on any pleasant day.

Last Saturday and Sunday, 15 of my coworkers and I decided to run the whole thing. Yes, we ran a combined 200 miles starting a 2AM Saturday and finishing at noon on Sunday.  We piled into two vans and an RV, drove in shifts, slept when we could, lived off nuts, power bars, and Gatorade and ran through mud, creeks, traffic, and geese to arrive at Ft. Hunt park. Why you might ask? Why would we subject ourselves to such pain and discomfort?  Running is about why! It’s about why not! Why do so many people run crazy distances?! Why don’t you go back to your couch and watch Jersey Shore if you hate beautiful scenery and fresh air so much!

I had an amazing time but the sleep deprivation put my thoughts on the event in a blender and hit frappe.  Going to try and structure this somehow.

We participated in Tom’s Run. It’s a relay in memory of a Coast Guard officer who died of ALS.  One runner and one biker from each team go on set legs.  It’s not a race and it doesn’t raise money for charity. It’s simply to get out and do something interesting.

The Awesome: Running in the dark

The most interesting part of the whole experience was running/biking at night. Since the park is normally closed at dark and there is limited camping, you have the trail almost entirely to yourself. The first thing you notice is how closed in the path is. I suppose it’s easy to notice during the day but at night, the overhanging trees block out the moon and the stars.  A head lamp only illuminates so much and it makes the trees feel very tunnel like. Without a strong frame of reference, it feels like you’re going super fast down the trail.

Someone should make an experimental film about a dude running down the C&O canal at 3 AM.  It’s title would be the German word for night-watchman and it would alternate between a direct on and behind camera shots of a dude in a white shirt running.  The only lighting would be the runner’s headlamp and the bicycle trailing him. It will be shot in black and white. Critics and film geeks everywhere would love this.

Also, when you’re running at night and you cross an aqueduct, you’ve got a 50/50 shot at running into hobos fishing. Seriously. They had a kerosene lantern and everything.  Nearly ran them over on my bike. OK, they may not have been hobos but guys fishing of an old aqueduct with a lantern and big buckets for fish screams hobo to me.

The Good:  Wildlife: Geese are mean animals (among other things).  Ask any golfer who’s been chased by a flock of them and he’ll tell you that a 20lb goose is not something to take lightly and a flock of them is no laughing matter.  Guess what likes the to nest near the canal? If you said geese, you’re only half right. I did run by a flock of geese and goslings. That was during mile 11 of 13. At about 5:45AM at that distance, I’m willing to fight a flock of guess if it gets in my way.  Fortunately that didn’t happen. Along the creek I saw herons, foxes, raccoons, and a host of song birds. Plus deer. Lots and lots of deer out at 2AM on the stretches of River road around Whites Ferry. I’m surprised no one doing Tom’s run has hit one yet

The Bad: Sweaty car seats.  Do you have any idea of how gross it is to sit on a car seat that is covered in the sweat of 10 runners covering a couple hundred miles? It’s the anti-hot rack. It’s cold, smelly, and seeps instantly through your running shorts/shirt. Black mesh seats are the best at hiding this. You’ve just finished cheering a team mate on, dash back to the car, only to sink into a cold, clammy seat that begins to dampen your clothes. And you’re stuck there for an hour drive. Fun!

The crazy: Most people get to spread their legs out across the two days. Me, I got to cram it all into 12 hours! First leg wasn’t even on the tow path but a detour down a country road. I got to run in traffic! 6.5 miles from 530-630. From 830-930, I got to bicycle for 8 miles. Odd thing about the cycling at Tom’s run. Since you need to stay with the runner, it’s actually more work to stay upright than it is to keep pace. Anyways. After that, I crashed until 2 AM so that I could run another 6 miles at 5 AM. Let me tell you how much fun that second run was. I did do a second bicycle leg at around 9AM but it was a mere 4 miles.

Overall this is the type of event that makes you realize why people go running. It was fun, hard, and silly.  The organizers don’t wrap the relay in a noble cause.  This is about getting out doors and doing something truly unique, even if the Coast Guard teams take it a bit seriously. I did it to meet some coworkers but also because it fits in with what I want to do this year. I’m looking forward to doing it next year.