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.

Some for better not forever

TW and I are on vacation right now. We bandied about a wide range of locations, from Oregon to England, but finally settled on Boston. This will be our first real vacation, not associated with major family holidays, weddings, or other people. We’ve only done one day but the joy of leaving our lives on hold for a little while and just being together is fantastic.
The choice of Boston brings a hidden peril. I have family outside the city and have spent many summers there. We decided to spend a couple days on the Cape and then a couple in town. In both cases, she is adamant on one rule: we are not recreating my childhood. This is a problem. I had a wonderful time here. From the ages of 9-13, I spent my time here eating ice cream, playing in the ocean, shooting water rockets (they work best with club soda), and enjoying life. That was a new and powerful feeling that it took me a long time to learn how to capture. Looking back on that time, it is first moments I can remember feeling truly happy.

But that was almost 20 years ago. The town has changed. I’ve changed. But what I want more than anything is to capture that feeling with TW. I want her to feel the same happiness this places holds for me. But I don’t know how to do it without recreating my childhood. That’s not fair to her or anyone else. I can’t force my memories and my experiences on someone else and assume the same results. Instead, I have to make new ones. That alone is a scary idea. What if they’re not as good
When we return to the places that hold meaningful memories, what do we do? When we make new memories, how do we keep the old from bleeding onto the new? Do we acknowledge the ghost hiding around the corners? Do we welcome them along with us on new adventures? Or do we smile and pass them by, foolishly hoping that they will always be here waiting for us to return?

End of the Overland Campaign: North Anna to Cold Harbor

One of TW’s more interesting friends is a huge Civil War buff. In his spare time, he loves to give battlefield tours. We frequently take him up on the offer for two reasons: 1- He makes everything seem fascinating and 2- It’s a chance to spend a great day outdoors and learn about something I know very little of.

Last Saturday was a gorgeous day and with the prospect of snow looming on Sunday, we decided to finish up Grant’s Overland Campaign. We’d previously done the Wilderness & Spotsylvania Courthouse so wrapping up the major parts of the campaign seemed like a really good idea.

We’ve been out about a half dozen times since I returned to the area. North Anna was possibly one of the best parks we’ve been to. I love the number of Beech trees that grow in a lot of parks in NoVa. Particularly on winter mornings, the leaves diffuse the sunlight in such an amazing way. It’s hard not to want to walk through the forest and just relax and enjoy the day.

At both N. Anna and Cold Harbor, I was quite surprised by the intact-ness of the trenches.  Most are still very distinct and clearly look like civil war trenches. It was impressive to see how rapidly the troops improved on their over the course of the four battles.  I’m excited to compare these fortifications to those at Petersburg.  Also, at North Anna, the road and ford that were a union objective are still visible. In one spot, the trail and the road are actually the same. To walk the same path that civil war soldiers would have travelled is kinda cool and eerie and very unphotogenic. Most of the trenches at N. Anna were filled in with dead leaves but a couple of the Confederate trenches at Cold Harbor were in better shape for photographs.

The other amazing thing we saw was the Polegreen church.  Originally the home church of Samuel Davies and Patrick Henry it was destroyed during the Overland Campaign. When it was time to rebuild, no one knew what the church looked like. Instead the put up a frame of where the church should have been. It’s strikingly modern concept for such a historic place and I like it immensely impressed me. Growing up Catholic, with big imposing churches, the design seemed challenging without losing respect for what the site was.

I’ve included the rest of my pictures from the trip here. Like many with a digital camera, I tend to overshoot everything. These represent the best of what I took.