Muddy, sleep deprived, sore, happy ...,
We came to the end of the Allegheny Passage in downtown Cumberland a little before midnight. The beginning of the C&O was less than 50 yards ahead but we began a series of frustrating detours. After 150 miles and almost a dozen hours we were starting to feel fatigue. We were sleepy. We were hungry. Worst of all Wilson’s knee was really starting to hurt. We took left off the trail into the middle of town to try and find some food and other supplies.
As it turns out places like CVS and Walgreens close before midnight on a Sunday in smaller towns. Surprise surprise. We spotted a Taco Bell in distance but knew that was a terrible idea. I pulled out my phone and looked for a Sheetz or Wawa. Surely this town has a 24 hour junk food oasis. Google maps showed a Sheetz on the other side of downtown just up the hill. We cut back across town and rode up the hill. No Sheetz. That makes no sense. It’s right there on the phone with a photo of the storefront and hours listed as “open”. Maybe we got turned around. We made a lap around the block and then saw it. A construction site. Turns out the OLD Sheetz had been bulldozed and a fresh new one was being built. Frustrating… but we would be OK I said.
Wilson then said that he thinks his knee wasn’t going to make it to DC and he may have to pull the plug here. Morale was falling. I looked at my phone again. A McDonalds just past where we just were. Score! Hot garbage calories here we come!
We rode back down the hill and over to the McDonalds and arrived just as an employee was locking the door at midnight. But there is a drive thru right? It’s a 24 hour McDonalds after all. Surely they will want to exchange food for United States currency, right?
Without going into too much detail let me say this. The management of the McDonald’s franchise at 22 Queen City Dr. does not have any time for your shenanigans and wants you to get out of the drive thru or they will call the police.
So. No food re-up. We sat there for a moment and pondered our situation. Wilson had been googling hotels and took this moment to announce that he was going to pull the plug. So we rode with him a few blocks to a hotel. Filled our bottles, reapplied chamois cream and said our goodbyes. Of course during all this wandering around Cumberland we had managed to waste the better part of an hour and Mark was somewhere further up the trail but we didn’t really know exactly know how far.
We took stock of our remaining provisions and came to the conclusion that we could make it the roughly 60 miles to Hancock, Maryland where I KNEW there was a Sheetz on the main drag and town and there was no way it could possibly be torn down. Plus it would be close to dawn by then.
Brantley and I rolled back across town to the C&O trail head and shoved off. We thought we were at the low point of our adventure and things would be looking up. Sadly we were wrong. Almost immediately the trail conditions went from OK to awful. Unlike the well drained and relatively smooth crushed limestone of the Allegheny Passage the C&O was muddy and filled with potholes. It was the middle of the night the slick conditions coupled with the lack of daylight meant we had no choice but to ride right through the muck in the straightest line as possible to avoid crashing. This meant for slow progress and worsening spirits. From what we could tell we were averaging about 10 miles per hour which meant that mere 60 miles to Hancock was going to be a 6 hour ride. Not encouraging.
However with the only easy extraction point behind us Brantley and I had no choice but to suck it up and press on. And so we did. We grumbled about it but as we drew closer and closer to the 200 mile mark of our trip our mood began to improve. We knew this night would end and sometime around dawn we would be filing our bellies with gas station donuts and other delicious garbage.
Then the other shoe dropped.
Out of sight, out of mind, and who knows how far ahead of us, Mark was having problems. The text messages began coming in and the information was not good. He had a flat and neither his co2 inflator nor his pump seemed to be cooperating. No good. From what we could best guess he was at least 30 miles ahead of us at this point, maybe more. So simply waiting for us to catch up and assist meant at least a 3 hour wait. Maybe longer. The air temperature was in the low 50s by this point which would make waiting around in the dark wearing a damp cycling kit somewhere between extremely uncomfortable and outright dangerous. We exchanged a few messages as we continued to ride and left it with the advice to get up and at least start walking. Staying put was a bad idea. Start walking and try to stay warm. Silence was the response. We crossed our fingers and hoped that this could mean he was able to inflate his tire and move on.
We did our best to try and take our minds off Marks predicament. The trail conditions were slowly improving and we were picking up speed. We saw countless deer and other nocturnal critters going about their business. Our sleep deprived brains made a game of yelling at the deer in funny voices. We chatted about who knows what. Most importantly though, we kept pedaling.
We arrived at an passed through the Paw Paw Tunnel. Where the canal had been cut through rock on either side we caught glimpses of jagged outcrops. I thought back to how beautiful this part of the trail had been when I had passed through years ago during daylight.
Then it happened. We had stopped for a nature break and as we looked down the trail ahead we realized the pitch black of night was replaced with the early morning mirk of faint sunlight and mist. Dawn approached. Hancock and its bounty was close.
We remounted and pressed on once again.
Then Mark texted. I’m still not entirely sure what happened (details from Mark are still fuzzy), but his ride was over. Cryptic texts referencing some major mechanical issue. His bike was useless. He was working on an extraction plan. One of his oldest friends lived in Maryland and by a wonderful stroke of luck somehow was actually close to where Mark’s ride ended. With his rescue imminent it was now just down to us.
The weight of not knowing Mark’s fate lifted. The sunlight was beginning to break through the trees ahead of us.
Dawn had fully come when we arrived in Hancock. We took a detour off the the trail and made a beeline for Sheetz. Donut? Check. Apple fritter? Check. Pop Tarts and more candy for the road? Got it. Hot coffee? Halleluja! We’re back in business. Roughly 215 miles in and only… wait for it… over 130 to go. That’s right. I was now well into the longest ride of my life and I still had to ride a distance that would actually eclipse the distance of the longest ride I had previously done.
Instead of feeling at all daunted by this notion we were somehow energized by it. We had already covered a distance few cyclists ever tackle and we were bullish that we were going to make it to DC. We were going to do this!
Of course just when we were feeling great Brantley did get a flat tire. However he was able to deal with it quickly enough.
The sun warmed the air around us. We took off our jackets. We watched the herons and kingfishers go about their business. The trail had vastly improved and while there were still patches of mud they seemed to be coming more and more infrequently.
To say that we were not starting to feel a little crazy would be a lie though. After riding through the night shouting at deer and other nocturnal critters. After continuing through dawn and beyond we did feel a little... odd.
I had always been told that when you put your body though this kind of test some strange stuff is going to happen. So far everything had seemed pretty normal though. I had been eating and drinking plenty and no real physical issues had come up. Until now. I took a bite of pop tart and something strange happened. I couldn’t eat it. I was full, but in a very strange way. I felt nothing like I had just consumed too much at a holiday feast. I wasn’t “stuffed”. The best way to explain it would be to say that my entire digestive system just felt filled up. No more room. From top to tail, no room for more. I knew what had to be done. I had to make room. I had to poop.
Without going too far into the gross details, I will say this. As you probably know when you ride or run your body goes into what I call movement mode and kindof just “shuts off” activity in the colon (unless you’re having some bigger problems). After hours and hours of this things were shutting down. It wasn’t a good feeling. Lucky for me we were about to some to one of the many trail heads along the route with a toilet. I sat down and moments later things happened. I felt MUCH better. We rode on and within moments my appetite was back (it had disappeared a while back but I just kept eating). I ate that pop tart and things went back to as close to normal as they could be given the circumstances.
It’s a shame that Mark’s ride ended near Williamsport, for not much further was the Big Slackwater section of the trail. When I had previously ridden the C&O it was shortly before this part had been reopened after being closed for 15 years. We turned the bend in the trail and the canal was gone. We were now riding on a buttressed concrete road literally attached to the rocky bank of the Potomac. I rode in along awe of the work that had gone into this reconstruction of the trail. It was absolutely beautiful. The warm sun shone down and recharged my body and mind. We had less than 100 miles to go!
At about 60 miles to go is the bridge across the river to Harper’s Ferry, WV. Sadly, it was never in the plans to leave the trail and cross into town. I thought wistfully of the giant ice cream cone I had consumed there many years before. Without stopping we took in scenery. We had fully committed to not making any more real stops if it could be avoided.
The sun move through the sky. The trail continued to dry and the miles ticked by.
Next landmark was a small ferry and a convenience store then on to Great Falls.
But something big was about to happen. I had been making a point to leave my Garmin on the map screen rather than the one that showed milage most of the trip. But now we were closing in on the 300 mile mark and excitement was building. I had already doubled the distance of my longest prior ride, which in itself was an incredible feeling. But this was huge. It ticked closer and closer and then somewhere outside of Dickerson on a rather nondescript section of trail we hit 300 miles. We paused a moment, congratulated one another, then started again. As we got closer and closer to the end of our adventure the fatigue was mounting but we were determined.
We stopped at the ferry and sat down for the first time in over 100 miles. I drank a coke and ate a bag of chips. Having stopped here before I knew just how close we now were. Again we remounted our bikes and pedaled off.
The miles ticked by. We no longer marveled at the scenery nor our accomplishments. We spoke less. We simply wanted to get things done. It had been close to 30 hours since we left Pittsburgh and we were ready to be done.
At Great Falls we stopped briefly to take in its beauty. If you have never been, you should go. Like right now. It’s awesome. Park in DC and ride the 20 or so miles to get there and enjoy it. Eat a hot dog while you’re there. The ride there is one of the best parts of the trail and an utterly enjoyable experience.
But I digress. Great Falls, beautiful place. Moving on.
Pshhhhhhhhh. That sound. A flat. We were not more than 20 yards from where we had stopped and it happened. Flat tire. Not on my bike, of course. This was actually the 2nd flat for Brantley. The first had come hours ago. He had quickly patched the tube and we thought nothing of it. This time. Well, we had a problem. It seems that the hole on this tube this time was close to the valve and was not going to be able to be patched. Not for lack of trying. Then, Brantley discovered that his spare was in face not a fresh tube but one that he had previously patched and that path was also not holding properly. We were exhausted. We were exasperated. It was actually getting close to sunset and we were SOOOOO close to the end.
What I didn’t tell you is that Wilson had hopped on a train that morning back to DC to meet up with us to drive back to Richmond. He was actually in DC by now and had been planning on riding out the trail to meet us. In fact he was on his way. Brantley was saved. All we had to do was wait.
For the second time since our ride had started the sun was setting. At the time I didn’t really think much of it but in retrospect that was pretty nuts. But I digress.
After a bit of standing around and grumbling to pass the time, Wilson arrived with a fresh tube. The adventure was back on. But we were now way way way behind the schedule we had originally set. Dusk approached quickly as we made our way along the crushed gravel and sand of the final leg of the C&O. Somehow I started to actually feel less fatigued. I started to push the pace a bit eager to reach Georgetown and the end of the trail. I was already arriving much later than planned and there was no way I was going to make the drive back to Richmond that night. I just wanted to get back to my car and make the fairly short drive to my parents house before over 300 miles of riding without sleep caught up to me.
Brantley and Wilson were lagging a bit and after a quick chat we agreed that I would just roll ahead at my own pace. Brantley had the advantage of a properly rested Wilson to drive him back to Richmond and was not in quite the hurry that I was.
One by one the last few miles ticked by and I rounded the last bend, passed under the Key Bridge, and all of a sudden I was there. The terminus of the trail. The end of the adventure. To be quite honest it was a bit anti-climatic. My phone was about to die and I wasn’t exactly sure where I had parked my car. I paused for a moment at the end of the the trail then quickly tried to figure out the quickest way over to the parking garage in Rosslyn that currently contained my car. After a bit of fumbling around I gathered myself and darted across the Key Bridge, meandered through Rosslyn, located the garage and my car.
I quickly stripped off my jersey and bib shorts and pulled on some warm dry cotton clothing. I started the car, plugged in my phone and sat their a moment. I could feel fatigue finally creeping in for real so without further messing about I got the heck out of dodge.
A little over 30 minutes later I arrived at my parent’s house near Quantico. My legs were starting to stiffen up, my hands hurt, and my entire body felt like it had a coating of dried sticky sweat and dirt (which it did). I stumbled inside briefly greeted my parents and made a beeline for the shower. After scrubbing off the filth and grime from my body I felt better.
Originally I was expecting to be starving at the end of the trip but strangely enough I was not. I think I ate a few grapes, some baby carrots, and drank a pint of water. There was little point in putting of sleep any longer so I retreated to the room I spent most of childhood in and proceeded to pass out.
I woke up around 6 am to a stiff body, numb hands, and the most tired and sore legs I had ever experienced. Groggily, I limped downstairs. Slowly. Two bowls of granola with milk and a big mug of black coffee later I was feeling like myself again.
I suppose that’s pretty much it. The drive to Richmond was uneventful and I actually worked a bit in the shop (in a daze most of the time). I rode to work the next day and after a few more days most of my body pretty much felt normal.
Since then I have done one longish ride (130 miles) which strangely didn’t feel that long. Mayby the feeling will wear off but right now I just look at long rides differently. As if anything that doesn’t involve riding through the night is kindof easy. It’s strange.
Anyway… that’s it. I set out to ride 340 miles and I did it. I don’t think I really surprised myself because I had done most of the mental gymnastics before I started to prepare my brain, but I will say I’m pleasantly surprised that my body held up so well to the challenge. Now my mind drifts to possibly future adventures of this sort.
At first I said I would never do this again. I said I never even want to SEE the C&O canal again. But now that Mark has said he wants to try again in May of next year… well, who knows what the future holds? Maybe I’ll just ride as far as Cumberland with him next time and call it quits at 150 miles. Or maybe I’ll just do the whole crazy thing again. Afterall, now that I have one ride like this under my belt I already know what changes I would make to how I go about things to be able to complete the distance in substantially less time. Time well tell.