Running 100 miles on the C&O Canal Tow Path
Ever since I completed the JFK 50 miler in November of 2019, I toyed with the idea of trying a 100 mile footrace someday. However, my more immediate concern was trying to chase the ever-elusive sub-20 minute 5k, and that ended up being my primary goal for 2020. As it turned out, I managed to get it done, but only on a training run. With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the number of in-person 5k races being held, I couldn’t get everything to come together on an actual 5k. My fastest official time was 20:15.
In October of 2020, I took my family on a trip to Kentucky. The occasion was the No Business 100, a 100-mile race that my brother Ty was competing in. I ran with Ty as a pacer from mile 37 to mile 62 of that race. It was a memorable experience, but more importantly, he was able to complete the race. He conquered 102 miles and 14,500 feet of elevation gain in 30 hours and 14 minutes. There is a video on my YouTube channel with some clips from that race. By the time we returned home that weekend, I knew I was going to take a shot at the 100 mile distance.
In late November, after recovering from COVID-19 and taking one last unsuccessful attempt at a sub-20 5k on Thanksgiving Day, I started to ramp up my weekly mileage to prepare for a 100 mile race. The race I hoped to participate in was the Greenbrier Ultras 100 Mile Endurance run. It was scheduled to start on Friday, March 26th. A Friday start was important to me because that meant the race would not interfere with church on Sunday. My training build-up went well, but unfortunately we received word in late January that race would be cancelled due to the COVID-19 restrictions in affect.
After a week or two of looking for other races and doing some soul-searching, I decided to keep training for 100 miles. If everything went
well, and no other race opportunity presented itself, I would do an unofficial 100 mile run. As it turned out, there was a significate amount of snow on the ground for the entire month of February. I was able to keep my training schedule, but none of it was on mountain trails where I had planned, but on mostly flat roads. As a result, I didn’t feel it was feasible to design a rugged course for my 100-mile run.
After considering a few options, I decided to run on the tow path than follows the C&O Canal. It would be a hard-packed dirt and gravel surface that is pretty easy on the legs, at least for the first few miles. I would start at Hancock, MD, run to Williamsport, MD, and then return to Hancock. That would give me 50 miles. Then I would run the route a second time to get to 100 miles. A nice feature of the planned route was that about halfway between the two points was the town of Big Pool, which had a 24-hour gas station and convenience store where I could get food and water. Getting there required running a 2.5 miles on the road, but I figured that would not be a big deal, especially because there were a few gentle rolling hills that might be a welcome break from the completely flat tow path.
My brother decided to return my favor and travel up from Kentucky to provide support and pacing. My plan was to run the first 50 miles myself. After that, Ty would run with me for 25 miles, my friend Dan would run with me for 11 miles, and then Landry would run the final 14.
The day of the run arrived with the usual anticipation and worries. Crystal gave me a ride down to the starting line in Hancock. I was eager to get started, but I knew it was going to be the most difficult thing I had ever tried to do. There were so many things that could go wrong. How would my legs hold up? Would I able to keep food down the entire way? Would I fight sleep during the night-time hours? My planned time to start was 11 AM. We arrived a few minutes earlier, so we stood around on the pedestrian bridge for a few minutes. When the clock hit 11 AM, I gave Crystal a hug, pressed the start button on my Garmin Forerunner 35 GPS tracking watch, and headed down the path.
My time goal for the run was to complete the 100 miles distance in 24 hours. This meant I would need to run at a pace of 14:26 minutes per mile. Those of you who run regularly know that is not a fast pace. But keeping that pace for entire 100 miles, when factoring bathroom breaks and time to eat, is a challenging goal for many mid-pack runners. I didn’t expect keeping this pace to be an issue for the first 25 mile trek to Williamsport, and it wasn’t. I kept things as easy as possible, taking walk breaks from time to time just to save my legs for later in the run. I recorded footage from time to time using my Xiaomi Mi Sphere 360 camera.
The weather was pleasant. It was probably a bit warmer than ideal for a long run, but considering that there was no rain or freezing temperatures on the forecast, I wasn’t going to complain. About four miles in I ate a Cliff bar and some potato chips from my pack. Around mile 10 I stopped at the gas station in Big Pool and purchased some water, an ice cream sandwich, and a chicken fajita Tornado. I figured I’d lose my appetite soon enough, so I’d eat well while I could. I used the large water bottle I purchased to refill the two small ones that fit in the pockets on the front of my pack. In one of the bottles, I mixed in tailwind powder to provide some extra calories and electrolytes. Then I ate my ice cream and started down the road, finishing off the Tornado as I went. I re-joined the C&O Canal path at Ft. Frederick and continued on toward Williamsport. Everything was going good so far. After the pre-run taper in my training, I was just happy to be out running again. Around mile 20 I took another clif bar and also a venison stick I had in my pack.
My family was waiting for me at Williamsport with some ham sandwiches, bananas, and chips. I was well ahead of my pace, so I sat down for a bit while I ate. My legs were starting to feel a bit tired, but everything else was good. After about 10 minutes there, I changed into a long-sleeved shirt and headed back toward Hancock. A few miles down the path I saw what a looked like a very large dog on the path a couple hundred feet ahead of me. As I got closer I realized it was a large brown goat with big horns. Not knowing too much about goats, I was a little concerned about how things might end if he decided to be mean. Thankfully, he didn’t pay any attention to me as I ran past.
By the time I reached Dam #5 around mile 30, I had to confront a disappointing reality: the suffering had begun. I had hoped that starting with fresh legs and keeping the pace easy would give me 50 miles before the pain set in, but that wasn’t going to happen. With each step, my legs were sending the message that it was time to stop. Still, there little else to complain about. My stomach was still feeling fine, and my energy level was in good shape. I glanced at my Garmin Forerunner 35 GPS tracking watch frequently to make sure that I finished each mile in less than 14:26, but I tried to ignore the indicator of which mile I was on. Doing that seemed to make the miles pass more quickly.
Around mile 40 I stopped at the gas station in Big Pool again to purchase some water. The Clif bars, Clif blocks, and chips in my pack were still keeping me well fed, so I didn’t need any food this time. By this time it was dark and I had the path all to myself now. For miles I saw nobody. Eventually I got hungry for another ham sandwich, so I sent Crystal a text to have her send another with Ty when he drove down to Hancock later to join me at mile 51 (my two detours to Big Pool had gained me an extra mile). I also had her send along a wash cloth to wipe the sweat and grime off my face that had accumulated through the warm daytime hours.
The battery on my tracking watch is good for only about 12 hours, so it was starting to get low. I took out the charging cable I had brought with me and attached my watch to the portable battery bank I was carrying in a pocket on the front of my vest. The cord was long enough that the watch could remain on my wrist as it was charging and would not restrict my arm swing while I ran.
The pain my legs was getting harder and harder to ignore, so I tried to think of ways to distract myself. For some odd reason, there was an old Petra song from years ago playing in my head. Christian Rock isn’t usually my music genre of choice, but desperate times call for desperate measures, so I brought it up on the YouTube app on my phone and listened to it as I ran:
You are my Rock, my Fortress, my Shield
You are my Rock, let Your strength be revealed
My Rock, my Comfort, my Peace, my Salvation,
My refuge, my God.
You are my Rock.
At around 10 pm, Crystal sent me a voice message on WhatsApp asking me how I was doing and wishing me a good night. I sent message back to let her know that things were going reasonably well and I was still on my sub-24 pace, but it was becoming pretty difficult to maintain and I didn’t know if I could keep that pace all the way through.
I reached Hancock and as planned, Ty was there waiting for me with my drop bag. By this time I was suffering greatly. In particular, my feet had begun to swell and my Altra Lone Peak trail shoes felt too small. This had been a matter of concern in planning for the race. Even though I exclusively wear size 10 Altra shoes, the Lone Peak version 3.5 always felt a little more snug than the other models. But now at 50 miles, my toes felt like they were jammed into the sides of the toe box. The good news was that I had a pair of Altra Torin road shoes in my drop bag, and I changed into those. Instantly my feet felt better, and would not cause any more issues the remainder of the run.
I wiped down my face and arms with the washcloth and loaded my pack with drinks and food. I also drank a 7.5 ounce can of Dr Pepper, something I had included in each of my drop bags. It may seem like a small thing, but a shot of my favorite beverage can provide a mental boost during the latter miles of an ultramarathon.
Ty and I headed down the path back toward Williamsport. The miles passed more quickly for a time. Ty had arrived in the area after I had started my run, so we hadn’t talked to this point and we had plenty of discussion topics to catch up on. As I remember, the main topics were politics, religion, and running. I don’t really know why we spend time talking about the first two, because our opinions on those things are pretty well matched. It’s like “singing to the choir”. But regardless, getting a bit riled up about politicians does tend to distract a person from excruciating pain, so it was all good.
Somewhere around mile 70 I felt a sudden pain and tightening in my right hamstring. It made it very difficult to straighten my leg, and for a few minutes I was afraid it might bring my 100 mile attempt to a sad end. However, as I walked for a minute or so it seemed to loosen up a bit. I could feel it pull a bit with every stride from there on out, but as long as I kept moving, it didn’t seem to get any worse.
As we neared Williamsport, my stomach started to feel sick. I stopped and started to fish through the bottom of my pack to find a ginger chew, but Ty had one readily available and offered it to me. After chopping on that for a minute or two, my stomach felt fine again, and never caused any more trouble for the duration of the run.
At around 5 AM we arrived at Williamsport at Mile 76. Dan was there with my next drop bag. It contained all of the usual food items: Clif bars, Clif Blocks, chips and a 7.5 oz can of Dr Pepper. I had also texted ahead and had him pick me up some French fries at Sheets, so I ate those while Ty filled my water bottles with water and Tailwind powder. Mentally this was probably a low point for me. Even though I was three-fourths of the way through, six more hours of running seemed like far more suffering than I was prepared to overcome. From there, Dan would pace me back toward Hancock while Ty drove Dan’s vehicle to McCoy’s ferry where I would meet my crew in the morning.
As Dan and I left Williamsport, I was still clinging to a sub-24-hour pace, but it had become extremely difficult. For those readers who have not run further than the marathon distance, this may be hard to understand. 14 minute miles is not a fast pace. But any ultramarathon runner of average ability will tell you that things feel a lot different once you get past 30 or 40 miles. Any kind of movement is painful. There are frequent reasons to stop running: to get a food item from your pack, clean a rock out of your shoe, or just to walk a few minutes to keep your hamstrings from getting tight. And each time you do this, it makes it that much harder to complete that mile under the required time. If you miss the pace on one mile, you have the cruel task of making it up on the next one. This became a mile-by-mile battle for me.
Before long, the sky started to brighten and lift my spirits slightly. I got a good morning text from Crystal, who seemed pleasantly surprised to learn I was still on pace. She asked me what I wanted for breakfast at McCoy’s Ferry (Mile 87), and I requested a ham and egg sandwich and some soup. However, by the time we reached McCoy’s ferry, I knew there would be no time to eat the soup, because it would require me to stop for too long. I texted ahead and instructed Crystal to have Landry on the trail, his GPS watch locked in and ready to go. I stopped there for about a minute, just long enough to put some more Clif blocks in my pack and clear out a few things that I would no longer need. By time I had done that, Ty had filled my water bottles again. I took the sandwich Crystal and made and headed down the trail with Landry.
The last 13 miles went by slowly. I now expected to finish, but there was no celebration or comfort from that fact. Running can bring a person a lot of enjoyment, but there was none of that now; only excruciating pain in my legs. Each mile was the same routine of glancing at my watch frequently to see if I was on pace. As I would run, my right hamstring would become tighter and tighter until I would be forced to walk to stretch it out. But another cruel fact is that both my running and walking were slower than ever, causing me to eliminate more and more walk breaks in order to keep the pace.
Somewhere around Little Pool we we ran into Mitch, another local runner who was out training that morning for his own 100 mile attempt later in the spring. We talked a few moments and then I hobbled on. My mind was still good enough to do some math, and from my mile markers I could tell that I would reach the 100 mile distance at the Hancock Welcome Center, which was about a mile before my starting point near the center of town. I knew it would be close, so at one point we backtracked a tenth of a mile to give us a bit more distance to be sure we’d have enough. I text Crystal to let her know the new location. We reached mile 99 with the usual swell of emotions knowing that I was almost there. I waited for the surge of adrenaline that I had experienced at the end of my JFK 50 miler, the one that cause my last mile to be the fastest of the entire race. But this time, it didn’t happen. There was nothing left. My body was completely broken and there was nothing I could do to speed it up. Landry started my 360 camera and let it run as we approached the Welcome Center. Ty, Jenny, and Rodney were waiting on the trail where we turned off. Crystal, Camden, Cullen and Cole were waiting in the parking lot. My emotions got the best of me briefly as I stopped my tracking watch and gave Crystal a sweaty embrace. Camden then presented me with an unexpected prize: a handcrafted wooden buckle he and the other boys had made. I had mixed feelings about running an unofficial 100 miler, and one of the reasons was that I would not receive the traditional buckle that most races give out to each finisher. But as it turned out, I got my buckle, and one with more meaning that the factory-made one I would have gotten at an official race. The total distance of my run was 100.2 miles. The total time was 23 hours, 59 minutes.
A huge amount of credit for this effort goes to my family for putting up with my many long training runs leading up to this, and for supporting me the day of the run. I also need to say thank you to Ty’s family and my friend Dan for their help in crewing and pacing. I was very thankful that Ty drove from Kentucky to crew for me. That fact alone was a motivation to never give up. I was not going to allow him to travel that far for a failed attempt.
I put together the video below of some of the moments of the race. Enjoy!