Saturday, May 3, 2014

C&O Canal 100: Race Report and a Few Reflections

I ran my first 100-miler last weekend, on April 26-27. 

This was the second year of the C&O Canal 100.  Except for a few miles, the course is entirely along the C&O Canal towpath.  The 184.5 mile long canal was built in the 1820s, roughly paralleling the Potomac River, as a means to haul coal and other products.  The towpath alongside it --essentially a dirt road -- was intended for mules to pull barges along the C&O Canal.  The canal was largely abandoned after 1924, but the towpath remains as a popular route for walkers, hikers, and runners.  During the course of the race, I crossed paths with numerous boy scout troops, numerous Sierra Club members completing a one-day 100-km hike, residents of local towns engaged in their daily exercise, and a handful of lovebirds enjoying wide open views of the Potomac.

This race is held at the right time of year.  The director set us on our way at 7 AM, shortly after sunrise.   Depending on where on the towpath you were, the temperatures reached about 75 degrees in the late afternoon, and dipped down to to 37 degrees just before dawn on Sunday.  The bluebells were out in full force, the new leaves on the trees provided plenty of shade, and along the route I enjoyed the sounds of the songbirds in the morning, frogs in the evening, and the rustling of deer in the woods at night.

I didn't use a run/walk system, but I took walk breaks frequently.  Here, my race walk training served my well.  I traveled light, carrying only the essentials, but packing my drop bags with every conceivable thing I could think of, without exceeding the size limits.  After mile 27, I would have access to them approximately 10 miles.  My ovepreparedness served me well when, halfway through the race, I realized I had left my handheld water bottle at an aid station two miles back. Happily, I had spare one in my drop bag five miles up the road. 

The volunteers couldn't have been more amazing.  Every time I rolled into an aid station, I felt I had my own personal crew, bringing me food and ice cold towels, swapping out batteries in my headlamp, taping my blistered feet, and preparing bags of food for me to take before I left.  This is all the more important because there are only five points during the race where crew have access.  My family was able to come see me at two of them, and knowing they would be there was a huge boost.

I didn't spend much time training to run at night, and was curious how mind and spirits would react.  I found the dark hours to be peaceful, and the stars to be amazing.  Around mile 70 my legs suddenly loosened up and I found myself running freely.  My mind did play a few tricks me, making me think that I saw specters on the road up ahead, including the ghost of a woman around the Catoctin Creek crossing.  After the race, while researching the history of the canal, I read a lady ghost had been reported on that stretch of the canal during its operating days.  If she is still there, I like to think she is cheering on the runners.

The temperatures dropped continually through the night.  Though I've spent a lot of time running in much colder weather, I wasn't fully prepared for how my body react to near-freezing temperatures after running for nearly 24 hours. I spent a good chunk of time at an aid station in front of a heater with cup after cup of hot soup, shaking off some mild hypothermia. I saw several other runners at various times dealing with the same issue.

Fueling and hydration went totally fine, except for 30 minutes of indigestion after an aid station where I ate too much.  For shoes, I chose to wear the North Face Single-Track Hayasa II, which provided plenty of cushioning and support.  I saw others wearing everything from huaraches up to Hoka One Ones.

A week later, I am feeling good and ready to start running again.  My sense is that doing well in a 100-miler is half about fitness, and half about the ability to avoid or solve problems.  While I did pretty well, there are some potential issues that I still need to think about. 

Regardless, I got it done, and am happy.  For that, I am thankful to my friends for their advice and for joining me in long runs, and to my family for their confidence in me and their willingness to support my running schedule.  Splits and so on are available on Strava.