Friday, May 6, 2016

C&O Canal 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report - Redemption Run

April 30th - May 1st 2016

The C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal along the Potomac River was used from 1831 to 1924 to haul mostly coal from mines in the Alleghenies. The towpath runs from Cumberland Maryland to Georgetown, Washington D.C.. Today the old towpath is now a multi-purpose trail maintained as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. That towpath accommodated me from early Saturday morning until lunch time Sunday as I made my second attempt to finish The C&O Canal 100 Mile Endurance Run.

Lockhouse 28

The race starts and finishes at Manidokan Camp and Retreat Center, a United Methodist retreat perched on a hill above the Potomac near Knoxville Maryland. This isn't a trail race, but there is a very short "real trail" used to get runners to and from the canal towpath. It's a steep trail with a little bit of everything, it's technical, it's slippery and it crosses a stream at the bottom a couple of times. Runners get to experience this little rugged climb/descent at the start, the finish and once up and down at the 60 mile mark. Other than that, the course is board flat. The course is three out & back segments. The first out & back heads towards Cumberland Maryland and makes up the first 20ish miles and then there's a 40 mile out and back in the direction of Washington D.C. that's repeated to total the 100 miles.  In between those two 40 mile journeys, runners climb/descend that steep trail back and forth from Manidokan. There are 7 aid stations, 3 available for drop bags. Along with the regular aid station offerings, Tailwind Nutrition and VFuel were available on the course.

In 2014 the flatness of the towpath was my undoing. Without changing terrain and hills to climb, I was running faster than I could ever hope to maintain for 100 miles. When I arrived at Manidokan after the first 60 miles, I felt sick and ready to pass out.  I tried to continue, but at Lock 34 I was still feeling crappy and my headlamp wasn't working properly so I got in the Jeep and Janice drove me to the Keep Tryst Aid Station where I turned in my number and walked away with the shame and pain of my first DNF. With that memory tattooed on my brain, I came back to the canal with a plan. It was simple, I would run a slower comfortable pace. I struggled with doing that in training however, so I set up a pace screen on my GPS watch (Suunto Ambit3 Peak) to monitor my discipline. To start I would try to run nothing faster than a 12 minute mile and I knew fatigue would eventually take care of any speedier yearnings. More on that later.

Along with starting out way too fast, I also neglected my nutrition last time. ClifBar came through with another amazing delivery of organic goodies to keep me going. This year thanks to ClifBar, caloric intake would not be ignored, I carried ClifShot Gels and Bloks Energy Chews in my pack. My drop bags had more of the same for reloading along with ClifBars, Crunch Bars and I also included ClifBar Organic Energy Food packets. I can't say enough about the organic energy food series, I started my day with one of each of their new breakfast flavors before I left the hotel and ate one of the other flavors with each visit to my drop bags (6 times). They taste great and they're packed with great stuff you need. My favorite flavor is a toss up between Banana Beet With Ginger and Pizza Margherita. I can't thank ClifBar enough for their support, I'll say it again; they're easily the coolest company on the planet!

Organic Breakfast

The aid stations didn't disappoint in the nutrition arena either. The spreads at these stops were off the charts, maybe the best Aid Station offerings I've seen. Each visit I gobbled down watermelon, orange quarters and peanut butter and jelly. I also became enamored with pierogies, my new aid station food of choice; especially those served up by Bert Salter. I use Tailwind Nutrition for hydration and I know they say it's "All you need, all day. Really.", and I believe them, but psychologically I can't let go of actually eating something as well. Anyway, knowing the race was providing Tailwind was cool, but I didn't want to rely on their supply so I also measured out the mix for my hydration bladder and packed that in my drop bags as well (it turned out I used none of my own, the race even had the caffeinated Buzz to get us through the night). I can't mention the aid stations without commenting on the volunteers. I've seen tons of aid station volunteers over time and the folks along this course put in an unrivaled effort. The kindness, selflessness and the countless genuine supportive gestures had me awe struck. These people never waivered, not at the start, not a 4am in the driving rain. These volunteers were extra important to me this year, as I was running without my loving crew to look after me.

 2014 Logo by Pennsylvanian Ultra Friend Todd Lewis

Pre-race briefing

Standing waiting for the start, I recognized a runner I spent much of the day with at the Naked Bavarian and this time we actually introduced ourselves. His name is Phil and he said that he had also DNF'd here, but last year in the horrible winter-like weather conditions they experienced. We were both on a mission to redeem ourselves. The race started off just as planned with a mellow opening run around the grounds of the camp. I ducked into the porta-john and as I exited to descend to the towpath, I heard a woman say, "you shouldda' thought of that before the race". I just smiled and headed down the hill, thinking, "this must be her first ultra as a spectator".

My pace felt good, I wasn't struggling to maintain it and I wasn't taking any of the regular bait to speed up. I heard a runner ask the distance at the Dargan Bend Aid Station. The volunteer responded, "18.8 miles", and my watch matched up exactly. We arrived at the Keep Tryst Road Aid Station and I saw a sign with the current distance as 25.7 miles, but my watch showed almost 30. I asked a volunteer about it and he said it was accurate as far as he knew, but I wasn't the first runner to ask. I got about a hundred feet down the trail and my watch beeped for the next mile and again about a half mile later. I was pretty certain something was up with my watch, but it seemed like the pace it was displaying was accurate. A little further down the trail I thought, wait if the GPS isn't working, the pace can't be correct (duh). I ran for about a minute without taking my eyes off the pace screen and the number was bouncing all over the place, even flat lining.

Leaving Dargan Bend Aid Station

At the Lander Aid Station, my watch didn't match their sign either, but that wasn't important. The critical fact was that after some quick math I realized my pace was too fast. I was running a fine pace for 33 miles, but I had 67 still to go. Lander was staffed by If The Shoe Fits employees who were all ultra runners and the volunteer wearing the Hellgate 100k hat said he has the same problem with his watch in that area of the towpath. I was running an unsustainable pace, just like 2014. I thought it felt a little quick, but my watch had said otherwise. GPS signal can be affected by various factors.  I noticed how the environment had changed from the upper portion of the trail to this lower section. Now the trail was right along the base of rock outcrops and cliffs and of course the trail was directly adjacent to the river, both natural features that can screw up your vital connection with the necessary satellites. I also noticed that when the pace was flat lined, it coincided with when a freight train was passing, which was often. Yes, I had a lot of time to think about this and yes it had really gotten in my head. My pace was doing a fine job of sabotaging my finish here again.

It should say, "Too Fast, Scenic and Festive".

I took some measures to hopefully salvage my finish. The time on my watch was working fine and there were mile markers along the trail. The race doesn't start at mile zero though so I took note of mile markers at turn-arounds and aid stations and monitored my pace that way. I also interspersed periods of walking, it slowed my pace and switched up my muscle usage (on this flat course, the different parts of your legs don't see any variance in usage). I also maintained and maybe even increased my caloric intake. With all that said, I still came through the 50 mile mark too soon. All I could think of was, I was going to feel spent when it was time to start that last 40 miles so I increased my walking in the last 6 miles leading to the camp. It had already started raining so I planned to get in my Jeep and change into different clothing for running through the night in the rain. What I didn't plan was just how long that would take. A Jeep Wrangler isn't a roomy changing room and I was pretty wet. Stripping off soaking wet clothes, getting dry and getting re-dressed took 45 minutes. That unplanned time seemed a blessing in disguise as the break gave me a real bounce. I knew the time and I knew that even if I was feeling completely worked, I could still beat the 30 hour cut off. After gobbling a bunch of food I headed back down the hill to the tow path.

Now it was dark and the rain switched from steady to down pours and the temperature was about 50° and felt even colder with the winds. Yeah, it sucked. On top of that I was starting to feel sleepy. I was awakened once by stumbling in an erosion hole on the river side of the path. I got to the Brunswick Aid Station and grabbed all the caffeinated ClifShot Gels I had in my drop bag and put them in my pack. I had already been running on Tailwind Buzz, but it didn't seem to have much affect on my grogginess. The few minutes it took me to do that exchange seemed to get me through that sleepy patch so I took off again. The ClifShot gels with caffeine were doing a fine job, but twice more I hit patches where the sleep monster was on my heels. The bizarre visual affect caused by running with a headlamp in driving rain seemed to only make the affect of sleep deprivation worse and I was hallucinating like Hunter S. Thompson "somewhere near Barstow on the edge of the desert". I was seeing buildings in the wilderness, shadows the size of large birds in my headlamp beam and crazy beams of light that looked like lasers at a Pink Floyd concert. It was pretty crazy to the point that when I saw real stuff I had to wonder. I saw a real Skunk and then a real family of Raccoons crossing the trail. One of the adult Raccoons stopped and watched me as the last little one disappeared off the trail and into the darkness. I was certain they were real, because neither the adult Raccoon or Skunk had anything to say. I did however find myself talking to the Marbled Salamanders and countless Frogs that were every where enjoying the rainy night on the trail. None of them responded to my greetings, which I guess was a good thing.

I stumbled into the Lander Aid Station (73.3 miles) and needed to sit down, but realized I had chosen the chairs they had been designated for runners who needed medical attention so I started to move when a voice said, "sit wherever the hell you want Perry". I thought, "oh my God, now the voices know my name." Nope, it was ultra buddy Bert Salter, he lives nearby and was volunteering. Bert finished here the year I DNF'd. He quickly produced a hot cup of coffee. It was great to see Bert, what a spirit booster! I stayed the time necessary to drink the coffee, eat a few Pierogies and explain that Janice wasn't with me, but off riding the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City. He said he had seen her post on Facebook earlier and got the sense she wasn't here as my signature trusty crew. Without a crew, it's a great feeling to see a familiar smiling face especially when the going is getting tough. I headed back out into the storm and Bert promised he'd see me on my return trip.

Janice, Bill & Govan in NYC for The Five Boro Bike Tour.

I made it to the Noland's Ferry Aid Station (80 miles) where a father and daughter duo were taking care of runners like we were disaster victims and I guess in a sense we were. In the cold driving rain Hypothermia had become a real concern. Clothing was stripped off and dried or changed and you weren't heading out for your last 20 miles until you had been warmed by the propane heater. I know I saw them around 4am, but I really hoped I'd see them again at the finish just to thank them. Those two may have saved my life, I can't thank them enough. I headed back out into the rain now clad in a huge garbage bag for extra warmth and protection from the rain. Funny, I spend money on the best gear and my health may have been spared by a garbage bag.

I was running and walking and as daybreak appeared the rain slowed to a drizzle and I soon arrived back to the Lander Aid Station. Bert was still there and asked me what I needed and I asked for a pair of scissors as my garbage bag needed to be shortened. At it's current length I looked like I belonged in the New Order video for the song True Faith. He produced a butcher knife and started to cut, asking me to "apologize to Janice in case I cut something I shouldn't". Everyone had a good laugh and I was back on the trail. At about 10 minutes to 8, I heard a loud thunder clap and the next down pour began. Our reprieve was over. It rained most of the rest of the day. With about three miles to go the rain stopped and just as I was about to make the turn to the finish the sun actually appeared. A crazy ending to a very long slow survival effort.

Lance Dockery, the Race Director, was there at the finish with a small group cheering and I received my first hundred mile belt buckle. He tried to shake my hand and I sorta' missed, I was a mess. That moment meant so much, although it was incredibly slow; it was my first 100 mile finish and 100 miles for me was certainly a big effort. Persevering through those conditions made it mean even more. I avoid using overused terms, but the ridiculous weather turned this into an epic event.

The rain was relentless. It started around 7:30 Saturday evening and it was raining when I left the last aid station heading to the finish. My pacing screw-up almost physically took me out of the race and the rain did the same mentally. I consider myself a pretty upbeat guy, but the constant down pour had me pretty depressed at points. I just wanted it to stop. Those mental rough patches were far worse than the fatigue or the sleepiness. I thought about my family, my dogs, anything to change my mind when the rain was getting in my head.  I kept thinking about our trip with our boys to Scotland and the horrible weather during the race there. That was just a half marathon, but pouring rain and 70 mph gusts made it insane. Musing on that gave me a little strength to get through these conditions as well. For me, the mental test that came from this rain was life changing.

My physical survival was mostly because I kept up my caloric intake and for that I have to thank ClifBar. So often times when running for extreme periods of time, certain faculties begin to falter like your finger dexterity. At this event I experienced none of that. People asked me why I was wearing a ClifBar hat and shirt and I responded because it's their products that fuel me to finish lines. I can't say enough good things about their products, the company and the ClifBar family who have been so amazing in their support.

Finisher's buckle & my soggy ClifBar trucker hat

Gear I used:

Altra Olympus 1.5 (first 60 miles)
Altra Lone Peak 2.5 (last 40 miles)
Superfeet Insoles <Orange> (2 pairs)
Injinji Trail 2.0 (2 pairs)
Pro Compression Calf Sleeves
Adidas Compression Shorts (2 pairs)
Favorite Old Brooks Running Shorts (day)
CW-X Compression Tights (night)
Champion Sleeveless Lycra Base Layer (day)
The North Face Arm Warmers (day)
2XU Long Sleeve Compression Top (night)
ClifBar T-Shirt (2)
ClifBar Trucker Hat (day)
Manzella Winter Gloves
Reebok Winter Gloves (2 pairs) (3 pairs of gloves wasn't enough in the relentless rain)
Outdoor Research Novo Watch Cap (2)
Patagonia Houdini Jacket (race premium from the year I DNF'd - I came back to earn my jacket)
Princeton Tec Apex Extreme Headlamp (275 Lumens - got a call from NASA that my headlamp was keeping the crew of the International Space Station awake)
Knuckle Lights (4) (on't run in the dark without them - thanks Knuckle Lights!!!)
Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 2.0 (slight overkill, but it allowed me to carry more stuff without having a crew)
Paltypus 2L Big Zip Hydration Bladder
Suunto Ambit3 Peak HR - (sually quite reliable, but it struggled here)
Spot Messenger (so Janice could see where I was)
Hefty 55 Gal. Garbage Bag (vital, 100% water proof and sorta' warm)

Just keep smiling...

Just some of the lessons I learned:

  • My drop bags were packed well with nutrition, but I needed more clothing changes to battle the weather.
  • You can run through sleepiness, don't panic.
  • Keep up the caloric intake and you may just survive.
  • In private, it's ok to talk to amphibians you only just met.
  • Don't be bummed by a shitty time, you finished...

Next up for me, The Glacier Ridge 50 in just a few days - I should be recovered by then!

Thank you to Kevin Sayers for taking and sharing his photos at the Dargan Ben Aid Station.


  1. Congrats on the finish! You looked strong every time I saw you out there. Well done.

    1. Thanks Phil! Congrats sir, you had a great day! See you on the trail someday soon. :-)

  2. Excellent race report. I knew it was raining, but I had no idea just how hard. I just keep my head down and kept going. I was shocked to see all those young guns at mile 80 huddled around the heater. I got in and got out asap for the final 20 miles, which was a mighty struggle. My hooded rain jacket and nutrition is what allowed my survival. I voided never to sign up for another 100 miler. A few months later, I signed up for the Lighthouse 100 in Michigan. Good luck in the future.

  3. Congratulations! Great race report!