With March's Graveyard 100 casting a lengthy backwards shadow over my winter training, I've been seeking out extended flat runs to ready myself for this test along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Dead-level running hour after repetitive hour poses special challenges, mental and physical. I am fortunate to live close to the perfect venue for this sort of exercise: the C & O Canal Towpath, 184 magnificent miles along the Potomac, from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD.
Last Saturday's plan was to sample 36 of those miles, starting at the Dickerson Conservation Park, a little north of my usual starting point at Riley's Lock or Carderock. My hope was to keep above the snow/sleet line that tends to snake unpredictably across the middle of our state, and so avoid any hypothermia-inducing cold rain. There was also the excitement of a running a portion of the path I haven't seen before.
Pulling out of Dickerson, I am slapped first by a hissing sleet. It's 34 degrees now, so things could go either way. I'm not dressed for a heavy wet cold downpour that lasts for 6 hours. Thankfully, the precipitation quickly downshifts to slow-drifting, fat snowflakes. My mind begins to relax, gradually slipping into that long-run, I-have-six-hours-to-go-so-take-it-easy mode.
Ultra time. It seems to come more naturally here. Landscape dictates consciousness, shaping our experience of time as well as space. The endless flat miles of the towpath require--and make possible--a different kind of mental discipline than the rocky trails that are my preferred terrain. The kind of hyper-alert attention to moment-by-moment changes we need to avoid planting our faces on the trail or poking out an eye will not do here. Here, our attention turns inward--and then outward, as the path expands and stretches, melting into the gray and black of winter trees, the swirl of snow over the silvery Potomac.
For years, I have avoided the C&O as monotonous, even soul-killing. It truly is not. Any dullness is in us, not the path. Change simply unfolds on a different, longer timescale. To run the C & O is to run into the past. A few miles on from Dickerson, I come to that remarkable piece of engineering, the Monacacy Aqueduct. Nineteenth-century critical infrastructure, once carefully guarded by Union troops, now a monument to outdated technology.
Another 6 miles roll by. The snow is at it heaviest as I pull into Point of Rocks, a dramatic cross-section of the Catoctin Mountains. Layers of metamorphosed limestone almost 600 million years old have been pushed up slant-wise, the rock face jutting out toward the river like the prow of an immense ship. In the first half of the 19th century, this narrow pass between river and cliff was the focus of a bitter court battle between the canal company and the upstart railroad.
At the 11 or 12 mile mark, I fall in with another runner, just starting his 16-miler at the Cactoctin Aqueduct. In training for his first Boston Marathon at age 60, Don Frisbee kept me company for the next 6 or 7 miles. About 10 minutes into our run, we were slowed by the sight of a fox, acting curiously unconcerned by our presence, weaving slowly and suspiciously about in the middle of the path. Most unfoxlike--and therefore possibly rabid. We slow to a stop. Suddenly aware of us, the fox takes off in a flash down the path. That is more like it.
At Weverton Cliffs, Don and I part ways. He has a few miles further north to go, and for me, at the 3 hour mark, it is time to turn back for home. As I make my way back past the town of Brunswick, which seems to have been slowly dying for a century, the air begins to warm, snow shifting to a light rain. The path sprouts patches of fresh mud and slush. My feet are soon soaked, chilled, heavy.
With 10 miles to go, I eat the last of my low-carb almond-flour pancakes. Don regarded me rather dubiously when I tried to explain why I had deliberately avoided significant carbohydrates for the past 24 hours before the run. For the past 6 weeks, I have been experimenting with carb-depleted running. The goal is to turn on the body's innate but reluctant ability to burn fat rather than glucose. My version of this metabolic retraining is a hybrid, inspired variously by Phil Maffetone, Stu Mittleman, Meb Keflezighi, and Tim Olsen.
Twice a week, I've been doing an early morning run of 2 to 3 hours on an empty stomach, preceded by a day or so of a reduced carb, higher fat diet (not an easy feat for a vegan); and on the weekends, a long run of 5 to 6 hours, fueled mostly by nuts and a low-carb breakfast. The first week of this regimen was frankly unpleasant. Then, something clicked. What seemed inconceivable becomes natural. No more bonking. Even, steady energy on every run. Nonetheless, today's 36 miler would constitute a bit of a test: the longest I've gone without gels, bars, and other carbo-crutches.
I'm still feeling good, if a bit damp and cool, over the last few miles. Anticipating a warm car and food, I start looking at my watch, tallying the mile markers that divide the towpath. I am not fatigued, but mental equanimity and patience are now rather shattered as ordinary time reasserts itself, and I begin to fret about tasks and obligations for the afternoon. Right on cue, the sun comes out, drying the trail and sparkling across the Potomac as I ease into the Dickerson Conservation Area. I walk the last few yards over the little bridge over the canal to parking area.
Next week, it's up to Elkton, MD, for the PHUNT 50 K--my first-ever FatAss event.