Monday, February 6, 2012

The Longest Day

You know those days that seem like they'll never end?

Forget about winning. Forget about doing well. Forget about complete and utter humiliation. All you want to do is survive... to make it to the end of the day... to close your eyes and let sleep carry you away to morning. No, forget about morning, to just carry you away.

There's this long and narrow body of water that stretches 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown called the C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal. It was built way back in the early 1800's when a canal system was considered a potential alternative to the railways. In the US, the canals lost the battle, playing the role of 8-track tape to cassette, or beta to VHS, or Windows to Mac OS. The canal business died; the canals and their towpaths (the paths walked by mules towing barges) were abandoned.

In 1954, US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas organized an eight day hike up the C&O's Canal's towpath in an effort to save it from being converted to a parkway. His efforts succeeded and in 1971 the canal became a national historic park.

A Little Bike Ride
In March 1995, a friend asks me if I'd like join him on a little bike ride. I explain to him that I'm not much for road-biking, preferring the bumps and ruts of a mountain trail to the smooth asphalt of the road. He smiles and says, "Perfect."

I don't ask any more questions; I just show up at his house the following Saturday for what he deemed a 'training' ride. When I arrive, there are sixteen other biker-riders with everything from hybrids to extreme downhill bikes. We head down the road a couple of miles and then off into the woods. The ride is relatively easy, mainly fire roads with the occasional single track, nothing too gnarly. During a break, I ask Rod (one of the riders I've just met), "So what kind of ride are we training for?"

"You mean, he didn't tell you?"

"Uh... no. I just never asked."

Rod chuckles and says, "You ever hear of the C&O Canal."


"Well, we're gonna ride its towpath from Cumberland to Georgetown."

"How far is that?"

"One-hundred-eighty-four miles."

"One-hundred-eight-four-point-five miles", says John another rider joining the conversation.

"OK", I say, "How many days?"

They both look at each other, then at me and in unison say, "One."

"One? We're gonna ride a hundred-eight-four miles in one day?"

"Hundred-eighty-four-point-five and, yeah, we are. Well, at least some of us are."

"OK. Well, I've ridden centuries (hundred mile rides), but never that far. Should be alright."

"Yeah, but your centuries were on the road right?"


"The towpath ain't a road. It's an overgrown collection of rocks and roots loosely held together by mud."

"For a hundred-eighty-four miles?"

"Nope, the last ten miles has been converted into a trail for weekend riders and strollers."

I look back-and-forth from Rod to John. They're not kidding.

Three months later, it's 2:00 AM in Cumberland. I bounce my bike down the cement stairs of the Best Western, one hand steadying myself against wrought-iron railing the composition of which seems to be more paint than iron. Rod, Jimmy and John are already standing in the parking lot. A few minutes later a couple of other guys emerge from their rooms. What had started out as a crew of twenty-five would-be riders is now just five.

I run a last check of my gear, flip the switches on the two D-cell Mag-Lites I have duct-taped to my handlebars and head into the mist that rolls off the canal and over the towpath.

I say to Rod, "So, why do we start at 2:00 AM?"

"Better to start in the dark than finish in the dark. By the end of the day, it's hard enough just to keep upright; forget about trying to see things."

It's June 21, the longest day of the year, perhaps the longest day ever.

We ride in near silence for three hours ducking phantom low-hanging branches and occasionally getting smacked by real ones. The sound of crickets and frogs becomes deafening. My Mag-Lites dim. I stop to replace the batteries and the pedal like a madman to catch up with the crew. Black becomes blue; blue becomes gray; gray warms to gold; morning comes.

About 6:00 we stop for breakfast. We've covered forty-eight miles.

The rest of the day is a blur. As we slowly pass a troop of Boy Scouts one asks us where we're camping tonight. Rod responds, "At the Four Seasons in Georgetown."

"You guys are riding the whole trail in one day? I hope that I can do that some day!"

Rod pulls along side me and breathes, "Shit, I hope that I can do it today."

Later in the morning, Jimmy asks me, "So Mark, what's the difference between seeing a mirage and being delusional?"

I completely miss the joke and launch into a textbook explanation. My legs are cramping and if I never taste Gatorade again, it will be too soon.

Mid afternoon, we stop for a break. A friend of one of the guys is waiting in a parking lot just thirty miles from Georgetown. He sits on the tail-gait of his Explorer. He has a large Igloo cooler and a broad smile. As we roll up to him, he pops the top of the cooler and says, "You guys look like shit. Maybe this will help."

The cooler is filled with wedges of watermelon and ice. He hands each of us a cheap plastic salt shaker and says, "You are about to experience a miracle."

The combination of ice-cold watermelon and salt is nothing less than miraculous. I feel my head clear. My leg-cramps subside.

The last thirty-miles is easier. No rocks. No roots. No mud. No low-hanging branches. The trail is groomed and smooth with the only peril being the occasional jogger stopped to take a call.

About 4:00 we roll into Georgetown. Seeing the marker at the end of the trail, Jimmy hammers down on his cranks speeding forward just as a jogger crossing the path stops dead-center to tie his shoe. Jimmy, slams his brakes, his tires slide out from under him and he follows his bike across the brickwork that now serves as the path's surface.

Before we can get off our bikes to see if he's OK, he's back up and roaring forward. The jogger never even sees us.

Standing outside the Four Season, we stop for a picture before heading into to find out rooms. We leave our bikes with the valet, agreeing to meet in the lobby for dinner a couple of hours later.

There are days that you think will never end and yet, they do. Sometimes you'd like a do-over. Sometimes you'd like a never-again. Sometimes you think, "Wow, that was perfect."

Happy Monday,

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