The Home Stretch
SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — I was up around 7:00 a.m. and was prepared to leave by 8:00. I wanted to be quiet and went about filling my Camelbak with the ice and water that Bethany had filtered the night before. Bethany got up and saw me off. I rode off to Sheetz and bought a Gatorade and breakfast sandwich. After eating, I rode again by Bethany’s apartment and Ashley’s dorm at Shepherd University.
I crossed the bridge on Rte 65 from Shepherdstown into Maryland then descended the steep hill back to the canal. This time I rode the brakes careful not to outride them. I safely descended the hill and turned on the access road that parallels the canal for three miles. I came to the Antietam Creek aqueduct, one of the best-preserved water crossings on the canal. This was the point that Andrew and I reached two years ago before breaking my rear wheel (we call it taco). Having reached this point I had ridden from Pittsburgh to D.C., at least in parts.
A band of heavy thunderstorms had moved through late yesterday and the canal was showing it. Much of the canal has returned to its natural forested state, albeit with a canal depression. Where the canal contains water is a little more out in the open than the forested sections. Heavier than normal spring rains followed by a somewhat rainy summer had left the canal towpath in wet shape.
Because of miles of forest cover, the canal has not had a chance to dry out. The first section to Harpers Ferry wasn’t too bad. As I approached Harpers Ferry I expected that I would see more people as this section is very popular with tourists. I did.
I stopped briefly at Harpers Ferry and climbed up the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River into town. Here two tracks exit the railroad tunnel and one has a great view of the river and the Shenandoah River entering the Potomac at this location. I went back to my bike and headed south again. I was still having problems sitting in the saddle (saddle sores) but I knew it would be my last day.
I started hitting stretches of good trail for 200-300 yards then had to ride through a 15-foot puddle. It was a killer to try to gain any speed. One shouldn’t need to brake on a path but I was constantly applying the brakes so as not to get too muddy.
Just south of Brunswick about 15 girls came running up the towpath. This was the girls’ cross country team from Brunswick high school. A few minutes later an adult running group came through as well.
It was getting muddier as I approached Point of Rocks. This location is always neat to view. Here the river and a sheer rock cliff are almost side by side. The railroad was in a legal battle with the canal for this piece of land. The canal won and built next to the river and the railroad tunneled through it. After the canal shut down the railroad acquired the right of way, filled in the canal and put a railroad track around the mountain. Here you really do have one track around the mountain and one through it.
It was getting muddier and I was not making good time. I had forgotten where the Monacacy River Aqueduct was and was surprised when I came upon it. I walked my bike across the aqueduct (required) and continued south.
Around 12:30 I reached White’s Ferry where an important decision would be made. Ride to Virginia or continue on into D.C on the C&O?
White’s Ferry has operated for years and is the only operating ferry north of D.C. on the Potomac River. To cross into Virginia would be to pay the $1 toll and then ride about three miles into Leesburg. At Leesburg, one can pick up the paved Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail which runs slightly downhill to Shirlington, about four miles from D.C. So here was the situation. The paved road would be easier riding, much easier riding, but is also out in the open and hotter. Plus there are a lot of users on the W&OD including roadies who fly by, heads down, checking their cadence.
This may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and there would be some who would suggest that I really didn’t ride Pittsburgh to D.C. if I didn’t continue to Washington. Having talked with some other riders at Whites Ferry, I decided to continue on the towpath. I refreshed by grabbing a quick bite at the store then headed south again.
Some riders I met here were pretty muddy. I figured they must have been ahead of me coming down from Harpers Ferry. I told them I hoped they came from the north but they said they actually came from the south and were going back. They asked how far I had ridden this day and I told them almost 40 miles from Shepherdstown. We were at MP 35 so I was more than halfway home on this day. They were impressed and even more so when I told them I started out from Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
As they started riding I decided to tag along. They waited for me and allowed me to ride with them. It was a welcome invitation. We chatted along the way but we rode fast. Where I had been struggling, and indeed had yet to settle into a rhythm in the saddle down to Whites Ferry, I sat up on my saddle and matched their quick pace. And it felt good.
The two riders were probably in their mid-40s and mid-50s. The younger one was named “Trace” and he set a great pace. But he didn’t lead right away. His friend did and they took turns setting the pace for me. Our second rider crashed in one of the muddy spots. The trail was treacherous.
When you approached a mud hole there were two choices. Ride through it or ride around it. Riding around it was preferred but on either side were trees. It wasn’t as simple as riding on level ground to traverse the mud hole. If you went around it often the path went on an angle next to the trees and one could not ride just sitting up. If you did the back wheel would slide off the hill and you could crash. That’s what happened to our first rider. He wasn’t hurt, just covered with mud.
Trace took over the pace-setting and picked some wicked lines through the mud. Sometimes in 15 yards, we would swing wide right, then swing all the way through the mud to the extreme left. I had to follow their line. Only occasionally did I choose to ignore the line Trace had selected and chose my own. When I did I was right.
We rode together for most of 15 miles to Seneca. At the end, I thanked them so much and regret that I did not get their names. They were the George Hincapie to my Lance Armstrong, and I’m no Lance Armstrong. But what a difference riding with a pacesetter means where I didn’t have to do the work. One doesn’t have to be traveling 30 mph into a headwind to appreciate someone riding in front of you. Even on this day with no wind just riding behind someone made a world of difference. It really lifted my spirits and I now had 50 miles behind me and was looking forward to the last 20.
After my pace setters left it wasn’t far before I saw a woman pedaling slowly ahead of me. The towpath was getting very crowded as there were many entrance points from here to D.C. So it was not unusual to see other riders and there were bike rental locations nearby. But I recognized the two bags hanging off her bike. I came up behind her and said “You need to pedal faster than that if you’re going to get home today, DIANNE.” She looked was completely surprised. She thought I was headed home on the W&OD. And she was tired.
But we both picked up our pace. We passed Swains Lock and Seven Locks. We took a detour around a rocky section. Near the end of our trips, we came to the Capital Crescent Trail. Here Dianne was headed home to Chevy Chase and I was headed into D.C. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.
I thought about how to handle my last two miles. Should I go slow and savor the moment that I had completed this journey or should I ride quickly to the finish? I decided to ride it fast.
I had ridden 350 miles over rail trails and backcountry roads in Pennsylvania and the entire length of the C&O Canal. I had seen many types of animals including numerous turtles and deer, otters, turkeys, and herons. But one thing I hadn’t seen was a snake. That was about to change.
Just in front of me on the trail was a snake. Not any snake but a poisonous copperhead. In D.C. no less. For the couple of miles I had switched to the Capital Crescent trail which is right beside the Potomac River. Just beside the trail was the C&O. The snake was crossing the trail and another cyclist stopped to protect it and other riders. He made sure no one accidentally hit the snake and it moved on safely in the weeds next to the river.
I rode the last mile and then all-too-quickly came to Georgetown. That was it. I wanted to scream because the trip was over. I did ask someone if this was it (the end of the route). They said it was. (What I didn’t know was there was a Milepost 0 post near the Kennedy Center which I did not find.)
There was a great sense of accomplishment having just completed the route but part of me wondered if there was more. Wanted there to be more. It really was all about the journey and not the destination.
I meandered over to the river area near the Kennedy Center and asked a man to take my picture. I rode about six blocks over to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop. There was a street vendor and I was looking for food. But they were sold out so I just bought a celebratory Mountain Dew. This was it. I put my bike on the Metro and headed to Virginia.
Mistakes – I made a Few
Training, training, training.
I made a few mistakes on this ride but none more critical than not training.
I did not ride enough before the trip. The summer of 2003 was not one in which I had done much bike riding. My business trip to Pittsburgh came without much advance notice and it was only then that I decided I would ride back home on a bike. I did not prepare my body for the rigors of being on a saddle more than six hours a day.
This ride should be within any cyclist’s capability but in 2003 I would not be considered a cyclist. Just an average guy determined to ride from Pittsburgh to D.C.
I gutted it out the entire trip and was suffering greatly. I could barely walk my legs and butt hurt so bad. When I went to sign the receipt in Somerset after the first day I noticed I could barely hold a pen in my hands. Both hands went numb on this trip.
The numbness in my hands (ulnar neuropathy) perhaps would not have occurred or I would have noticed it before the trip and got better fitted on my bike to prevent it. But I think it occurred because my butt hurt so bad I ended up out of the saddle way too much. The result was my weight was more on my hands than on my butt. It would be many months before the numbness eventually went away.
My second major mistake was dealing with food and water. I thought I would be able to get enough water and food along the route but that was harder than I thought.
On the first day out of Pittsburgh, my Camelbak was full of clothes so I did not have room for water. That was a major mistake. There simply weren’t enough places along the route to Ohiopyle to get water. Eating properly the night and even days before is important. Wings and fries are not long-distance food.
On the first day, I was “in difficulty” but did not feel hungry. Yet I knew to stop at Cedar Creek Park for a quick bite.
Generally, I never had a chance to eat on the trail. After the first day, I added Granola bars to my pack which helped. On Day 2, I ate at a Subway in Meyersdale, a stop I had preplanned. On Day 3, I hoped to eat at Bills in Orleans but his store was closed. I missed the exit to go into Paw Paw, WV. On Day 4, I missed the opportunity to stop at Williamsport and hoped to eat before Shepherdstown but that store on the towpath was closed as well.
I didn’t plan as well as I could have because I had ridden many of these sections before and I thought I knew them. I was wrong. My weekend rides in which these stores were open were the extent of my planning for food. On Day 5, I did grab a very bad hot dog at Whites Ferry. And a cold Gatorade.
If there was a third mistake it was riding solo. I found it was so much easier to ride with someone, especially when someone else was setting a faster pace. Even if not pace setting, just being with another person takes one mind off the suffering. Plus, in case of an accident, and I barely saved one on the canal on Day 4, there would be a person to help or summon help.
Finally, I did like my distance, an average of 70 miles per day. But I would want to ride from D.C. to Pittsburgh instead of Pittsburgh to D.C. It’s just more difficult the first two days to ride uphill from Pittsburgh to Frostburg. The “uphill” from D.C. to Cumberland is on the canal, one mile of flat followed by a 10-foot uphill. The section from Cumberland to Frostburg is a climb but is relatively short.
It was great to complete the trip and afterward said “never again.” But after a summer of riding more than 2,000 miles recovering from knee surgery, I am now in bike shape. And the trail calls to me again…