A Long Run Through History

The C&O Canal Stretches from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., like a Trail through History

Story by Gordon Smith, photos by William Snell
(text and some photos appeared in Runners' World)

click to enlarge Gordon Smith,
a student at Penn State University, nears the finish of a one-week, 271-mile journey to the nation's capital. Five days and 184.5 miles of that trek were spent along the historic C&O Canal.

Below left-The canal's towpath was fraught with spider webs and their inhabitants - in this case the black and yellow agriope spider.

Right-On the fifth day of his "C&O Saunter," Smith strode above Widewater.

Top - Widewater, shown here, is an inactive river channel that is 500 feet wide and 40 feet deep. It saved canal builders two miles of digging. Below - The Lift House at lock I 1 (Seven Locks) remains a link to the canal's colorful past. Some of the Civil War's fiercest battles were waged in the vicinity of the canal, including Antietam and Balls Bluff. The canal also played a role in the operation of America's first steamboat.

Below right - This is the sight that greeted Smith on the second day of his canal run - lock 69 (Twiggs Lock), located a quarter-mile outside historic Oldtown. Gordon's companion of three days and more than 100 miles, his friend Dennis Lazor, stayed behind at this point. Smith, though, faced 166 more miles of running. Left - This map traces Smith's scenic route along the canal from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.
Have you ever felt like running back in time to an era when life was more leisurely and simple? The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal - engineering marvel of the 19th century - offered me this opportunity as it wound for 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C. My goal was to run the length of the C&O Canal in four to five days - carrying everything I needed and camping each night at one of 35 conveniently located campsites.

For its entire length, the canal follows the sharp bends of the mighty Potomac River, meandering through lands rich in history and natural beauty. For 73 years, until 1924, the canal provided a major means of transporting coal, lumber and other goods to Washington. It also served as a highway for westbound pioneers. The Civil War once raged along the C&O's banks, the canal washing away blood from major battles. During happier times, the canal was site of the operation of America's first steamboat. Today the waterway is a national historic park; its engineering feats have become subtle parts of the natural landscape.

To reach the canal's starting point, I planned to run the 86 miles from my Greensburg, Pa., home to my sister's Cumberland apartment in two days. A friend of mine, Dennis Lazor, with whom I had raced the entire summer, ran the first hundred miles with me. He had just graduated from high school with records in cross-country and was eager to attempt a long run.

To accomplish the adventure, I stuffed a lightweight backpack with a plastic tube tent, space blanket, small cooking pot, flashlight, butane lighter (wet matches won't start campfires very easily), pocket knife, washcloth, change of clothes, maps, some dried fruit and several packets of instant orange drink and oatmeal. All packed and ready to go, my backpack weighed 10 pounds.

On a sultry August morning, Dennis and I trotted away from Greensburg toward Cumberland. After a half hour we passed a woman out for her morning run. "How would you like to run to Washington?" we asked. "It's only 267 more miles." She declined our offer.

Trouble began early in the trek when I started feeling the rim of the small cooking pot digging against my lower back. I tried raising and lowering my bouncing pack - it helped, but wouldn't work for long. After 23 miles we stopped at my aunt's home in Rector. A large, painful blister forced a change to a snugger backpack. The smaller pack made me abandon one thing without too much regret: the metal pot. The pack rode high on my back and the blister was free to heal.

Denny's right leg was especially tight and sore most of the day, and the steep descent into Maryland made it worse. "I never felt so bad in my whole life," he groaned.

"When you think about it later," I told him, "it won't seem so bad. You'll forget about most of the pains and remember the good parts of the run. That's why so many marathoners keep running marathons."

I learned this on my first long run from Greensburg to Penn State University two years earlier. My legs and feet were so tired and sore during the latter half that I Contemplated quitting. Slowly, though, I hobbled on to finish the 134-mile run in three days.

As we ran on, I told Dennis to try thinking about something other than his discomfort. Dwelling on pain too long makes it spread until you feel lousy all over.

It was 10 p.m. by the time we reached my sister's apartment. We had completed the 86-mile "Cumberland Canter" in two days. Dennis complained, "With my luck she probably'lives on the top floor." I just smiled and helped him up the first flight of stairs.

Ater a nice, long sleep we decided to wait until late afternoon to begin the "C&O Saunter." The C&O Canal originates in the heart of Cumberland, where Wills Creek empties into the Potomac, across from George Washington's log cabin headquarters. The newly repaired towpath felt as smooth and flat as the finest dirt track. Most of the canal bed was overgrown with wei:ds, and occasionally trees. Some stretches of the canal were filled with tranquil green water; Other parts were completely drained. At times, I felt as if I were running through a verdant tunnel as a dense growth of trees arched cathedral - like over the twisting towpath. The shade and soft earth were a welcome relief after two days of hard, sun-scorched pavement.

As I ran ahead to set up camp, I passed a runner. What a luxury it must be to run coolly without a backpack and shirt! Later, a bicycling couple caught up to me and we talked. They told me of a 10-mile race along the canal in a few days, but I hoped to be far away in Washington by then.

After 15 miles I spotted the water pump for Pigman's Ferry "Hiker-Biker- .0vernighter" (HBO), our cmnp for the night. Like all other HBO's along the canal, Pigman's Ferry was equipped with such homely conveniences as a picnic table, fire grill, water pump and toilet. Half an hour later, Dennis limped in on his ailing leg. We set up our tents and ate cupcakes and fruit for supper, washing it down with instant orange drink.

To keep out mosquitos and bugs, I had sewn and taped mosquito netting to both ends of my plastic tube tent, leaving one corner free for crawling in and out. To stay dry, I attached a thin sheet of clear Plastic along the bottom of both ends of the tent with water-repellent cloth tape. In a rainstorm, I could raise the plastic from the inside to keep out water, but I hoped I wouldn't have to use it. This netting and plastic brought the tent's weight up to one pound, two ounces.

I fashioned a sleeping bag out of a khaki-green aluminum space blanket by folding it in half, sewing the lower end shut and attaching a zipper along the open side. For a little added warmth, and to keep my skin from sticking to the space blanket's plastic coating, I tied 4n a lightweight liner. The finished sleeping bag weighed two pounds, four ounces.

One disadvantage of my homemade sleeping bag was that it didn't breathe. Consequently, I awoke cold and damp the next morning. My shirt and shorts also lay cold and wet at the head of the tent. I certainly was glad I had packed a dry sweat top. If the rnist in the air had been any thicker, Denny and I would have drowned.

Having finished his hundred miles, Dennis decided to get a ride home at the next town, Oldtown. Originafly an Indian village called Old Shawnee Town, Oldtown served as a supply commissary during the French and Indian War. While eating some doughnuts there, we heard a denizen complain to a friend, "My son came home from soccer team practice yesterday and said his coach made them run an entire mile around the track. He shouldn't have to run that far every day. I put him on the soccer team to learn soccer, not track. If I wanted him to run, I would have had him go out for the track team!" I tried not to choke on my doughnut.

Since I couldn't carry enough food for the entire run, I ate my major meals in adjoining towns. Their distribution along the waterway assured me of at least one or two meals each day. Between these, I supplemented my diet with the little food in my pack and vitamin-rich wild plants foraged along the towpath. No special running drinks or foods were included. I ate my regular diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, with enough carbohydrate foods to fuel my hungry muscles anif enough protein to stay healthy.

Since I was actually running the canal "backwards," I counted down the miles with each mileage marker. Half a mile beyond milepost 162, 1 crossed the dry Town Creek Aqueduct. Its single stone span stretched a hundred feet over Town Creek. As I meandered down a short restored section of the canal, I almost expected to run into a slow-moving mule towing a barge.

To pass the time a little quicker, I tried interspersing some faster, but still comfortable fartlek-style miles. I timed myself with a digital chronograph watch and the mileage markers. Mile 161 to 160 flowed by in 7:1 1, the next in 7:20.

Eight minutes a mile was my usual training pace throughout the summer. For some speedwork I ran one or two road races each weekend, averaging six-minute miles. When I set out for Washington, though, I had only logged 162 miles for the previous two months-a third of that in races. A summer job took up most of my time. My weekly mileage fluctuated between a low of five and a high of 30 miles, so every mile had to count. The old adage that running is 25 percent physical and 75 percent mental was in for a hard test.

Purslane Run HBO seemed as good a place as any to stop for a midday orange-drink break. Besides, my left arch was getting sore from the pounding of three days' running. Ahead lay the fascinating Paw Paw Tunnel, the canal's most ambitious project. To avoid a six-mile bend in the Potomac, canal builders, at times numbering 3000, burrowed through the Paw Paw mountain for nearly a mile. The tunnel was finally finished after 15 years of feuding and cholera epidemics. Because it only allowed one-way travel, boatmen often waged heated arguments over who had the right of way. Sometimes these arguments lasted several days, clogging the canal.

Approaching the tunnel I noticed a large sign which read, "Paw Paw Tunnel closed for repairs." It showed a trad to follow over the mountain. The steep uphill switchbacks slowed my pace to a walk, and the trafl down the other side dropped so rapidly my ears nearly popped. Once back on the towpath, I backtracked to the lower entrance of the tunnel. Here the canal squeezed through a huge, narrow cut in solid rock which hugged the elevated towpath.

Farther downstream the canal flowed through locks 63, 64 and 66. Because of dwindeng finances, the Canal Co. eliminated lock 65. As a result, these three locks were sometimes numbered 63 1/3, 64 2/3 and 66.

After 39 miles of running, the tendons and ligarnents in the front of my feet were screaming with soreness. I could hardly wait to reach Leopard's Mill HBO to rest my feet and drink something cool. I began asking myself if I'd actually last three more days to Washington. I heard a friend's confident voice quickly answer back, as it had before the run, "Sure!" It caught me off guard, but as I repeated it to myself I grew more and more confident. Eventually I no longer asked myself if I'd make it to Washington, but when I'd make it. Arriving at camp, I quickly ate a light oatmeal supper and slid into my space blanket for a long-awaited sleep.

The next morning was much warmer. My space blanket still felt damp inside, but at least the air was drier. Standing at the edge of the Potomac, I watched clouds of Wst glide toward a point on the river straight ahead, converge, and rise as a column of white into the morning sky. The sun, a red stain on the horizon, quickly rose into a fiery yellow ball.

After another Quaker Oats breakfast I was off and running. The tendons and ligaments in my feet were now quiet and rested, and I felt another day's worth of energy stored in my muscles. This time wore two pairs of socks to give my feet a little added cushioning. Running slowly to loosen up, I watched the morning mist gradually rise like a lid over the river. When it was high enough, a bright halo appeared around its edges. Like Icarus' wax wings, though, the mist eventually melted away under the burning sun, leaving a dry, cloudless day by the time I reached Hancock.

Named after Joseph Hancock, a Revolutionary War soldier who operated a ferry across the Potomac, Hancock grew as a thriving frontier trading post. In the 1800s it became a bustling canal town and has remained busy ever since. I restocked my food reserves in town and ate an early lunch.

Back on the canal I sliced through the strands of fresh spider webs across the towpath. I felt like a world-class runner, winning a hundred races, breaking the tape a hundred times.

Finally, I made it to North Mountain HBO. Luckily the water pump worked, so I sat down and took a long, slow, cool drink. Returning to the towpath after a few granola bars, I noticed a car stuck on the dirt path leading down to the camp. "Need some help?" I asked.

"Sure, could you help me push my car back on the towpath?" the driver answered. After burning off several miles of tire we gave up. Since no motorized vehicles are allowed on the towpath, I asked how he got there. "I'm a Youth Conservation Corps leader for a group of teenagers repairing old stonework along the canal," he said. We couldn't move his car, so I had the rare privilege of company for a few miles until we found help. Walking felt good for a change.

"The canal gets nicer as you get closer to Washington," he told me, "since the canal builders had more money to spend at first. They also made it better near the beginning to serve as a monument to the capital."

George Washington first dreamed of building a canal along the Potomac River to open up trade with the western frontiers. Eventually, on July 4, 1828, President John Quincy Adams turned the first spadeful of dirt that began construction of the canal, which he likened to the pyramids of Egypt.

Thousands of immigrant workers from all over Europe labored 22 years building the canal. Food and housing were poor and sometimes there was no pay. Because of these conditions, I ran past the graves Of many workers who died from rampant diseases such as cholera. Using wagons, hand tools and hundreds of horses and oxen, the workers finally reached Cumberland in 1850. All in all, the Canal Co. spent $22 million to build a waterway that lifted canal boats 605 feet by means of 74 hand-operated locks. Eleven stone aqueducts transported the canal over major rivers, while hundreds of culverts carried roads and smaller streams under it. The company also built seven dams across the Potomac to supply water to the canal.

At Four Locks the canal takes another shortcut across land. Locks 47 to 50 raise the canal 32 feet in a half mile, giving the area its name. All canal locks measure 15 feet wide, so that a typical 14.5- by 92-foot canal boat had only three inches to spare on either side as it squeezed through.

"Notice how the walls of these locks slant inward," the YCC leader pointed out. "The Canal Co. built the locks on wooden foundations that were preserved while the canal held water. Since the canal is now drained, the wood is slowly rotting away, causing the walls to fall inward. For this reason, lock 48 is filled with dirt to prevent its total collapse." After giving me a helpful C&O booklet containing a detailed map of the canal, my companion left to call for help with his car.

I ran a little off balance as the towpath crossed over to the left side of the canal, which flowed into the slack Potomac. For a half mile the towpath squeezed tightly along the river, between sheer cliffs on the left and the Potomac, lapping at rocks, on .the right. The canal then flowed back out of the river, and the towpath quickly jumped back between them as I ran past Feeder Dam 5. Near milepost 107, this dam across the Potomac feeds the canal with water and makes a large lake upstream. Confederate troops under General "Stonewall' Jackson tried to destroy it in 1861, but faded.

I got my third wind and celebrated with two 6:50-minute miles. I coasted the remaining five miles over the 210-foot, three-span Conococheague Creek Aqueduct and on into Williamsport. George Washington once inspected this town as a possible site for the new nation's capital. In 1863, the Confederate army passed through here during the campaign which climaxed at the Battle of Gettysburg.

After a short call home to let everyone know I was still alive, I led my weary legs back to the canal and got them moving again. Along the way I spied some mugwort growing beside the towpath. According to herbalists, this plant relieves tired feet if placed in one's shoes. I had nothing to lose with my sore feet; besides, I liked its aroma. So I stuffed some down my socks and tried it out. I also tied some mugwort to my belt for later use as an insect repellent.

After passing the middle of the canal, I jogged into camp at Opequon Junction HBO under a setting sun. The mugwort seemed to have helped my sore feet a little - or were my aches just coming and going in cycles? A woodpecker chiseled away for its evening meal, breaking the insects' constant high-pitched hum. With the last rays of light I finished my modest fried chicken and oatmeal supper and dropped into my space blanket. Since it was late, I didn't bother setting up my tent. Instead, I used it as a ground cloth and wore a necklace of aromatic mugwort to keep away mosquitos.

The next day I headed toward Antietam. After I loosened up for two miles, the towpath once again shuttled me over to the left of the canal, where it squeezed around cliffs. In spots it became too rocky to run. This was all the result of Dam 4, the strongest structure of its kind in the country.

Once more I found myself smashing through large spider webs that I failed to dodge in time. Some wrapped around my head, giving me a natural hairnet. Luckily the webs, colorful caretakers didn't like the ride and quickly jumped off. They probably never knew what hit them.

With a fourth wind I quickened to a 6:30-minute pace and left two more mileage markers behind. Again I carried mugwort in my socks. If nothing else, my feet would smell good. With luck I found the Killiansburg Cave at mile 75 and explored its entrance. Women and children from Sharpsburg reportedly took refuge here during the bloody Battle of Antietam.

Ambling past lock 38 opposite Shepherdstown, W. Va., I imagined watching James Rumsey give the first steamboat demonstration in America on the Potomac in 1787. If he had had enough money, Rumsey might now possess the honor held by Robert Fulton.

By early afternoon I reached Antietam campground. In September 1862, the water ran red with blood beneath the Antietam Creek Aqueduct as Union and Confederate forces clashed in one of the Civil War's major battles. Nearby, workers made cannonballs for George Washington's Revolutionary War army.

Since the water pumps at the campsite weren't working, I ran on to the next oasis. The instant orange drink tasted so much better with water. Refreshments and rest finally came at Mountain Lock HBO. Before moving on, I talked with three boys camping there for the night who had bicycled past me near Hancock. They were biking to the Monocacy River, so I challenged them to a race to the river.

Soreness returned to my tormented feet as I clocked 7:03 and 6:25 for consecutive miles. Across the river from lock 34 stood the town of Harpers Ferry, one of the main passageways to the West. It was here, in October 1859, that John Brown unsuccessfully tried to capture the government arsenal. His actions, though, helped start the Civil War.

For a mile and a half, the towpath carried the famed 2050-mile Appalachian Trail. At mile 58 they separated, and I headed into Brunswick for a supper of fruit and rolls. Then with my stomach and backpack loaded to bursting, I hiked back to the canal singing Cat Stevens' "Miles from Nowhere" with improvised lyrics. By the time I reached the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct, I had created three verses about running. Unfortunately, the aque- duct lay in ruins, so I detoured over the neighboring railroad bridge as darkness began to fall.

I soon relearned one important principle about the outdoors - it gets dark quickest in the woods. As a result, I found myself running in total darkness under the trees with a growing concern that I might run past the campsite. But after running three miles almost blind, jumping over objects that weren't there and tripping over ones that were, I made it to Bald Eagle Island HBO. The clearing shone like day under the bright moonlight. Again, I was the only person around. Even during the day there was hardly a soul on the canal, which seemed strange for late summer. A quick supper and I was in the sack before you could say, "Run faster tomorrow."

A passenger train woke me the next morning, whisking businessmen off to work in comfortable passenger cars. The air was surprisingly warm and dry, so I awoke feeling splendid and headed for Washington.

Miles 46 to 44 rolled by at a comfortable seven-minute pace. After six days of running, this began to feel like a normal way of life. I was adapting more and more to running a whole day carrying 10 extra pounds. And like other heat-trained athletes, valuable salts were no longer being released through my pores. One advantage of being drenched with this saltless sweat was- that it. drowned most annoying bugs. A few offshore drilling mosquitos waded through it, though, and struck it rich.

My strength shifted more to my legs, which now moved of their own free will. Some people thought I was crazy for run- ning all the way to Washington, but I quickly corrected them and said, "I'm not crazy. I'm constructively crazy." How could people who ride in cars realize how great it feels to ride atop a pair of legs that don't need to be commanded, but just run by themselves? When you can run sub- consciously, then someone else is running, not you; yet you are the one cutting through the cold morning mist, the one soaking up the sights and smells of a moving landscape. I was enjoying this vacation-this long, playful adventure.

The sweet smell of licorice lured me away briefly, in search of a delicious sweet cicely root. Some lamb's-quarters growing along the towpath made a fine salad as I headed off to meet the impressive Monocacy River Aqueduct.

This 560-foot-long aqueduct, built of white granite, is the largest and probably most admired structure on the entire canal. The Canal Co. brought Irish stone mason emigrants over for its construction. Seven 54-foot arches carry the canal over the lazy Monocacy River. Today, huge braces help hold the 150-year-old aqueduct together. The three bicyclists I was racing were nowhere in sight - I had won the race to the Monocacy!

At Marble Quarry HBO I stopped for an orange drink and chomped on a few violet leaves. My feet began losing their strength again as they melted into my Adidas Countrys, clamoring with renewed soreness. I managed, though, to click off another mile in 6:58 as I brushed past milepost 35. Near here, in October 1861, raged the Battle of Balls Bluff in the opening days of the Civil War. In it, Oliver Wendell Holmes served as a Union soldier.

Getting my fifth wind, I chased away another mile in 6:34. Near Chisel Branch HBO a thick cover of duckweed on the water made the canal look like a bright golfing green several miles long. A curious splashing kept sounding from the canal green as I ran by. These waters have lain here more than 50 years. Was that long enough to hatch out a "Loch Ness" monster? I ran on, my eyes glued to the green-carpeted water. Finally I caught a glimpse of one of the monsters. I watched as the six-inch green turtle made a divot in the canal green as it cut through the duckweed and plunked into the water.

I finally completed my jump back in time when I reached Seneca, near milepost 23. From here, the canal was restored to its original 19th-century appearance. At lock 21 1 debated whether to camp for the night or continue on to Washington. Since it was around supper, time, I decided to kick it in. Doing this meant I'd be running 50 miles that day, 10 miles farther than what I'd been averaging and 4.5 miles more than I'd ever run in one day. I tried calling my other sister living near Washington to tell her of my change in plans, but she wasn't home. I taped up my chafed legs, which were starting to make the run painfully difficult. The tape protected against the rubbing perfectly, so I could once again run in comfort. What really hurt was the torturous thought that I'd have to rip'the tape off later.

Downing a small supper from a refreshment stand, I raced the sun to the finish. As I got closer to Washington I noticed more and more people running along the canal. To quicken my pace and keep my mind off my sore feet and heavy legs, I accompanied some of them. They were all quite friendly and one runner offered me supplies and help as we parted.

At milepost 5 I ate the last of my "survival apples," which I had picked along the canal two days earlier. If I had found some wild ginger root, I could have candied the apples in front of a campfire.

With darkness falling and about a mile left, I detoured to a gas station to call my sister. Again, no answer. The steps filmed in the movie "The Exorcist" stood long and narrow nearby. They are a favorite haunt of local track teams, who practice up and and down them.

Returning to the canal, I was startled to actually see a horse walking up the towpath pulling a long rope. At the other end dragged a canal boat loaded with people-modem people. I checked the date on my watch to be sure.

Striding out the last mile through Georgetown, I kept jumping dark planks that seemed to lie across my path. I finally realized I was jumping shadows from the railings on the bridge above.

The canal ended as the Potomac swallowed it back up, across from the Watergate building. My legs, though, didn't stop until they reached the Watergate steps below the Lincoln Memorial. Except for my sore feet, I felt like running on. This couldn't be the end, I thought. Isn't there somewhere else I have to run? At the end of my adventure, I finally felt in shape.

Under the starry sky, I elatedly ambled over to the Lincoln Memorial and feasted on what remained of my food supplies. Walking up to the top step, I sat down and combed seven days of running out of my hair. Some shoe glue still dangled from my soles in battered ribbons.

After sitting for nearly an hour, I got up and tried calling my sister again. My feet and legs didn't want to move-they were too tight. I felt as if 13 canal mules, each pulling a 120-ton barge, had just trudged over them. Slowly I hobbled around to loosen up. I finally got through to my sister, who came and picked me up. After 271 long miles I couldn't believe how good it felt to ride effortlessly in a car, and at such a fast pace. Two days later I retraced my footsteps home aboard a train to Cumberland, and by car back to Greensburg.

Except for the initial cost of equipment, the entire 41/2-day trek cost less than $12. For this minimum cost, I got the maxi- mum in enjoyment, self-sufficiency and accomplishment, and wove the ultimate union between travel, recreation and physical fitness. My mind and body felt sparkling clean and an enormous feeling of accomplishment flooded over me. I had burned off and sweated away the waste and laziness of 19 years of easy living. My pipes felt clean, my engines were strong. The adventure itself produced a running high that grew. for seven days-a high that will last as long as its footsteps continue to run through my memory.