If you’ve ever used the word “pleasant” to describe a 100-mile race, it’s likely going to be the C&O Canal 100 near Knoxville, Maryland. Forget about tripping down technical trails, battling brutal heat or sub-freezing temps and facing quad-burning elevation. In fact, forget any elevation change at all.
Instead, imagine banks of wildflowers, a wide river flowing nearby and a running surface free of rocks, ruts and anything that would require your attention. Even a night of rain produced no puddles or mud, leaving runners free to enjoy the scenery.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal operated from 1831 to 1924, spanning from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. One of the nation’s first large-scale engineering projects, the C&O was built to bring the riches of the West — coal, lumber and agricultural products — to market in the East. A planned section linking the Ohio River to the canal further west never materialized. The canal that runners see today is across the towpath from the Potomac and consists of 74 canal locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major streams and more than 240 culverts to cross smaller streams.
Running the race was a quiet experience in the woods, with the stillness of the grassy ditch on one side and the Potomac flowing by on the other. There were geese on the river, rows of large turtles sunning themselves, cardinals and woodpeckers flitting through the branches and even a bear cub that had lost its mother, we learned later, and was rescued by the park service.
Other times, because of the looped nature of the course, you were passing other runners in the race or dodging hikers and bikers enjoying the towpath with you, especially near Harper’s Ferry where the Shenandoah River majestically joins the Potomac. Taking the few hundred yards of technical trail back up to the start/finish at Camp Manidokan at the end of loop 1 and 2 was also a nice break from the routine of the towpath.
And yet, while the historic canal, relaxed pace, joy of sharing the trail with all the other runners and gorgeous scenery were all wonderful, for me, the whole experience was vastly deepened by yet another dimension to this race. It’s the area’s Civil War history and proximity to the Antietam National Battlefield that makes it truly hallowed ground. A visit to the battlefield the day before the race is a must. The serene beauty of the place is surreal juxtaposed against the fact that Antietam was the single bloodiest day of battle, not just in the Civil War, but in all American history.