This past Saturday, I walked 31 miles (50K) in 12.5 hours, along the C&O Canal from White’s Ferry, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV. This was part of the annual One Day Hike organized by the Sierra Club, with both 50K and 100K distances. It’s a great hike, with support stations every 6 or 7 miles to provide first aid, water, and food to all hikers. The distance is definitely no joke, although I kept pushing on by reminding myself that marathoners run almost as long as I walked.
I met a nice couple on the shuttle who were also first-timers, but lost sight of them early on because we got a late start (waiting in the bathroom line after the hike had begun). I was hiking with a friend who had been training for the hike mostly in the gym, and he found out quickly that conditions in the gym didn’t really prepare him for the gravel path we were hiking on. The first four miles were backtracking to get the complete distance right, then things were pretty easy for awhile – we were having fun, enjoying being outside, and making good time.
My friend made it to the support station at mile 17.5 before his knee gave him too much pain to continue. After that I was mostly hiking solo, which wasn’t an issue until it started getting dark. The path through the woods, when only lit by your headlamp, can be a little eerie.
After mile 20 or so, it felt like my motions were just robotic. Any time I stopped it was hard to start walking again, so I just kept walking with as few stops as possible (except to take photos of every mile marker). At the second and third support stations I had to stop to get my blisters popped and bandaged by the first aid volunteers. The volunteers on this hike were really supportive, and what a relief it is to see them at the stations and checking up on hikers on the trail! My feet were taking a beating, but my willpower was high and my legs weren’t really tired.
At mile 27, I pretty much hit the wall. After miles of constant pounding on my feet, most of the pain was concentrated there. I had some pretty intense blisters and hot spots on my heels. It started to get dark out. There was a light drizzle going. With 4 miles remaining, I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to continue; at the same time, I knew that quitting wasn’t any better – it’s not like they could have air-lifted me out of there, after all.
So I kept going, even though my pace dropped considerably and it wasn’t much fun at that point. All I could see was the path immediately ahead of me, lit by the headlamp as I proceeded into the darkness. Mile 30 brought me into Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where there was a half-mile uphill looming before the end point. The change from a mostly-flat hike to a short uphill climb did help break the monotony and the pain on my feet, though. I chatted with a couple 100K hikers on the way up to the finish line before I fell behind again. The last tenth of a mile seemed especially difficult because I was already mentally drained – yet somehow I pushed myself up to the community center, where a shuttle back to the Metro waited to take back a pack of tired hikers.
Now, three days later, I’m still sore in my left foot and the blisters are on their way to healing. Would I do it again? I know it’s possible.