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Reply to First time doing the entire C&A Canal
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Allen from DC on 9/23/2020 9:59:00 AM:
Hey everyone, Thank you in advance for your time and advice. I used to bike a lot in college a few years ago, but stopped when my bike got stolen and I never bought a new one. I am contemplating completing the entire C&O canal from Cumberland to DC, essentially just to see if I can. I am in excellent shape - I just ran a half marathon at around 7:45/mile. So, my question is: is it possible for me in my current physical condition to complete the entire C&O Canal in one day? Or, should I split it up into two days? I was planning on taking the Amtrak to Cumberland Friday night in early October and starting at dawn on that Saturday. Any advice on how to meet this goal would be greatly appreciated it! Best, Allen

John W. from Pittsburgh,PA on 9/23/2020 1:26:16 PM:
Hi Allen. I would ask yourself what you are looking for in completing this trail. If its scenery, history, and adventure, I would take 2 or 3 days to complete it. The C&O is best enjoyed at a slower pace. If it’s a speed challenge, I’ve definitely seen journals about people doing it in one day (and a long day at that). I guess it’s all about how much discomfort you are willing to endure. Are you camping or doing hotels? This decision will affect your weight and what you carry. Doing hotels will allow you to forgo camping gear and give you a lighter bike. Still, you need to be prepared for breakdowns and possibly having to be stuck somewhere in remote areas. Extra clothing, water, food, tubes, repair kit, etc. needs to be brought for the worst case scenario. So you need to carry some things. In addition, we are entering autumn which means cooler temps and less daylight to travel in. Whatever you do, bring a light for the trail or campsites, the C&O is DARK at night! I usually bring a bicycle light plus my headlamp for around camp or even just navigating the trail. You can’t see your hands in front of your face at night on the C&O. Cumberland to DC is 184.5 miles and almost all of it is on old dirt trails with some sections of crushed limestone surface so you won’t roll as fast as you would on a road. Weather is another issue. If it has rained, prepare for puddles and mud. In short, if you are confident that to you can do the miles at once, go for it. If you wish to take it in a bit more, do it over 2-3 days. A good itinerary is Cumberland to Hancock, Hancock to Harpers Ferry, and Harpers Ferry to DC. Give us a report on your trip if you can! John

Matt from Charlotte on 9/23/2020 2:02:25 PM:
no question your heart can handle the full length of the C&O, the question is "can your body handle it?" Running & cycling are not the same thing. You'll be using different muscles and have different pressure points on your feet, hands, & backside. I occasionally get to ride with a good friend of mine who finishes in the top 20 of his age group in the Boston marathon each year. I'm of moderate fitness and destroy him on the bike. There really isn't a good correlation between the two. Then there is the issue of nutrition. 180 miles of cycling at a moderate pace, you're going to need between 8000 & 9000 calories to fuel your journey. Consuming that much food is a daunting task to complete without training for it. It really comes down to how willing are you to suffer?

Rivnuts from Homestead, PA on 9/23/2020 8:17:07 PM:
Before I comment further, I'll convey a true story. One Sunday afternoon I was on the Amtrak train returning from DC to Pittsburgh having ridden the trail to DC. I met two young men on the train who were obvious cyclists and we struck up a conversation. I asked where they were headed and where they were going to ride. They replied that they were going to Cumberland and were going to ride back to DC. Since the train arrives in Cumberland around 8:00 PM, I asked where they were staying in Cumberland that evening. That's when they said that they weren't staying there but rather were going to immediately begin their ride back to DC when they got off the train and were expecting or required to be at work by lunch on Monday, i.e. they were going to ride most of the C&O at night and planned to make the trip in 16 clock hours! This would require that they average 11.5 mph with no stops. I wish I knew how they fared, especially in the dark of night. But I digress. Could you make the trip in one day? With your running background, you should be fine aerobically especially since there are no hills or mountains on the Towpath. Further, your legs will probably be ok so long as you eat and drink along the way. I suspect your physical limit will be the strain of being in a cycling position for the duration and your butt! Your arms and back (and did I mention butt) may become weary from not have cycled that much, especially in a single day. Perhaps a bigger issue will be that you will likely run out of daylight. You'll likely not have more than 12 hours of daylight and some of that will be dim in early October. To make the trip in 12 hours you'd have to average over 15 mph. That's a pretty tall order on the Towpath for all but the best of riders and, if its wet, even more dangerous IMHO. The best portions of the ride to make good time are on the paved WMRT into and out of Hancock and on the Towpath itself between Shepherdstown and Edwards Ferry. Although I ride a fair amount and have done the C&O a few times, I'm too risk averse to think about trying to do the entire towpath in a single day. That said, I admire your ambitious goal. Just remember that old adage however: "Hope for the best and plan for the worst" that you may encounter or succumb to. Best of luck to you on your initial trip down the C&O regardless of how many days you take.

JM from Central Florida on 9/23/2020 8:35:24 PM:
Take 2 days. I rode the Gap and C&O in just over 4 days two months ago (full panniers - camping). The C&O is harder than the Gap because the surface is rougher. As a reference point, I'm very fit (2:40 marathon best, over 50 trail ultramarathons, cross-Florida ride (177 miles) in under 10 hours, multiple Ironman finishes, etc.). Unless you are attempting a FKT on the C&O, you'd be hard pressed to complete it in one day and, if you did, you'd never want to do it again.

Adama from DC on 9/24/2020 10:01:30 PM:

Kevin from Boonsboro on 9/24/2020 10:44:38 PM:
Allen... Go for it. It is certainly doable in a day. You're gonna miss the sights, scenery, and history of certain areas, but that is not what you asked. The reward is well worth it. You're definitely gonna need a light. I've done the towpath in a day on two different occasions during the summer. Took about 14 hours total (riding + stops) each time. I'd suggest leaving Cumberland about 6 in the morning and the first hour will be a slower warm-up. You'll need that light later in the day also. I've biked both the GAP and the C&O thru the night. With a good light you should find that the dark should NOT slow you down. For what it's worth, I did the Pittsburgh to DC nonstop adventure on a hardtail in just over 24 hours riding time and about 27 hours total time. I'm by no means a great athlete, and I was 57 years old when I did that. My point is, it's more mental than physical once the novelty wears off. The best $150ish I spent was on a Thudbuster seat post. My butt was no more sore at 335 miles than it was at 35 miles. Enjoy your ride!

Anonymous on 9/25/2020 6:57:05 AM:
Having run a number of full marathons, I wouldn't consider that running a half marathon in 7:45 to be proof of being in shape for what might be a 20 hour bike ride, much of which will be in the dark. A lot of novices who do half marathons can't even finish a full marathon. It's not mental. It's physical. "Hitting the wall" at mile 17 is a very real thing. In any event, the darkness is probably the biggest problem. I don't think coyotes or bears prowl the trail, but deer, logs, potholes, mud, and rocks do. On good parts of the towpath, I can hit 15 mph on a strong mountain bike, but there are stretches where I'm lucky to make 10 mph. And if you do run into trouble at night, it's pretty tough to get help quickly. Adama's "Why?" is good advice.

Velocipede from Bethesda on 9/25/2020 9:33:54 AM:
A buddy and I rode it in one day on July 17, with about 11.5 hours riding time and 14 hours elapsed time. For comparison, we are both high mileage, extremely fit riders and still found riding it at that pace to be grueling. You should plan to start at 5am or earlier and to finish well after dark. Lack of daylight will slow you down. Other than refilling water, stops should be limited to two at most and keep them short. Carry food with you and run tubeless tires or carry several spare tubes. While a single day ride doesn't let you stop and smell the roses, it is a fantastic physical challenge that still provides opportunity to see nice views, wildlife, etc.

Bill in Houston from Houston on 10/6/2020 5:34:05 PM:
Well, did you do it?