One day, last year, I found myself in a pretty serious situation that tested my nerves and my luck. It happened on the C&O canal in Maryland. The canal runs 184.5 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland Maryland. Living just across the Potomac in McLean, Virginia, I made it my custom to ride my mountain bike on the canal every chance I got. It was and still is my favorite ride of all time. I would enter the trail at the 12.6 mile mark across the street from the Old Angler’s Inn near Carderock, Maryland. where there was ample parking for trail-goers and those who chose to kayak the rapids. I would ride to the Huckleberry Hill Campsite at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. then turn around and ride back. Total ride: 100.6 miles.
It was a Monday, my day off, and I had until Tuesday 5:00pm to be accounted for at work. I hit the trail at about noon, it was sunny and about 60 degrees, perfect weather for a nice long ride. I had my usual gear, Camelbak with a full bladder, cell phone, headlamp with extra batteries, AM/FM radio with headphones, 2 packs of Myoplex meal replacement powder, a couple of Cliff bars, and about a half dozen GU energy gel packets. Also I was carrying my standard rain gear consisting of a jacket, pants, and a bonnie hat. As usual I began riding at a slow and even pace to warm up, around 8-9 miles per hour. Typically I continue this pace for the first 3-5 miles until the gravel gives way to hard-packed dirt which is smooth and fast. Also at this point on the canal the traffic becomes almost non-existent. One can go miles without seeing another biker or jogger, particularly on a weekday. I put on the headphones, tune in my favorite conservative talk radio show, and begin to up the pace. Now I’m going 12 miles per hour, right in my zone. I can go for hours at this pace (on relatively flat terrain). The miles tick by, marked every tenth of a mile with a wooden mile marker on the side of the trail. At around 3pm I take a break at one of my favorite spots where I stretch, consume a Myoplex, and relax for a bit. There’s plenty of scenery to take in, the historic Potomac River on one side and the canal on the other.
I call my girlfriend (now my wife) and chat for a while. She is concerned as usual because I am riding alone again and wants to know EXACTLY when I’ll be done. And as usual I have no definite answer as it’s hard to pinpoint my finish time. I hit the trail again and sadly I’m reaching the outer limits of the other news radio station’s abilities. The traffic and weather on the ten’s are now gone. I find a local AM station that is talking about zoning issues and hear the chance for rain in that area has increased for later in the evening. However the reception is spotty and static makes me crazy so I turn it off. The rest of the ride to West Virginia is uneventful and I arrive at the turn-around feeling great. Here I consume another meal replacement pack and refill my Camelbak bladder from the hand-operated pump, these are located at each campsite along the canal. I meet and talk with another cyclist who has come to the same place from the other direction. We chat for a few about bikes and rides and pesky joggers and part ways. I check my cell phone for reception so I can advise my girlfriend but, no bars. This is no surprise to me as I have never had reception in this area, but I thought I would check anyway. I roll for about 20 miles and the ride begins to take it’s toll. My rear is getting tender, my legs are getting sore, and my arms are becoming heavy. My pace begins to slow as I count down the miles to where my vehicle is waiting for me.
Coming back into radio range again I tune in to listen to yet another conservative talker that I enjoy. Talk radio and endurance cycling go well together and I find the familiar voice comforting. At the half hour news break I hear the updated weather report for the Washington area and it seems the rain is coming. Thundershowers. Could be heavy at times. I notice through the tree canopy that the sky is indeed dark in the direction that I must go. I assess the distance remaining, about 25 miles, and deduce I may need the rain gear at some point. However at this time I’m in the endorphin zone and negative thoughts are absent. Five miles and about 40 minutes later my confidence begins to wane. I’ve got 20 miles to go and the skies are very dark ahead, and night is approaching. I receive the radio news quite well now and they say frequent lightning strikes are to be expected. Adjusting my pace at this point is difficult to justify due to the ground left to cover, burn out too soon and I’m potentially in even more trouble. I’ve bonked out before and it’s not something you want to do when there is the potential for trouble. Once, after a hard ride in town on a hard trail I barely made it back to the car. I was shaking and light-headed and had no food to bring me back. I barely made the two miles to the Burger King drive-thru where I carbed-up. After eating I basically passed out for 45 minutes in the parking lot with the engine running, slumped over the steering wheel. The temperature is dropping but I’m feeling no chill as I’m used to riding in cool weather wearing minimal riding clothing. I consume two more gel packs in an attempt to ratchet up my energy level. The difference is negligible, I get little if any real boost. By the way, when you use energy gel packs make sure you drink plenty of water. The wooden mile markers are my goals now, each one only one tenth of a mile apart. I begin to ride out of my seat as my rear is on fire and very sensitive. Standing up and pedaling creates more power but can only be done intermittently without burning out. So I rotate, pedal 1, 2, 3, and coast, pedal 1, 2, 3, and coast. I am able to maintain my speed without burning out and my rear is spared. The rain begins. It is a drencher from the get-go. No easy sprinkle gradually turning to a downpour. I stop and put on the jacket and the rain pants and the boonie. I take the moment to consume the last GU gel pack and suck the H2O as I start again.
Another minute or two shows me the next marker and tells me I am still 12 miles from my car. I have not seen anyone on the trail for the last hour. I guess they heard the weather report and made their way off the trail. The rain is torrential now, my headlamp only lights the trail for about 10 feet in front of me. I must slow my roll as the trail begins to puddle and I must be careful not to wreck, Remember I have a river one side and a canal on the other. The towpath is roughly 12 feet wide, so there is not much room for error. I am now less than 10 miles from the parking lot and the storm is on top of me. The lightning is everywhere, the thunder is immediate and I am scared. Being at the mercy of nature will make you pray, even if you never have. As I have a deep and constant relationship with my Creator I defaulted to begging for mercy. I had just recently lived through a Derecho weather event in Virginia which devastated my home, left me without power for nine days and put my family in real jeopardy, so I was keenly aware of the danger. Every tenth of a mile was a small miracle that I rejoiced. There was no stopping, no time out, no shelter whatsoever. No option but to get to the parking lot and get in my vehicle. The last marker I saw said I had two miles to go, it was nearly impossible to see them in the drenching rain. The lightning was still everywhere, this was the real fear and it was unrelenting. Quite frankly, I have never been so scared in my life. I continued to pray out loud. I was yelling. Save me Lord! Save me Jesus! The last distance to the car was a time I will never forget. I choose to believe that God spared me that day. And nothing will ever change that. Got to the car, loaded the bike, sat in the driver’s seat and laughed/cried for a solid 10 minutes.
The take away from the experience was, always check the weather. Always have the gear you may need to survive. If I had a simple tarp I may have been able to hunker down and ride out the storm. Most importantly, get good with God and don’t be afraid to ask him for help.