18 Miles to Failure

C&O Canal

The first mile is always the hardest.

It doesn’t matter that I walk everywhere – to the grocery store, to the metro, to restaurants – it’s always hard for me to get started. I tend to be stiff in the beginning. I feel it in my stance. I do this weird thing where I start tensing up my right foot, flexing it too much until I start getting that uncomfortable pre-Charlie horse feeling.

And then, after the first mile, I start to relax. My foot chills out, and I settle into a rhythm. I start to exist just from the waist down. Everything that I am is focused on my hips, my thighs, my knees, my calves, and my feet. It becomes harder to slow myself to a stop than it is to keep going and going and going forever.

I’ve gotten so good at going far distances that maybe I started to think I was invincible, incapable of falling short of my hiking goals. But it doesn’t matter how many outings I have, whether I’m going for five miles or 30, failure is always a possibility.

C&O CanalLooking back on it, I probably shouldn’t have gone out.

I was feeling a time crunch. On April 30 (tomorrow!), I’m attempting my first ever 50K hike, and I wanted to get in a big 20 plus mile day before I spent a week in the Dominican Republic for my friends’ wedding.

It was raining. Normally, that would be a reason for me to curl up, sleep in, and call it a day. But the weatherman said that it would clear up by late morning, and I had a mission. The weather didn’t look too bad from my apartment’s window, and I had the appropriate waterproof gear, so I didn’t see a reason to put a stop to my plan.

I suited up, walked outside, and immediately got wet.

It was raining a little harder than I was expecting, but it wasn’t horrible. Sure, I wanted to go back to my room and put my PJs on, but I started walking. I took the long route to Rock Creek Trail, walking over the Duke Ellington Bridge to the Calvert Street entrance located in Woodley Park. As I walked, I told myself, “Just a few more steps, if it gets worse than you can turn around and go home.”

And even though everything in me wanted to stop, I just kept right on going.

C&O CanalI walked almost three miles to the C&O Canal trailhead  in Georgetown. I thought about turning around one more time, heading to Baked and Wired for cupcakes and coffee instead of a hike, but I couldn’t give up on the idea of going out on the towpath.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was imagined as a way to connect the Eastern Seaboard to the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, but the dream was never achieved. Ground broke on the project on July 4, 1828, near Georgetown. Construction was only supposed to take 12 years, but by 1850, the canal was only complete to Cumberland, Maryland. Cash-strapped and 180 miles short of the planned end, the company decided to scrap plans to complete the final phase of the canal.

In 1924, the last commercial ships came through the canal. That year, major flooding hit the area and damaged the canal. Barely used and in bad shape, it was left to fall into disrepair. In 1938, the canal was obtained by the U.S. government, which established it as a National Monument in 1961. Ten years later, President Nixon signed an Act establishing the C&O Canal as a National Historic Park. Today, this area has become a popular recreational spot and the towpath, which was once used by mules to move boats along the 184.5 miles of the canal, has become a favorite for hikers, runners, and bikers.

I’ll be honest, I don’t love the towpath. I’d choose dirt and hills any day over the flat and gravelly trail. But the 50K is on the canal, so I was in need of some practical experience on the towpath.

C&O CanalBefore this outing, my experience on the towpath was limited to the parts near Georgetown’s shops and Great Falls. With the rain still falling steadily, it was pretty empty, and only a few other brave souls were taking advantage of the trail.

When I walk alone, I do it without headphones – no music, no books on tape, and no podcasts. The number one reason for this is safety. If someone is coming up behind me, I want to know that they’re there. Even without audio aid, I stay pretty engaged while I walk. I have plenty to think about at any given time and often I see enough unusual things on my outings to stay mentally occupied. As I slogged through the rain, all of my thoughts and energy were concentrated on not giving up. It was draining in a way that I don’t normally experience. If it wasn’t for the visual stimulation of being on a new trail, I would have completely lost it.

Three miles from the start of the towpath, I hit Fletcher’s Cove, a recreational and boating area operated by the National Park Service. On this Saturday, it was also functioning as the end point for a race. Finally, I was surrounded by other people! I paused for a bit to stretch and watch racers hit the finish line.

The rain started to calm to a light drizzle, the Potomac widened, and I kept going. Walking my way against the tide of the race, I passed Chain Bridge, Little Falls Reservoir, and a bunch of small islands.

C&O CanalAnd then, something horrible happened, I had to go to the bathroom. Sometimes, when you’re out in nature, it calls. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, I’d just hop off the trail and take care of business. This time, there were two factors working against me:

  1. The land to the left of the towpath was very narrow. There was no way to get far enough off of it to do my business safely.
  2. It was still gross out. I may not be afraid of nature, but no one wants to tinkle when there’s a sprinkle.

So I waited and I kept walking but, try as I might, there was no forgetting my problem. Finally, at mile marker nine, I saw an opportunity. The sun was coming out, the land next to the path had widened to where I could no longer see the Potomac, and there wasn’t another person in sight. I went an appropriate distance into the woods and I took care of all the things.

As I walked back to the towpath, I noticed for the first time that my feet didn’t feel quite right. There was a bench nearby. I plopped down and took off my shoes.

In my infinite wisdom, I thought it would be a good idea to try out a new sock system for this hike. I’d read about Injinji toe socks and how people swore by them as a blister-proofing inner liner. As I took off my shoes and peeled away my socks, I realized I’d made a terrible judgment error.

C&O CanalPerhaps many feet experience ultimate blister protection from these socks, but not mine. On both sides, there was a little bit of extra fabric on the pinky toe. This tiny bit of fabric must have pushed against the outer sock layer. Over the course of 12 miles, the constant irritation caused by this tiny bit of fabric was enough to cause some sizable blisters on my tiniest toes.

I dried my feet, wrapped them, and changed my socks, but the damage was done. When I put my socks and shoes back on, everything was discomfort. I still don’t know how I let it get so bad. I guess I was so focused on my other major issue that I didn’t catch the early signs that I was getting blisters. Now that my bladder was empty, all I could think about was my feet.

In my original plan, I was going to continue for at least another mile before retracing my steps back to my apartment. There was a part of me that really, really wanted to continue with my planned route, but it wasn’t the smart move. I needed to turn around, get my blister situation taken care of, and preserve my feet to walk another day.

Defeated, I started walking back toward Georgetown. As I started on the towpath again at a much slower pace, I realized I might be in trouble. Water on the left, water on the right – there was no easy way off the towpath. I was going to be walking on my blistered feet for a while.

C&O CanalThankfully, the sun was finally out and the rain was done for the day. To keep my pace slow, I started taking lots and lots of pictures.

I walked and I snapped and I walked some more.

Four miles after I started my walk of pain, I reached a kayaking and boating access spot with a parking lot and port-o-potties. This would have been the perfect point for me to get off the trail, but I didn’t. For some reason, I thought that Fletcher’s Cove was much closer than it actually was (I was still two miles away from it), and I believed that I would have an easier time finding transit back home from that spot.

I kept going, a choice I immediately regretted. One mile later, I hit Chain Bridge. Finally, salvation! I checked my phone and saw that there were some Car2Gos nearby. This was great since my overall stinkiness made me hesitant to take an Uber (I didn’t want my stank to bring down my rating). I reserved a nearby Car2Go and started gingerly making my way up the bridge.

As I walked to the end of the bridge, I felt hopeful that my ordeal was almost over. And then, devastation. There was a guardrail preventing me from both crossing the street and turning right toward Georgetown, meaning there was no way for me to get to the Car2Go. With 25 minutes left on my reservation, I retraced my steps back to the C&O Canal towpath and kept walking.

C&O CanalHalf a mile later, I came to my next opportunity to get off the towpath. There was a Capital Crescent Trail bridge spanning over the canal. I crossed the bridge and walked .4 miles to where the Car2Go was parked in a nearby neighborhood.

With literally no minutes left on my reservation, I got in the car and started driving.

I hate driving, so whenever I’m in the driver’s seat, it’s kind of a big deal. The part I hate the most about driving? Parking. Specifically, parallel parking. Back home, in the land of wide roads and parking lots with diagonal spots, parallel parking isn’t even on the driver’s test. I never really learned how to do it, and even in a smart car, I find the maneuver intimidating. So of course, the minute I saw a decent spot somewhat near my apartment, I took it. Unfortunately for me, the spot was a good half mile from my apartment. I walked for another 10 minutes to get back home.

I wanted to die during that walk. My legs and knees hurt. My feet were in agony. But the worst moment came when I got home and had to take off my boots.

There was this Far Side comic a long, long time ago, where this camper character watches his friend dump a pile of bugs from his boots and realizes with dawning horror that he forgot to check his before putting them on. That’s what I thought of as I pried my boots off and removed my bandages. Not gonna lie, it was ugly. In addition to other blisters, both of my pinky toes had become super blisters. Like, the entire toes had become blisters. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was nasty. Thankfully, it was a temporary problem, and my toes have now returned to their normal proportions.

C&O CanalI set out that morning to walk 26 miles. I ended up walking 18 miles, at least seven of them done with messed up feet.

It felt like failure.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I know this sounds ridiculous, but I really, really wanted to reach my goal. Sometimes I push myself hard, probably way too hard, and when I do that, my disappointments feel disproportionately devastating.

The truth is, no one ever needed to know that I failed. I was alone. I set out alone. I failed alone. If I didn’t share this story on the internet, I could have kept this disappointment and my feelings about it to myself. I’m starting to realize, though, that the best way to deal with things like this, no matter how small or how irrational, is to share them and try to put them into perspective.

Tomorrow morning, I’m setting out on my very first challenge hike with a goal of going 50K in a single day – that’s a shade over 31 miles.

Do I think I can do this? Yes. Without a doubt, I know that I’m capable of walking hours on end and going further than I’ve ever walked before. And if I fail and drop out, I’ll be sad – really, really sad. Let’s be real –  it’s not like I think anyone will ever say, “Well, that girl didn’t manage to walk over 30 miles. What a loser.” If anything, when I’ve mentioned it to people, they’ve been impressed that this is something I’m even attempting. But it’s hard to forget how terrible I feel when I fall short. I don’t take goal setting lightly. When I want things, I want them deeply, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t – or who can’t –  achieve things.

C&O CanalAfter my failed hike, I healed up, I traveled to the Dominican Republic, I chilled out a bit, and I watched two of my favorite people in the world get married.

The weekend after I returned from my trip, I set out again, and I walked a little more than 20 miles around DC. I didn’t set a definite plan for myself, I just went out and walked until it was late, and I needed to get home. Coming on the heels of falling short of my goal, it was empowering. Exactly what I needed to believe in myself again.

It’s that feeling of success that I’m going to hold on to tomorrow. Wish me luck – hope to see you all on the other side of 50K.

6 thoughts on “18 Miles to Failure

  1. Congratulations on the 50K! I was out doing a relay race on the C&O that same day. I agree that the miles in DC can be underwhelming, but parts farther afield have really won me over. I also love making loops using the towpath, Potomac Heritage Trail, Glover Park, etc. Happy trails!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I hope your relay race went well. I agree – the part of the C&O Canal that I did last week (Whites Ferry to Harpers Ferry) was much nicer than the Georgetown bits.

      Liked by 1 person

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