The 2000 Potomac Heritage Trail Run:
A Bridge Too Far

by John Dodds

I became a trail runner when I discovered that a marathon I had signed up for was one of those single-track through-the-woods kind of race. Next time I'll have to read the course description a little more closely. That was August 1999. I then did the Mountain Masochist in October and about 2 weeks later injured my foot running along the Mall downtown ("overuse" someone said). There went my plans to run my first Potomac Heritage Trail 50K. By last weekend, I had been waiting a year. I also thought it would be a good training run for the North Central Trail Marathon which was the next weekend. Since the last part of the run was along the C&O Canal Towpath, that would be good training for the marathon which has a similar surface.

Start of the Run

The Start.

The last email from Larry said the weather was "perfect" temps in the 30s at the start, rising to the 50s later on. I don't know how you define "perfect" but 30-degree temperature doesn't qualify in my dictionary. Thirty degrees is cold. Real cold. About 30 of us gathered for the start at the Capital Yacht Club. We were all standing inside, when Larry poked his head in the door and said, "This is an outdoor run!" So, we all trundled out for the briefing. A briefing I might add that I'm sure Joe Clapper didn't hear or just didn't pay any attention to, as events would later prove out.

We all got off to a good start, and the weather wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. The run up to Teddy Roosevelt Island was a good tune-up, and then the trail started. I live not too far from this trail and have actually run it a couple times to work. However, I usually catch it at Chain Bridge, and that day I learned how to get from the trail up to Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

The Plot.

It was at this Park that I joined a group of runners that at the time was led by Scott Mills. I was able to keep up with this group for quite a while but just barely. There are certain signs that let you know you are in the wrong group. One of them is when you overhear the 2 runners ahead of you talking about running a 50-miler almost 2 hours faster than your fastest time. Anyway, I kept with them through Ft. Marcy and then to Turkey Run Park. And that's when I first heard the plan. It seems that rather than go to the end of the trail and return along the trail, they would cross the American Legion Bridge to get to the towpath rather than return down the trail and cross at the Cabin John Bridge.

I figured I didn't have to make that decision for myself until we actually got to the bridge. At Turkey Run, I was off to the side eating peanut butter crackers and missed the deliberations on the change of plans. While running to the bridge, I imagined that there had been a thoughtful discussion, fully considering the pros and cons. Actually, I think it went like this:

The Bridge.

Okay. Decision time. We are standing under the Beltway Bridge, and I was figuring out that the next aid station would now be Fletcher's Boathouse and not on the return at Turkey Run or Ft. Marcy. I asked Joe how far Fletcher's was and when he told me, I figured I had enough Gatorade to get me there (I'm one of those runners who doesn't like to run out of water/Gatorade). Since I was running the North Central Trail Marathon (similar surface to the towpath as I said earlier) the next week, I thought it would be good training to run farther on the towpath than the original plan called for. So, as everybody started walking up the hill to the bridge, I joined in.

As Scott stepped across the guardrail, he asked: "Can we get arrested for this?" I thought a more appropriate question might be: "Can we get killed doing this?" There is not much of a shoulder to run on across the bridge. In fact, there is no shoulder. It's just a bit of road about shoulder-width wide. You made sure you didn't cross the line on the left. There is nothing to get you to focus on your running quite like the prospect of getting hit in the back by a truck traveling 70 miles an hour. Besides the narrowness of the "trail," it was littered with debris: piles of dirt, parts of tires, and numerous shoes, including two running shoes (a matched set about 100 feet apart where was the runner?). Finally, we were across the bridge and walking through the trees. Joe seemed to know where he was going, and we did make it to the towpath pretty quickly.

I was 7th in line coming across the bridge, and by the time I got to the towpath, everybody in front of me had taken off. After awhile, they disappeared out of sight. Running by myself, I thought that what we had done was pretty stupid. What if a truck or car had hit us? It would probably take out a few runners before the car either slowed down or the driver realized what he was doing and steered back into traffic. That's when I resolved that next year I would be one of the first runners across the bridge the chances of survival would be greater in the event of an errant vehicle.

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The Towpath.

This was good training for the marathon. I ran by myself until Fletcher's Boathouse. The other runners were still there. I sat down for a bit and had some peanut butter crackers. The others were taking a long break. I saw that they were headed across the small footbridge over the canal, and I walked onto it to ask Joe where he was going. Chris Scott was there although I'm not sure where he came from (he wasn't part of the Beltway bridge group). Now, you have to realize that to us Virginians, Maryland is like a foreign country. So, when Joe started describing what route he was going to take, my eyes started to glaze I hadn't run those trails before. And I was thinking: those guys are going to run faster than me, get out of my sight, then I'd come to a crucial trail junction, take the wrong fork, and end up in Frederick. I told him I might not be able to keep up, and he said they wouldn't run that fast. Of course, I didn't believe him. I pointed over to the towpath and said, "I'm running a marathon next weekend on that kind of surface, so I'm going to go practice on that." He gave me a two-thumbs up, turned and was gone. Knowing that I had made the right decision, a sudden calm came over me, and I had an enjoyable run back to the yacht club.

The Yacht Club.

This place had everything; well, almost everything. It had 2 showers, but the shower I got in had no knobs to turn on the hot and cold water. I usually carry a lot of stuff on a trail run but not a pair of slip-lock pliers, which is what I needed to turn these metal rods. With the use of a towel, I was able to get just enough of a pincer grip to turn them with my fingers. I could have just used the other shower, but what's the challenge in that?

After a 50K run and the strenuous exercise in turning the water on and off, I was pretty hungry. And there was a lot of food several kinds of cold cuts, different types of bread, chips, drinks. And: two types of home-made soup. Two big cauldrons of soup I might add (there must have been a retractable overhead crane in the ceiling to lift those things onto the stove).

Afterwards, Jeanne and Larry showed us slides of their trip to Iceland where they did an ultrarun and camped/canoed for about 10 days. All the time I was watching, I was thinking: "Now this is the way to see Iceland." I mean by slides who wants to be in a tent for 10 days? (My Vermont 100 tent disaster this past summer is still too fresh in my mind.)

A lot of work went into this event getting everybody signed up, marking the trails, having aid stations, food at the end, etc. I wish I could say that Jeanne and Larry did it all, but I can't. I must point out that I did carry one water jug from the van into the yacht club. Dan Grayson also helped out at the aid stations; if there were others, I don't know who they are. Anyway, thanks to all who organized and put on this event.

Next year.

Sitting in the yacht club afterwards, Joe seemed to be pretty satisfied, observing that last year he was the only person that went across the bridge and this year he had seven others and wondering how many next year? After he had gone, Jeanne said that the race directions next year would be very clear that there would be no bridge crossing. This has the potential of all the high drama of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. Too bad we have to wait a year.

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