The Casual Runner

C&O Canal Towpath Marathon & Half Marathon

Event: 2015 C&O Canal Towpath Marathon and Half Marathon
Event Date: November 8, 2015
Event Location: Georgetown, Washington, DC

20151108_101348Why I decided to run this race

The C&O Canal Towpath Marathon and Half Marathon offered me the opportunity to conquer one last half marathon before my traditional impediments to good running set in: cold weather, the holidays, and holiday meals, which could lead to the tendency to hibernate for the winter. The payoff from this past winter is that autumn has been much longer; a great tradeoff from Mother Nature that winds up extending the greatest running season of the year.

I also liked the C&O Canal’s location in D.C. generally and near Georgetown specifically.  I attended Georgetown University for undergrad, and am always in the mood to visit the neighborhoods near campus.  The canal’s Towpath is less than a half mile from campus, and the course provided a couple of spectacular views of my alma mater. Talk about good motivation!

Finally, I signed up for this race in an effort to hit my six total half marathons for 2015 (one of my New Years’ Runsolutions.  I hit number six in Akron in September, but I’ve always been one to go the extra mile (Editor’s Note: worst pun in a running blog ever, or best pun in a running blog ever???), so seven it is!

Getting there/the lead-up to the race

I made the drive from Ohio to DC the Friday before, and spent a low key Saturday relaxing for the race.  I did a little sightseeing at the Smithsonian museums—and maybe a little too much walking pre-race, but oh well—and caught an afternoon showing of the latest James Bond movie, Spectre.

20151108_090447The gear

Even though this autumn had been warmer than usual, and even though I was further south than I typically run, I was still a little concerned with dressing comfortably for the race.  I defaulted to my maxim, it’s better to be a little on the cold side at the start of the race than to be a little on the warm side at the end of the race, and it paid off.   I wore a long sleeve under armor underneath my tech gear shirt, and shorts, and I was perfectly comfortable for the race.  And, because it was supposed to be sunny that day, I also wore my trusty Zumas.

The race Expo / Swag review

There was no race expo for the race, nor was I surprised.  The C&O Canal Towpath is very much a community race.  By my estimate, there were about two hundred entrants combined running either the full or half marathon.

Relatedly, there was not a whole lot in the way of swag.  The entry did come with a t-shirt, however.  Each runner got a cotton white t shirt with the race logo on the front and the logo for the race organizers on the back.  Pretty simple design.

20151108_101329The pre-race

I grumpily arose at 5:45a.m. on race day, got my gear together, and haled an Uber for the ride to the start.  The race organizers deserve a shout-out here.  There was some road work and construction scheduled the day of the race along Canal Road which, as the name suggests, is a road pretty close to where the course was and one that any runners driving to the race needed to take.

The race organizers sent out an email the night before to the field to inform them of the construction, suggested an alternate route that avoided the construction, and estimated the additional time travel would need.  Very responsive getting ahead of a problem that might have delayed the race start.

Along the course

The C&O Canal Towpath Marathon and Half Marathon both ran along the same 3.28 mile stretch of the canal.  The course was originally designed as an out and back.  Half marathoners would complete two laps of the 3.28 mile stretch from the Francis Scott Key Bridge to the so-called “chain bridge” northwest along the towpath.  Runners in the full marathon were to run four loops.

The course was not run as a pure out and back, however.  Instead, the organizers moved the start and finish line to a point mid-way through the course.  Runners ran two miles towards the Key Bridge and a turnaround.  The course doubled back towards the start and finish line and beyond an additional 1.28 miles around the chain bridge.  The runners turned around again and came to the start and finish line to complete one loop (6.56 miles).  At this point, half marathoners completed the loop one more time and full marathoners completed three more loops.

20151108_090452This alternative design offered a couple of advantages.  For starters, it made completing an out and back slightly more tolerable.  I’m not sure why, but for some reason breaking the course up the way it was helped make the running feel less mundane.  The turnarounds and the start/finish line made for natural break points/milestones in the course.  With this layout, this gave “psychic breaks” at fairly routine marks.

The other primary benefit of this layout was that it allowed the race organizers to maximize course support with a small amount of volunteers.  There were only enough volunteers to set up water stations at three places along the course.  However, they were placed intelligently: one at the start and finish, one at the first turnaround, and a third a few hundred feet short of the other turnaround.  With those three spots, the volunteers were able to place hydration stations at mile marker 2, 4, ~ 5, 6, 8, 10, and ~11.  Props for efficiency.

The hydration was not that necessary for this race, however.  The weather was typical cool fall weather, so it did not wear the runners out—once again, one of the best parts of a fall race.  As important for the ease of course was the easy incline.  This course had zero hills.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  There were zero hills.  In fact, there was barely any incline or decline at all.  The half marathon has about 264 feet of gain and loss, and the marathon has about 528 feet of elevation gain loss.  To place that in perspective with some of my previous races, there were two half mile stretches in the Green Cathedral where the elevation climbed 100 feet over that brief distance.  This makes the C&O Canal ideal for going for a personal record.

However, the C&O Canal might not be a destination race.  Unlike larger races, there was not a lot of on course support.  The towpath itself was narrow enough at points that the runners had difficulty passing each other while avoiding puddles; there certainly was not a lot of space alongside for spectators to watch or bands to play like I enjoyed at the Goodyear Half Marathon and Akron Half Marathon.  In fact, park regulations led to race staggering the half marathon start times by 30 minutes because only so many people were allowed on the trail at one time.  If you are running the C&O Canal, it’s for the run itself.

20151112_234632The SMOpinion

The SMO is designed to capture the flair of the race’s location.  The front bears the race’s name over an archway that runs over a path.  At the top, a cutout made to look like one of the course’s many bridges.  And in the bottom right side of the medal, a mini map of the canal’s towpath runs along the medal’s border.

On the other hand, the ribbon and connector of the medal detract from its overall quality.  The ribbon is plain, monocolored blue and did not bear any unique design like many other races I’ve run in have; for example, Medina and Akron use the ribbon as a way to further personalize the SMO by including the race name, date, and even theme.  Also, the clasp, which looks like it came off of a lanyard, looks a little flimsy, but Mike has already weighed-in on these kinds of clasps.

The post-race experience

Much like the rest of the race, there was not a whole lot of fanfare meeting the finishers.  There were some snacks placed on the water station table at the finisher line.  Perhaps the biggest attraction at the finish line was the crowd of other racers milling around waiting to congratulate you as you finished your run.  What the race lacked in fanfare, it made up for in engendering a communal feeling.

20151108_090449(0)Playlist Peak

Seeing as this race was a last gasp at any warm weather for a long time, I thought it would be fitting to jam to some summer hits. So, I injected some Taylor Swift (Bad Blood and Wildest Dreams), Demi Lovato (Cool for the Summer), and Carly Rae Jepsen (Call Me Maybe) into my usual running mix. Most ironic moment of the race: when Bad Blood came on just as I passed the start finish line for the final couple miles of the race. Having to run through the area where other runners were celebrating their finishes? C&O Canal, now we’ve got bad blood (hey)!

Looking back now

The C&O is a no frills race, that’s for sure. You aren’t coming to this race for extensive swag or on course support or entertainment. It is not in a theme park that doubles as both part of the course and post-race entertainment. What is does offer is a flat, fast course in peak racing weather. What it does well, therefore, it does in spades. This race definitely has its sweet spot for a runner who needs a capstone on his or her racing season and wants to take a shot at setting a season, or all-time, personal record. And, who doesn’t love chasing the rabbit?  If you are in the District in early November, consider giving the C&O Canal Towpath a run.

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Neither Steve nor Casual Runner received any compensation for this review.  The entry for the race reviewed herein was provided by the event organizer for purposes of this review and the opinions are solely those of the author.

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