A Really Really Really Really Long Walk

I once walked 100 kilometers in one day. We started at 3am, the four of us. It was an organized event so we weren’t alone but when I walked up to the finish line at midnight I had been alone for hours.

Somehow, I thought it would be a good idea to do that long walk again….in winter!

What started out as a simple dare quickly grew into a quest for myself and three other friends. (This was a different group from my first foray in long distance walking.) I had been hoping to rejoin the 100km walk again later this month but scheduling kept that from happening. In the process I heard about a 50 mile trek to commemorate the first time this walk was done, by Robert F. Kennedy, mentioned to my friends, and there was no turning back.

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At the start there were 34 walkers. Only 12 would walk the entire distance.

Because this was was shorter, the start time was a leisurely 4am. In preparing for the walk, all I could think about was the immense pain and suffering I felt toward the end of the 62mi when I’d done it the first time. Yes, this was was shorter, but it was winter time so really no real benefit from the decreased distance. I’d walk a little less but have to deal with temperature control, freezing water and maybe even snow on the trail.

We got to the trailhead a bit late but still managed to start with the group. It was dark. It was cold. I wanted to walk faster than the rest of my group. We all wanted to sleep. The sun came up. We ate food. My water froze. I unfroze my Camelback’s hose so I could drink. It froze again. Fun, right?

CO Canal Towpath A Really Really Really Really Long Walk
A lot of the path looked just like this. It was a beautiful day….in February!

The walk itself took place along the C&O Canal. The Canal was built alongside the Potomac River to ferry goods up and down river between Washington, DC and Cumberland, MD; a distance of about 185mi. The walk I did before, the 100km, started in DC itself and went all the way to Harper’s Ferry, WV. The “shorter” walk I did the second time started further upstream in Great Falls, following the same canal and towpath all the way to Harper’s Ferry.

Chester and Lionel 140x250 A Really Really Really Really Long Walk
You can see Chester’s bow tie…I tied it!

Eventually we all hit our stride and began to enjoy our day despite the cold. This is probably a good point to introduce the rest of my cohorts. There was Chester and his lovely bride Catherine. Chester and I knew each other from GWU where we played Rugby with the fourth member of our trip, Lionel. Lionel and Catherine, who for various reasons didn’t want to walk the whole way, each took turns shuttling the car while Chester and I walked the full distance. We were all dared to start the day wearing oxford shirts and bow ties (my bowtie fell off before our first pit stop) to help us commemorate RFK but Chester was the only one stupid strong enough to make the whole trip in a pair of Cole Haan dress shoes.

The walk itself is easy.  Technically, it is uphill, but 600 feet in elevation spread over 50 miles doesn’t really count for much elevation.  It’s that very flatness that causes the pain in the hip flexors and ankles, from doing the same thing over and over again for hours.  With the sun up, we warmed up quite a bit and I didn’t have any more problems with water freezing.  We walked some more and some more.  We talked politics and business and philosophy, as friends do, and then we talked about how much we hurt and what we wanted to eat.  A friend visited us a few hours before sunset and brought us hot chocolate and magic bars.  Amazing.  We kept walking.  Walking some more.  Did I mention this was a very long walk?  We saw some kind of strange albino deer. The sun set.  The temperature dropped a lot.  We still had miles to go. We kept walking.

In the end we didn’t finish too long after sunset, arriving at Harper’s Ferry right about 7pm.  Although 7pm sounds like a nice time to finish something, we’d been walking for 15 hours straight and were simply exhausted.  For me though, I was shocked at how much easier a 50 mile walk was compared to a 62 mile walk, and thankful that we’d not encountered any snow. When I’d finished this walk the first time, doing the full 100km, I could barely move.  Although I was plenty sore this time around things like stairs and hills didn’t look quite so scary.  We even went out for dinner and each enjoyed a nice pint of beer.

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Then we got to the B&B we’d booked for the night, and Chester removed those Cole Haans…  The shoes survived surprisingly well but the feet were another story.

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Adventure Racing 101

Imagine biking through the woods to find a checkpoint marked on your topographic map.  Your partner is using the compass to find West while you’re busy scouting the terrain for the creek marked on the map.  100 yards ahead you spot it, a small white and orange kite propped against a tree.

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Adventure racing can best be described as a competitive scavenger hunt for adults. Split into multiple disciplines, the race involves locating checkpoints marked out on the course.  You may be required to obtain some of the check points on bike, others on foot, still other by boat or better yet rappelling.  There may be certain challenges you have to complete along the way, possibly logic games, an obstacle course or even a rock wall or fireman’s carry.   Your equipment generally includes a compass, food and water.  Beyond that it’s your own wit and skill to guide you to the checkpoints.   And it’s fun.  Ridiculous, I haven’t had so much fun since I was 12 riding my bike to the lake fun.

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Adventure racing as a sport is growing at an incredible rate.  More cyclists, triathletes and runners enter the sport each year, looking for a new challenge. Adventure racing takes skill and endurance.  The short sprint distance races may range anywhere from 4-6 hours while longer races may last many days and cover expansive territory.  Adventure racing camps will teach you the basic skills if you’re looking to do a longer race, but for those of us who are more of the “weekend warrior” type, here’s what you need to know.  We’ll cover choosing gear in an upcoming post.

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The Teams

Teams are usually 2-4 people depending on the company that is putting on the adventure race.  They’ll likely have several divisions, mens, coed and possibly womens.  Choose your partner(s) wisely, you’ll want people that not only have skills to supplement your weaknesses, but also people you can work with and trust.  Nothing takes the fun out of something faster than having the wrong teammates.

The Events

You can almost guarantee that every adventure race is going to at least have an orienteering and mountain bike component.  Orienteering is the on-foot section of the course (here’s where you get to run around the woods with a map and compass).  Generally you should be prepared to cross terrain without a path, with only your compass and topographic map to guide you.  The mountain bike section will likely be limited to trails, but we’ve been at some races where we’ve had to hike our bikes up and over the hill, so read your map carefully.  Frequently there is also a paddling section, usually canoeing or kayaking.  This section usually isn’t that technical, but it will save you a lot of aggravation on the water if you paddle a few times with your teammates before the actual event.

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The Skills

  1. Orienteering. You should be comfortable using a compass before the event and comfortable reading a topographic map.  Neither is difficult to use, but you’d be surprised how many people have difficulty with a compass once they’re lost.    Make sure everyone on your team understands how to use a topographic map and understands the legend.
  2. Mountain Biking. You should be comfortable riding a mountain bike and have the endurance to complete the biking portion.  Sprint races will often give you an estimate on the distance for the mountain bike section- make sure you can complete it.
  3. Endurance. This is probably the most important skill you need to have. And yes, endurance is a skill – you have to understand how to pace yourself and how to maintain your energy levels.  Even a four hour race requires pacing and endurance, so if you’ve never completed endurance event before, think about what you’ve used in the past to get you through a long run or ride.

We’ll get more into the endurance and gear aspects of Adventure Racing in the next few weeks. Check out the US Adventure Racing Association for more information on the sport and check out events in your area!

Vienna: Care to waltz?

Vienna is probably best known for its high culture: theater, opera, classical music, dance and museums. The center of the Austro-Hungarian empire for hundreds of years, we weren’t actually interested in seeing the cultural side of Vienna. Perhaps we’ve been in the “bush” too long, but I couldn’t really picture going to the opera in my chaco’s and convertible safari pants. Maybe that’s just me.Lucky for us there is a lot more to Vienna than it’s high culture.

Vienna is called a “green” city, and when you look at the map it’s not hard to figure out why. Our first day in Vienna we took a hiking trail, accessible by public transportation, which wound through mountains and into vineyards. Seriously. No more than an hour after leaving the city we were in the middle of the woods atop a mountain overlooking Vienna. Climbing Kahlenberg-Leopoldsburg wasn’t a technical hike, the steep trail was paved most of the way, but the views were spectacular and we had to remind ourselves we were in one the largest cities in Europe. We picnicked in a vineyard and watched deer steal a few grapes for themselves.

Not satisfied with a hike through the vineyards, we convinced our couchsurfing host to come to hike in the “viennese alps” with us. Hiking through alpine meadows up Schneeberg (snowmountain) was the highlight of our trip to Vienna. Especially when we saw the snow at the top. Let’s just say our African wardrobe was rather inadequate. Fortunately the alps are dotted with rest huts, which serve beer, schnapps, and even food.

We did get in a little musical culture while in Vienna. The Danube Island Festival, a huge annual 3 day concert with over 2000 artists, the Viennese really know how to throw a festival. It’s the largest outdoor festival in Europe. Crowds of people, from teenage punks to toddlers and grandparents roamed the island moving from stage to stage listening, dancing and rocking-out to the music. On one of the stages, we caught a German 1950′s rock and roll cover band, complete with hair gel and combs. Like Elvis the front guy doo-wopped across the stage, while his bassist and guitarist performed acrobatics with their instruments. It was like back to the future when Marty rocks the under the sea dance. Not exactly Mozart.

Atop Mt. Sinai

Hiking Mt Sinai is the sort of thing that many4659556337 c257cca37e Atop Mt. Sinaipeople come to Egypt to do. Most people fly to one of Egypt’s expensive coastal cities, book a tour, get on the bus around midnight, arrive sometime before 2am, and with some luck are at the summit with one thousand of their closest friends that they never met before who are all just as tired and cranky as you’d expect them to be…..oh, but the sunrise is spectacular. We decided against that route.

We arrived in the small yet touristy town of St. Catherine’s in the afternoon. This is little town is walking distance from the actual mountain but sees a mere fraction of the traffic the mountain does…since no one wants to sleep here. We were welcomed to town by nice cool air (it might be a desert but it is as high as Denver) along with a Bedouin man who took us rather quickly to his hotel where we quickly made ourselves comfortable as the only guests there. We sat out under the stars,enjoyed a nice Bedouin dinner (which looked surprisingly similar to Italian) and prepared to sleep in rather than waking up at 2am to start our hike…we slept until 10 am.

4659887625 07272bf05c Atop Mt. SinaiDoing this hike in the afternoon has three clear benefits from my standpoint. One, you’re awake. Two, you can see things and will enjoy yourself rather than injure yourself. Three, hardly anyone else does it this way. Teaming up with another fellow who arrived at our hotel long after we did we set off around midday to start our hike, passing the usual camel in the road, a couple of fruit stands, and an overpriced souvenir shop.

Arriving at the St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain we obtained the mandatory guide (in lieu of an entry fee) and started up the long windy trail rather than the steep staircase. 4659829784 9a040226ea Atop Mt. SinaiOn the way we passed 16 overpriced snack shacks but only a handful were open…they really exist for that morning crew. We had the mountain to ourselves the entire 3 hours we hiked.

At the top we were the first to arrive and immediately set to work. First I needed to find to large stones in the shape of tablets. Then, I gave myself a “desert nomad” look using my bandanna and found a suitable place for the photo shoot where I cast myself as Moses. Finally, I posed for the camera with my props approximately 250 times. Most of these photos remain private however, and will be used at a later date.

As far as I can tell, the sunset was just as4659040065 28fe1f1704 Atop Mt. Sinai spectacular as the sunrise would have been except that we were awake to see it so it didn’t feel quite as otherworldly as many who climb in the pre-dawn hours might experience. We went down that mountain rather quickly, and aided by the light of the nearly full moon. We ate well that night and slept even better.

IF YOU GO: Trust us, go and spend a couple of nights in St Catherine’s rather than doing this as an uncomfortable bus trip from Dahab. We stayed at Sheik Sina (owned by Sheik Musa’s son/) and had a found it very comfortable with a lot of options regarding lodging. Getting out the options were a bus to Dahab or a bus to Cairo (where we came from) so we took a cap to Nuweiba in order to continue to Jordan. You can walk to the Monastery and the hike from town without a problem.

Capetown- the San Francisco of the South

I don’t know if its called the San Francisco of the Southern Hemisphere, but if it isn’t and the name catches on, well you heard it here first. The winelands are close by. There is a famous prison in the bay. The vibe is cosmopolitan. The coast is wonderful but without a wetsuit you might find yourself a bit cold. Cape Town has the world’s largest population of Great White Sharks, followed by the waters off shore of San Fran. I suppose the biggest difference, on the surface anyway, is that San Francisco is dotted by huge hills whereas Cape Town is divided by a huge mountain. But, that’s just the surface I’m talking about.

4371693116 69293afbd3 Capetown  the San Francisco of the SouthCape Town was founded when Portuguese sailors 400 years ago were looking to go east and found Table Mountain instead. Eventually the need was realized for a couple of lighthouses on the point (the first one was too high and always shrouded in fog) and a permanent settlement was established, complete with wine courtesy of the Dutch. The need for cheap labor lead to slave imports (from Angola, Madagascar, and Asia) which is a large part of the reason Cape Town is so cosmopolitan today. Much of its own history, like that of the entire country, has been shaped by events in Europe as Capetown slipped from the Portuguese to the Dutch and then to the British.

The city is beautiful to look at but it is not without its blemishes. During Apartheid the government, as the story goes, couldn’t have things be so cosmopolitan and so they took to demolishing one of the most vibrant parts of the city, District 6. (If you’ve seen the movie District 9, currently up for best picture at the Oscars, you might notice some similarities.) Naturally District 6 was a poor area but it was a mixed area for coloreds, (that means mixed race here) blacks, Jews, whites, and you get the picture. With this area knocked out, as it still is today, people were force ably removed to the other side of the mountain where many continue to reside today in squatters camps and shanty towns. The glitz and glamor of the coastline condos to these camps could not be in greater contrast.

4365830201 4187ce7897 Capetown  the San Francisco of the SouthAfter spending a good day hiking up Table Mountain to look down on the city below, we realized the city does have a lot on offer: diving just offshore, hiking all over the place, and enjoying the best of waterfront nightlife. There are plenty of museums to keep you busy and it is has a real, walkable, downtown area which is not something we’ve seen since Buenos Aires. Between the funky boutiques lining Long Street and the Green Market Craft Square, the downtown is a nice mix of Africa and funky cosmopolitan. This town may remind me of San Fransisco, but while in SF I’ve never seen baboons or watch as street performers dance and sing zulu war songs while sipping my cheap, local wine.