Ron Keith had been running nonstop for 19 hours when, about 2 a.m., he spotted what looked like a body sprawled out on the trail ahead. Keith rubbed his eyes, adjusted his headlamp and looked again. Nope, just a fallen log. But what was that creepy music way off yonder? It sounded like a fife-and-drum corps …
Keith cleared his head, checked his bearings and plugged on. Only 20 miles to go.
"At some stage, you reach a point of exhaustion where your mind plays tricks on you," he said after finishing the third annual C&O Canal 100, a 100-mile race in Frederick County last weekend. "I laughed it off and kept going."
He couldn't dismiss his aching feet in the aftermath of the race, which he finished in 27 hours, 14 minutes.
"My toes have blisters as big as fingernails," said Keith, 53, an accountant from Bel Air. "I'll lose two toenails from all of this. But would I run it again? Absolutely. Very few people have ever run a marathon — and by doing this race, basically, you're running four of them back to back."
Of the 130 entrants from 12 states and the District of Columbia, 69 completed the two-day challenge over the flat, leafy towpath along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that winds past Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Brunswick and Point of Rocks in less than 30 hours. The oldest finisher was 69; the youngest was 21-year-old Alyson Eng, a Midshipman Second Class at the Naval Academy.
Eng, from Holmdel, N.J., was the second of 10 women to finish. The last few yards weren't easy — a vertical climb made slick by overnight rain.
"I kept sliding down the hill," said Eng, who likened it to trying to scale Herndon Monument as a plebe on campus. She made it in 22:31. Then it was back to Annapolis to prep for six final exams, which began Thursday.
"I thought the race would be a good 22-hour study break," she said.
Like Eng, it was the first 100-miler for Alan Hirsch, 59, a restaurateur from Owings Mills. He tried not to dwell on that.
"We started at 7 a.m. Saturday, and at noon, I thought, 'My God, I could be out here for another 24 hours. How can I do it?' But time goes by," Hirsch said. "We heard rumors of bears at a prerace meeting, which wasn't helpful.
"At 60 miles, one runner went into a porta-potty and fell asleep; he dropped out of the race. But you needn't be a great athlete to do this, because I'm not. I walked the last 7 miles. My mantra was: 'Start out slow and then slow down.' "
More than one runner got spooked while plodding along the dirt-and-gravel towpath at night.
"Several times I looked over my shoulder and wondered, 'What's that noise?' But it was only the stuff in the fanny pack that I was carrying," Charles Hogan, 55, of Catonsville said. "It's eerie running in the drizzle with only this tiny headlamp to illuminate the trail. There's no chance to get lost, but I kept thinking, 'I haven't seen anyone for a while — did I make a wrong turn?' I told myself I couldn't have or I'd be in the water."
The eight aid stations posted en route saved many a weary soul. Volunteers there cheered runners, helped them change clothes and dished out everything from scrambled eggs and bacon to quesadillas and pierogies.
"I had a fabulous, creamy corn-and-ginger soup that motivated me to move on," said Hogan, a landscape technician at UMBC. "The server said it was easy to make and was going to give me the recipe, but I said: 'Don't have time, gotta run.' "
Imagine Eric McCarty's surprise when the 50-year-old Columbia resident, who has sworn off dairy products, found vegan pancakes at one stop.
"I ate two of them on the spot and stuffed two more in each pocket," said McCarty, a personal trainer. "That made me happy for 20 miles — not so much the pancakes themselves, but the thought of the pancakes."
It was coffee that kept Erik Iliff going.
"I normally drink four or five cups a day, but I cut out coffee completely a few weeks ago," Iliff, 35, of Crofton said. "By Saturday, I figured I'd purged all of the caffeine out of my body, so when I finally drank it during the race, the coffee amped me up so much that I was perfectly alert."
Result? Iliff, an Army major who had dropped out of two earlier 100-milers, finished in 25:34.
The race, in its third year, is the only 100-miler in Maryland. It's the brainchild of Lance Dockery, of Jefferson in Frederick County, a 24-year-old graduate of Mount St. Mary's who never has run that far himself.
"What I love most is seeing those runners who finish just under the [30-hour] cutoff time," Dockery said. "Their determination and drive is inspiration."
One of those was Brian Boyle, 28, a former student at St. Mary's College of Maryland who suffered life-threatening injuries in a 2004 automobile accident. Boyle required 36 blood transfusions, spent two months in a coma and had to learn to walk again during rehabilitation at Kernan Hospital.
"To make it to the starting line of this race was beyond anything I could have ever imagined," said Boyle, of Welcome in Charles County. He finished in 29:16.
Nearly half the field failed to complete the race. Six hours of rain — it started as sleet near dusk — dampened spirits and thinned the field.
"It was misery. The wet and cold soaked you to the bone," Guy Silvestri, 41, of Davidsonville said. "I went through eight pairs of socks, trying to dodge puddles 4 inches deep. My wet shoes felt like concrete slippers. But once it stopped raining, I said, 'I've got this.' We'd made it through hell at that point."
Silvestri crossed the finish line flanked by his three sons, who ran onto the course and jollied him up the hill for the final 500 yards.
"I was so beat up, it was like climbing Mount Everest," the intelligence analyst for the Defense Department said.
Others ran part of the race with "pacers" — friends or family who jogged alongside them to lend physical or moral support. Ellie Miller's husband did both.
"Jay stayed with me for 29 miles during the night, when my joints were screaming at me to stop," said Miller, 38, a registered nurse from Annapolis. "I just held onto his arm, closed my eyes and went along like that until the sun came up."
For Andrew Carta of Crofton, the race proved a roller coaster of peaks and valleys over level ground.
"The food was terrific. I gained 5 pounds," said Carta, 30, a financial analyst. "The rain and the darkness were daunting. I heard grunting noises and saw these glowing eyes peering at me from the woods; might have been a boar. I just blew my whistle and ran a little faster.
"I didn't give up. I'm a finance guy, and at that point, I figured I already had 65 miles invested in this, so I'd do the last 35 even if I had to crawl in."
Those who finished received a metal belt buckle commemorating their feat.
"I'm going to wear that buckle wherever I am, with my suit or my pajamas," Carta said. "It's a symbol of accomplishment."