Abebe Bikila International Peace Marathon: A Break from the Bicycling

All the recent weekend riding has been glorious, but I was craving a break so I signed up for the Abebe Bikila International Peace Marathon. This run is a double out-and-back course along 6.5 miles of the C&O Canal, and the start is about 10 kilometers from my house so practically ideal.

Unfortunately, with all the riding we’ve been doing my running miles have not been where they should be for a 26.2-mile jaunt. My running frequency has been good, but the longest run I managed to put in to prep for this run was [redacted to protect the guilty].

I have never attempted a marathon on such a short long run before, and certainly don’t recommend it, but with several marathons under my belt I figured I could rely on my randonneuring and other base fitness and go by feel as the miles went along.

For much of the week leading up to the run, I debated my participation, but I couldn’t see a good reason not to try it since I’d paid my money, and I could always bail at the midway point if things were terrible.

So I rode blearily out into the sunrise with my running shoes stowed in the Carradice. I was greeted with a giant rainbow, a sure sign of good luck.

The race director gave the pre-run announcements and it began to sprinkle. I realized that I had misinterpreted the rainbow’s meaning, as what it really forecast was a rainy day.

Riding to the marathon start
Riding to the marathon start

This marathon is one of the few in D.C. that maintains a small-town feel, which is one of the reasons I love to run it. If you’re hoping for a Marine Corps Marathon-esque or other big marathon experience, forget it.

The event always has a small element of disorganization, but somehow everything works out. You are timed by your bib, and not a chip, as has become standard for most runs. There is sufficient volunteer support and the water stops are good, but if you want to be cheered on by the masses, you signed up for the wrong event.

We shuffled out from the start and it was a clogfest. The C&O is fairly narrow, especially for a race start– even a small one. That frustrated me, but I knew it would gradually thin out as everyone found their pace.

As someone who regularly spends time on the C&O, I know its surface fairly well. The early miles can be bumpy, and there is a lot of traffic that uses this stretch of the towpath, especially on weekends. People go for runs and take their dogs for walks. Tourists walk along it. Many cyclists use it as part of a day ride or a multi-day tour of the C&O. It’s a heavily used local area.

For whatever reason, this edition of the run appeared to have a lot of participants who were unfamiliar with the trail’s dynamics. People ran along the left side of the C&O, and their earphones prevented them from hearing anyone coming up behind them. Others were loathe to move to the right as runners, walkers, and others approached opposite them.

People may argue with me on this, but I think that road runners and marathoners are used to being pampered at events. Often, marathon routes close to other traffic, so that runners have the course to themselves. Runners are handed water in a cup every two miles. You don’t even have to throw anything in the trash because volunteers will pick it up for you. It’s an easy life, compared to an activity like, say, randonneuring.

During this marathon, the C&O remains open to all users, and I think it’s important to at least try to run on the right side of the path whenever possible, even if it means you have to slow down and run behind somebody for a few– or even several– seconds. It’s also a good idea to keep headphones at a level that don’t compromise awareness of other trail goings-on. Otherwise, you’re giving runners a bad name, and creating a potentially dangerous situation for the trail users.

In conclusion, a little situational awareness goes a long way in my book. Okay, end of my preachy moment about that. As I said, the run thinned out sufficiently after the first couple of miles so that I wasn’t observing near-collisions every few feet, and most people were good about staying to the right.

Running with Robin at the halfway point. Photo credit: Tony Estrada Photography
Running with Robin at the halfway point. Photo credit: Tony Estrada Photography

For the duration of the marathon, showers passed through, and I rather enjoyed pattering along under the trees on the towpath listening to the raindrop chorus on the leaves.

The weather made for delicious running on the C&O. There was no sun to bake us, and the cloud cover kept us nice and cool. The cyclist traffic was minimal, and the rain seemed to keep other users away, as well. The only downside I could see was that the volunteers were becoming soaked on our behalf, and the pooling water in various spots on the towpath required some strategic foot placement.

My Brooks Glycerins were quite comfy throughout, although they are not the fastest draining shoes ever. Next rainy run, I’ll likely select different kicks in order to avoid that cement shoe feeling.

I was on the fence about attempting the full marathon distance, but at about 8 miles or so, ultrarunner friend Robin, who happened to be out for her own training run on the C&O, offered to run me to the halfway point.

I knew Robin could run much faster on her own, but it was a huge mental boost to run with her and it made the first half-marathon fly by, so much so that I was unable to devote any time to the contemplation of quitting, and when she split off I was left with nothing to do but keep going. Adebe Bikila International Peace Day Marathon

Most participants ran the half-marathon distance so the full marathoners all had plenty of space to breathe for the second 13.1 miles. I developed a side stitch that plagued me for quite a while; I’m pretty sure it was due to my lack of training. I slowed down and took many a walk break.

The walking was awesome; I luxuriated in extending my legs, especially since I don’t ever get that stretched-out sensation when I ride. The walks, combined with the steady rainfall, put me in a totally meditative state.

The dark clouds hanging over the Potomac River were mesmerizing, and I saw a waterfall I’d never noticed before. How is it we can be so familiar with an area and still find something that previously escaped our attention?

I told myself that I could stroll forever on the C&O, but then I looked at my watch and concluded that I didn’t want really to walk forever on the C&O so I’d best get moving. Also, I started feeling hunger pangs. I began to run more steadily again.

Splashing through puddles at the finish line. Photo credit: Tony Estrada Photography
Splashing through puddles at the finish line. Photo credit: Tony Estrada Photography

While I committed to picking up my pace, I never felt any urgency to finish. Mostly, I enjoyed hanging out under gray skies while I made slow steady progress. It was a great day to be a runner! Even the giant puddles were sort of fun because they added another element to the day, and it really isn’t often that grownups get to splash through giant puddles.

I dawdled to the finish as fast as my body allowed, grateful to be done and proud of my body for making it pretty soundly through 26.2 miles. I went into the marathon knowing my pace would be super-conservative, and really I did not know if I would be able to complete it on such inadequate long runs.

I ultimately finished in 4 hours and 42 minutes– not surprisingly,  my slowest time on this course. It’s two days later as I write this, and I have some lingering stiffness, but no “bad pain” from the day’s effort. I was smart to pace myself as I had.

Ten minutes after my run ended, the skies opened up and poured down on us again. I then remembered that I had to be a bike rider. Sigh. I unlocked my wet bike and slowly rode home with my marathon medal around my neck, sopping wet but satisfied. Next time, I’ll train better.

Thanks to Jay Jacob Wind and the volunteers for making this run happen. And thanks again to Robin, for helping me through!


  1. You are such a good writer and contemplative soul. Your report makes me want to run this thing despite being burned out on the C&O Canal after training there almost solely for my first two marathons.

    So fun that you happened upon Robin and she paced you. WUSsies forever!


    • Ha! That’s why I don’t like running along Rock Creek (not the trails, but the path)– over-crowded, and where I always used to run until I could not take it anymore! It is weird to run a DOUBLE out-and-back on the C&O, but it’s kind of like comfort food for me. And seeing Robin was a great highlight of the day.


  2. MG! we were happy to see Ed on the 50 States …and glad you were out pounding the puddles…what a rainy day. But the medal looks cool! And Abebe was always my favorite marathoner…


  3. Hi, great read; considering running this for a BQ in 2017, this is like one of the last available race of the year, is the crowd a factor? Thanks


    • It can be a little clogged at the very beginning so if you were trying to BQ, you would want to consider that when starting, and place yourself accordingly. Other than that, no issues with crowding since the runner cap is set low, there are (or were in the past) two start times, and most people run the half. Good luck!


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