One hundred of anything can technically be called a century, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, but when I heard that a one-day, hundred-mile trip on a bicycle was called a century, I took it to mean a really long time. Instead I should have been thinking, a really long distance.
My wife and I were planning a two-week vacation at Deep Creek Lake, in western Maryland. I had only one week of vacation, so I would be joining Cynthia and the kids for the second week of the stay. The question of how I would get there arose. Cynthia and the kids were taking the family car.
Not a problem, I explained, earnest as a Boy Scout about to earn a merit badge: The towpath for the C & O Canal, a well-known bike path, courses out that way along the Potomac. Its terminus lies a short car-ride from the lake. I bicycle to work every day, and here was a nice opportunity to try something longer, 184 miles long to be exact.
The trip would take me three days, I told Cynthia, about 60 miles a day. But with three kids to supervise, she was going to be waiting eagerly for my arrival. The trip would take two days, she told me.
I had a little choice in how to break up the journey. Given the location of hotels along the path I could do the shorter leg, of 80 or so miles, on Day One or Day Two. But as a website for the towpath explained, "Either way, you are looking at doing a century during one of the days." Ah yes, I thought, there's that word again. I decided to knock off the hundred miles on Day One.
The night before I left, I realized the backup tubes I had bought were the wrong size, so in the morning before leaving I went to the bike store. This put me on the path at 11 A.M., while I had planned to leave around 8. Still, it felt great taking off. The path turned to mud at several points in the first 30 miles, causing my thin hybrid tires to slip around, but my odometer showed that I was making good time on the dry stretches in between. After a quick lunch of ice cream and chips around Mile 33, I hopped back on the bike with great energy.
Bicycling magazine publishes a guide to preparing to ride a century. It's called 100 Days to 100 Miles. The book has charts for tracking your weight and how much you're sleeping, suggestions for incremental goals, and answers to important questions like, How much should I eat while riding? Too bad I read the book weeks later.
Aside from a couple of brief trips on the towpath to test-ride its pebbly surface, I had done little preparation. Whatever, I'd thought, I'm one of those people who learn by doing. Which is how I learned about what bicyclists call "the wall" or "a bonk."
After letting out a manly roar as I passed the Mile 50 marker, I started thinking about when to stop for food. Waiting for the bike shop to open in the morning, I'd had a scone. Then around 1 P.M., that ice cream bar and chips. Also, I'd eaten some plums. Too bad, I remember thinking, they don't sell plums on a shoulder strap so you could wear them like a bandoleer.
Then, BAM!--no more silly thoughts. My balance was being thrown off by the enormous weight of my head, and my chest felt as if someone who doesn't bike very often were sitting on it. My lungs wheezed as I found myself checking and rechecking the odometer, watching not miles, but tenths and even hundredths of miles tick slowly by.
At Mile 53, I stumbled into a diner called Mommer's, where I hugged the counter and would have cried had I the energy. Ninety minutes, four pancakes, two eggs, four pieces of toast, several pieces of bacon, two plates of French fries, four glasses of water, three Cokes, and one cup of coffee later, I was back on my bike and riding at a good clip.
At what I thought was the end of Day One, I rolled into the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn in Williamsport, Maryland, and looked down at my odometer. It had the gall to say I had traveled a mere 97 miles. So I did what anyone else would've done. I turned my bike around and continued pedaling for another three miles.