From our executive director: Testing our limits

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Dennis watched the sun rise along the C&O Trail a few hours into his day-long walk with the FreeWalkers.

I believe in testing the limits of what we can achieve. I got a great chance to do just that last weekend. On Saturday, February 9, I joined our partner, the FreeWalkers, on the C&O Canal for their 6th annual long-distance challenge, the Kennedy 50-Mile Walk

Before the Kennedy 50, the farthest my two feet had carried me was the time I slowly jogged a marathon with a friend 21 years ago. Since college, I haven't kept up my running except for chasing basketballs and soccer balls. But everyone walks. So I decided to join a group of 145 individuals ready to test our mettle.

A walk in the park — but not

Our route was close to the East Coast Greenway. I was delighted to walk along the National Park Service's Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. It's a place I had explored a few times with my aunt and uncle over the years, walking their dog down the Potomac River and looking through binoculars for eagle nests. But this walk wasn't as easy as most walks in the park. For most of the day, the wind chill was in the teens. And once I hit about 15 miles, my leg muscles were tighter than I've ever felt. 

The big goal came about as a fitness challenge set by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy: to walk or march 50 miles. It originally was meant to be done over three days, but it evolved into just one day. Our organization incubated the FreeWalkers, led by the tenacious Paul Kiczek of New Jersey, who brought the 50-mile goal back as an annual event six years ago. After our fiscal sponsorship, the FreeWalkers became a nonprofit and have led scores of walks throughout most of the Greenway. I was excited to finally get to join them for one of their marquee walks along a route that Robert F. Kennedy had walked in February 1963 —from Potomac, Maryland, just outside of D.C., to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Harpers Ferry is a beautiful town rich in history. It's the headquarters of our amazing sister trail, the Appalachian Trail. I had the pleasure of hiking some of the AT and meeting with AT Conservancy leadership the day before my walk. It's the start of a stronger partnership between our organizations as we strive to get everyone enjoying the outdoors and healthy living. I'll share more on that in the months ahead.

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2019: Dennis wakes early on a cold February morning to join the FreeWalkers for their Kennedy 50-Mile Walk along the C&O Canal. He is proud to make it to 38 miles — or 60 kilometers.

The walk day began earlier than any athletic day I'd ever experienced. My alarm went off at 1 a.m. so I could get bundled up and ready to go. I headed over to the nearby hotel in Harpers Ferry, where a shuttle left at 1:45 a.m. to take us to the start. The bus reminded me of my school bus growing up, and its heaters were about as effective, giving me a taste of the cold ahead. Once we arrived at the start, dance music was playing as we all took the call from nature and told our bodies that it was time to begin an epic journey (not go back to bed) at 3:30 a.m. Paul generously gave me the microphone to briefly say hello and wish everyone luck from the East Coast Greenway. Then 145 people set off to reach their audacious goal for the day.

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The Curious Crandalls, from Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book.

The first 10 miles were my hungriest as I hadn't eaten more than a power bar. It was a clear night but the moon was only a crescent sliver so we all wore head lamps. I thought we looked exactly like Dr. Suess's Curious Crandalls, who slept walked with candles on their head in his Sleep Book (a key book for my children early on).

Under my lamp, I was wearing my alma mater's wool hat (what we call a toboggan down South), so that helped start conversations with others — especially those who were either fans of the Tar Heels or our rivals at Duke. One of the amazing parts of the walk is how people come from near and far. I walked and talked with people from North Carolina and New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and even a group who came across the Atlantic from the Netherlands for the experience. It would be hard for me to walk much more than 10 miles without company, and there was plenty of it —encouraging folks ready to give advice, crack jokes, and take in the scenery together. At one point, I walked with a Wounded Warrior who had had a heart attack at 20 years old, an experience one of my best friends from high school also had. And here he was, healing by walking. Another section, I was a third wheel with two old high school friends who get together to do this walk. We entertained each other so much that my laughing muscles got to be almost as sore as my legs. 

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After the energy boost of a bagel, banana, and Gatorade, I walked away from the first rest stop happy though plenty cold. My fingers didn't appreciate not wearing gloves while I ate. The sun was rising downriver, and I set off on my own for a few miles. It was nice to have that time to think further about the experience and about ways the East Coast Greenway could share experiences like this walk with more people throughout our corridor. Without a conversation for a while, I noticed majestic sycamore, oak, and tulip poplar trees and a blue jay who seemed to wish me well. After a few more miles, I connected again with other walkers for fun conversations about life, family, and much more. One walker from New Jersey shared with me that she was excited to bike the whole East Coast Greenway as soon as she retired. Another person had walked from New York to Canada on the Greenway this past summer. We got through another couple rest stops before reaching our lunch stop, a highlight. I had just taken my first of two ibuprofens a couple miles before the Subway sandwiches at Whites Ferry. We sat in comfortable camping chairs in a relatively warm meadow. It was amazing.

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Then it was time to continue walking past the 25-mile mark toward a historic aqueduct of the canal. As I passed 30 miles, I knew the active part of my day was almost done despite it being early afternoon. I was walking with a fellow wearing a CrossFit hat who, like me, hadn't trained for long-distance walking because we are active in general. It would have been hilarious to watch on video how slowly we were walking those last few miles, certainly less than half the speed of our first few. A blister and the tightest quadriceps I'd ever felt brought me and several others into a warm shuttle bus at the following rest stop. My phone said I had gone 38 miles, but I prefer the sound of 60 kilometers. I was proud, especially since my legs are almost back to normal and all my fingers escaped frostbite. And my respect increased for the 25 percent of the day's walkers who pushed themselves to get all the way to the 50-mile mark. 

The importance and opportunity of testing limits

I was delighted to test my own physical limits on a clear winter day in the middle of our beautiful Eastern Seaboard. Who would think to walk more than 30 miles in one day? Together, we can push each other to achieve health and fitness. We can inspire our neighbors, friends, and family to join us, building a wave to erode the obesity epidemic hitting our communities. Let's not leave the record books to professional athletes — we, too, can set personal records of minutes walked or biked in a week and miles of Greenway enjoyed. That's why the East Coast Greenway Alliance has partnered with GSK and others committed to a healthy future. 

And let's carry that vigor into the rest of our lives, setting audacious goals for how much of a positive impact we can make in our region toward environmental sustainability, unity and shared prosperity, and mental and physical health. Together, we can bring this dream of the East Coast Greenway to life as it becomes the most popular park in America, a place that can push us to new heights of achievement throughout our lives. Whether it's a long walk, run, or bike ride or picking up more litter than you have before, I encourage you to choose a challenge or two in 2019 that tests yourself personally and tests your ability to get the East Coast Greenway done in the state or region where you feel the strongest connection.

I look forward to testing our limits together and to celebrating what we achieve, from Key West, Florida, to Calais, Maine, and all the points in between!


Dennis Markatos-Soriano, Executive Director


Read more of our February 2019 On the Greenway newsletter

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