For decades, various New York State lawmakers had been meeting with engineers to discuss plans for a major transportation project. The Empire State's leaders were looking for ways to connect some of New York's lakes and waterways to allow for easier navigation across the state from east to west. As early as 1785, the argument was heard that a man-made waterway from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes would be feasible. After several plans, proposals, and subsequent rejections for funding from Washington, the state legislature finally passed a bill to approve construction of a massive canal. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton played the primary role in engineering and commissioning the project. On July 4, 1817, Gov. Clinton ceremoniously shoveled the first patch of dirt in Rome, NY, and construction of the Erie Canal was officially underway.
"How many first timers do we have at The Beast today?" the race director asked through his megaphone, making himself heard over the din of the nervous, frozen crowd. Roughly half the field raised a hand, myself included. I looked around at the assortment of runners surrounding me at the starting line. Many had brightly colored clothing, allowing them to stand out
amongst the drab grey on a cloudy January day. Orange jackets seemed particularly popular with this assembly. Many a runner's face was kept warm by an abundance of bushy facial hair, conforming to the standard of the trendy trail beard.
From what I could see of the course, the path we were about to traipse down for the better part of the day was covered in a uniform blanket of two to three inches of the white, powdery stuff. With the multiple out-and-back format of the race, the layer of snow would become more and more packed down as the day wore on, making things a little easier in the second half. We lucked out big time this year; no new snow was expected to fall on race weekend. Historically, The Beast of Burden Ultramarathons saw sporadic weather on race day - some years 40 degrees and sunny, while other years runners would spend several hours braving a blizzard.
The air felt much colder than the 23 degrees Fahrenheit displayed on my car's dash. While milling around the starting line tent, I was able to keep pretty warm except for my hands. I think mittens would have made things easier, as my fingers would all have a neighbor two to leach heat off of. Even with a pair of decent winter gloves, my fingers were on the cusp of complete numbness before we'd even started. I couldn't wait to get moving in order to warm my body up. The rest of the field seemed to feel the same way. Finally, the director unleashed us all into the wild to the tune of The Stones' Beast of Burden.
The original Erie Canal spanned 40 feet in width at the top, with a depth of four feet. Rather than straight up and down, the sides slanted inward, making the canal's bottom only 28 feet wide. A 10 foot wide towpath was built on one side of the canal. The towpath, composed primarily of packed dirt, allowed for beasts of burden, ie. horses and mules, to pull the boats along the canal using harnessed ropes.
By the time of its completion in 1825, the Erie Canal had cost $7 million in New York taxpayers' money. The canal measured 364 miles in length, from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, and included 18 aqueducts and 83 locks. To mark the official commercial opening of the waterway, Gov. DeWitt Clinton himself made the initial boat trip from Buffalo to Albany.
I couldn't believe it. Mile 13 and I was already falling way behind pace and struggling to avoid sliding further into debt. The Middleport aid station at the 12.5 mile turnaround took longer than I had expected, and the few miles of the course that were littered with two to three inches of snow had slowed me down even more. My plan was to hold a steady 9:00 per mile pace for as long as possible, while inevitably slowing down some.
I redid the math in my head: 9:00 average per mile times 50 miles is a 7:30 finishing time. Given that I'll start slowing down around mile 30, it should take about 8:15 to complete the entire 50 mile distance. That average was of course including time spent in aid stations. Now around mile 13, my watch read an average pace of 9:16 per mile, and was struggling to keep moving at the 9:00 pace I needed. Plus I was freezing cold all over. Oh, the best laid plans. With 37 miles to go, I just wanted The Beast to be over with.
One of the major problems plaguing engineers during the planning stages of the Erie Canal was how to contend with a 568 foot difference in elevation between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. The biggest concern was the 60 foot elevation drop at the present day town of Lockport. Engineer Nathan Roberts came up with a plan to build strategically placed locks to raise and lower the elevation of the canal and its boats.
In 1822, Roberts' team hired thousands of immigrant workers, many of them Irishmen, to dig and blast their way through two miles of limestone. Once the dangerous work was completed, there was then a channel to house a complicated series of locks meticulously designed by Roberts himself. The design was for two sets of locks - one for westbound traffic to ascend in elevation up the surrounding escarpment, the other for eastbound traffic to descend. Each set contained five locks with an area of 15 x 90 feet apiece, which was the standard dimensions for a lock in the original Erie Canal.
A canal lock raises or lowers one or more boats at a time to make up for changes in elevation along the canal. When the boat enters the lock, water tight gates are raised on both ends of the lock. The boat sits enclosed in the chamber, still afloat in the water. If the boat is ascending, a valve will be turned, allowing canal water to flow into the chamber to increase the depth within the chamber, thus raising the boat. When the water's depth matches the height of the lock's higher end, the valve is closed, the gates are opened, and the boat may continue on its way. A descending boat works the same way, except that a different valve is turned to drain water from the lock chamber, lowering the boat several feet before reopening the gates.
The original Erie Canal locks were mostly single locks, allowing for one way traffic only. If the lock was in use, a boat traveling in the opposite direction would have to wait until the first boat exited the chamber. Nathan Roberts' set of locks were an exception, however. Upon the Erie Canal's completion in 1825, Roberts' lock design was considered an engineering masterpiece. The surrounding village then became known as Lockport. The village was later incorporated in 1865.
Moving at a snail's pace, I desperately guzzled Tailwind from my bottle like my life depended on it and was considering dropping at the halfway point. That's when I encountered fellow Ithacan Chris Reynolds, who was headed the other way in the outbound direction. We exchanged a few words, and soon after, I felt a whole lot better. Missing out on my goal time no longer mattered, but I was definitely ready to get another finish in the books and still achieve a 50 mile PR. Remembering how privileged I was to be out there, I plodded on toward the 25 mile turnaround.
Aside from a one mile stretch of sidewalk closest to the start/finish/turnaround tent, the entire Beast of Burden race was held on the towpath on the canal's north side. I imagined myself as one of the mules pulling a heavy barge east along that path at a steady 3-4 miles per hour, all the way to Albany and the canal's eastern terminus.
The canal water was frozen solid on this balmy and icy afternoon. These conditions were ideal for repair workers back when the canal saw heavy traffic for commercial use. During the winter, the frozen water gave officials no choice but to close the busy waterway. That gave the maintenance crews time to perform repairs on the canal walls, checking for potential leaks and breaks and reinforcing or replacing sections of the wall. Repairs to bridges and aqueducts were also rampant during the winter months. In order to facilitate the repairs the canal water would be drained before it froze over. Of course the closure and draining could be done any time of the year, but closing the canal to traffic was not desirable unless it was necessary to prevent eminent damage to the waterway.
I finished the first out-and-back a few minutes under four hours, but knew that a sizable positive split was definite. Heading back out for round two wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. In fact, once I reached mile 27 and was clear of the snowiest section of the course, I was almost cruising, albeit slowly. No longer concerned with maintaining a 9:00 per mile pace, I found I had curbed the habit of glancing at my watch every few minutes. Instead I just plodded on, acknowledging runners as they ran in the inbound direction while I stared into the frozen canal. I imagined putting on a pair of ice skates and skating down the center of the thick ice. At least it would be faster than running.
On the second loop I fueled mostly with Tailwind, plus the occasional packet of Justin's Nut Butter peanut butter or caffeinated GU Roctane gel. The Tailwind tasted especially good. I couldn't get the semi-sweet liquid down fast enough and felt like anything short of a Tailwind IV going straight into my bloodstream was insufficient.
During the ten years after its opening, the Erie Canal accommodated unforeseen amounts of traffic along its 364 miles. Because of the high traffic volume and frequent traffic jams, work began in 1835 to expand the canal significantly. Over the next several decades, the canal's width and depth was nearly doubled, lock sizes dimensions were increased, and 11 of the 83 locks were removed. Additionally, many of the single locks were rebuilt as double locks, allowing for traffic to pass both ways simultaneously. The expansions provided room for more boats and boats of large sizes and drastically decreased travel time. The enlarged Erie Canal was completed in 1862.
At the final turnaround, the Middleport aid station at mile 37.5, I grabbed my headlamp and filled my handheld with Tailwind for the last time. It didn't get dark enough to warrant headlamp usage for another five miles, but seeing as I had no crew, this was my last chance to grab it from my dropbag. Running west along the canal in the early evening, I was treated with a prolonged view of the setting sun, its orange tones reflecting gently off the surface of the frozen canal. When the sun's warm, uplifting glow dissipated was when the cold really began to set in.
I turned on my headlamp as I approached the final aid station. I took my time in the aid station tent, sitting in front of a high powered space heater for upwards of five minutes. The final stretch was a mere seven miles, but I'd just about had it with the bitter cold. Leaving the tent, I kind of enjoyed the solitude of the darkness. I moved along silently, occasionally passing a 100 mile runner with his or her pacer, outbound on their third lap. To my rear the moon brightened the clear sky far overhead. Finally, I could see the finish tent directly across the canal. From this point I knew there was two miles left; I'd have to run further down the path and cross the water at the Mill Street bridge, then double back up the sidewalk for the final mile. I picked up the pace a bit, and by the time I reached the bridge I was running at an 8:00 pace. I took off down the sidewalk and came into the finish in 9:28:26. This was far off my goal time, but still a 50 mile PR by just over 30 minutes.
By the early 20th century, railroads were on pace to render canals an obsolete means of transportation. Further modification on the Erie Canal began in 1905 to further speed up canal travel time. The canal's width and depth were again increased and the number of locks reduced by over half. The improved canal also connected with several adjacent canals and rivers, and in 1918 the whole project was named the New York State Barge Canal System its completion.
It wasn't long before canal transportation yielded to railroads, and subsequently automobiles and airplanes. Today, cars and trucks are a much faster, cheaper, and more reliable means of commercial transportation than were canal boats and barges. However, the Erie Canal remains to small boats for personal use and for touring. Tourists are drawn to the many parks and historical sites along the canal. Long portions of the towpath, once trodden on only by load bearing animals, remain open as recways for walking and cycling, and of course, for ultramarathoning.
I've already been asked if I'd run The Beast of Burden again, whether it be the summer edition or another go at the Winter Beast. I'd already given it some thought while out there all alone in the freezing cold. The race offers a Double Beast Buckle, awarded to anyone who completes the Winter 100 AND the Summer 100 in the same year. Maybe in a few years I'll attempt to go the distance. What better way to spend 2025 running 200 miles along that towpath to celebrate the Erie Canal's 200th birthday? I imagine DeWitt Clinton would wholeheartedly agree.
A huge thank you to the volunteers and organizers who gave up a weekend to freeze their asses off while supporting the runners and making the race possible. Thank you!
Morganstein, Martin, and Cregg, Joan H. (2001). Images of America: Erie Canal. Charlston SC, Chicago IL, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco CA: Arcadia Publishing.
Klees, Emerson. (1996). The Erie Canal in the Finger Lakes Region. Rochester, NY: Friends of the Finger Lakes Publishing.