ZEBULON — At times, Toni Blackwell struggled to remember why she had ever agreed to bike from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
The 49-year-old Zebulon woman, though an avid runner, had never ridden her bicycle more than a couple of miles before this summer.
Yet there she was in the Pennsylvania wilderness - her legs achy, her skin slimy, and her teeth filling with gnats as she trekked 320 miles along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Blackwell, her two sons Adam, 16, and Eric, 12, joined their friend Don Moore, 48, and his son Kramer, 16, of Colorado on a five-day trip that Blackwell knew she had to make.
"My father died at a young age ..., and as my birthday approached, it really made me reassess everything," she said. "I had never done something like this, and I know that whenever you do something difficult, it gives you inner strength that you can draw on later."
Strength, as Blackwell soon discovered, was a coveted asset along the trail, which weaves through the mountains of Maryland and West Virginia down into Washington.
"There were moments when I didn't think I could finish," Blackwell said. "But as soon as you have a good night's sleep, it changes your attitude."
To summon the strength needed to pedal 70 miles a day, the group slept in hotels and rewarded endurance.
"We'd give out daily awards like 'best hill climber' and things like that," said Moore, an experienced cyclist.
The effectiveness of Moore's tactics were debated.
"It seemed like it took a lot longer than five days," Blackwell said.
But on Aug. 3, exactly five days after departing Pittsburgh, the trail opened up from a piney path to M Street in Washington.
"It feels like you're in the middle of nowhere, then you dump out in the middle of Washington," Blackwell said.
The group biked by the Washington monument and the White House, caked with grime and mud.
"I'm sure we were getting stares from diplomats in their cars," Moore said. "We definitely stood out."
Adam and Eric Blackwell said their friends didn't believe they'd made the trip until they were shown photos.
"None of my friends have ridden even five miles," said Adam, a student at East Wake High, whose bicycle didn't have brakes.
Still, the cyclists say they hope to make the cycling trip an annual event.
"It was exhausting," said Blackwell. "But it was definitely worth it."
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