Whew...! How I learned to love/hate the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

The 2000 Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

This is the fourth year my buddy, Leo, and I have done this: organizing a 34-mile, summer-solstice- day-long hike on the oft-designated "muddy, bloody" Rachel Carson Trail. The Trail is cursed with miles and miles of steep, treacherous hills, each dropping or rising nearly 300 feet at a crack, straight up, straight down: "switchbacks are for wimps". The cumulative elevation gain, one-way, is 6,970 feet. Climbing Mt. Everest, from the 19,000 foot base camp to its 29,000 foot summit is a mere 3,000 feet more.

The RCT is a hodge-podge of trailways ranging in surface and character from winding country roadways laid out along local drainage like Bailey's Run, Crawford Run, Tawney Run, ... you get the idea, to primitive, semi-jungle, single-track, barely eeking its way through explosions of poison ivy, nettles, brambles, and japanese knotweed. Throw in a smattering of power line and gas line rights-of-way and you've got a formidable trail.

This year we go westbound: from Harrison Hills to North Park. The first 7 miles have only Burtner Hill to negotiate, first a toe-pounding, heel-scraping, butt-sliding downhill and then a lung-busting, knee-burning, head-aching uphill that seems to go on forever and ever. We see hills like this from our car window. They're not made to be walked or hiked or run. Yet walk them, hike them, run them we do. 'Til we drop. And drop we do, too.

All 214 of us, hikers, runners, volunteers, got up at 3:30 AM (or earlier) on the morning of June 24, 2000, took a quick shower, ate some breakfast, grabbed our gear, jumped in the car and headed out. I arrived at Harrison Hills at 5:20 AM, jumped out of the car and began throwing boxes of t-shirts, papers, food, and water on the ground all around my parking spot. Happy hikers (they're all happy at 5:20 AM) obliged by grabbing a box and hauling it down to the Ox Roast Shelter, Registration Central.

For some reason, seems like more people than ever before are here early. The first hikers to go clock out at 5:29 AM and, minutes later, they're on the Trail. By 6 AM, more than 200 hikers have lit out through the calmness and early morning tranquility of Harrison Hills Park. They pass over one foot-wide stream, past the beaver pond, and through the trees. And then they burst out onto Freeport Road where loyal Vince (he's been a volunteer every one of our four years) assists the Harrison Police getting our hikers safely across the road.

Next I assist Ben and Ron at their stations in Thompson's Thoroughbred Farm, where they help hikers negotiate the barbed wire into and then out of the corral. We all look strong, pumped. At the first big hill, Burtner Hill at Burtner Road, I watch hikers flailing recklessly down the hill, out of control, risking legs, ankles, and necks, disaster only one bad turn of events away. As they chug up the other side, looking like the famous photograph of the Yukon gold-seekers, stringing their way up the Chilcoot Trail like a string of a thousand ants stretching to the sky, I can feel the effort, the heavy breathing, the burning of calf and thigh, stopping momentarily to look upward, getting a glimpse of "how much is left to go?".

At Bull Creek Checkpoint #1, 6.9 miles, many of the hikers, especially the "trail runner-types", come running into the stop, barely stop long enough to check in, grab some water, maybe a banana, and then they're off like Mario Andretti zooming out of the pits after a 30-second tire change. I see the intrepid Don Erdeljac, standing next to his running partner, Sue Weightmann, doing a water dance: pouring water over his head and body while turning in a square-dance circle to ensure maximum coverage. Don has put in hours of hard labor on the Trail, in exchange for this opportunity to test his mettle yet one more time on Challenge Day. Then, off they all go, heading up the steep, but mercifully short Bull Creek Hill, and becoming engulfed in the high vegetation of this wet, 5-inch-rainfall, summer.

At Agan Park Checkpoint #2 (13.9 miles), I arrive in time to meet Dario Donatelli (age 40) and Dario Donatelli (age 12) running in to briefly refresh and run back out again. Ex-Challenger Barb and her partner Nicole, the Agan Park Marshals, are the perfect pair to greet and urge the hikers on, Barb knows what it's like, she's been there, Nicole's learning.

In another mile, all hell breaks loose. "It's the roller coaster" he said. All of a sudden, you're in the open, now it's noon, and the hot sun is burning down on your head, your back, and the high grass is hiding extra humidity left over from the early hours of the morning, moisture hovering about head-high, waiting to ambush the sensibilities of anyone daring to come through. Hikers who felt strong and posh 30 minutes ago were getting sick on the roller coaster. One hiker asked the Melzena Marshals, Sue and Trisha, at Melzena Road, midway, "Is this the roller coaster?". "Yes" was the answer. "Good", he said, "If it wasn't, if something worse than this was coming, I was going to quit right now!".

The Melzena Marshals had to set up a little "hospital" in the shaded bushes beside the Trail for those who began "not feeling so good" while they awaited for friends or family to come bail them out of this horrific situation in which they found themselves. And, even tho we were trying to keep all the hikers out of people's yards at the top of Melzena (landowner's request), some struggled to the top of the hill only to collapse, unable to move another single inch without at least one minute's rest.

Chaos. I saw one hiker, in desperation, walking the road around the roller coaster; when I stopped to ask if she was ok, she answered "I just can't go up those hills anymore; I'm done". Indeed at the next checkpoint, she stopped and went home, done for the day. In contrast, Brian Schwadron, of Pittsburgh, who capped a brilliant day of running the Challenge with a 2:46 PM finish at North Park, got confused on the roller coaster and, running, retraced his route back two hills to ask the runner behind him where the trail went, and then turned around and reran those same hills once again.

Many hikers, feeling strong at the Homestead turnoff, continued ahead only to give it up in the clutches of the roller coaster, beaten down by exposure to the heat of the sun, high temperatures (the high today was 86 degrees), and smothering humidity. All in all, 66 hikers finished their day at the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale (16.6 miles); another 14 quit somewhere during the first half, many at Sheetz in Creighton, a few just beyond the Homestead turnoff.

By Emmerling Park, runners and hikers stopped for water and rest, many just plopping on the grass, many resting for as long as an hour, trying to regain the strength and composure they would need to finish the hike. Many people have the strength and the stamina to do this hike; relatively few have the will, and the discipline, and the determination to get the job done. It's a mental thing. As one hiker, who suffered a painful injury with 14 miles to go, put it "Quitting is not an option".

Trouble on the trail. In the late afternoon, from five o'clock on, we began to get reports of people who felt sick, or who "didn't feel so good". We called an ambulance in to Shafer Road Checkpoint #4 (Mile 26.5) on a report that one hiker "wouldn't mind" having medical personnel "check me out". He was ok, but left the trail to go home, with a ride donated by an observer who, earlier in the day, had finished at the Homestead. Later, another hiker was shuttled home from Shafer Road where Marshals Kathy and Jo-Ann served up sympathy in globs.

Shortly after, I encountered a hiker standing on the corner of McCully Road and Middle Road, looking worried, a little disoriented, and maybe even a little confused (why am I here? why am I doing this?). So I pulled over and asked if he were lost or what? Whatever he said didn't make complete sense so I asked him a few other questions. It turned out that a woman hiker he and a friend had been with had collapsed at the top of "Duck Pond Hill" where the geese, not ducks, stand guard. The friend was tending the patient. I hopped out of the car and we ran (!!) up to the top of Duck Pond Hill and sure enough, a young woman was lying on the ground in a fetal position, and, although covered with windbreakers, was shivering like it was 25 degrees in a high January wind. After checking her out briefly (breathing, skin temperature and surface condition, asking a couple of questions), I called for an ambulance. Heat exhaustion. Arriving only a couple of minutes later, a police car drove up the hill and took her back down and to the hospital in the awaiting ambulance. The next day, Sunday, I spoke with her briefly; she was in good spirits and felt fine, a little tired maybe, but was focused (maybe fixated) on the fact she didn't get to finish. Her mood was primarily disappointment.

I was finishing my rounds of the checkpoints, now at Sample Station Checkpoint #5 (mile 31.5) with Marhals Colette and Joey, when the call came. Hiker down. In the woods "a mile after the railroad track turnoff". I jumped in the car, raced to the nearest entry point, and ran down the trail to the scene. A strong-looking, muscular woman had collapsed. Medical personnel were called immediately and within just a few minutes I met them on the road to lead them to our fallen comrade. After an initial assessment on the scene, it was decided a rescue team would have to come in and get her out to the ambulance. She was admitted to the hospital and remained hospitalized until Friday, six days later, being in intensive care until Thursday. Meanwhile, we prayed for her recovery. I spoke with her on Friday morning, and, wouldn't you know it, her only complaint was "I didn't get to finish. I was only 1.5 miles from the end and I didn't get to finish". She indicates that she loves the Challenge and will most likely volunteer to help out with the event next year rather than hike it.

Other “Trail Stories”

The HIP (Hostelling International Pittsburgh-the Challenge organizational sponsor) team, consisting of President Kyra Straussman, and Hostel staff Ada Bosonetto, Brian Funk, and Nicole Mannino were last seen somewhere between Bull Creek and Sheetz in Creighton, smelling the flowers; it was reported, however, that they were having a great time!!

One Challenger, who finished up at North Park, went home to shower and clean up and then returned to North Park to cheer in other finishers, reported losing 11 pounds on the day, weighed on his home scale.

George Bender lost his hat somewhere on the trail; he, all of a sudden, realized it was gone. Seeing me at Agan Park, he literally begged me for my extra hat (I always carry one), saying that there was no way he could finish without a hat. So I loaned him my spare hat, and he did finish, 7:12 PM. Congrats, George, and, you’re welcome.

Dario Donatelli and his son Dario Donatelli, Jr. finished at 4:19 PM, looking pretty healthy at the end. In truth, Dario, Jr. looked a little fresher than Dad. Dario, Jr., at age 12 may be the youngest finisher ever.

Alexis Rzweski came ready to go hiking at Harrison Hills Park bright and early at 5:30 AM on Sunday!! Guess what. There wasn’t a soul around. Alexis asked for his t-shirt later that week and I gave it to him at Open House, Thursday night. Then, because he felt he owed the trail some sweat, Alexis rousted a couple of friends out of bed early the next weekend and they went out and hiked a cool 20 miles. I guess he earned the shirt.

Barb Peterson (Babs) got separated from her trail partner, Frank Noll, early on in the Challenge. Barb was feeling bad for Frank thinking she had left him behind, and, “what if he got lost” or “what if he got discouraged and quit” or “what if ....”. Finally, at Shafer Road Checkpoint #4, she thought to check the time roster and found he was ahead of her!! By 15 minutes!! Off she went, like a bat out of ..., and, lo and behold, she caught up to him. They finished together at 5:03 PM.

Congrats to Gerry Vaerewyck and Gene Pochapsky; these two have been trying to finish the Challenge since ’96. In ’96, they bailed out at Bailey’s Run (going eastbound) because time was running out. Something else happened in ’97. This year they finished at 8:34 PM.

For the record, we had 250 registrations, 36 no-shows, putting a total of 214 hikers on the trail. We had 96 hikers who finished within the time constraint of "sunrise to sunset, 5:50 AM to 8:54 PM" and 3 more who finished after hours. We had 96 who made it as far as the Rachel Carson Homestead, of whom 66 stopped there (Half-Challengers) and of whom 30 continued past but did not make it to North Park. We also had 14 dropouts before the Homestead. We also had 5 “creative” hikers who started and/or stopped in places other than Harrison Hills or North Park.

Now, the Trail returns to its normal pace, lone hikers, couples and small groups, a few trail runners, hardly ever intersecting paths on the Trail. The Challenge ensures the future of the Trail, by not only putting a few hundred boots onto the treadway, cutting in a permanent trace, but by providing funds for maintenance supplies like cutting tools and tool repairs, paint, brushes, and postage for mailings designed to recruit maintenance volunteers. The Challenge also benefits the (AYH-American Youth Hostels) Pittsburgh International Youth Hostel by relieving it of the financial burden of funding trail activities. For all these benefits, Leo and I thank Ben, Ron, Sue, Trisha, Jim Jr., Jon, Vince, Blanche, Jack, Tim, Jo-Ann, Kathy, Colette, Joey, Margie, Vaughn, Nicole, Barb, Steve, Greg, Stan, Marilyn, Hugh, Jerry, Jessica, the “other” Nicole, Wade, all of our other helpers and supporters, and all our sponsors; and we-all thank you-all, the Challengers, for making this the best Challenge Day ever.

-jim ritchie