It's a Personal Journey

Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, June 18, 2011

In past years, Rachel Carson Trail Challenge participants have faced extreme weather ranging from the mid 90’s with high humidity to thunderstorms and raging creeks. This year the weather may have been as close to perfect as Western Pennsylvania summers allow: low 80’s, negligible humidity and a slight breeze. A great sigh of relief was loudly heard from the 552 participants.

As history shows – and this year was no different – to reach the top 50, a time of 10 hours is the goal. 432 participants completed the challenge within the allotted 15 hour 4 minute timeframe: 18 additional reached the coveted finish line. As usual, and with the thanks from all participants, the volunteers, led by Steve Mentzer, provided another stellar day. Please know volunteers – you are greatly appreciated for everything you do! The 34 mile trail (plus or minus based on required course alterations) is made up of Western Pennsylvania’s finest rolling hills, some suburban road, regional flora/fauna and the greatest weekend warriors you will ever have the pleasure of meeting.

It is widely accepted that the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is one of the most demanding events you may choose to participate, local or otherwise. What makes it so? The course is a constant: 34 miles of trail (paved and some road work) and many more miles of Western Pennsylvania’s rolling hills (what many view as the power lines that you drive by daily). When you accept this challenge, either from personal experience or research, you know what the course entails. With that said, it should be easy to train and complete, right? From a training standpoint if you have a goal of running/hiking 34 miles and you know the type of terrain, changes in elevation, time limits, etc – you do what you need to do to prepare. One rule of thumb may be to confidently complete 50-75% of the distance (matching the elevation changes as much as possible) before the event. Yes, this is probably a simplistic idea of training (I am no expert) but you get the idea. You prepare adequately, train, and no problem. (I really hope that my sarcasm comes through!)

The big deal, what makes the Challenge so demanding can be broken down into three things: the actual course (yes it’s a constant, but it is also brutal), your mental state of mind for that day, and the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of unknown variables that occur year to year, hour by hour and minute to minute.

Here’s what is consistent about the course. The distance comes to mind: 34 miles is a heck of a long distance for anybody – no matter what shape you are in. Do the math: 5,280 feet in a mile, that’s around 180,000 feet. The average person’s stride is, say, two feet, that’s 90,000 steps. Whatever it is, it’s a lot of steps even if it were all flat – but we all know better. Looking at the elevation changes provided on the map (my numbers are not 100% accurate) - over 7,000 feet in elevation changes. And these are not gradual changes. These are dig your toes in, lean forward and grab on to whatever you can elevation changes. Thigh-burning, lung-expanding, heart-rate elevating climbs. Participants are faced with mile after mile of hills with no shade, or end in sight. Combined with the miles of suburban sections, walking/running on pavement (with its own set of challenges) makes the cumulative effort of the Challenge crushing.

We all know the mental aspect of success or failure. Did I train enough? Should I have worn my other shoes? Do you look up the hill as you climb or at the ground and take it step by step? Different thoughts will run through your head throughout the day. It’s a matter of which ones you decide to give credence.

What can change year to year? You! You are a year older and there is truth to the fact your body changes. Training gets more difficult, work gets in the way, the kid’s activities, it goes on and on. Hour to hour? Your shoe that starts to rub on mile 10 may not seem like such a big deal until mile 18. Or, maybe, it was a cool morning and you didn’t think to consistently hydrate. Minute to minute? You take one misstep and twist an ankle or look to far down the trail and miss a turn which sets you back a few miles. It all adds up.

Let’s not forget the weather! No doubt weather is the one variable that could have the greatest impact on success or failure. Safe to say, that this year’s weather was close to ideal. It’s the extreme years that test your grit. 90’s with high humidity, or a day of thunderstorms and high creeks. The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge has provided all of the possibilities. The impact of the weather on trail conditions and your state of mind and body are undeniable.

The Challenge is and will always be a personal journey. And that’s why we sign up for it. That is why we come back again, and again, and again. Whether it’s about beating a previous time, sharing the day with family or friends, or accomplishing something you never thought possible, that’s the beauty of this being a challenge and not a race. We all choose to participate for different reasons. It’s a personal journey that only you can define. First timer, Amanda Priebe (#404) sums it up best: "I revisited the hike in my mind and couldn't believe what I had accomplished. I met some incredible people and I am amazed by the camaraderie between complete strangers. Every mile we walked was an accomplishment and I am so happy that I signed up. The hardest part for me was the last four miles ... but I now know what I am capable of. It was an incredible experience. At the end, you don't look pretty, you don't smell pretty, but you feel pretty darn proud!" One thing is for certain: anyone who attempts The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, finishing or not, it will always be a part of you.

Personal Journeys of the 2011 Rachel Carson Challenge

Thank you to everyone that shared your day with me. You all had great things to say and I wish it were possible to relate all of your experiences. It was a pleasure to meet all of you! Congratulations to all!!!

Bev Halwa (#135), Marcina Biricocchi (#136), Doreen Cleary (#267)

Three of the most beautiful women on the trail (flattery works – it got me a kiss on the cheek). You may remember them from the blue tee shirts and crazy hats. While all have participated as pairs in previous years, this is the first time as a trio. All commented on the challenge of the registration process this year. While born and raised in the area, Marcina came in from Louisville, KY and (I hope I am right) Doreen from Boulder, CO. Their ultimate goal is to stick together and finish in 13 hours.

Amanda Priebe (#404)

First timer this year, Amanda "was browsing the internet just looking for things to do…and decided it was probably a good challenge". An outdoor enthusiast, her training included running and working out with a trainer. "I didn’t do any of the proactive hikes…I kinda just wanted to experience the entire thing fresh." Amanda came well prepared with Ace bandages, snake bite kit, water towel, socks and much more. I caught up with Amanda at both the Log Cabin and Agan Park checkpoints and other than wrapping an ankle for support she seemed in pretty good shape at the time. As the day went on, she had unfortunately sprained an ankle. Toughing it out for several more miles, it was perhaps then she realized what makes the Challenge so amazing - the people. Meeting up with Craig, who helped carry her pack for a while and becoming inspired by the personal stories of Eileen and Jessica, all new friends she met along the way. My guess is Amanda will be back next year!

Melissa Wyke (#67), Ryan Keenan (#66), Eric Shiring (65)

Melissa participated in the Challenge last year and persuaded her boyfriend, Ryan, to join her this year. Ryan then convinced his friend, Eric, to "man up". It was the first time for Eric and Ryan. Melissa and Ryan trained for a few months on various parts of the Rachel Carson Trail. Eric, not a hiker, stayed away from hills while training and focused on traditional cardio. As for strategy – Melissa’s main goal this year was to stay blister free and keep hydrated.

I caught up with Ryan at the third checkpoint where he pulled me aside: "I came undone." After starting out pretty hard, just before the second checkpoint he had a slight ankle twist but pushed on, with the help of knee braces, to the third checkpoint. "Going up those brutal hills the leg cramps became too severe – but you know what, I am happy doing the half." Melissa finished the Challenge. "The hills were a killer this year. I did the reverse last year and this year was worse." When asked about Ryan deserting her she said, "It was okay, it gave me a little extra push." Eric also finished the Callenge. Catching up with him at the finish while he was working on his blisters: "If I didn’t get blisters on my feet, I probably would have been fine, better than I feel now." When asked if he’d do it again Eric, while laughing, said "I don’t know, now’s a bad time to ask."

Reality Price (#311)

Reality, friends with Melissa, Ryan and Eric, participated for her fourth time. Her second time running as much as she could, "at least 15-20 miles." "I’ve done it in this direction three times and I know that this is the hardest direction." Her thoughts on the weather and the trail conditions: "It was really dry. It really needed to rain. It could have been really nice if it rained a little bit to keep the ground from being so soft." Even though she felt the trail was somewhat dry, her goal was 11 hours and she finished in 10:56, blisters and all. As for beating her goal "that was the seal of the deal for not doing this again for a long time." Pretty great day for being bit by a Shar Pei while training.

Rob Druga (#204), John Tobin (#134)

This is John’s fourth Challenge and Rob’s first. Rob, from Charlotte, NC actually flew in from his beach vacation to participate. John remembers the mistake he made his first year of "carrying too much". "This year I am just carrying Camelbaks, change of socks, blister repair kit, that’s it". As for strategy, "Start slow and see how it goes. Halfway will determine where we will pick up our speed or not." No matter the result, they were determined to finish together. "Somebody will be carrying the other."

Jeffrey Webb (#399), Zachary Webb (#374)

I caught up with this father-and-son team at the Agan Park checkpoint. Jeffrey suggested the Challenge, but Zachary added "I’ve been leading today". Having competed in other events, a half marathon and The Great Race, the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge was "the next in the journey." While feeling pretty good, they were aware of the hills to come. "If we didn’t have these hills to go, we would be feeling a little bit better." Confidence was high!

Steve Futato (#127), Doug Desalvo (#208)

Steve and Doug have participated for eight consecutive years. "It’s fun. We meet people, we’ve met friends we stay in touch with, people are nice along the way." Staying active year round with other marathons and events, they are using the Challenge this year as a springboard for the Vermont 50 in September. In relation to how the Challenge compares to their other adventures, "It is very tough. The thing that is different about this is the trail is so challenging. Sections are very steep and some of the footing can be very tricky." Both agreed you had to keep your head in the game and focused the entire Challenge. Doug suggested, "That’s part of the challenge, understanding your body and how it responds to the event." According to Steve, "While there is room for us to improve," they will continue to come back as long as they can.

Annaliese Szymaszek (#36), Katherine Szymaszek (#103)

Meeting these two early in the event, perhaps the most enthusiastic participants, I caught up with them at the Agan Park checkpoint. Both exclaimed they were doing "really well". Annaliese, from Weatogue, CT did state she was "starting to get a little tight, but I’m working on it now" as she stretched. Sharing their thoughts on the distance between the second and third checkpoints, they thought it would be a "quick six miles ... it wasn’t. We hit a neighborhood in the middle of it and it slowed us down." Still looking to complete the Challenge in 12 hours, Katherine stated, "We’re still on pace – six hours and one minute to the halfway point." To pass the time and keep their spirits up, they devised a confidence and energy index. Saying at the same time, "Confidence is always 100%!" No doubt the energy level was as well: they finished the Challenge running, stride for stride to the finish line.

From the Director

For the 34-mile Full Challenge, we had 552 participants scan out at North Park, and 450 or 81.6% made it to Harrison Hills Park. A total of 432 (78.3%) made it within the official time of 15 hours, 4 minutes.

For the 17-mile Homestead Challenge, we had 181 participants scan out at Springdale High School, and 171 or 94% reached Harrison Hills Park. There were 127 (70%) who made it within the official time of 7 hours, 32 minutes.

For the 7-mile Friends & Family Challenge, we had 21 groups (teams) depart Bull Creek Road, and all made it to Harrison Hills Park.

Thanks to the Friends of Harrison Hills Park for the use of the Environmental Learning Center and their assistance at the cookout.

Our sincere gratitude goes to our dedicated volunteers, many of whom donated their entire day to the Challenge: Joyce Appel, John Armstrong, Bob Bastone, Cil Bastone, Mary Bates, Tom Bates, Donna Bird, Roger Blood, Scott Bown, Nancy O'Brien, Leslie J. Buchwald, Reanna Buzza, Sheri Buzza, John P. Cancro, Valerie Carpenter, Nancy Latimer Clark, Tom Cockrell, Steve Conomikes, Adrienne Cook, Richard Cook, Guy Costa, Greg Countouris, Bruce Cridlebaugh, Jim Crist, Marcia Croce, Mike Dailey, Kate Davison, Rich Decenzo, Eric Deutsch, Bill Dietrich, Betty Dowling, Patricia Eckels, Kate Fissell, Joanne Foerster, Dwight Fox, Mike Frere, Kathleen Ganster, Susan Goughler, Robert "Snakeguy" Habegger, Tim Hagan, Meg Hannan, Ron Hannan, Jason Harchick, Janet Hartz, Paul Henry, Heather Herrington, Jerry Hoffman, Jim Holloway, Jill Horvatic, Charity Istone, John Italiano, Anthony Joint, Nathaniel R. Kern, Adam Klingensmith, Joe Kostka, Joe Kulbacki, Alicia Li, Robert Livrone, Louis Luangkesorn, Michael Mathewson, Maura McCarl, David McClelland, Dave McConahy, Joyce McConahy, Abby Middleton, Howie Miller, Michelle Nolan, Chris Peters, Joel Platt, Ben Primis, Madelynn Primis, Cindy Reynolds, Denise Ropelewski, Amy Royer, Paul Sauers, Gail Schlictkrull, Ken Schlictkrull, Linda Shaffer, Susie Shages, Andrea Shymatta, Tiffany Small, Kristen Sorensen, John Stephen, Anastasia Stolz, Donna Stolz, Ezra Stolz, Mary Ann Swiergol, Cathy Syiek, Dave Syiek, Jennifer Taylor, Dave Terrill, Jean Terrill, Bill Thompson, Dara Timko, Shevaun Timko, Amy Trulik, Linda Turyan, Paula Tuttle, Lee Wagner, Nicole Ward, Michelle Wojnar, Brenda Wolfe, Sandy Wyke, Linda Xenophontos, Mark Yokim, Emily Yount, and Carol Zellars


Full Challenge arrival distribution (courtesy of Adam Skory)
Click graphic for larger view