Rachel 50, Hikers 27

The Saga of the 1997 RCT Challenge

The Trail was in better condition. Three degrees cooler temperature. A slight breeze out of the west. Better talent. More realistic expectations. Doing the hard part first. Training. All these factors combined on June 21st, 1997, the Summer Solstice and the day of the Second Annual Rachel Carson Trail Challenge to bring forth 27 finishers on the 34-mile endurance hike, this year starting in Harrison Hills County Park and finishing in North Park. Last year's Challenge produced only 5 finishers out of the 75 entrants for the 34-miler; this year the 27 finishers were among a total of 77 thirty-four mile participants.

Driving up the Allegheny Valley Expressway at 4:30 AM, the haze around the interchange floodlamps was nearly surrealistic, just hanging in the air. No other cars appeared in either direction for miles at a time. When a lone car did pass, I wondered if they, too, were heading for Harrison Hills, but when I got there, no one else, except Greg, opening up the park gates, was there.

Within minutes of reaching the Ox Roast Shelter, however, they began pulling up; vans, sport/utilities, big cars, little cars. While last year, there was a sense of excitement and adventure in the air, this year there was a sense of determination: "I've been there before; I know what it's like; and I'm going to do it anyway, and I'm going to finish". Leo, Vince, Nancy, Dale, and Patty all came in, and we start checking them in.

There is no sense of bravado like '96, no cheering, joking, or laughing; just quiet, brief exchanges of words, stretching, packing, adjusting gear, getting the maps, getting the food: all business—grim focus; "we are going to DO this". In small groups they head out into the woods of Harrison Hills, across the washed out bridge over the unnamed stream flowing on its way to the Allegheny River—the hikers have 33.4 miles to go.

It's cool out; a little damp. Nancy and Patty help hikers across Freeport Road at the park entrance area; Vince and I help the same hikers through the barbed wire at Thompson's Thoroughbred Farm, me in the sombrero, Vince with the smile. John DeWalt is on his way to a PB (personal best) as he runs past us just as we get to the farm.

On my way down to the Bull Creek Road checkpoint, I stop off on Burtner Road and park in the gap between the god-awful drop down to the road on one side and the god-awful climb on the other. There is a string of hikers heading uphill, looking everything like the photos of climbers heading up Everest, the only difference—no snow or ice. That was HILL #1.

Up the hill, past the Rottweillers, left on Ridge Road, a mile and a quarter to Bull Creek. Checkpoint. Pat joins the marshals there. Cross the road, parallel the expressway, up the hillside, down to the small stream; past the microwave tower; along the gas line; along the power line; steeply down a wooded hillside; through the yard of an abandoned house. Bailey's Run Road.

Along the road; crossing slippery rocks at Bailey's Run; past the junked cars; up the hill; major logging; spot the bright yellow blazes; power line; back into the woods; Down, down, down, on loose scree, to Crawford Run Road, on HILL #2.

Sheetz; Murray Hill Road; MURRAY HILL!!! HILL #3. Up the power line; through high grass; houses on the hilltop; Checkpoint!

At the Murray Hill Estates checkpoint, we administer to the wounded, some terminally. Water, snack food, kind words. They've just encountered the "Three Hills of Hell", mercifully with a Sheetz convenience store right in the middle. Hugh is at the Murray Hill checkpoint, personally escorting each hiker or hiker group to the edge of the trail and showing them where it follows the power line and then zips into the woods about 150 yards down the line. Hugh and his son Joe maintain this section and they put a lot of work into it this year, including a last minute blowdown that was nearly invisible to the hikers as they passed through.

Into the woods; brambles; muddy hillside, high weeds. Out on the power line. Off the power line, on top of the bluff. Allegheny River—beautiful view. On, off, on, off the power line. Down the steep hill to Springdale Hollow Road.

Onto the big utility line, going uphill, past the Homestead turnoff. Vince, with the smile again. Where is the water? We didn't plan a water stop at the Rachel Carson Homestead turnoff, but people are asking for water, even though it's only three miles from the last water stop. At this point the temp is pushing 85 degrees, and the humidity is building.

Up, down, up, down, up, down. Theses are the hills of the "roller coaster", covered with grass hiding seven different kinds of brambles. Two teens, Susan Scheuering and her friend Tim Jones, set up a makeshift water stop at Melzima Road that will be refilled three times that day.

At the Homestead turnoff, another record is set: 35 Half-Challengers out of 44 registered, finish the 17-mile Half-Challenge, and congregate on the grass at Rachel's girlhood home. Mark Tomlinson, Executive Director of the Homestead, plays host with treats and fluid refreshment.

Along the gas line. Into the woods. Peterson's Nursery. I set up a short term station at Peterson's nursery to catch the people we missed at Melzima. Alex comes through—the guy from RAAM (the Race Across America); following close behind are the 4 young women from the Slippery Rock University cross-country team who are Challenging John DeWalt-style: running shoes, a waist pack, and one bottle of water each. In fact, wearing shorts, they are travelling even lighter than John, who swears by long pants.

Uphill, downhill, gravel road, into the woods. Blowdown. Woods. Tawney Run Road. Cross the road, old railroad grade. Back to the road. Yutes Run Road, road walking, for almost a mile. Left onto the wide, grassy, gasline. Up, up, up, three false summits. Down, down, down. Hell has four hills. Russellton Road.

Alex, with his Camelback, John Havel, David Rumon, Don Erdeljack, Vaughn Busch, Tokya Trice, Marjie Stewart and many others trained this spring on the Rachel Carson Trail, getting a firsthand look at the difficulties they would face. Many other participants were there last year and remembered-how could you forget? They experienced the knee-burning, lung-busting, bramble-covered hills that follow the powerlines and gaslines, straight up and straight down the other side. They knew realistically what it would take to make it today.

The temperature peaked at 87 degrees while most were passing near Russelton Road and Saxonburg Boulevard. The Ashermans ran things at Russellton, sitting in the hollow of Little Deer Creek between Hell's Fourth Hill and LaFever Hill. The Trail was taking its toll. Aaron Rinehart chaffed his leg so bad he was hiking in pain. He considered for a moment, wrapping it in duct tape, just to keep on going, but reconsidered, wisely. His brother Sam bailed out with him; their dad, Walt, left far behind by the boys, was back at the Homestead.

Barb Peterson, broken-hearted in '96, not because she couldn't finish, but because she ran out of time, checked her feet at Russellton and found a surprise blister starting up. She cleaned it, patched it, wrapped it up and took off down the trail. Five minutes later, she came hobbling back, saying she was in pain. For a couple of seconds, the frustration of the possibility of another DNF began to creep in. But Barb, as determined as she has ever been, unwrapped the blister, cleaned it up again, wrapped it up again, and took off, successfully this time, down the road.

Hugh, moving from Russellton to Saxonburg, put through the first dreaded "hiker down" call this year. As he drove near Emmerling Park, a hiker was fully prone next to the road with a small gathering of fellow hikers checking him out. A call to 911 and in three minutes there were two ambulances, a paramedic vehicle, and two Indiana Township police cars on the scene. By that time, the hiker, just exhausted from heat and hardship, was beginning to come around, and in five more minutes was on his feet. But, wisely, his day was done, as he consented to a ride back to his car.

At the same point, a report of another hiker, feeling ill about a mile back on the trail came in and a paramedic grabbed his gear and headed down to investigate. In just a couple of minutes however, the hiker in question appeared on the trail and said he was ok, just pushing too hard, and he had to rest up for a few minutes.

Up LaFever Hill; Rich Hill Road; down Rich Hill; Long Run at the bottom; into the woods; uphill, uphill; cross Cove Run Road, into the woods, back to Cove Run, down to Emmerling Park. Up Eisele, road walking; into the trees and down hill; wet crossing at Cunningham Run. Up above Casey's in the trees. Saxonburg Checkpoint. Alice Gelormino's sixth graders await her arrival, working all afternoon at this checkpoint.

Discussions overheard at Saxonburg checkpoint: "I want to train for this next year, but what can I possibly do for this? All I can think to do is run barefoot on a emeryboard treadmill".

From Saxonburg: along Deer Creek, up Myers Hill to the water tower, down Myers Lane to Route 910; down the road, over the turnpike, down Cedar Run Road, road walking, Shafer Road, Church Road, Wagner Road, into the woods again. Big field, hidden pond, uphill into the trees, to a high vista, downhill to Middle Road.

Into Hampton Woods, downhill, bog, another gas line clearing, young trees for miles; across the wide open field, very muddy; up to the middle school, down to Route 8. Cross the road dodging speeding cars, through the woods, down into beautiful Crouse Run Hollow. Up to Sample Road.

Sample Station was a lonely place, just ask Tim Henigin who sat there from 4 PM to 9 PM as only 29 hikers came through. Although they were beat-up, people coming through Sample still had the same look and sense of determination I saw in their eyes back in Harrison Hills. The Slippery Rock cross-country team came in looking for sympathy, water and a short rest. Once down, it looked as though they might not get up again; it was getting late, much more delay and they wouldn't make it. One of the women's legs were bright red and blotchy all the way from her ankles to her shorts, looking like she had gone through five miles of nettles. Sally Martin, who was providing support for Barb Peterson, gave the four a pep talk, telling them they couldn't quit now, to get up and get going. They did, two hobbling on the sides of their feet, two miles to go.

When Will Viner came through, at the last possible finishing time, he refused to give up, saying that if it got dark while he was in the woods of North Park, he had a headlamp and would be able to find his way out. Will said he HAD to finish this year or else he'd have to come back again next year-a fate worse than death. Barb came through Sample, teamed up with Tokya Trice, stopping for barely three minutes; she had to keep going if she was going to make it. John Havel, beat last year by the heat and humidity, came even after Barb, and just kept on going; no way was he not going to make it this year.

At North Park, finishers collapsed on the ground, and told tales of bravado: high hills, heat, brambles, blowdowns, washouts, wet crossings, trees down, poison ivy, missed blazes, … Spirits were high among those who were here, forgetting momentarily the 50 comrades strung out behind them, catching the PAT bus back to their cars and heading on home.

-jim ritchie