...And Then There Were Five
The Saga of the 1996 RCT Challenge
I was getting 18 calls a day from people who were hooked on the idea of hiking "34 miles in one day"--the 1996 Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. So was Leo (Stember). Leo and I were the co-organizers of this first-ever event. Having hiked the distance, not in one day, on the RCT, I had a sense of how difficult it might be to do the entire trail in a single day. Leo did 17 miles in one day to check out blazing and blowdowns along the first half. He knew.
Yet a lot of my calls were from people who had credentials: "I ran the 70-mile Laurel Ridge Run"; "Last year, I hiked 26 miles in one day"; "I'm a marathon runner; I knock off 26 miles, running, before breakfast"; "I did the Laurel Highlands Trail in 3 days--26 miles the first day". I was beginning to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we might have a whole mob of people finishing the endurance trial on the trail before sunset on June 22, high above the Allegheny River in Harrison Hills. Yet, ...
At first, Leo and I thought we might get 50 registrants for all three events: the 34-mile Challenge, the 17-mile Half-Challenge (ending at the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale), and the 5-mile Family Challenge. Since Bob Batz wrote a little piece for the Post-Gazette, however, we were getting swamped with calls, and there was no end in sight. We had set a nominal limit of 100 participants for the Half and Full Challenges but we quickly exceeded 100 applications.
In the end, we had 90 sign-ups for the Challenge, 31 for the Half-Challenge, and 14 for the Family Challenge. And some of these people had credentials. It was scary. We had offered all finishers a weekend for two at the Ohiopyle Youth Hostel, a special finisher's t-shirt, a Rachel Carson Trail embroidered patch, a year's subscription to the Rachel Carson Homestead newsletter, and a year's subscription to the AYH Golden Triangle. Our logistical arrangements, volunteer marshals, police, county park officials, insurance certification, were all being strained to our meager limit. We might have to sell the farm.
In the morning darkness and dampness of June 22, I showed up at the North Park Beaver Shelter and was not too surprised to find nearly 25 cars all lined up in the parking area on Babcock Boulevard, hikers all. I was getting used to this. We unloaded our Trip Lists, our t-shirts, Leo came with the Clif Bars, graciously donated by the Clif Bar company and by Eastern Mountain Sports in South Hills Village, a few more volunteers came, we checked the folks in, gave a 5-minute orientation (stay on the trail! improvise! hydrate or die! don't get sick! respect private property! etc.) and sent them off into the darkness.
The first challenge, of course, was just getting on the Trail, crossing the collapsed causeway over to the trailhead across the little pond next to Beaver Shelter. This involved a quick scramble down and up the washout. I once glanced across the pond long enough to see about a dozen hikers making the wrong turn on the other side, going to the right and not the left. I winced as I pictured them showing up at the North Park skating rink an hour later.
Everyone got on the Trail quickly, out by 6:15 AM; at 6:30 AM Nancy Able and I posted ourselves at the Route 8 crossing, and waiting for the first hikers to come through so we could assist them in crossing the highway. At 6:52, John DeWalt, a Laurel Highlands Ridge Runner, came crashing through the bushes, running, no less, greeted us with a smile and continued on. Nine minutes later, Alan Aliskovitz, an active Sierra Club hike and backpacking leader, came likewise crashing through the bushes asking "How long ago did HE go by here?" referring to John.
Then there was a pause of nearly half an hour before any appreciable number of hikers came out to Route 8, approximately 4 miles from the start. Apparently, many wrong turns and false trails had introduced many of our hikers to the more subtle challenge: staying on the trail. The two mile per hour minimum progress rule seemed generous until one experienced how scouting for a lost trail ate up your time. As the main body (pelaton) came through, Nancy and I were ably (no pun intended) assisted by two Hampton Township police officers who held back the early morning traffic rushing past our crossing.
The first real checkpoint was on Shaffer Road, 7 miles into the hike, and was staffed by Marianne Kasica, AYH President, Jim Christ (look for his view of the Challenge, elsewhere in this issue), Jim's son Ross, Vince Roolf, Sue and Jim Ritchie, and Leo. John DeWalt came through, running. Ninety more hikers passed by. At this point,a the hikers' legs revealed some splashes of mud here and there, foretelling the reputation of the RCT as the "muddy, bloody, Rachel Carson Trail". And, it was getting hot, and humid, too.
The next checkpoint, Mile 10 at Emmerling Park, saw hikers who had just experienced a couple of the RCT's roller coaster gas pipeline hills. No one dropped out between Shafer Road and Emmerling Park. They were doing OK. Eighty-five year old Jim Kratt, who helped maintain the trail 15 years ago, made it to Mile 10 before his knee gave out. He called his son to come out and pick him up. Emmerling was staffed by Patty Scheuering, her daughter Susan, and two of Susan's friends, offering not much more than water and sympathy. If the hikers knew what lie ahead..., and it was getting hotter.
The steep climb at Mile 12, from Long Run at the bottom to Rich Hill Road at the top was a spirit breaker; reality was beginning to set in--this was going to be a long, tough hike, even if you could find the trail. Rich Hill is so steep your nose almost rubs the slope in front of you as you climb. Each time you crest the "top" another "top" appears, 100 more yards away. After that, a short stretch of "flat" and then a steep downhill to a checkpoint at Russellton Road. Downhills hurt too.
Right after Russellton Road, the still bigger hill on Mile 14 followed. If Rich Hill didn't break your spirit, Mile 14 might just do the trick. I watched the now muddied-and-bloodied hikers snake their way steeply up to the first false summit, legs burning, lungs busting, sensing the vapors of grim determination of our hikers on Mile 14. The sun was burning down, reaching its high of 90 degrees with humidity approaching 70 percent, and a borderline ozone day to boot (no pun intended). Joe Hoechner and Tim Henigin staffed Russellton Road, graciously providing a canopy to get under for relief from the sun's glare.
Down Yutes Run Road, past Peterson's Nursery, and then you hit the "roller coaster" going into Springdale's Melzina Road checkpoint. Up, down, up, down, up, down; steep and high, brambles, high grass, heat, sun, humidity. I arrived at Melzina just two minutes ahead of John DeWalt, Leo about 1 minute behind me. John came crashing and stumbling up out of the high grass, soaking wet (he had thrown himself into a creek to cool off), and semi-delirious with exhaustion (he was still running). Seventy-five hikers followed John past Melzina Road. Melzina was staffed by Springdale native Heather Schweitzer and her two friends.
At Melzina, many of the hikers, mercifully, called it a day. We had a bad break with the heat: it wore a lot of people down more quickly than what coulda been. Many went to the Rachel Carson Homestead, half a mile away, and called for a ride home, sitting in the cool shade once enjoyed by Rachel, herself, while we, many of us only children, played "hike" with our friends. Many called for a ride right at Melzina, using cell phones made available to us by Bell Atlantic/NyNex for the Challenge. The cell phones were a godsend, allowing all the marshals to keep in touch with each other, and to pinpoint the location of hikers being sought by wives, husbands, mothers and friends.
Mark Tomlinson, the recently named Executive Director of the Rachel Carson Homestead, was also a godsend, allowing us to stage our halfway mark on the Homestead grounds. Mark has indicated that, over the next year, he will develop a better link of the Trail with the Homestead, and provide some signage so hikers can find the Homestead more easily and Homestead visitors can likewise find the Trail.
Somehow, many hikers continued, to Springdale Hollow Road, up the power line to the bluffs above the Allegheny River, into the cool, cool woods on high. But the Trail was tough in there, poorly marked, tricky, turning abruptly onto and off the power line. Only 31 hikers checked into the Sheetz at Mile 20, and only 11 went beyond, to even more brutally steep hills climbing powerlines and pipelines, false summits, weeds, blowdowns, washouts, lost trail, mud and blood, past Bailey's Run. Gerry Vaerywick and Gene Pochapsky finally bailed out at Bailey's Run (no pun intended); Only 9 hikers made it to the last checkpoint at St. Clemens Cemetery. Barb Peterson, Dana Overmyer, Boris Bartlog, and Joe Seiler called it quits at St. Clemen's--still on the Trail but they ran out of time with no way to finish on time due to a last minute loss of the trail between Bailey's Run and Saxonburg Roads. Ultimately only 5 would finish.
John DeWalt was outstripping our support system, arriving at checkpoints before they were set up. In order to provide water, Leo had to calculate John's ETA at future checkpoints and make a special trip out there to catch John as he passed by. Near Bailey's Run, John apologized, saying "I just can't run up those hills anymore, just on the flats". And even later, John quit running altogether, saying this might be the hardest effort he's ever made in any event.
John DeWalt finished a little after 6 PM, cleaned himself up a little, and then relaxed and schmoozed on the grass at Harrison Hills while only 4 more hikers remained on the Trail. Alan Aliskovitz, Erin Abraham, Mike Blackwell, and Eric Filo had passed through St.Clemens at 5:20 PM with 8 miles to go before 8:54 PM. At about 8:30 PM, I began backtracking on the Trail to see if they were on their way; in only a couple of minutes I found them by the entrance to the park, tired, but in good spirits, and determined to make the finish. They came into the finish area just as the alpenglow faded from the clouds and the sun dropped below the horizon. Erin, with no compromise to the day, did three cartwheels across the grass as she came in. So the five finishers were all there, hobbling maybe just a little. The first thing the hikers did when they got in: took off their boots. Patty S. went for pizza and we all ate pizza, we took a few photos, did congratulations, and made sure everyone got out of the park by 9:30 PM--our deal with the park police.
What good came out of this? Well, the Rachel Carson Trail, a trail struggling for existence, got a lot of feet on it, something it desperately needed to preserve its trace across the northern suburbs of Allegheny County. The publicity will no doubt put more hikers on the Trail over the next year than, perhaps, it's seen in the past 5 years. And, we'll get a few Trail Maintenance volunteers who will adopt a 2-3 mile section and take care of it: blazing, trimming, and keeping it clean and viable. The hikers made friends, formed teams right on the trail, and faced the challenges together, many attempting and completing a feat that may well be the hardest thing they've ever done in their life, even if only to the Half-Challenge point.
Some learned the importance of working as a team, saying it was the team that got them as far as they went: urging them on when they wanted to quit, making them laugh when they hurt, finding the trail when they could not. You did, indeed, need to use all your resources to do this: your map, the blazes, your trip list, and perhaps most importantly, the others you met on the trail.
Leo and I have already heard about next year: "All the marathon people and the Ridge Runners will be here next year"; "I'm going to train so I know where the Trail goes, next time"; "I had no idea it would be this hard...next time I'll know and I'll be ready for it".