Just An Adventure

Rachel Carson Trail Challenge June 21, 2008

The alarm sounds at 4:00 am. Who wakes up at this time for fun? Over a thousand volunteers, participants and family members anxious and excited for the start of the 12th annual Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. Many volunteers are already at their positions to set-up for the twilight start of the 34.6 mile Challenge beginning this year in Harrison Hills Park and ending in North Park. After prior weeks of suffocating heat, scattered and damaging thunderstorms, we wake up to find a calm and warm 58 degree twilight highlighted by a bright waning gibbous moon paired with Jupiter in the southwestern sky. The day was nearly perfect, low humidity, partly cloudy, average summer temperatures throughout the day, briefly hitting 80 degrees in the late afternoon.

This year’s event was not only sold out but packed with standby participants who wanted to take the challenge. At early check-in Friday night, at the Old Firehouse in North Park, Jamie and George, Floridians, studied the participant’s map. “Are you ready for the challenge?” I asked. “Sure, we came all the way from Florida” they proudly proclaimed. You know it’s hot there and we have no hills; but we came up and trained a few times.” Why are you doing this? “Just an adventure, something different.”.

Hundreds of eager, ready participants lined up before the 5:20 am start behind the Bobwhite shelter to be the first on the trail, blazed by yellow markers. Others registered that morning and still others who missed the cutoff waited patiently for standby. All had their own technique of stretching or getting ready. Steve Mentzer, Field Director, worked on final set-up for the Recorders with computer and scanner. Finally, Steve said “Go” and the energy level of the group vibrated into the woods. I am wondering – will this energy hold for the whole 34.6 miles? By 7:17 am the last starters headed out on the trail, with a final count of 562 official starting participants.

The Rachel Carson Trail, a yellow blazed trail, isn’t like a marathon, a run, or a walk in the park. Into the woods, up the hills, down the hills, across the roads, around the bends and dangerous curves, through the meadows, crossing streams, along power line rights of way, past private property and often marching through natural growth as tall as the Challengers. They are taking risks as car, truck & motorcycle drivers speed past and seem to be oblivious to the walkers and runners. Crossing Route 8, they take their lives into their hands. Won’t any driver slow down?

Until you see this trail, you can’t imagine it, won’t believe it, don’t comprehend it when described. So how do so many participants now make 34.6 miles in one day, the longest day of the year, 15 hours, 4 minutes of daylight? The first year, only 5 out of 90 finished. Determination and helping hands on the trail provide a lift up, a lift down, a lift through a tough spot, or a call to keep from veering off course. Family members and supporters along the way and the hardworking checkpoint volunteers provide inspiration and encouragement. The Recorders make sure each Challenger is scanned before they head to the refreshments. Well stocked tables of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, snacks, bananas, oranges, water, Gatorade, ice, energy bars & packets greet them. For those who need it, the first aid supplies are ready. They can rest or keep going or do their stretching routine.

At 11:48 am, Richard Cook ran in to the finish before volunteers set up the computer and scanner or a photographer could get his photo. Good old fashioned paper and pencil recorded his achievement.

Bill Fisher, a first time challenger, was inspired by his daughter’s completion of the Challenge in 2007 and wanted to beat her time of 11:57 and he did by 90 minutes. Asked how he did it, he laughed, “After awhile you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep pushing ahead. Talking with people all along the trail also helps.”

The Challengers brave falls, scrapes, blisters, lost toe nails, brush burns, poison ivy, dehydration, over hydration, aches, pains & bruises to complete the Challenge. “Will you do it next year?” I asked one finisher. “Right now, no; but by January next year,” she smiled, “I’ll want to do it again.”

Jake Borello has completed the Challenge 6 times and the 50 mile Baker Trail UltraChallenge three times. Jake finished with his second best time because the temperature was good and the trail in good shape. He said he does it every year because “I love people and being in the woods.” He told another Challenger, “The doctor worked the kinks out of my legs in two minutes and now I’m good to go.” In the Beaver shelter, Dr. Dan McCarty, a Butler chiropractor, donated his time to massage Challengers.

Enjoying the hot dogs and cheeseburgers, Steve Beers remarked, “I’ve done it two times now; this year felt hotter on the roller coaster. I think I’ll volunteer next year.”

Relaxing at the cookout, Kathy Noorbakhsh, a four-time Challenger, said she’s not looking at her blisters and scratches. “This is my best time ever and the first year I didn’t fall. Two years ago I fell 15 seconds into it and everyone stepped over me. I said, hey this isn’t a 50 yard sprint, it’s a 34 mile Challenge!” Kathy said, “The organization of this event is so well run.”

She expressed what many people were thinking about the hard working organizers and volunteers who make it happen – months before, at registration, at the checkpoints, at the cookout, and days following. Shuttle buses ran between parking lots at North Park and Harrison Hills Park. Also, this year’s event celebrated Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary by commemorating the Forbes Expedition, the British march across the Pennsylvania wilderness to capture Fort Duquesne from the French. Volunteers dressed in Indian and pre-revolutionary garb and banners decorated checkpoints with fort names, Carlisle, Loudon, Bedford, Ligonier, and finished at Fort Pitt. At the cookout, a young bagpiper played and reenactors demonstrated life in 1758.

So many Challengers also conveyed thanks for the photos documenting their efforts. All along the trail, they called out and waved. With such a terrific experience and all the hard work behind them, who wouldn’t want to do it again next year? Is there any better way to celebrate the start of summer?

Special thanks to Lisa Fisher and Steve Blauser for additional photos

From the Director

For the 34-mile Full Challenge, we had 562 participants scan out at Harrison Hills Park, and 482 or 85% reached North Park. A total of 457 (81%) made it within the official time of 15 hours, 4 minutes.

For the 18-mile Homestead Challenge, we had 166 participants scan out at Springdale High School, and 160 or 96% reached North Park. There were 118 (71%) who made it within the official time of 7 hours, 53 minutes.

For the 8-mile Family Challenge, we had 17 families (teams) scan out at Hartwood Acres Park, and all made it to North Park.

We sincerely appreciate the Wildwood Long Rifles group for providing atmosphere at the finish for our Forbes Expedition theme. Be sure to visit the Depreciation Lands Museum in Allison Park and learn more about this formative period in our history. We're also grateful to Thomas Soergel, our young (12 years old!) bagpiper.

And finally, a big thanks to our dedicated volunteers, many of whom donated their entire day to the Challenge: Joyce Appel, Dana Asbury, Bobbi Bartlett, Bob Bastone, Mary Bates, Tom Bates, Bob Bereit, Jan Berg, Bob Boehmer, Patty Brunner, Franklin Chen, Dave Colledge, Steve Conomikes, Emma Crist, Jim Crist, Mike Dailey, Betsy D'Ambrosia, John Davies, Deborah DeFazio, Bill Eckels, Don Erdeljac, Kate Fissell, Dennis Fleckenstein, Dee Garvin, Dawn Grainer, Ken Hallows, Paul Henry, Jim Hoburg, Peggy Hoburg, Jerry Hoffman, Greg Hofstetter, Jim Holloway, Lillian Horvat, Rob Horvat, Dean Jolin, Dee Dee Sung-Jolin, Eileen Karnavas, Larry Keller, Debbi Kent, John Kent, Mike King, Joe Kostka, John Kostka, Wendy Mars, Sandy Marwick, Carol McCoy, Bill McIlroy, Lynn McIlroy, Julia Parker, Mariah Parker, Patty Parker, Jeff Pepper, Barb Peterson, Abigail Plant, Joel Platt, Elisabeth Ploran, Scott Reckless, Steve Revilak, Annmarie Rice, Don Rice, Natalie Rice, Rosemary Rice, David Sciallo, Joe Sciallo, Andrea Shymatta, Greg Soster, Anastasia Stolz, Donna Stolz, Anoush Tchakarian, Lee Wagner, MaryJo Weber, Diana Yee.

— Steve Mentzer