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Rachel Carson Trail Challenge Tests Strength and Will

More than 600 people will take on the 34-miles-in-one-day hike Saturday.

It may be hard to believe that someone would want to hike 35 miles in one day through the woods (filled with poison ivy), up and down muddy hills, through creeks and over hot asphalt, but on Saturday more than 600 people will do just that.

They will be taking on the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, an event that is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

For good reasons, the trail is known as “The Bloody, Muddy” Rachel Carson. Hikers/runners navigate from to Harrison Hills Park in Harrison Hills.

Although the trail is listed at 34 miles, in actuality it's closer to 36 miles because of the difficulty in measuring some of the trail through creeks and small paths through the woods. That 36 miles traverses local and county parks, private property and state and township roads – about 9 to 10 miles is on roadways.

The Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy Inc. is the organization behind the Challenge, a nonprofit that preserves the Rachel Carson Trail and the 132-mile Baker Trail north of Pittsburgh.

The organization is named after Pittsburgh native and mother of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson.

Every year, the Challenge is held on the longest Saturday of the year – June 18 this year.

Events Director Steve Mentzer said the event is a lot more sophisticated than it was in its first few years.

“The trail wasn’t well-marked and wasn’t very well maintained. The first year, it was a challenge just to find the trail,” he said. 

Nowadays, close to 80 percent finish the event -- despite obstacles like last year's unbearable heat and humidity, and a late-afternoon electrical storm.

A few years ago, two other hikes were added so that those not wanting or able to complete 34 miles could get out and have some fun: the Homestead Challenge, an 18-mile hike, and the 8-mile Family and Friends Challenge.

Two hundred people registered for the Homestead and about 75 are registered for Friends, so there will be nearly 900 total participants, plus another 100 or so volunteers. Most of these 900 are from the Greater Pittsburgh area, but some come from other states, including Virginia, California, Oregon, New York, Ohio and Maryland.

The success of the event depends on the volunteers behind the scenes. Mentzer alone spends hundreds of hours preparing for the event and maintaining trails throughout the year.

The reasons people do the Challenge are as varied as the folks themselves.

Nancy Belz of Pine Township will be doing her fourth Challenge this year. The 51-year-old decided to run the event after successfully completing a marathon.

“I wanted a ‘challenge,’ and I got what I was looking for,” she joked.

Not only has Belz completed the whole event, she also got others interested.

“I started running with my sister, and then we joked [that] our other sister would say we were crazy. She got wind of it and I think decided to take us on,” she said of her sisters, Ann Gasperich of Franklin Park and Marie Geubtner of Sewickley.

The group has grown -- some hike the whole 34 miles, while others do 17 miles. Despite a group that has grown to 8 to 10 friends and family, Belz always runs and walks by herself.

“I don’t want to hold anyone back, and I don’t want to be held back,” she said, “But I always meet great people along the way, so I am never doing it ‘by myself.’ ”

Belz was on vacation last year and missed the Challenge, but she participated “vicariously” through her friend Eileen Maxwell, also of Pine.

Maxwell, 52, prepared by participating in some of the training hikes offered by the trails conservancy and hiking on her own. Belz sent text messages from Montana to encourage Maxwell and follow her progress during last year's event. 

As did Belz, she met many people on the trail last year and at the event. She said she and another hiker lifted each other’s spirits.

“We called each other our ‘trail angels,” she said of her new friend, Mike Lloyd of Upper St. Clair. It also helped that Lloyd’s wife and children were cheering him on at the four rest stops along the way, which are about 7 to 8 miles apart along the trail.

Each hiker has an electronic tag that is scanned at the checkpoints. Official times are registered through the tags. Drinks, food, facilities and minor first aid are also available.

Most of the hikers and runners have trained for the event – after all, who can wake up and decide to hike 35 miles in one day?  Most participants start around 5:30 a.m., when it starts to get light, and they must be finished by 8:59 p.m. or 15 hours, 4 minutes from their start time, whichever comes first.

According to Mentzer, about 10 percent of the participants run the event. Some do a walk-run, while others hike the whole trail.

Ed Elinski of Richland plans to do the combination walk-run. Last year, he successfully completed the Homestead Challenge and feels ready for the whole Challenge this year.

“I do a lot of hiking and did a pretty good event last year,” he said. “It was really hard because of the heat and humidity, but I did it.”

Elinski, 54, hikes in New York, Maine and Vermont, as well as locally. Like most hikers, he uses special equipment including a hydration pack, hiking poles, and good hiking socks and shoes. He hopes to finish the Challenge in 10.5 hours.

“It is a realistic goal. I’ve hiked each half already and was able to finish them both in under five hours,” he said. “All I know is that it takes both physical conditioning and mental toughness to get through it -- a true challenge."

Like most folks who take on the "Challenge,” Elinski enjoys the company.

“I have also met some really nice people on the training hikes and you can feel the energy with all of the participants.  It’s a great event with great people.”

The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge begins at approximately 5:15 a.m. in North Park and finishes at about 9 p.m. in Harrison Hills. Nearly 900 people will be on the trails and roads in McCandless, Hampton, Indiana, Fawn, East Deer, Springdale and Harrison townships. Drivers should be aware and alert for increased pedestrian traffic during this time.

Note: The author and her husband, Paul Sauers, have completed the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge three times and serve as volunteers for the Conservancy.

Paul Sauers June 15, 2011 at 02:49 PM
I've hike the event three times with a wonderful beautiful woman who can hike circles around me.
Kelly Burgess June 15, 2011 at 06:45 PM
I'll be at every checkpoint supporting my husband and kids. And I'll have Almond Joy bars! Say "hello" if you see me!
Jeff Sarabok June 16, 2011 at 01:31 AM
I have completed the Challenge seven times. Nothing feels better than crossing that finish line.

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