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Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

They Call It a Challenge for a Reason

Say, hike these powerline cuts often?

I believe the landscape of my nightmares from this day forward will be powerline cuts. I will wake up in a cold sweat, knees buckling and hands scratching at the air where I am reaching out to grab a barren slope. I was warned. By the organizers of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. By the people who have hiked it before. It's the powerline rights of way that'll getcha. But I think the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is like parenthood: all the warning in the world won't prepare you.

We gather – nearly 700 of us – at North Park, only a dozen miles from downtown Pittsburgh. It's just after 5 a.m. and the dim light begins to seep up from the eastern horizon. We can’t officially start this 35-mile ultramarathon of a hike (they say 34 miles, but it’s a hair under 35) until dawn; we must finish by dusk. It’s June 23, the Saturday closest to the longest day of the year, so we have 15 hours and 4 minutes to finish. I have time to take stock of the four items of preference for most participants: tennis shoes, Camelbaks, trekking poles and iPods. I will come to learn in a dozen miles or so why trekking poles are such a popular item.

I ask my fellow participants why they are doing this. The answers fall into three general categories: for the challenge; because I’m crazy and/or stupid; I was drunk when I signed up.

We swipe our electronic chips that are required at each checkpoint and take off. The pace is brisk – runners and hikers both. I glom on to a group of three people doing 18-minute miles. I know this because they are extremely scientific: GPS unit to track time, alarms to tell them when to eat and drink. They tell me not to stop if I’m ever to hit the finish line before dark. They aren’t the only ones to tell me this. They’ve been training, as have most people. But, as Geneva Hopkins from nearby Cranberry, PA, tells me, “it’s mostly psychological.”

I agree. Hitting the eight-mile checkpoint by 8 a.m. is an unprecedented accomplishment itself. Everyone’s looking good. Runners passing often add “Have a great day!” The trail itself, named after Pittsburgh’s homegrown hero, Rachel Carson, is through woods, across streams, along quiet back roads. It’s quite nice.

At first.

I soon wonder what the author of Silent Spring would think of a “trail” along powerline cuts. The first really steep one creates a bottleneck, much like the stream crossings do. Everyone slows down to a snail’s pace. The grumbling and groaning begin. We ascend a short but remarkably steep hill and then descend what must be a half mile straight down to checkpoint number two. 14.6 miles. Everyone is still pretty cheery and looking good, but the moleskin comes out. I check my feet for hot spots and put on some preventive moleskin, which is one of the things that will save me today.

I again ask my compatriots why they’re doing this. “It’s a challenge. It’s fun. It just sounded cool,” Austin Zeiler from Hudson, OH, tells me. He’s here with his training buddy. “I don’t think we’ll settle for not making it.”

“It gets you outside,” Sam Hopkins tells me. Yeah, I think, but other things do that. “It beats sittin’ in the office all week.” Yeah, but anything beats sittin’ in the office all week. I want to ask Sam if he’s crazy. Of course, I’ve been asking myself the same questions – why am I doing this? Am I crazy? I realize that for me, too, it’s the challenge. And the challenge is this: I know I can hike 20 miles in a day. I don’t know if I can hike 35. It really is a challenge of that magnitude; I think I can do it, but I really just don’t know until I try.

“If you look at people that start out, they’ll usually do a 5k or smaller events and that becomes no longer challenging for them so they need a bigger challenge,” says Aimee Kimball, director of mental training for the University of Pittsburgh Center for Sports Medicine. “People often do these in order to find out how good they can be at these things – to test their will, to test their mental as well as physical ability.”

Most of us are doing well, both physically and mentally, at checkpoint number two – strategically placed at the bottom of Log Cabin Hill, reportedly the largest of the day. And, of course, it’s a powerline cut. I start, refreshed, up the massive, steep incline. I have to stop to rest halfway up. I turn around and see the line I just descended on the other side of the valley. I laugh a wry laugh at the absurdity of it all.

“It’s not funny,” Rick Forman of Pittsburgh tells me.
It’s that or cry, I reply.
“Oh you’ll be crying all right at the finish line.”

This type of “encouragement” is common. Most of the talk surrounds the hardest section of the trail, training regimens, pain and miles to go. Yet it all is delivered in a humorous or helpful tone. “Sometimes it’s more of a warning saying don’t worry about it if you’re struggling later on,” says Aimee from the Center for Sports Medicine. “It teaches you to expect what’s coming up so it doesn’t make it that much harder … it’s up to you how you interpret it; if you interpret it as positive, that’s great.”

Checkpoint three is at mile 20 and I’m wondering if I can finish; my time is good enough but my knees are throbbing from the descents. Why the hell didn’t I bring trekking poles? And I’m bored to death. Why didn’t I even think about my iPod? I could be listening to 14 episodes of This American Life or something. There are moments that are blissful on this hike: perfect weather, picking black raspberries, walking through aromatic patches of spicebush, hearing wood thrushes, looking down at little towns along the Allegheny River. There’s a funny satisfaction, too, from overhearing people saying aloud the same thoughts I’ve been having all day, such as “I wonder how much electromagnetic radiation we’re taking in today from these power lines.” But here’s my dirty little secret about the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge: it ain’t fun.

“I think everyone gets a different experience,” Aimee says. “In terms of people who stick with and do it event after event – they really enjoy it.” She points out that the psychological benefits tend to be great and long-lasting, and when she describes them, Aimee tends to speak in positive self-talk terms. “I think you get a sense of accomplishment and pride; the number one thing – ‘I didn’t know if I could do that but I did’ – it helps with confidence and self-esteem. ‘If I can do this, which is exceptionally challenging, there are other areas in my life I can tackle.’”

I see Rick again at the checkpoint. He’s the one who told me I’d be crying at the finish line. He ought to know; this is his fifth attempt at the challenge and he’s finished twice. Rick is 61 and had a heart attack last year. He has a vial of nitroglycerin with him in case he has any problems today. Rick says he has something to prove. “My ego got me.” I ask him how much of it is psychological and he tells me “I think it’s all physical. It’s all physical. If the body holds up and you have the energy and you can endure the pain … and the burgers help at the end.” As soon as he’s done trashing the idea that there’s anything psychological, he leaves me with this: “I got a lot riding on this – my ego’s pretty big right now.” Yeah, I say, nothing psychological.

The ibuprofen I take at checkpoint three kicks in and saves my knees. I enter what I come to term Death March Zone – it’s not Zen-like, there are no endorphins, I just keep walking. I quit asking myself how many mini-goals I can come up with in 35 miles and just keep walking. Everyone starts to look like the living dead, not just me. That gives me a boost.

The big boost comes at checkpoint four – which I reach an hour before my (predetermined) goal and a full hour and 45 minutes before the official checkpoint deadline – they’ll yank you off the course if you’re not going to finish by dark. I weigh hanging out for an hour and 45 minutes against leaving straight away. My compromise is 20 minutes and I head out for the last seven miles of the trek – elated that I know I’ll make it.

By the time I and my cohorts stumble into Harrison Hills Park, where the finish line is located, I am certain that I couldn’t pass a field sobriety test. We have to cross a four-lane road and I’m truly worried that I might not be able to avoid getting hit by a car. Once we get to within a mile of the finish, we actually pick up the pace. Then we hear through the trees applause for the finishers and we practically have the energy to run to the finish line where we can finally collapse, eat and – in my case, anyway – complain. “Never say never,” I tell my friends, “but I’ll never f----n’ do this again.”

I will go on to spend the next week telling everyone I know and even people I don’t know that I finished the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. “When you accomplish something, you want to share that with other people,” Aimee says. “It’s great to be able to tell people ‘I just did that.’ That’s part of the satisfaction.”

And I am satisfied. Sore, exhausted, hungry, sunburned, stinky, cranky. But satisfied.

Mary Reed is sore, exhausted, hungry, sunburned, stinky and cranky for no apparent reason today.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964), is credited with launching the modern-day American environmental movement with her 1962 book, Silent Spring. The book led to the ban of the chemical pesticide DDT in the United States. She grew up in Springdale, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. Her childhood home, now known as the Rachel Carson homestead (www.rachelcarsonhomestead.org), is on the national register of historic places and offers environmental education programs. A spur leads to the homestead at about the halfway point along the 35-mile Rachel Carson Trail.