RR: 2006 Rachel Carson Challenge

The time has finally come… ULTRA TIME. What I trained all spring for. I ran in all kinds of races on road and trail. Races from 5K’s to 14 milers, to 1/2 and whole marathons. Whatever it took to get me in shape for the Ultra Running season and to perhaps give a go at actually competing. I had NO clue what I was getting into, in driving allll the way to Pittsburgh, PA for a race… but a CHALLENGE is what I was looking for.

So.. one day while scanning a running site I frequent, I found out about The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. They describe it as “a 34.58-mile long, one-day, sunrise to sunset endurance hike on nearly the entire brutal Rachel Carson Trail. Unlike a footrace, the “challenge” is not to “come in first” or “win”, but to endure, to finish the hike in one day. This time, the Challenge starts in Harrison Hills County Park at sunrise, 5:50 AM, and ends 34.58 miles later in North Park. The deadline for finishing is sunset, 8:54 PM or 15 hours, 4 minutes.” HOWEVER.. there are about 40-50 ultra-runners who converge on this challenge every year to take it on as a run and see how they measure up. This year, I would join them.

Last weekend I thought I would train for this event by running the Presi-Traverse with Isolation. A 30.2 miles trip with over 12,000′ of elevation gain. After completing that trek I was confident in how I would fair out in Pittsburgh. I joined one of the challenges messege boards so I could get to know some of the folks out there. The thought behind this was that they could offer some support out on the course when they saw the guy from New Hampshire wearing all red (This worked). But I also kept hearing about how DIFFICULT the challenge actually was. Then.. I finally got to see the Elevation Profile. It looked like this:

Not only was it 34.58 Miles long.. but there was 9,867′ of Elv. Gain and 9,746′ of loss over the course. I’ll try and describe it’s different levels of difficulty as we go. But to start I’ll tell you that it was laid out mostly along power and gas lines.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

4:15 AM: The alarm goes off and thankfully it has stopped raining outside. The sun has yet to rise and a groggy Sarah and Mom are rolling out of bed. They came the 600+ miles with m to Pittsburgh to be my support crew “Team Sherpa.” I knew they would be valuable in a challenge such as this, but I didn’t know just HOW valuable. More on this later. After we all splashed cold water in our eyes, we loaded into the support car and headed for Harrison Hills Park in Natrona Hights, PA.

5:20 AM: We arrive in the parking lot to see a few HUNDRED hikers getting ready for the day. This is THEIR Presi-Traverse and they have all decided to pound it out today. As I duct taped my feet and laced up my shoes, we were amazed by the cars filling into the park.. and then the buses.. 4 or 5 of them FILLED with hikers. “My god” I thought.. “how the hell am I gonna get by all these people on the trail?!” After filling up my bottles I had Sarah do a HUGE favor for me. I’ve been having trouble getting NEW shirts made up for the team so people can see WHY I run.. so instead.. out came the Magic Marker. Sarah then wrote on the backs of my legs “CURE DIABETES.” I felt so honored to be able to run this distance and take on this challenge in the name of diabetes… it makes it all worth while.

We all headed for the pavilion where I was to check in. It was here that I got my first look at the maps and to figure out how this would go. Basically, I was about to run 34.58 miles up and down powerlines and gas lines, through mucky muddy woods, thorns, poison ivy.. GOD! IT WAS THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.. the ultimate Obstacle course! A challenge it was going to be indeed.. and I felt GREAT! I gave Sarah a kiss, mom a hug and told them I’d see them at checkpoint 1. I gave Sarah my list of points on the course and the time I wanted to be there by. Basically I would try and complete the challenge doing a pace of 4.1 miles an hour over its entire length. This had be finishing in 8:18 I thought this goal would be TOUGH to meet for sure, so I set a max goal of 10 hours.

After some stretching and attaching my running tag onto my right side, I was scanned in at the start with a starting time of 5:45 AM and off I went on the trail. There were 572 participants partaking in this event, only about 50 of us were running but still a hearty field of runners indeed. But as I carried on through the fields and trails of Harrison Hills park, the hundreds of hikers were hiking single file down the trail with their own hopes of finishing this challenge. It was looking to be a great day with overcast skies and a cool morning. Only bummer so far was the 97% humidity. But regardless, I started running through the weeds around the hikers in hopes to reach the thinner ranks of those who started earlier.

For a time near the beginning I was running with a VERY tall man from Central, PA. This was his first ultra-experience. At 6’3 and about 290 lbs, his 2 knee braces looked more like tiny face clothes. He was excited about the challenge but said he hoped to only make 30 miles. I tried to encourage him to finish the event regardless with the mindset “run when you can, walk if you need to and crawl if you must… but just finish the damn event!” I parted ways with him and entered the first section of power lines.

As I approached the first hill… all I could do was stop and slowly start walking. I looked straight up at this thing.. and I mean.. STRAIGHT UP and said to a nearby hiker “it’s gonna be a LONG day.” We laughed as I headed up the first hill. After cresting this first hill I got a view of what ELSE was to come… STRAIGHT DOWN… Followed by… STRAIGHT UP! Oh man.. what did I get myself into?!

I started singing songs and carried on along the trail, either way I needed to get to the end and even better.. checkpoint 1 some 6.9 miles after the start. So.. I hustled up the hills and ran down as best I could. For the entire day the trail would be lined by thorn bushes and poison ivy. After cresting the second hill I began to BARREL down it’s other side. On my way down the hill, another young guy looked to be running the race. He had a slack pack and stopped to look up as he heard me coming. I yelled “On your left!” as runners normally do when about to pass, and he ignored me and stepped out in front to continue running. Next thing I knew.. we hit a dip where the downhill stopped and the next uphill IMMEDIATELY began.. both at about an 85 degree angle. The young guy tried to jump the dip.. and just as he did I did. Well.. he didn’t land so well and fell landing on his stomach.. then… I landed on top of him. OPPS! I felt soooo bad, but then again he didn’t allow me to pass. So.. we both collected ourselves and appologized and I continued on up this next hill. I looked down and my knee was a bloody mess. Yup… 4 miles in and I’m all cut up, bruised, soaked from the wet weeds, muddy from a spill and wondering if I would even make it to the end of this thing.

At mile 5, I emerged off of a power line and onto a paved road. The yellow blazes we had been following on trees and telephone poles were now on guardrails and… well.. telephone poles. I got out my cell phone and called my crew to let them know I was about a mile or so out of the checkpoint and to get ready. I was WAY ahead of schedule (about 45 minutes ahead) and overall feeling good. As soon as I hung up the phone.. it rang. I have a specil ring for when Mt. Drew calls me and it was him. It was GREAT to him from him and the conversation was kept short.

As I ran into Checkpoint 1, I went to the volunteers of the event who would scan my tag and check me in. Sarah and Mom had taken my empty water bottles and filled them up for me. I 2 bottles I had Gatorade Endurance Formula and in the other 2, WATER. I grabbed some powergels for my pack, and had one while there. Chewed some oranges and had a banana before giving Sarah a kiss and heading back out onto the course. From here… more of the same… UP and downs.

People throughout the day would recognize me from their messege board. “Hey! Red shirt, red shorts, red hat… you must be the guy from New Hampshire!” Yes.. yes I was and I was beginning to enjoy their event out here in PA. They people were nice for the most part. Everyone kept asking me “how do you like it, isn’t it tough?!” Well… how do I answer that. Certainly it had it’s degree of difficulty but I wasn’t struggling with it by any means. It was actually quite enjoyable. All I could say to them was… there are no sharp jagged rocks and no roots to go around or over so.. I can’t really compare it to what I’m used to. It is difficuly in places but I wouldn’t call it brutal or agonizing by any means..

But then again… how about this description.. ALL of the hills were like South Tripyramid Slide. A mix of crushed coal and slate with SLICK SLICK Mud/Clay. So… throw all that on tripyramid south slide and thats what it was like. TWO of the hills were like EXTENDED versions of Owls Head and Tripyramids North slide. It was quite amazing trying to hustle up these sections withouth slipping and going backwards. This is where the TRUE challenge takes place. The REAL breakneck was all of the thorn bushes. My legs have over 200 scratches and knicks in them from all the thorns, I look like I ran through a shredder.

I found myself running along a high ridge overlooking the Alegheny River. I was hoping I hadn’t missed Checkpoint 2 where the Team was waiting for me. As I rounded a corner I heade something in the grass.. it was a deer that had been sleeping. I awoke him and it was pretty neat to see him go bounding off into the woods. Then, I ran into an older gentleman on the trail. He had a bow saw around his neck and was out painting the blazes on this high ridge. We traded pleasantries and I thanked him for his trail service. He resonded with, “I’d rather do this than that!” We laughed and off I went.

It had been awhile without seeing the Powerlines but then they re-appeared. I saw some signs leading us away and into the next checkpoint. It was still over cast as I reached the 14 mile mark. Mom was sitting at the bench helping one of the volunteers make PB&J sandwhiches. The lady whom she was helping had peanut butter allll over her hands and she said, “Look it moisturizes.” Sarah refilled my bottles again, and I munched on a rice krispy treat and some more fruit. I even cracked open a coke which I drank half off before heading out.

From Checkpoint 2 to 3.. it was more of the same, but the trail was now becomming VERY hard to follow. The powerlines were also home to dirt bikers (as they are out here in NH) and some of them were out. Many times as I was crusing down a steep hill concentrating on my footing, the trail were diverge off to the left about 3/4 of the way down and I ended up having to turn around and walk back UP the hill to find out where it went. Following the trail was starting to become the BIGGEST challenge.. but I used it to my advantage. I was starting to notice that many of the other runners were becomming disoriented and irrate with the difficulty of following the trail. I decided I would take the extra time in tricky areas but to keep moving at a good clip to give myself some distance from the others. The sun had come out around Mile 18 and it was HOT! 85 degrees with 97% humidity.. it was unbearable. I could see on the other runners faces that even though this was not a “race” persay, there WAS a comeptition going on.

As I crested the tallest hill… I looked down… STRAIGHT Down.. and my phone rang. “Hi Hunny.” Yup.. Sarah could see me and as I glanced wayyyy down below.. I saw the cars. It was Check Point 3. There was no running down this hill as it was all click clay. In fact.. I even fall and slid down about 300′ of it on my rear. I was all cut up and bleeding like a bull at the bull fights. As I got into the checkpoint I asked Sarah to refill my bottles and mom to get me the pedialyte. Pedialyte is great for infants in electrolyte replacement.. it worked WONDERS for me today.

On my way to CHKP 4 I was running along a road and got my shorts caught on the guardrail. My shorts ripped and I was not a happy camper. But it was ok.. I was feeling great and knew I would go the distance. CHKP4 was at the 26.68 Mile mark.. JUST over a marathon which puts it into Ultra-Land. As I ran in I was greeted by applause from the checkpoint volunteers. Apparently I am just the 3rd person to enter the checkpoint! SAY WHAT!? Sarah and mom worked to cut the tather off my shorts and refill my bottles. I used the porta-potty that was their as it was taking more energy to hold in my waste than it was to get rid of it. I hadn’t been peeing as much as I would have liked either but then again, when I had it was clear. So.. I felt like I was well hydrated. It was time for the final push. For the 3rd time in the race I came to a woman in a car who was running support for her husband, she kept giving me gatorade and potatoes with Salt. All was good and greatly appreciated.

The Final 8 Miles. 

After having Chocolate covered espresso beans I left chkp 4 and headed for the finish. A LOT of runners passed me while I was at the chkp so I was hoping to catch most of them and distance myself more. The next 2 miles was on gravel roads and I used the gravel up hills to run.. the other runners could only walk but I had some juice left. I passed about 5 of them right off the bat and was feeling great.

I ran across high farm fields but no more powerlines. Through dark woods I went. At stream crossings I stopped taking time to rock hop and just plowed through. I was on a mission. I had only been looking at my watch for distance and ignored the time. But the further along I got… the more sore my legs were getting. Around Mile 31.. I passed whom I thought was the leader.. and right after the push to get by him.. I hit the wall… I was in a certifiable low digging deep to find some inspiration.

I saw a family fishing in a stream and asked if anyone had run in front of me. 2 runners about 45 minutes ago.. Damn! Well… time to suck it up anyway.. and finish this thing proudly. So… I started singing and drooling and my brain slowly turned to mush. I guzzled my gatorades for electrolytes… and all of a sudden I was a pee machine. In the last 4 miles of the race I peed some 12 times.. swear to god! I even decided to stop stopping and peed while on the move. (Don’t recommend, it’s messy) At Mile 2 I popped out of the woods and to a railroad crossing. I lost sight of the trail markings and in a tried hazy state.. was confused and now.. dejected. Another runner came out and pointed which way to go… I had dropped a place.

But I continued to run with all I had and at Mile 33.. as I walked UP the final uphill… I stopped slouching and stood tall. I drank the last of my water and gatorade and thought of why I did this today. I ran 34.58 miles and over some real rugged terrain… got all cut up.. for thos who cannot do it. I did it for those with an affliction that may or may not be of their own doing. I do it for Sarah and all of the others with diabetes. Nothing felt better than to run into a checkpoint and have someone take a picture of my legs with the writing “Cure Diabetes” on them, then tell Sarah how inspiring it was. Because inspiration is something I also strive to inject into others souls. They say it right out here in PA, “the “challenge” is not to “come in first” or “win”, but to endure.”

I came to a road and there was Mom and Sarah. I gave them my fanny pack and they pointed to where I needed to go. I ran down a road and turned into some woods before emerging over small stream and saw the final yellow volunteer shirts. It was the end.. the finish line.. I was so happy! I LOVE Ultra Running.. I get a chance to break myself down and rebuild.. rediscover more about who I am.. there is NOTHING like it. I’ll NEVER be able to describe to you the MENTAL aspect of these events. And I truly wish I could.

I then found out I was the 6th runner to come into the finish area. HOWEVER… because we all started at Varying times… we all had a varied finishing time and place.

I ran the 34.58 mile course in 8 Hours 4 Minutes and 41 Seconds.
Hard work pays off as I finished this event in 3rd place over all.
I ran with all I had… fought through the lows and revelled in the highs and I FINALLY… competed in an event.

Officially… only 133 of the 576 whom started the challenge finished!

Here is a Newspaper Article on the event.