The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge Celebrates Its Twentieth Year—and You Can Too
By Michael Jehn
If you’ve been looking for an intense, well-organized, highly rewarding athletic event in the Pittsburgh area that differs somewhat from the many popular timed road races that take place each year, perhaps an experience rooted in a deeper connection with nature and unexpected variations in topography rather than a running tour of the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks, I recommend an endurance hike that pays tribute to one of the region’s well-known historical figures: the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge.
The event, now in its twentieth year, is a roughly 34-mile endurance hike that is traditionally scheduled for the Saturday closest to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. As the event’s website notes, the ultimate objective of the Challenge is completion rather than competition—and, as past participants and regulars will attest, finishing within the allotted sunrise-to-sunset time limit is no easy feat, a brag-worthy accomplishment in its own right. (This isn’t to say that many of us, myself included, don’t thoroughly enjoy barreling headlong down slippery slopes and jogging the easier parts as long as our bodies tolerate it, pushing for the best possible finish time.)
The Rachel Carson Trail, in map view with north pointing upward, traces like a wiggly, unsteady V with the west trailhead located in North Park (McCandless Township), east trailhead in Harrison Hills Park (Natrona Heights), and south-most point near the Allegheny River in Springdale. The Rachel Carson Homestead, on the National Register of Historic Places, sits close to the challenge’s midpoint as the trail route—at that point a quiet residential street—appropriately passes Carson’s birthplace.
Each year, the direction of the Challenge reverses, providing a welcome variation in the sequence of notable trail segments whose physical characteristics range dramatically from gravel access roads, pleasant wooded trails, residential yards and busy roadside berms to rocky stream crossings, loose dirt slides, and steep cliff climbs devoid of handholds.
Hikers, as well as trail, are subject to the weather’s whims on race day, the Challenge commencing stalwartly through steady dry spell or violent storms. The conditions that most of us hope for, if I dare speak for the majority of participants, are lightly overcast skies, dry breezy air, and solid soil underfoot. Those are not, of course, the conditions that we necessarily get—and some of the most memorable Challenges are those residing within the realm of extremes. In 2013, for example, the sunshine was oppressive, the unflinching heat cruel. Despite drinking what seemed like gallons of water and Gatorade throughout the day provided by the Challenge’s four lavishly stocked checkpoints, no amount seemed enough to stay adequately hydrated; by early afternoon, my body was dragging, my resolve weakening with tempting thoughts of collapsing in the shade. (I pushed through, as always.) Last year, the incessant June rains produced some of the most slippery, frustrating, dangerous trail conditions imaginable, feet soaked completely through within the first four miles due to deep stream crossings and clothes saturated by steady showers before noon. Several years ago, in the east-to-west direction, a massive thunderstorm struck shortly after I had completed the Challenge. The normally unsubstantial hop-scotch passage through a small wetland leading to the finish point next to North Park Lake became a deep, fast-moving torrent. I remember helping a number of other hikers throw logs into the muddy rapids to create some semblance of a bridge that drenched participants could safely traverse to their finish.
But this, of course, is what it’s all about. It’s the struggle, the variables and unknowns, the self-reflection and determination, the untold experiences and ever-changing terrain that draw us in. Then there are the friendships, the mid-hike conversations, encountering familiar faces, occasional wildlife sightings, and the fantastic barbecue at the end. 2016 will be my eleventh consecutive year participating in the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, and it isn’t hyperbole or melodrama to say that this event has become a part of who I am. It is the reason why, if I should ever leave Pittsburgh, I am determined to return every June, for years and decades to come. For now, I’m not going anywhere—and I can’t wait for this year’s Challenge.
Learn more about the event, including the shorter Homestead Challenge and 8-mile Friends & Family Challenge, by visiting www.rachelcarsontrails.org/rct/challenge