For the first eleven years of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, the event never filled up. Initially, there was an informal cap of 200 participants, mostly based on an intuition that this number is what our landowners would tolerate. But that was exceeded way back in 2000, by just a bit, and by just a bit more every year since. Sometime around 2007, as we flirted with 600, we started hearing complaints from participants about the crowds. And the congestion. Instead of landowners, it was participants who were expressing their displeasure.
In 2008 we formally established the cap at 600, and it took until early June for the last spot to be taken. Although some who hadn't yet registered were surprised and dismayed, everyone who showed up to wait on standby for the no-show spots was able to participate. That same year we reintroduced the Homestead Challenge, which added another 200 people to the trail. Although it started later and at a different place, we heard more complaints about congestion, plus new complaints about the added people, and about unseemly behavior of others trying to negotiate their way through the crowds. We had found our true limit.
In 2009, with the 600 cap in place, we saw a repeat of 2008, except the last spot was sold sooner - at the end of May.
In 2010, it accelerated. The last spot was sold at the end of April. This shut out many people, forcing us to offer refunds to make space available. But that was a considerable administrative burden, and we determined to try something different.
In planning for 2011, we could readily foresee what would happen: we'd sell the last spot no later than the end of March and probably even sooner than that.
The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is a non-competitive endurance hike. It's not a race. We've never offered finish awards, and the closest we come is to list the results by finish time. This feature is a large part of its appeal, especially to people who are new to physical activity.
One of the goals of our group is to get more people involved in physical activity, and one reason we stage training hikes in the spring is to introduce the trail to people who've never been on it. Many have told us they appreciated the experience and the people they met, and decided to push themselves by setting a stretch goal of finishing the Challenge.
The problem we faced is these training hikes don't start until mid April, and even if someone decided to register after the first hike, it would be too late. Our solution is to distribute the 600 registrations over five months, giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate. Regrettably, this strategy caused demand to spike, and the accelerating pace of filling spots is repeating itself in microcosm each month. In February, the 200 available spots were sold in 90 minutes. In March, it took six minutes to sell the next 100. This has caused much angst, and is not what we wanted or intended.
One theme we've heard repeatedly is the unfairness of raising the fee each month. Since registrations are not refundable, we felt it fair to offer a lower price to people who commit sooner. The problem is this contributed to the demand spike, and upset many who were willing and able to commit sooner but couldn't. We fully understand and are therefore rescinding further price increases. All remaining online spots will be made available at the current price of $70.
Three things to keep in mind. One, we are a small group of dedicated volunteers with regular jobs. Putting on this event is a lot of work, but we all want the trail to continue, and enjoy seeing the positive impact of both the trail and the event. Two, we are ruthlessly egalitarian; no one receives special treatment. Members of our committee use the same registration process as everyone else. Three, this event is our fundraiser. All of the money raised goes directly toward fulfillment of our mission.
We welcome constructive feedback on how we can improve, and we'd appreciate more administrative-level volunteers. Regardless, we'll review all the suggestions we receive and endeavor to introduce a better system next year. There are many issues and concerns to consider, but know that given high demand and limited supply, there's simply no way around the fact that some people who want to participate will be excluded.