The Many Paths to the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

Rachel Carson Trail Challenge 2005

It was the perfect day for the ninth annual Rachel Carson Trail Challenge on Saturday, June 18th. Unlike some of the Challenge days in the past, the humidity was low, the temperature moderate, there was some cloud coverage, and the trails were fairly dry according to hikers and runners who participated in the event.

A record 504 hikers and walkers started off in the dark of the morning to attempt the 34 mile hike in one day. The Rachel Carson Trail is known to hikers as one of the most difficult in Western Pennsylvania so hiking it all in one day is certainly a “challenge.” At the end of the day, 336 or 67% completed the Challenge and crossed the finish line in Harrison Hills Park, with 324 or 64% finishing within the allotted time of 15 hours, 4 minutes.

In the Beginning

The roads leading into North Park were empty at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of the 18th. However, closer to Beaver Shelter — the registration site for the Challenge — there were cars, lights, and dozens of people milling about including runners, hikers and the numerous volunteers who give up sleeping in on a Saturday and the rest of the day to make the event happen.

As early as 5:15 a.m. the early runners took off, the trails barely visible in some places. Ron Verdi, 50, his son, Brian, 20, and a group of other runners (ten all together) were making their first attempt at the Challenge and were pumped and ready to go. “We’re excited,” said the elder Verdi, “We’re ready.” His friend, Melina Caprino, was running the Challenge for the second time but was the only veteran in the group. “It was in the 90s (temperature) when I did it last time so I am looking forward to this,” she said referring to the weather.

Another friend, Cathy Hughes seemed a little more hesitant than Verdi and Caprino as did the younger Verdi. “Why am I doing this?” she asked them as they all, including Brian, laughed. “I’m asking the same thing,” he said.

Ron Verdi, Hughes, and Caprino are marathon runners and had recently competed in the Cleveland Marathon. “But this isn’t a flat track,” said Hughes.

It’s a Family Affair

Sean Callahan, 34, and his brothers were having “some quality fraternal bonding time” during the challenge. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Callahan now makes his home in San Francisco. Prior to the event, from his home he said, “We are all new to the Rachel Carson Trail. Frankly, I’m not sure where my brother learned about it. But it sounded fun so he convinced my other brother to join him. When I found out, I decided to join them. They need their baby brother to carry them – kidding,” he said.

Callahan looked at it as a good way to spend time since he lives so far away. “When you live away from your family, doing stuff like this together is a great way to stay involved in each others lives. Plus the best part about these events is talking about preparation ahead of time and telling the stories about the day afterwards.”

Like Verdi and company, the three trained although separately. At the start of the race, Ed, 39, and Steve, 37, were with Sean and ready to go. All had done some long hikes and other exercises. “We will see how well we trained. But we have all done training hikes. We will be taking the tortoise strategy of slow and steady. Thirty four miles is quite a long way to walk,” said Sean.

Why Volunteer

Dozens of volunteers are needed for the Challenge to happen at all, let alone successfully. Many volunteers are family members of runners and hikers so they are there for a dual purpose – to help with the event and to cheer on their loved one(s). Eileen Karnavas sat in the shelter in the pre-dawn registering last minute participants. “This is the fourth year that my son, Andy, will be running it. This is the second year that I have helped out,” she said. After checking in the participants, she would round up her husband – who was still sleeping when she left home – and her grandchildren so they would be at the finish for their son and Dad. “It is fun for the kids to see him at the end,” she said.

Linda McAnulty came from the DC area to assist at Checkpoint 2 with her parents. “My sister, Carol Petti, is hiking it. She is doing it for a fund raiser for the Sojourner House,” she said. Her parents, Jim and Joan McAnulty of the South Hills were volunteering for the second year. “Last year was my sister’s first challenge and they surprised her when they were volunteering at a checkpoint,” she said. Linda and Jim served as water marshals while Joan helped scan the participants in with the new computer system. “It is fun but makes me nervous,” said Joan as she scanned a Challenger at the checkpoint.

Checkpoint 1

Checkpoint 1 looked like a buffet, thanks to another volunteer, Denise Cox. Cox’s boyfriend, Monte Pursifull, is a frequent hiker of the trail and this year served as Logistics Marshall and Tracking Marshal. Cox was the Checkpoint Supervisor of Checkpoint 1 and as such, bought the food. “I don’t know what the other checkpoints will have but I don’t want them to be hungry,” she said. Granola, quartered oranges, Cliff Bars, granola bars, M & Ms, raisins, pretzels, potato chips, goldfish crackers, and dozens and dozens of PB & J sandwiches were piled on the table. Water and Gatorade were served from huge jugs.

Runners came through early including Verdi’s group. “I didn’t know they would have all this food,” said Verdi. His crew unloaded some of their stuff onto a friend who would meet them at the finish line so they could lighten their load. “I feel good,” he said as he shed a shirt. Cathy took off one of her shirts as well and grabbed a sandwich. “This is the best PB & J sandwich that I have ever had!” she said.

Checkpoint 2 is at the 14.4 mile mark of the Challenge and right in front of a huge – and we mean huge – hill. While the Sulentic family intended to stop at this checkpoint, others dropped out for various reasons. For some, the miles added up too slowly and the hill right ahead convinced them it was time to turn in their tags.

Steve Love, 46, of Arlington, VA had luck decide for him. He slid down a hill right before the checkpoint and twisted his ankle. He came into the checkpoint being carried by other hikers. “I just can’t go on,” he said, “I told them to go on and I would hobble in but they wouldn’t leave me behind.” Although injured, he kept a big smile on his face the whole day and waited at the picnic shelter in Harrison Hills Park for his housemate and friend who was hiking the trail.

Again and again

Alan Aliskovitz, 39, was one of the five who actually finished the first Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. This was his fourth challenge, his third with girlfriend, Carol Powers. “This was the best condition the trail has ever been in,” he said after the race.

The first year, according to Aliskovitz, the trail was poorly marked. “We lost probably hours backtracking and looking for the blazes. This year it was at the most fifteen or twenty minutes and that was only because we weren’t paying attention.” He said.

Weather was also a big factor this year. Aliskovitz, a runner, said, “It all depends on the weather. The last time we ran part of the way and this year we decided to just walk it and hardly ran at all. We came in twenty minutes faster because it was so much cooler and we were able to move easier.” he said.

If all goes according to plan, he will be out there next year for the tenth year anniversary. “Oh yeah, every year the trail gets better and better,” he said.

Blood is Thicker than Sweat

Hughes and Caprino crossed the finish line way ahead of the Verdi’s. “Brian was really hurting so Ron stayed with him,” one of them said. The two women worried about their friends as they waited. A little over an hour later, the two rounded the final corner and came into the home stretch. Ron Verdi was smiling and handed off his camera to the final checkpoint volunteers. Proudly he placed his arm around his son and said, “Smile Brian.” Brian smiled, then hobbled over and sat in the grass. “It was worse than I thought,” he said, “My legs just started hurting.”

Who is Fastest?

The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is about finishing the Challenge, not who does it the fastest. Nonetheless, there are several runners who strive to finish fast. Dario Donetelli, 17, was the first to cross the finish line. Early labeled as “an amazing runner” by one of the volunteers, he was still a bit stiff as he walked away. Dennis Caveglia of Leechburg was second. Caveglia, 51, often runs triathlons and other events. “This was my personal best,” he said. Why does he do it? “It helps keep me in shape,” he said, “And I think it makes you a better person.” He looked like he just came from a long stroll instead of a nearly 35 mile run.

Volunteer Eileen Karnavas was at the finish line when her son, Andy, finished – coming in at fourth. Andy, 46, was pleased with his finish and joked with his three children who – according to them – have no plans to run the Challenge – ever.

Susanne Weightman was the first woman to finish and fifth overall. She ran with her friend, Jerry Felton. It was Weightman’s fourth Challenge and Felton’s first. “I loved it,” he said, “Of course, the weather helped tremendously.” The two started running together about a year ago. “I never went more than 15 miles before,” he said. Weightman will be running a 50K event soon and has her eyes on the new Baker Trail UltraChallenge – a 50 mile ultramarathon to be held on Saturday, August 27th. “Maybe I’ll do Baker,” she said.

The youngest hiker was probably twelve year old Rose Sulentic, mentioned earlier with her family. Along with her mom and dad, Alison and Steve, she hiked to Checkpoint 2. “We had planned on that far. We went to one last year,” she said. The Mt. Lebanon family will be hiking in Colorado soon and thought this was a good warm-up hike. “It is a natural progression for us,” said Steve.

The Three Musketeers Finish

At 8:25 p.m. the Callahan brothers finished the hike. “It was a great experience for us all. We all had our perspectives on what it meant. Steve had never completed anything like this before, so for him, the pain is fading and the sense of accomplishment is building,” said Sean early Monday morning, “Ed, the ex-marine, is pretty proud that he (at 39) can still muscle though this. I have done some marathons and mountaineering, so for me the best part was hanging with my brothers and being the ‘baby’ brother and giving them (crap) on how slow they are,” he joked.

What the Challenge is all About

Even though he was injured, Love waited in the pavilion at the finish line. As he waited, a young boy and his mother came to wait for dad/husband. When the boy, Ben, asked Love why he wasn’t hiking anymore, Love explained about his injury and how fellow hikers carried him. “Those men are heroes,” the mother explained to her son. A while later as the dad crossed the finish line, Love said, “Hey, he helped carry me.” Turns out, Ben’s dad was one of those heroes.

— Kathleen Ganster