There Are Limits, and Then There Are Limits

The 2021 Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, June 19

A little after 5:30 AM a steady stream of Hokas, hydration packs and hiking poles entered the woods at Harrison Hills Park. One after another, participant’s numbers were called aloud as the runners and hikers began their trek through soupy air and temps already in the mid-70s as heat lightning flashed in the distance.

The skies were overcast until the early evening, and scattered showers throughout the day briefly dampened some hikers but left many others dry.

No matter the conditions, it was a welcome return for the 24th annual Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, which endured a two-year hiatus after the pandemic cancelled last year’s trek. And since the last Challenge in 2019, 2.25 miles of road hiking were eliminated and 4.1 miles of new trail were added.

“The Challenge is longer than it’s ever been,” said Challenge Director Steve Mentzer. “And that’s going to be pushing some people to the edge of the time limit, which is fixed at fifteen hours, four minutes.”

This year, 477 participants — 80 percent of entrants — finished the Full Challenge (36 miles in under 15:04:00 starting at Harrison Hills).

Another 236 hikers — 82 percent of entrants — completed the Homestead Challenge (18 miles in under 7:47:09, starting at Springdale High School).

And 46 teams finished the Friends & Family Challenge (7 miles, starting at White Oak Farm).

As dawn broke that morning, runners edged to the front of the pack, as did eager hikers looking to either uphold a speedier pace or take advantage of as much daylight as possible.

Among those shuffling toward the trailhead were Jack Neff, Lorei Lehman, Bill Huber and Makenzie O’Conner. The four represent the full spectrum of experience, from past “winners” (because the challenge, by name, is one of endurance and not speed) to veteran participants to up-and-comers.

Ahead of the Challenge, Neff, 76, was “cautiously optimistic” about completing the race — until he injured his quad muscle where it meets his knee. He did a 20-mile out-and-back from Harrison Hills a few weeks prior to Saturday’s event and couldn’t imagine tacking on another 15 miles. So he adjusted his goal to 25 miles.

Neff felt “decent” through miles 13, 14 and 15, and was tracking 19 minute/mile pace until he suffered a cramp. “It stopped me literally in my tracks,” said Neff.

At a crossing with Route 28 near Springdale, Neff decided not to pursue the next checkpoint and ultimately bow out of a challenge he entered with his daughter Allison Romano, son-in-law Jeff Romano and grandson Max Romano.

“There’s a reason why people my age don’t complete this,” he said prior to the Challenge — and then doubled-down on the statement after the fact.

At 76, Jack Neff may be correct. This year, Jim Antoniono, age 75, finished with less than twelve minutes to spare and established a new record as the oldest official finisher. “It’s such a good feeling,” he said, “It’s way more than a physical challenge, it’s a mental challenge.” Unfortunately, Jim experienced severe cramps at one point (the backside of Log Cabin hill) that nearly did him in. “It was the most painful thing that I’ve ever experienced. Not only was I worried that I wouldn't be able to finish, I was worried that they wouldn’t be able to get me out of there,” he laughed. Jim worked through the cramps and made it to North Park, breaking the previous record of 73 years old for the oldest official finisher Jim hiked the Challenge with his son, Jamie, who came in from Nevada to accompany his dad.

Jim looks forward to next year’s event, with one catch. “I have to talk my wife into letting me do it,” he joked.

On the other end of the spectrum was 14-year-old Lorelei Lehman, of Wexford, who entered her first Challenge this year and did so as the 2021 Challenge’s youngest finisher.

And though she’s young, she’s no stranger to endurance sports. Lehman comes from a family of multi-sport endurance athletes and on her own has competed in long-distance mountain bike and gravel races (like the 60-mile Rebecca’s Private Idaho). In fact, Lehman joined the Challenge after taking up trail running and hiking in lieu of biking after she broke her arm while riding BMX in early 2020.

Lehman ran/hiked the Challenge with a crew called Full Psych Adventure Team and finished with a time of 13:20:49.

“The terrain is crazy, but it’s definitely doable,” she said ahead of the Challenge. Turns out, she was right. “There really wasn’t an easy part of the race,” said Lehman after the fact. The first half is the most challenging because of hills, she said, and then it leaves you lagging a bit.

“We had to walk a little more because the impact on your legs catches up with you.”

And though it’s not a race, it would be remiss to talk about the Challenge without mentioning the top finishers.

Bill Huber, 36, of Zelienople, arrived first at the North Park finish line with a time of 6:23:10.

This was Huber’s third Challenge (finishing 2nd overall in 2019 and 2017), and this summer he’ll participate in his sixth Baker Trail UltraChallenge. Oddly enough, Huber says he only trains on the road and even donned his road shoes on Challenge Day.

The second place finisher, and first woman overall, was Makenzie O’Conner, 27, with a time of 6:44:10.

“I just went for it,” said O’Conner minutes after crossing the finish line.

“I’m always nervous that I’m undertrained, that I wouldn’t be able to do it ... especially having my first ultra in 2017 [the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge] and winning overall. It was beginner’s luck,” she explained. Winning is never a goal for O’Conner, but “it’s really cool to have that as a bonus.”

O’Conner, who lives in Point Breeze, does much of her running on the trails of Frick Park. She’s also an avid biker and rock climber.

What connects these four participants and scores of others is the consistent praise for the event, the trail and the volunteers who all make it happen.

In addition to prep, day-of operations and cleanup, volunteers took on the sudden task of clearing the trail just days before the event.

Severe storms that pummeled North Park and the surrounding communities on June 13 left parts of the trail between the Harmar Shelter and Rocky Dell virtually impassable. Volunteers rallied together to handle the smaller debris, while county park workers followed up to clear the trunks.

— Abby Proch, Kathleen Ganster contributed

We recognize and are grateful for all of our tireless volunteers: Joyce Appel, John Armstrong, Robert Bastone, Mary Bates, Tom Bates, Sheila Bernardini, Joe Bilotta, Charles Brethauer, Becky Brown, Gregory Brunner, Patty Brunner, Reanna Buzza, Sheri Buzza, Sarah Carr, Mark Chase, Tony Chick, David Ciuchta, Laura Ciuchta, Natalie Clarke, Karen Cohn, Adrienne Cook, Richard Cook, Diann Corll, Greg Countouris, Jim Crist, Mike Dailey, Tom Davis, Brooke Decker, Michelle Dees, Suzanne Dees, Vivienne Deily-nelson, Pamela Derby, Gabriel Diamond, Donald Dobbs, Rudolph Duda, Jessica Dunn, Michael Dunn, Lynn Durgin, Jack Eaton, Sandy Edgecombe, Michael Ewing, Tim Flaherty, Matthew Fleeger, Janet Fox, Scott Gliebe, Andy Greenhow, Mike Griffin, Peter Grittie, Liz Hanrahan, Autumn Harris, Tom Heisey, Dave Helwig, Paul Henry, Jerry Hoffman, Jim Holloway, Brenda Hostetler, Jessica Hulings, Ian Hurley, Ian Hurley, Haley Hutterer, John Italiano, Wei Jin, Kwadwo Joyner, Konrad Kammerer, Andrew Karnavas, Michael King, Mark Knapp, Jason Kodat, Lorraine Kolek, Diane Kostka, Alynn Kramer, Vera Krekanova, John Krofcheck, Bala Kumar, Jessica Lakari, David Lane, Julie Leroux-ross, Angela Luppino, Ryder Lythos, Carol Macphail, George Maier, Jason Maruccio, Frank Matousek, Suzanne Meyer, Allison Monroe, Betsy Monroe, Christina Montemurro, Kara Mostowy, Karen Mueller, Karen Muirhead, Betsy Mullaugh, Cathy Nader-syiek, Hannah Obringer, Patrick Pagano, James Painter, Kristin Patterson, Ann Paul, Ben Primis, Anneliese Probeck, Todd Probeck, Viktoria Probeck, Abby Proch, Lloyd Ray, Tom Rekowski, Karen Rocco, Shannon Rueb, Deb Sagan, Deborah Sagan, Mike Salamon, Timothy Sarver, Sarah Scherer, Lauren Shaff, Susan Shages, Andrea Shymatta, Laura Smith Powell, Ann Marie Staniszewski, Will Stiglitz, Kim Stinson, Donna Stolz, John Stolz, Ali Straub, David Syiek, Gregory Syiek, Tara Tappen, Doug Taylor, Christina Traynor, Sarah Wallace, Katie Walsh, Alexander Wang, Gang Wang, Stephanie Wang, Tim Weese, Valerie Welsh, Kyle Whittinghill, and Donald Ziegler.

Many thanks to our generous sponsors: Peoples, MacPhail - Soonthornchai Family, The Burke Family, AOM Consultants, Grossman Yanak & Ford LLP, Isaly's, Littler Mendelson, P.C., North Park Trail Runners, UPMC, William & Gay Stewart, Williams Coulson LLC, #diversifyoutdoors, Chiara Figallo, Dawn Patrol Toastmasters, Greater Pittsburgh Orthopaedic Associates - Dr. Michael Rytel, Hefren-Tillotson, John & Tom Armstrong, Trail Stewards, John and Tom Armstrong, Trail Stewards, Levi Wilson, Marburger Farm Dairy, Outdoor Afro - Pittsburgh, Pro Bike + Run, Robert Reiland, Trail Steward, 3 Rivers Outdoor Co, Allison, Aloma Shim and Manufacturing, Ashley and Tim Godisart, ATTORNEY HAL ENGLISH, Betsy Monroe, Bob Vickers and family, Charlie & Paula Brethauer, Charlie and Paula Brethauer, Collective Efforts, LLC - Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cousins Adventure-Eve & Joyce, Cupec and Kengor families, Donna and John Stolz, GRM Kontracting, LLC, Hiking for Jonah and Suicide Prevention Awareness, Holly Tate Clark, James Antoniono, JARUS TECH, L. Sacha, Laura Barnes, Melissa, ODR, Patricia Burkett, Ron Pavlowsky & Linda Shea Pavlowsky, The American Mustache Institute, The CORE Group, The Godisart Family, Thriving Cousins ~ Joyce and Eve 2021, Troy Desai, AHN Prehospital Care Services, and Skyview Radio Society.