The Sky Was Blue ... (From "Stagger Lee", Lloyd Price, 1959)

The Saga of the 1999 RCT Challenge

The sky was blue; the air was cool; the trail was clean; the water was low. spirits were high. That pretty much sums up rctc '99. A grand total of 195 entries put 390 feet on the Rachel Carson Trail treadway on June 19, 1999. Seventy-seven (74) athletes ran, walked, climbed, scooted, and stumbled their way through the 33.24 miles from the Beaver Shelter in North Park to the Ox Roast Shelter in Harrison Hills Park. The first finisher, Frank Eyth, of Pittsburgh, ambled into Harrison Hills at 12:50 pm, so early no one was there to greet him. By the time the support services got there, he had gone home and left a note with a party of picnickers at the nearby Ox Roast Shelter. So good were conditions, and so primed were the athletes that the second finisher, John DeWalt, of Sarver, PA, knocked nearly two hours off his personal best finish at 3:30 PM in 1997 finishing at 1:35 PM, and newcomer Stephen Downing, of Sewickley, was only a short distance behind, finishing at 2:10 PM.

The best weather day of the year greeted the Challengers at they checked in at 5:30 AM to get their shirts, maps, and 3-minute orientation before striking out across the causeway to the Rachel Carson Trail. The high temp for the day was 74 degrees; when the sun approached midafternoon, the clouds cooly complied by filling the sky, filtering the sunlight into mellow warmth.

The hikers were supposed to hit the Route 8 crossing by 7:10 am; we had carefully calculated the times the fastest hikers would hit each key point along the Trail. By the time Cele and I got there to direct traffic and provide a safe crossing, dozens of hikers were streaming out of the woods and out across the highway, unattended. They were way ahead of schedule. I called Leo (Stember, co-organizer) and said "You'd better set up Shaffer Road early because they're going to outrun our checkpoints".

At Shaffer Road, the runners' vanguard, led by John DeWalt, Frank Eyth, and Stephen Downing were coming into sight as the very first marshal began to set up. Within minutes, dozens more were coming in, looking great actually, cool, relaxed, dry; having a good day. Personal Bests were going to be the order of the day. Sylvia gave out bandages for blister, Jim Crist and daughter Emma provided the entertainment at CP1 (Check Point 1) with Emma quizzing hikers on who they voted for for president, their favorite color, movie, song, etc. Frank, whose granddaughter was running the Challenge, steered hikers to the checklist; Jim Crist made sure they had checked in before they left.

As the day went on, the pace picked up. Many hikers were actually picking up steam as they headed down the Trail, starting off slow from North Park to Shafer and building up speed as they progressed. Past Casey's, where Marshal Vince made sure the hikers stayed on track along the entrance road and back through the equipment yard.

At Emmerling Park, Marshals Patty and Steve directed the Challengers to water and restrooms, their last before hitting the first big Rachel Carson Hill, Rich Hill by name, a half-mile long climb, so steep at the bottom you can reach out and touch the dirt in front of your face as you rise up its face. I stood at the top of Rich Hill to congratulate hikers as they made it to the top, offering water and sympathy.

Soon, as they jammed their toes into the front of their hiking boots and running shoes going down LaFever Hill, they could look ahead past CP2 and see the hill known as "Mile 14". Nearly a mile long itself, Mile 14 seems to stretch to the sky; tiny hikers off in the distance, strung out like sparse beads on a cheap necklace were scattered in a mile-long chain. Marshals Jack and Blanche, at the bottom of the hill, gave out water, snacks, and friendly advice.

Next came the turnoff to the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale with Marhals Vince and Hugh taking turns directing traffic on the pipeline at the end of the Roller Coaster. The Roller Coaster consists of five sharp hills, all in a row, in track no more than one mile long. One young woman, sitting by the turnoff for awhile contemplating her fate, decided to give it a go and headed on down the trail, rejecting the temptation to quit and rest, to eat, drink, get a massage, and be merry, instead choosing to challenge the dreaded unknown ahead. Five minutes later, she came back in, giving it up, today anyway, and headed for the crowd of 75 particpants who pounded out the 17 mile trek to Rachel's House.

Next stop was Sheetz where Marshals Patty and Steve reappeared, with a shelter set up to block the sun that barely peeped through the cloud cover. CP3, however, was in full view of Crawford's Hill, a power line right-of-way rocketing out of the valley below, 300 feet to a crest overlooking the distant Allegheny River and New Kensington. The mild sun, the low streams, the gentle breeze, and wonderful trail conditions were no match for Challengers '99. Nearly everyone who got to Sheetz managed, ultimately, to finish at Harrison Hills.

In the meantime, Leo was missing the leaders at nearly every checkpoint. It was Leo's job to open up the checkpoints and get the Marshals in place with water, snacks, checklists, and instructions. Getting to Springdale Hollow/Riddle Run Road just in time to see them disappear over the top of the hill, he sped to the next road crossing hoping to intercept. Soon they came and Leo was able to water and feed the leaders.

We tried to intimidate the hikers by placing CP4 at the very bottom and edge of Burtner Hill, with perhaps the steepest rise of the entire trail at their fingertips. Even that, however, was not able to turn back a single hiker. Everyone who passed CP4 made it to the end, with time to spare.

The best parts of every Challenge are the stories shared at the end of the day, stories of heroism and cowardice, comedy and tragedy, elation and disappointment, strategy and blunder, the struggles and the insights of the human animal testing its limits. In one story, a guy and a gal are hiking, past the Homestead, past Sheetz, approaching Burtner. He keeps asking her if she's OK and tells her if she wants to, they can quit, it's OK, he doesn't want her to be miserable. All the while, he's secrectly hoping she says "OK, I've had enough". But, she never says it, she just keeps on going. He's getting pretty pooped and begins to be just a little concerned that HE will make it. In the end, they both make it, but he's just a little worse for the wear and tear.

Another two guys had reached the Homestead and left the Trail to get some water and food and contemplate continuation. While their, they decided to get the free massage being offered their by Bob Rock, Martha Braun, and company from Allegheny Advanced Medicine. AAM must know what it's doing, because after the massage these guys couldn't believe how good they felt, just like they felt at 5:30 in the morning at the start, as good as new. So, they jumped back onto the trail and finished at Harrison Hills with nearly an hour to spare.

As an aside, the folks form AAM gave more than 60 massages to hikers who either finished or stopped into the Rachel Carson Homestead for a break. Homestead Director Mark Tomlinson had food and drink on hand as well as telephones and toilets for those coming in off the Trail.

At Harrison Hills, Leo and I were monitoring all the hikers out on the Trail. Using the CheckPoint sheets, they could tell who was still out, who had quit, and what time anyone had gone past the CP. One couple, Bob and Lisa, were the only two people unaccounted for: they had passed Sheetz, CP3, but hours later, they had never reached Burtner, CP4. CP4 shut down at 7 pm. What would happen it they had been lost and came in 15 minutes later? 8 PM-no word. 8:30 PM-still no word. We kept asking other hikers coming in to the Park if they'd seen anyone behind them. "No". Finally, in desparation, and on a hunch, I called Bob at home. No answer. Then Lisa. "Hello". They had "bailed out" at Bailey's Run, in spite of the pun. All accounted for.

As the last rays of the sun were being snuffed out on the western horizon, and Leo and I were packing up our gear to make our forced exit from Harrison Hills Park, one of the Challengers came up to me and thanked me and all of us for the work we had put into the event, saying "You know, I had to prove something to myself, and you gave me the opportunity to do that. Thanks, It is appreciated."

Sometimes when you're pushing your limits and you're really tired, your mind has a hard time keeping in focus. One of the leaders got to within a half mile of the end of the hike, and couldn't locate a turn. He looked and looked and walked back and forth and up and down and just couldn't see it. After nearly 20 minutes of tracking and backtracking and retracking he found the turn and in 10 more minutes finished the hike. Oddly, the blaze at that turn was, in fact, in full view, and no one else mentioned having a problem at that point.

At the little dirt slide coming down into CP4 at Burtner Hill, our Trail Photographer, Jim Ritchie, Jr., was laying in the weeds waiting to get some action shots of hikers scooting down the slide to the edge of the small creek. After a couple of minutes, 3 hikers appeared at the crest of the slide and began to assume the scooting position, butt to dirt, to get down the slide without breaking a leg. As soon as they saw the photographer, however, they had to do the macho thing, and quickly bolting to their feet, ran down the slide, standing upright, hell bent for leather, nearly going down face first at the bottom.

Dwight Fox of Aspinwall, a Baker Trail volunteer, earned the nickname "Mr. Clean" as he came strolling into Harrison Hills at 5:35 PM looking like he had spent the afternoon at Monroeville Mall, no sweaty clothing and hardly a single speckle of mud on his pants. Gino Santucci came in at 7:35 PM wearing a pair of shorts and carrying nothing else except a fanny pack hardly big enough to carry his car keys and a single water bottle. Leo dubbed him the "minimalist".

As Stan Schiffman approached the cutoff to the Rachel Carson Homestead, he had not seen anyone behind him for a long, long, time. He expected that he was probably running dead last. On the “roller coaster”, less than a mile to go, he could see two people up ahead-they were hitting the peaks of the coaster just as he was. Then, they went into a dip on the roller coaster and he never saw them again. When he got to the cut off, and asked Marshal Hugh what happened, Hugh said he saw them go down and he never saw them again either. They never came back up. So Stan went in to the Homestead and 45 minutes later, here they come, straggling in. Evidently they had cut over onto a side street and wandered the streets of Springdale, looking for the Homestead, allowing Stan the satisfaction of coming in ahead of someone-anyone.

Dave Schramm, came in to register at North Park with his two boys, Jordan and Ben, only minutes before we pulled up stakes and headed for CP1. They got their t-shirts and bananas and headed out across the causeway to the Trail. About 7 or 8 minutes later, as we finished up packing our supplies, I thought I heard something in the direction of the Trail, so I glanced over to see what was going on. There was one of Dave’s boys skipping stones across the pond from the edge of the causeway. Obviously, they were here for the pleasure of a day in the woods and on the Trail without regard to making high mileage.

The Rumons, 3 girls with Dad, at Mile 14 whispered to one of the Marshals that they wanted to quit. And they looked pretty bushed. When one of the CP Marshals asked if they wanted a ride, they said no, they had an obsessed dad who was going to force them to make it to the Homestead, and they had to make him happy. At the Homestead, the girls stopped out while Dad went on to finish at 6:50 PM in Harrison Hills. Congrats, Dave!

How many people saw the guy who was just in North Park taking a walk at 5:30 in the morning, saw all the hikers going by and decided to follow them; 2 hours later he’s at the Shaffer Road Checkpoint using his cell phone trying to tell his wife where he is; problem is he doesn’t know himself. I saw him crossing Route 8 looking up at the sky like “Where am I? What am I doing here?” I assume he eventually got home OK.

Did you know Elizabeth Taylor was one of our Challengers? No lie! She made the Homestead at 3:40 PM. Good job, Liz!

Barb Peterson was thrilled with her time, finishing at 4:35 PM, knocking hours off her 1997 finish. She just keeps getting better, year after year. There were only 5 two-time finishers competing in 1999: Barb, Don Erdeljac, Pat Goebl, John Havel, and Tom Bevan. Don’s our Rachel Carson Trail maintenance volunteer extraordinaire, Pat is part of team EMS, and John and Tom came out for the “May Hikes” this year; those are the four “training hikes” we do on 2 consecutive weekends in May to give people an opportunity to train physically, but also to learn the “look and feel” of the Rachel Carson Trail. Then, of course, we have our one and only one 3-time finisher, John DeWalt of Sarver. John, too, keeps getting better and better, finishing this year at 1:35 PM.

The men who finished the 1999 Challenge ranged in age from 19 (Drew Shaub, of Glenshaw) to 63 (John DeWalt) and the women from 16 (Megan Rogers of Allison Park) to 68 (Sally Martin, 68, of Bradford Woods, finished at Harrison Hills at 8:20 PM-talk about getting better and better). In total, 13 women and 61 men finished the entire “34 miles in one day”. Not bad, not bad at all.

-jim ritchie