Hiking 36 miles in one day through the hills of western Pennsylvania may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for the past 25 years, it has been an annual challenge for over 600 runners and hikers. Another 300 adventurers take on 18 miles, with about 100 people participating in an eight mile hike along the same route.
This year, the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy will hold its 25th Rachel Carson Trail Challenge on June 18th—a hike that is known for its 15,000 feet of ascending and descending hills, creek crossings and more often than not, lots and lots of mud.
The challenge takes place on a section of the Rachel Carson Trail, a 45.7-mile trail between Harrison Hills Park and North Park in Allegheny County. The name is due to the fact that it passes by the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale. It always takes place on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice to allow as much daylight as possible for participants. Each year, the challenge direction is reversed.
‘The Rachel’ as many call the event, is unlike a race in that while participants are timed, there is no winner.
“The Challenge is different in that, officially, it’s a test of endurance and not speed. Beyond that, the only limit being tested is the one you set for yourself. For some, it’s simply to finish,” said Executive Director Steven Mentzer.
That doesn’t mean that time doesn’t matter. Participants have 15 hours and four minutes or until sunset to finish, whichever comes first. And many use time as a measure.
“For some, speed is also part of the test, whether it’s to finish faster than they did previously, or faster than their friend, or faster than everyone older than them,” Mentzer said. “Of course, the trail itself is the most notorious limit to overcome, with its undulating terrain and the vigilance required to stay on it.”
Challenge cofounders Jim Ritchie and Leo Stember came up with the idea of The Rachel in 1996. “We were doing a lot of maintenance, at least every weekend. In spite of that, the trail was always being overgrown,” Ritchie said. The two hoped to increase awareness and to ‘burn in’ the trail, creating a path that wouldn’t disappear so quickly.
As they tossed out ideas, the reality TV show Eco-Challenge, a favorite of both of theirs, came to mind. “They featured adventure racers climbing, mountain biking, paddling, and hiking through wilderness, competing to be the best, but also to prove to themselves they could do this,” said Ritchie. “We thought, ‘What if we did that on the RCT?’”
The idea percolated, and soon they were planning a challenge that comprised hiking the full 34 miles of the RCT in one day.
“That would get boots, lots of them, on the trail. That would burn in our track. Could anyone hike 34 miles in one day? Could we organize an event like this? We decided to give it a try,” said Ritchie.
Since its origin, the challenge has been held every year except 1998, when they weren’t able to recruit enough volunteers, and 2020 because of COVID. The event takes quite a few volunteers; a few hundred people are needed not only on event day, but to plan, create and maintain the trails throughout the year, and to staff the start, checkpoints and rest stops, finish and picnic.
The 18-mile Homestead Challenge was started to give people a less demanding goal, according to Mentzer. “It was held from 1996-2000, then from 2007 to the present,” he said. “The Family Challenge was held in 1996 as a five-mile loop in North Park. It returned in 2007 as a seven-mile hike to encourage families to share an adventure with their kids and to introduce people to hiking when they’re young.”
Jim Antoniono holds the record for the oldest hiker to complete the Challenge at age 75 last year.
“I love the Rachel. I love the fact that it is both a physical as well as a mental challenge. It is not a boring hike—you hike in the woods, on roads, through fields, by houses, back and forth through creeks, up and down challenging and very steep hills—it’s hard to believe a trail like this could be woven through suburban Allegheny County,” he said.
Antoniono’s son, Jaimie, came from Nevada last year to complete the challenge. Like Jaimie, there are numerous participants from out of town, although the majority are from the greater Pittsburgh area.
Dario Donatelli Jr. was the youngest to ever complete the challenge at age 12 in 2000. Ken Zellers, 73, has completed the most full challenges and is hoping to log his 20th this year.
“I started because it was fun and different as opposed to ‘street’ running,” he said. “The best parts of the challenges are the scenery and other participants and volunteers, and the hot and humid days are the worst part. And now that I’m getting older, the hills.”
Zellers often hikes with his son, Karl, who will be taking on his 17th challenge. Anne Satariano-Gasperich has completed the most Homestead Challenges at 14, completing every one since it was reinstated in 2007.
The actual route has seen many changes over the years. “The trail is longer now and there’s less road,” Mentzer explained, with many reroutes due to erosion, land ownership challenges and the desire for more wooded scenery. In the beginning, the challenge was just over 34 miles.
Perhaps the most noted change in the past 25 years is the number of finishers. The first year, only five hardy souls out of 90 finished the challenge, due in part, Ritchie explained, to the condition of the trail, much of which was overgrown, and the fact that many didn’t understand the level of difficulty. Now, the event sells out in April, and the majority of those who sign up finish.
For more information about the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy and events, visit www.rachelcarsontrails.org.