The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
~~ Robert Frost
I know Robert Frost has never hiked the Rachel Carson Challenge, but it is his words that play in my head as I put one foot in front of the other, step after step, during my own journey on the trail. It is the tenth anniversary of the Challenge and along with nearly 550 other intrepid souls (or should that be soles?), I am making my way along the 34.5 miles from Harrison Hills to North Park.., in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA.
Many on the trail have been there before, some several times. For many others, like me, it is their first Challenge attempt. It had been my goal for well over a year to hike the Challenge but last year I had been sidelined due to an injury. I volunteered instead and that experience served me well � I knew that I would need to train to be able to successfully complete the Challenge.
I also ran into an old childhood friend at last year’s Challenge. Forty-something, like me, Don Huber had me laughing when he told me during his first attempt at the Challenge that he had to quit at the Tastee Freeze, only about one-half mile from the finish line. Exhausted, in pain, well over the qualifying time and in the dark, he begged his friend to just go on without him while he consumed a Slurpy. After that attempt, Don swore he would be back. “The Challenge is a promise that I make to myself to stay in shape,” he said. Prior to Saturday, he had successfully completed three of his four attempts.
Kathleen and Paul on the Rachel Carson Challenge
Paul, my partner and I, although always fairly active in hiking and biking, began hiking in earnest a few months before June 24th, the BIG DAY. We traversed the trail as much as our busy schedules would allow. There were parts of the trail that we grew to love -- the quiet, the beauty, the scenery. There were parts of the trail were grew to hate -- the mud, the slopes, the hot road stretches. With an extreme fear of heights, at one place in the trail, I burst into tears � twice. Ever patient, Paul would see me through.
A few days before what became known to us as “Game Day,” the challenge discussion line became alive with questions…”Where do I park?” “How much food should I bring?” “How do I prevent blisters?” It is obvious that many new timers are nervous.
For days in advance, I worried. My right foot, having had three surgeries over the years, kept swelling and hurting during our longer training hikes. I strained a muscle in my right knee. Was I going to make it? From the discussion line, others worried as well.
I couldn’t sleep the night before, finally dozing for four hours before I gave up and got ready. We had a friend drive us to the starting point in the dark where we checked in. “I can’t believe how many people are here,” Paul said.
Somewhere in the crowd was Timberly Matonic, 23. A former Pittsburgh resident, she came back from California for the Challenge. “I have done the Challenge twice before in 2003 and 2004 when I still resided in Pittsburgh. I missed it last year due to lack of travel funds,” she said before the event.
At about 5:20 a.m. we filed across the starting line-up, confirming the numbers when our electronic tags were read out loud by the volunteers. Then off into dark woods, searching for the yellow blazes on the trees.
The yellow blazes mark the Rachel Carson Trail as all RC hikers know by now. Paul refers to them as “comfort blazes” because they reassure wandering hikers they are on the right trail. Several times we had strayed from the trails during training hikes. On Game Day, we didn’t want to waste even one step by following the wrong path. Early on, we make this mistake with a small group as we follow white blazes in Harrison Hills Park due to the dark. Fortunately, we travel only about 50 feet when someone notices the mistake. We file back into the long line of hikers.
I also know Dave Syiak is running up front. I knew Dave from an article I had written and he had noticed my name in the volunteer list. We emailed back and forth. He was hoping to run the challenge in eight and one half hours. I was just hoping to finish.
We are happy to have volunteers warning us against barbed wire, opening gates that in training we crawled over, holding up wire that in training we crawled through. On and on we go.
There is a section in the trail fairly early on that dips severely down then juts right back up. Hikers get backed up here in a big way as they slowly descend, taking care on the muddy slope. “Just tuck and roll,” someone from the rear yells and we all break out in nervous laughter. I worry as I stand there that I will take too long and make folks angry. As we finally start to descend, a young man starts racing past me, then starts sliding headed right for me. I brace myself waiting for the slam, legs tensed. He stops at the last minute, laughs, apologizes and slowly works his way down next to me. My right knee starts throbbing; the tensing wasn’t good for the bad muscle at all.
One of the best parts of hiking the trail, if not the best, is the people. When I find out two young men are from the Cleveland area, I ask them how they found out about the RCC. “Our friend is from here and he did it last year,” explained one. “He sent out a challenge for some of us to join him. When a gentleman slaps me in the face with his gloves and challenges me, I can’t let it go unanswered!” he joked.
We are grateful it isn’t raining after a long haul of rainy days. But the humidity is awful. I sweat from places I didn’t know I could sweat from. “Are my eyebrows sweating?” I ask Paul. We hike on and on, single file, folks joking, folks sweating.
Paul, a big guy at 6’ 4”, 220 pounds, always jokes how much he sweats and worries about cramping. Instead, it is me who starts cramping. My left foot and toes are killing me. I drink and drink and drink. And I sweat and sweat and sweat.
As we traverse hills and paths, roadways and jump over creeks, the humidity is getting to folks. Some stop and rest. Others are pouring water over their heads. It is hard.
The hardest stretch of the RC going east to west is segment two. I know this as we pass checkpoint one and I wish I didn’t. My personal “Hill of Fear” is in this segment as well as some others. I hate this part of the trail. I truly hate it.
We make our way down what we refer to as “Chimney Hill” because Paul pointed out we were looking down someone’s chimney the first time we hiked this part of the trail. I joke with a man behind me then I take a little off-shoot, sit on my butt and slide over a rock. “Hey, that saved me. I’m going that way,” he says. We chat for a while before we are separated by our length of strides.
We stop at a Sheetz store where I use the restroom. I look in the mirror and marvel at the sweat and mud on me. We aren’t even halfway finished.
If you are a hiker of the RC, you know that I am approaching the dreaded “Hill of Fear.” At the end of an uphill road walk, hikers make a sharp left and go up a very steep hillside. Several hikers are stopped at the bottom, looking up, resting before their attempt. Paul knows how difficult this hill is for me. We stop and rest. “This is the steepest hill on the trail,” a veteran hiker tells a first-timer, unfamiliar with the trail.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I say. We go up the hill, me in record time. I keep going. I think Paul is afraid to say anything. Finally, he says, “You did really great on the hill.” I smile at him, “I know. I told myself that I never have to do that hill ever -- again.” We laugh and go on. There are more hills to face.
One of the saving graces of the RC trail is the stretches in the woods. The beauty of Western Pennsylvania is undeniable. On Game Day, the cool air and protection from the sun are lifesavers.
But there are still hills in the woods. As we approach yet another hill, I am tired of them. Some hikers are taking a breather at the bottom. I swear softly. One of the hikers laughs and says, “That’s exactly how I feel.” I sheepishly look at him and reply, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I said it out loud.” He says, “Don’t worry, what happens in the woods, stays in the woods.” We all laugh. Then we climb the hill.
The rolling hills outside of Springdale are brutal, thanks to the constant sun and heat. We go on and on and I wonder if I can make it. It is so damn hot. Suddenly I hear a noise and turn to see that Paul has slid and fallen. He immediately gets back up but I notice his face is the color of his shirt � light grey. He assures me he is fine and he truly isn’t hurt from the fall but the humidity is killing him. I am scared.
I got Paul into the RC Challenge. It was my dream, my goal. When one of my editors learned we were doing this, her reply was, “He must love you A LOT.” He does and because of that, he is here. And now, because of me, he is sick from the heat.
We approach the final piece leading up to Checkpoint 3. One guy that I remembered from the year before, a tough, tough man, is bowing out. We stop next to a few other folks and a kind soul is handing out bottles of water. Paul asks if he can use some to dump on his head and the guy is generous, handing him a few. Oddly, I feel great at this point. Maybe it is because I resign myself to the fact we will stop at Checkpoint 3 where my best-friend is meeting us with clean socks and enthusiasm. It is okay, we went farther than we ever had in one day. I am prepared to stop.
Paul keeps walking and feels better. “That guy saved me,” he says. I am still resigned that we will stop, more so when I am stung by a hornet on my back during a restroom stop. We approach Log Cabin Road hill. I am thinking of sliding on my butt to save my knee when I see a couple of younger folks doing that very thing. An elegant, tiny woman drops to her butt and starts sliding. “Forget the pride, this is much safer,” she says. I drop to my butt, and scuttle along, sometimes on my butt, sometimes just crunched down, sort of skiing like. I am laughing and Paul is laughing with me.
My friend isn’t there. We had arrived 45 minutes earlier than we had estimated. We drink gallons of ice cold Gatorade, stock up on water, and go on. The giant hill just yonder challenges us. “We will just take it really slow,” Paul says. We climb up and I call my friend from the top. “Meet us at Emmerling Park,” I tell her.
I can see for miles and miles
At this point, we are ahead of our self-imposed schedule. Well, it isn’t really self-imposed. We need to meet the official deadlines. We had already decided as long as we finished, no matter how long it took us, we would be happy. Of course, that was before Game Day.
We look around at the top of this hill, knowing this is the last of the really big climbs. It is a good feeling. We see Log Cabin Road Hill just across the road. But there are still miles to go. We go on.
There is more butt sliding, more climbs, more road crossings, more people, more jokes. We keep walking and walking and walking. At Emmerling Park, again we beat my friend and keep going. My brother, Jack, calls from Washington � a through hiker of the Appalachian Trail and cancer survivor, he is my hero, my buddy, my hiking mentor. “We have about 25 miles done,” I tell him. “Right on. Keep eating. Don’t forget to eat,” he says. I take out a Cliff bar because I haven’t been eating, just drinking and gulping gels (concentrated energy formulas; "Gatorade in a gel.")
As we walk out of the park and up the road, there is a guy who has written L on the back of his left leg and R on the back of his right. We joke with him and go on.
The last checkpoint is ahead. I remember fairly well where it will be from my volunteer stint the year before but Paul feels like we are walking on the road forever. We see it, drink some manna � i.e. Gatorade -- and go on. This is the most familiar part of the trail to us. It is close to home and we have done it several times. We feel safe, we feel happy. I don’t yet begin to entertain thoughts that we may finish.
In only about one short mile, I need to stop and rest my sore knee for a second, see poison ivy and move. I am cranky; I am tired, I am sore. “I might not make it,” I say to Paul. I am near tears. “It’s okay,” he says. I have told him to go on if I can’t. We have talked about this before the Challenge. But he has consistently said he wouldn’t finish without me. We keep going.
We walk up McCully Road in Hampton. It is hot and we want out of the sun. Thankfully, the trail slips through the woods of Hampton Park, by the stadium and there, at the Hampton Middle School where my own kids go to school, my best friend, Melissa, waits.
She is waiting with a guy who is also cheering on his friends. “You guys are doing great,” she says. She takes a photo, and then she takes our Camelbacks to lighten our final steps. I take a gel, a Cliff bar and a Gatorade. Paul takes two Gatorades and a gel. “Wait,” I tell her. I reach into my pack and pull out some photos. I have one of my brother and I, one of my kids with Jack, and one of Melissa and I. I have Paul with me so I need no photo. I stuff the photos in my pocket and we go on.
Fifteen hour deadline
At the Rt. 8 crossing, we are held up with other hikers. The guy who had been waiting with Melissa walks with his friends. One of the hikers has an English accent and says when I apologize for holding him up, “We couldn’t travel any faster anyways.”
I am still worried we aren’t going to get in under the fifteen hour limit. As we walk along the railroad ties right before we enter North Park, we meet up with Donna and her co-worker, Marc. I say to Paul, “I am worried that you wouldn’t make the cutoff as I am walking too slowly.” Marc says, “You don’t have to worry. It isn’t even 7 p.m.”
I start thinking we may make it.
Donna, who hiked the trail last year, says, “I will make it if it kills me.” I am starting to feel optimistic. “The beauty of it is that it wouldn’t.” I tell her. “I know,” she says smiling.
The friend hiking with his friends bids them good-bye as they enter the woods on the edge of North Park. “Only two more miles,” he says to us. We enter the woods. As we walk along the edge of a steep hill, I am scared and tired. “Are you okay?” Donna asks. “I’m afraid of heights,” I say. “Focus up here,” Paul points.
Soon, we cross a road, enter another section of woods. Marc pulls out his map and states we are 1.9 miles from the finish. We disagree with him, for whatever reason, and keep going. The pine trees smell so good and I am happy that I notice the smell and enjoy it. I am still alive!
As we trek up the long, last hill, Paul and I talk about mundane things, just listening to each other. We cross by a picnic area where the partiers cheer us on. As we cross a field, I am overcome with joy and tears come to my eyes. I know I am going to finish it. I know that at this point, I would crawl to the finish line. I know I don’t have to.
Kahtleen and Paul at the Finish Line, 35 miles later
We come down into the park and past the Tastee Freeze. I think of Don and smile. We continue, cross the road and soon, the finish line is in sight. “We have one last challenge for you,” one of the volunteers says as we take a log over a creek and climb up the other side. At this point, it is nothing.
I can’t believe how happy I feel when the crowd starts applauding Paul and I as we come in. I am so joyful and proud. I stop and kiss him.
We did it. Our time is just over 14 hours.
Don Huber managed to resist the lure of the Slurpy and finished in front of us. Dave Syiak cramped up during the challenge and run/jogs to a finish over his goal but in what I still consider excellent time. Timberly Matonic gets injured and pulled out at Checkpoint two but still had a great time. Donna and Marc finish shortly after Paul and me.
By Kathleen Ganster