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Valley News Dispatch

Rachel Carson Challenge filled

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Courtesy of Makenzie O'Connor
Makenzie O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside approaches the finish line of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge on Saturday, June 24, 2017.
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Courtesy of Makenzie O'Connor
Makenzie O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside emerges from the woods at Harrison Hills Park and approaches the finish line of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge on Saturday, June 24, 2017. O'Connor was the first to cross the finish line. It was the first time a woman finished first in the challenge's history.

The Rachel Carson Challenge, 35 miles of brutal hiking June 23, one of the longest days of the year, has sold out just as it does every year.

Now it’s selling out more quickly, according to organizers.

The challenge, named after the famous environmentalist, is a 35-mile-long, one-day, sunrise-to-sunset endurance hike on the Rachel Carson Trail from Harrison to North Park. Not a footrace, but an endurance challenge, the deadline for finishing is sunset.

The noncompetitive challenge, now in its 22nd year, has a cap for 600 participants for the full challenge. About 720 slots were sold last month, from which at least 100 participants are expected to drop out. The half-challenge also sells out quickly.

“It’s a testament to the popularity of the event that is almost legendary now as it’s definitely a difficult hike,” said Steve Mentzer of McCandless, event coordinator for the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy.

After the challenge, many hikers cannot walk normally for several days, Mentzer said.

“That’s what it is all about — getting out there and testing your limits and seeing if you trained enough,” he said.

Organizers oversell the event because they know at least about 100 people will realize how hard it is, usually after a few training hikes, and will drop out.

Using multiple rounds of a lottery system to pick participants, it took three selections over three weeks to sell out, a week earlier than last year, Mentzer said.

He reports fielding more emails and phone calls from people looking to participate.

“I don’t know if it’s a boom time now or a continual trend,” Mentzer said. “People have leisure time and want to get out of their office and experience the world.”

As ultra races and running races grow in popularity, it’s not surprising that hiking challenges would go in the same direction, according to Libby Wile, senior director of programs for the American Hiking Society headquartered in Silver Spring, Md.

The organization founded and runs the National Trails Day, an event promoting trails and their maintenance.

“There are thousands of events on trails across the country, and people can get their feet wet trying out these events,” she said.

Interest is driven by a number of factors, Wile said, including a combination of greater information on trails and events through social media and interested walkers looking for destinations and events they can drive to easily.

Demand exceeds supply for the Rachel Carson Challenge, but the organizers aren’t looking to add more days or events.

There are only so many volunteers to help plan just one event with 1,000 people on the trail, Mentzer said.

The event requires much planning by a lot of volunteers, said Donna Stolz of Shaler, a volunteer coordinator and board member who leads the free training hikes, which started earlier this spring.

The length of the weekly training hikes gets longer after starting at 7.3 miles from Harrison Hills to Bull Creek.

“With the training hikes, people realize that this is much more difficult than they thought,” Stolz said.

The Rachel Carson Trail is anything but gentle.

It’s primitive, steep and wet in some sections. The hills are merciless — straight up and down, no switchbacks.

Stolz described her first challenge in 2005 as horrible.

“I lost about seven toenails, had blisters the size of silver dollars and I was falling at the end,” she said.

Amazingly, she did it again in 2006, then decided to volunteer and help others prepare for the ultra hiking event.

“I don’t feel a need to do the challenge again,” she added.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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