The weather was almost perfect for a 34-in-one- day hike. Well, as perfect as it can be for such an undertaking.
More than 600 hikers and runners attempted the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, an event that takes hikers over trails, roads, creeks and ups-and-downs for almost 36 miles from North Park to Harrison Hills Park. Though billed as “34-in-one-day” it is closer to the 36-mile mark due to reroutes and trail changes.
The weather was rather low humidity and in the 70s to 80s on Saturday, the day of the event. Another 200 hikers and runners took on the Homestead Challenge, a 17-mile event and another 70 the Friends and Family 8-mile challenge.
Three Upper St. Clair residents were among the 600 taking on “The Challenge.” It was Mike Lloyd’s second challenge and his brother-in-law, Paul Kohler, and their friend, Steve Franz’ first attempt. Lloyd was completing the Challenge as part of his own “Visionquest,” a three-part journey including the long hike, to raise money for Camp AIM at the South Hills YMCA. The three men were also joined by their friend, Mike Walsh, of Bethel Park.
Lloyd was in a good mood Friday night at the early check-in at North Park. Along with hundreds of other hikers and runners, he was picking up group’s computer fobs that participants wear to register their times. There are four checkpoints along the route and hikers and runners are scanned in to log their official times and to keep track of participants.
“I’m ready to go,” he said with a big smile as he waited in line.
On Saturday, Lloyd logged into his Twitter account so folks could follow his progress. Last year, his wife and four girls met him at the rest areas to cheer him on, but with an upcoming graduation party for his second daughter, Jennifer, 18, they had preparations at home. In addition to Jennifer, Lloyd and his wife, Janet, have Coleen, 20, Emily, 14, and Melissa, 11.
At checkpoint three, Walsh and Eileen Maxwell, a friend of Lloyd’s that he met at last year’s event, came in a few moments before him. “They have those long legs and I just can’t keep up,” he joked.
Then he added, “I have to be careful to pace myself.” He was separated from Kohler and Franz who he said were behind him. Kohler had an injury that had worried him before the event, but, according to Lloyd, he was still on the trail.
After refueling on Gatorade, filling their hydration packs and grabbing some snacks, they were off again, half of the Challenge under their belts.
I later learned from Lloyd that Kohler and Franz stopped at that point the unofficial half-way point of the Challenge. “They were really hurting at that point,” he said. A little more than 17 miles is a pretty good hike on any given day, Challenge or not.
As the day progressed, Lloyd said there were a few times when it became, well, "a Challenge."
“I think during any endurance event that there are times when you hit a difficult moment or two, but that is where I have the advantage of the Visionquest because it keeps me going,” he said.
After the last rest area was when Lloyd struggled the most, he said, and in fact, is where Walsh called it a day.
“He had some pretty significant blisters and those can really do you in,” said Lloyd. Checkpoint four is approximately 27 miles into the trail.
Although this year’s elements were more favorable than last year during Lloyd’s first Challenge, the course is usually rated harder by hikers because it runs west to east this year with some of the harder hills at the end.
“I much prefer to get all the hard hills done early. That last hill really had my attention,” he said.
Laughing, he shared the story of three young women who were hiking right behind him and Maxwell. Two of the women were veteran Challenge hikers and sharing their own personal labels for each hill of the course. “When she asked the name of this particular hill, a stream of profanities came out of this sweet, young mouth like you wouldn’t believe,” he said, “And then I said, ‘Well, that pretty much describes it.’”
The last five miles, Lloyd said he and Maxwell made very good time, both getting another burst of energy and picking up the finish to the end. As they came into the final checkpoint, Lloyd and Maxwell hugged and posed for photos and Lloyd met up with his family.
“It feels so good to be done,” Maxwell said with a big smile, “It was a tough one, but I am done.”
Like many Challengers, Maxwell and Lloyd have formed a lasting bond on the Challenge. At the finish line picnic, time and time again, hikers exchanged emails, phone numbers and Facebook names.
Now that the first part of Lloyd’s three-part Visionquest is under his belt, he is preparing for his bike ride to DC in July. “I’m out for a bike ride today,” he said, only two days after his 35 mile-in-one-day hike.
The final component of Lloyd’s Visionquest will be in August when he takes on the half-marathon at Pike’s Peak. “I don’t think that I am blessed with the restraint that assists in body preservation,” he said, “But it is for a great cause.”