Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

Two of us battle a short, steep trail during the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge


Like it was made just for me

I mean, come on, when an ultraunner reads something like this, what do you expect?

The Rachel Carson Trail is a “primitive” trail in the sense that no special grading or surfacing materials are used. While the trail is blazed with yellow blazes, there will be an occasional missing blaze where a tree has fallen or when you are following a logging road, a power line or gas line; there will be blow downs, washouts, poison ivy, nettles, bugs, loose gravel and rocks, gullies, and wet stream crossings. There are no switchbacks on the trail; all hills — some are quite steep — are traversed directly up and down. You must be prepared to expect the unexpected and think the unthinkable.

It took me about five seconds to request entry.

The Race …That Isn’t

The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge was first designed as a hiking challenge; however, ultrarunners began to hear about it, and nowadays, come race day, there are usually about 100 ultrarunners who intend to run it, and about 400 who intend to fast-pack, or hike, the full 34 miles (This year the race was 35.1 miles).

Naturally, I chose to run it.

Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

They might not call it race, but for the folks up front, we were racing :)

No Idea What to Expect

I’ve raced all over the place. Europe, Central America, East Coast, West Coast, Pacific Northwest …but I have never run anywhere north of the state of Virginia.

The Rachel Carson is in Pittsburgh, and all I could think about was, “Pittsburgh? They have trails in Pittsburgh?” – yup, they do, and they are beautiful, and unusual and gnarly and spectacular and fun and challenging and chock full of some of the most deliciously thick and diverse vegetation I’ve ever seen on any trail, anywhere.

I didn’t know anything about the terrain, the area, nor the trails. I just showed up with a pair of shorts, a pair of shoes, two-hand-held bottles, and 8 Chia Surge gels.

Come 5:20 a.m., I’m standing in the dark, clueless, and the only tat’d up, shirtless dude in the whole crowd. There are ~600 participants standing behind me, and everyone is eagerly awaiting the official start.

5:30 comes, and our chips are scanned one-by-one, as we take off into the woods.

I’m running in Pittsburgh. Woo Hoo!

The Most Unusual Trail in America

Cool view from the Rachel Carson trail

For those running the full 35.1 miles, we were running the entire length of the Rachel Carson Trail, point to point, start to finish. This trail was easily one of the most unique places I have ever run. The amount of diversity, and difficulty, that we experienced, all packed into 35 miles, was simply amazing.

Nipple-High Wheat Grass

In case I was boring you, hopefully this caught your attention; but seriously, there were patches of single-track trail that ran us through some very unusual tall wheat grass. For some reason, I felt like I was being shot in a butter commercial. What is this weird grass, anyway?

Super Steep Shorties

Even though we experienced 16,000 feet of elevation change, the climbs were never very long, just ridiculously steep. No switch-backs. No gradual lead-in climbs. Just straight-up and straight down. Constant climbing and usually on powerline cuts with really rocky, shifty footing that felt both dangerous, and exciting, at the same time.

climbs at Rachel Carson

Top-Notch Single Track

The single-track trail along the Rachel Carson is some of the best I’ve ever run. Lots of twist-n-turns, ups-n-downs, blow-downs, little creeks and streams, and challenging little sections that required swinging on tree branches around obstacles. There’s a section after the first aid station that just might be the most perfect stretch of single-track in the whole world.

Rachel Carson single-track

Crazy Little Towns

Clearly, the thing that stood out the most to me was the awkward, but sorta cool, way we’d be buried deep in dense, thick, wooded single-track trail, seemingly miles from the rest of the world, only to pop-out of the trail , smack dab into some kind of mill town. There was never really any movement in these little towns. The houses felt like something from the 20′s, and all lined up in a row, usually with some weird, rusting factory nearby, and the whole vibe just felt really nostalgic, …almost creepy and deserted.

Mill Town

This made following the trail difficult. When these little towns popped up, we had to look for blazes on the street, on buildings, telephone poles, and even around dumpsters.

More than once I found myself standing in the middle of some street, no one around, and no idea where to go. I’d just wait for another runner, and together, we’d figure it out.

Punishing Powerline Cuts

I’m not sure why this is, but for some reason, wherever there are powerline cuts, there are gnarly hills. Stupid-steep, crumbly, rocky climbs and descents that punish a runner’s hams and quads over and over and over again. The Rachel Carson event has more powerline cuts than any race I’ve ever done.

an example of the brutal descents

I bet we negotiated over 20 of them, but the one that stood out the most came with only 6 miles left, where we climbed two back-to-back sections that truly were straight-up. Not, overly-embellished “straight-up”, but literally, STRAIGHT FREAKIN’ UP.

Little Nuggets of Neighborhoods

Multiple times, we’d be running, once again seemingly miles from civilization, only to pop out of the woods and into a normal, everyday, midwest neighborhood. Locals would be sitting on porches cheering us on, offering refreshments, and doing their best to let us know how close we were to the finish. This was cool of them, but never very helpful because they were always way off and completely wrong regarding the remaining distances we had to run. {grins}

Surprise Trail Angels

Imagine this – you’re running along a short section of country road, getting baked in the morning heat and cursing the overhead sun. Then, like an oasis, a smiling woman appears on the side of the street, sitting under an umbrella, with a big-ass cooler full of popsicles.

“Would you like a popsicle,” she asks. “You can even have two.”

I’ll let you guess my response.

This went on throughout the race – random people offering all kinds of ice and refreshments to us as we progressed through the race. It got as hot as 90 degrees, and the heat was nasty in the afternoon, so all of these little ‘trail angels’ made the experience that much better. Thank you, trail angels. You are damn good people.

Chasing an 8-hour Goal

While the goal for the hikers is to complete the 35 miles in the allotted 15 hours or less, as a runner, I had a goal of completing the race in ~8 hours. When I say ~8 hours, I mean that I’m cool with 8:anything, so a 8:53 would have been just fine with me.

Another runner caught me with about 3 miles to go, and says, “we have 30 minutes to stay in the 8s and go sub-9.”

That’s all I needed to hear, and I took off with him, running with every little bit I had left.

I kinda hated passing people who I had been running with almost all day, but I really wanted that sub-9.

I missed it.


And true to the personality of the race, it ended on an uphill climb.

The race staff scanned my chip and I ended up the 29th finisher.

The day ended with a total of 384 participants finishing the full 35.1 miles, and a shocking 134 participants dropping out somewhere along the way. I’m sure the heat chewed up some people, and if you showed up to this event without any real trail experience, you definitely would have gotten served as you negotiated the difficult terrain.

Headed Back in August

I loved my “yankee” experience so much, I’m headed back in August for the Baker Trail 50-mile race; and I’m definitely running the Rachel Carson in 2014 where dammit, I’m going 8 hours or BUST!

Join me?


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I also wanted to do a very long hike as a test of whether my feet could hold up in Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek shoes, on tough terrain as well as a very long distance. I always had problems (toe jamming, blistering, knee and ankle pain) wearing trail running shoes in the past hiking the Rachel Carson Trail in previous years when going about 20 miles or longer. In April’s Rachel Carson Trail hike, my feet got sore but otherwise I felt great. But I didn’t know how things would scale up to a much longer distance. So this was an opportunity to test my limits in FiveFingers shoes.

Christian……you were just too fast for the beer man. See you at Baker. I’ll be on the winning Master relay team. (We have been the ONLY 40+ team the past couple of years.) :-)

@Laurie: Hilarious. Yup, no beer man for me, but I saw the truck. He just hadn’t started yet. I guess he said to hell with the runners :)

Warren Wheeler………beer! Man! Is! Still! There! My guess is Christian missed him coz he was trying for that 8-something. Thought of you this year as I considered doing downhills backwards due to screaming IT band in the last stretch…..beer helped…..LOL!

@sharon: yes ma’am, LH is defintly on this list after SO many reccomendations! Thanks for your support. You rock!

Christian, great report as usual and good to see you are back. There are amazing things to see just about everywhere and thanks for sharing. If you are looking for more stunning single track in this area take a look at the Laurel Highlands Ultra in early June. Happy trails and congrats, Sharon

@warren: i think was harder for you guys out there for 12 hours+. You had to endure waaaaay more of that brutal afternoon heat. Congrats and tell “blanket lady” that we use our blanket every night

Kathleen(blanket maker)Wheeler has done so many Ultras I thought this was the perfect start for me, a hike. Great write up Christian and thanks for making me feel better about my 12 hours to complete it time. I try to tell people how difficult it was but they don’t believe me. I felt great finishing it. Was the beer man still there with the keg?

@Franklin. Thank you. Unusual, Indeed.

Thank Armand. I’ve been told this 1000 times. I guess its a sign! Bucket list!

Fantastic report! I did the Challenge three years in a row (2005, 2006, 2007), but only ever running at most 6 miles total each time, just hiking the rest. A most unusual, humbling event for sure.


You’ve missed it by a few weeks for this tear, but you may enjoy another western Pennsylvania gem, the Laurel Highlands Ultra about an hour east of Pittsburgh.


@Becky: Thank you. I’m glad I could take you back to the moment. Rock on. See ya next year!

This was my third year. The heat was brutal this year, and a lot of it was mind over matter. I held back tears of joy as I climbed the graded trail to the finish line…and I’m tearing up right now as I read the words in your article which took me back in the moment. Thank you for sharing! I would encourage anyone in good health to add this to their bucket list…no regrets!

@Dom: yes, a very well kept secret. Excited to see what the Baker Trail race uncovers. Thanks, Dom

Great write up. Take it from a Pittsburgh local who has completed the Rachel 35 miler 3 times, I have a lot of respect for those who can run it. The heat this year was brutal, but climbing the hills seems to come natural. In many ways western Pa. is a well kept secret……

@Kathleen – Thank you! That’s one beautiful trail y’all have up there. You will definitely see me next year!

Fantastic write-up and you really capture the trail. Congrats on your finish. See you next year.

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