Local Author Reflects on Trail Challenge
The first day of summer – the summer solstice – brings the longest day of the year. It also brings some of the longest trail running and walking events of the year, which are scheduled in June, to take advantage of the most hours of available daylight.
On Saturday, June 24, hundreds of runners and walkers set out at sunrise to take part in the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, a 34-mile hike on torturous hills and rights-of-way located north of Pittsburgh. The Challenge is eight miles longer than a marathon, but is not really a race. It is more of an endurance test as hikers attempt to finish the trail before the sun sets.
A local man, Joe Griffith, has completed The Challenge seven times, and has authored a book, “34 Miles in One Day.” The book is a personal reflection on Griffith’s initial completion of The Challenge.
“The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is definitely the hardest event I have ever done,” said Griffith, who has been a biology teacher in Tyler County for 40 years and has run a couple of marathons and done a triathlon. “One of the descriptions on the website for the trail uses the word ‘brutal’ to let prospective hikers know what they are in for… and brutal it is!”
Griffith first entered The Challenge in 2000, the fourth year the event was held.
“People ask how I ever got involved in such an event. Well, I used to lead wilderness canoe trips to Canada from a church camp near Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.”
“One afternoon while paddling across a lake in Algonquin Park, Ontario, a high school student named Tyler said, ‘Hey, Joe, I did something this summer that you might be crazy enough to try.’ And that’s how I ended up entering The Challenge the next June along with Tyler and some of his friends!”
It is a very long day for those who participate.
“That first year, we started just before 6 a.m., and I finished just after 7 p.m.,” Griffith said. “Thirteen hours and nine minutes out on the trail! I was the 44th person to cross the finish line, out of a total of 99 who completed all 34 miles before dark. The first-place hiker finished before 3 p.m., while others finished by flashlight.”
“The hills, especially the downhills, begin to wear on the muscles of the hikers later in the day and cause some to drop out. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to finish, but I eventually made it.”
As the experiences of preparing for that first hike, and then actually completing the course, rolled through his mind over the rest of that summer, Griffith began to write an account of what he had gone through.
“What I originally thought would be just a personal record of The Challenge soon grew into something that I realized others might like to read, too.”
“Those who might aspire to participate in such an event might gain insights from what I wrote, while others for whom such an event may not be possible could vicariously go along with me on the trail.”
“I sent a printout of what I had written to Challenge Director Steve Mentzer a long time ago, and he said, ‘Perhaps we could turn that into a book?’ But nothing came of it for many years. Then last spring, for the 20th Anniversary Celebration of The Challenge, Steve sent me an email and said he would like to publish what I wrote. So I worked with him to have it ready for last year’s Challenge.”
Griffith is donating all proceeds from the sale of the book to the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy. Rachel Carson was a famous environmentalist who grew up in the area near the trail that now bears her name. She was instrumental in the banning of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating the populations of various birds of prey back in the 1960s.
“Her work to ban DDT in the U.S. is one of the reasons we now have Ospreys and Bald Eagles back in the Ohio Valley,” Griffith said. “The Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy supervises several trails in the Western Pennsylvania area, and I am glad to be able to help support their work by donating the proceeds from my book.”
Griffith’s book of more than 200 pages includes descriptions of his training and preparation for his first Challenge, his experiences during the 13 hours of hiking, and the ensuing period of recovery and reflection after the hike.
It also includes a quick look at the other Challenges he completed.
He returned to the trail to do The Challenge for a total of seven years, and wishes that it could have been more: “I haven’t had much chance to do such long hikes in recent years,” Griffith said. “My family life and work have kept me too busy to do the training necessary to do the entire Challenge. Aging, of course, has nothing to do with it, right? I looked at the ages of those who completed the course last summer, and if I had been there, only about a dozen out of the 467 finishers would have been older than me.”
Griffith continued, “But there is an 18-mile event that covers a little over half of the trail, and I would like to do at least that much some year soon. However, the hills are still brutal, even if you’re only going halfway!”
There are other such extended trail events in June for anyone interested in distance hikes, including the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run, held near Davis, W.Va. “A long-time running friend of mine, Mark Heintzman, has done Highlands Sky ten times,” Griffith said.
Other friends of Griffith, that have done the Highlands run include Craig Landis, Jay McCullough and Jodie Hayes. “Scott Clegg has also done a lot of distance running,” Griffith added.
Griffith complimented these runners on their efforts, “They haven’t always finished all 40 miles, but they did their best, and they have my respect and that of any others who have ever done a similar event!”
Griffith hopes that perhaps his book can inspire others to take The Challenge or do a trail run like Highlands Sky. “But even getting out and running or walking a 5K race is a good goal to start. Go one block, then one mile… just keep setting your goal higher.”
Those who would like to buy Griffith’s book can do so online.
“I don’t have copies of the book to sell, but anyone can go online and do a search for the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy website, then click on the STORE section at the left of the screen, and look under GUIDES to order the book,” Griffith said. “I will be glad to autograph copies for anyone in the local area who brings me their book. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org“
Griffith summed up his thoughts on The Challenge by saying, “I am glad that Tyler challenged me to do the hike in the first place, and I was just happy to finish it all seven times no matter how fast or how slow. I am honored that they asked me to publish what I wrote about my first Challenge, and I am especially pleased that the book’s sale will help to support the Conservancy trails for all future hikers and runners.”