Nearly 450 people converged on the lower Susquehanna Gorge early Saturday morning, some armed with boiled potatoes, energy gels and water – and all with the determination to take the wet and rocky terrain under foot.
The Keystone Trails Association’s (KTA) annual Trail Challenge returned for its 11th year, bringing people from far and wide to experience the trails of Lancaster and York counties. Whether in pursuit of personal goals or breathtaking views, the experience offered all participants, fledgling or expert, the chance to find their community.
“I think it’s a great experience for people,” says Joe Neville, president of KTA. “You have the comradery of hundreds of people doing this incredibly challenging event,” which quickly creates a feeling of community over the miles endured together.
That community was palpable before dawn on Saturday. As trail cohorts assembled at the 50k starting line, smiles and laughter ran in all directions. Volunteers greeted returning traversers and newcomers with sincere smiles and encouragement. Travelers congregated together to review the trail, stretch and massage muscles, or pace impatiently. Some traded stories and tips, and some shared bug spray and helped pin numbers.
The challenge was to traverse the distance in less than 12 hours (10 hours for the shorter length), but participants were interested in the challenge for lots of reasons, none bounded by the time limit.
Trish Young was told the trail was beautiful by a friend who had run it before, so she decided to give it a shot. A recently converted street-to-trail runner, this was her third 50k, with another slated for next month. “It’s beautiful scenery,” she says, not boring and repetitive like road running can be. Besides the beautiful vistas, Young says, “it keeps me happy and healthy. This is my sanity.”
For Norm and Bev Kievit, the trail challenge is a way to support the community they have found in the trails of PA. Bev volunteers with the York Hiking Club’s Thursday trail crew, a “very small, very devoted” group that maintains the local section of the Appalachian Trail, and the Mason-Dixon Trail system along the Susquehanna River. The couple finished the 50k challenge last year in eight hours and were excited to give it another go – to challenge themselves, and to support the volunteers maintaining the area.
Most trail improvements statewide are accomplished through volunteer organizations that protect and promote Pennsylvania’s hiking trails – like KTA. KTA works with a coalition of grassroots clubs to maintain the trail landscape and educate the public about its importance, and its responsible and sustainable use. There are close to 11,000 trail miles statewide (major trail systems and smaller ones altogether), and Neville says KTA volunteers help maintain over 3,000 of those miles annually. Besides advocating on its behalf, KTA promotes trail use with events and activities like the Trail Challenge.
The Trail Challenge event is a major logistical undertaking for KTA and its local volunteer partner organizations. Over 100 volunteers coordinated the event, from checking in event participants, sweeping the trail behind them, to shuttling belongings and persons along the trail, making sandwiches, and refilling water bladders and bottles. Volunteers are stationed along the bridge to ensure the safety of the runners beside traffic, and are in constant communication through Ham radio.
But the work of KTA and its partner organizations extends well beyond the last person straggling into the finish line.
“A lot of people don’t realize that without the help of volunteers, these trails would be impassable,” says Todd Trimmer, member and volunteer with the York Hiking Club. Trimmer says the Trail Challenge is a great event, because it gets people to new parts of the trail system – and opens their eyes to the importance and beauty of the area.
“The people out here doing it, they value this,” he says. “Hopefully, they come back, because that’s why we maintain it.”
Besides sheer manpower, the challenge required over 500 gallons of water, 50 loaves of bread, 120 pounds of bananas, 60 pounds each of peanut butter and jelly, and 50 pounds of Hershey chocolate bars – the last of which donated by Hershey.
Trish Helms traveled from “flat” southern New Jersey (a subtle nod to the hilly terrain) to participate in the challenge after hearing about it from a running group. She says she would absolutely come back. “It’s a beautiful area and trail,” she says. “Along the creek was outstanding, I wanted to soothe my feet in the water. I would definitely do this again.”
For more information about the Keystone Trails Association, visit their website.
Pictured above: Jake Stoltzfus (#706) makes his way down a rocky embankment around mile 15 of his 31-mile journey (the 50k challenge).