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For 1st time, woman crosses finish line first at 36-mile Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, June 28, 2017, 1:48 p.m.
Makenzie O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside poses for a portrait at Schenley Park, Tuesday, June 27, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Makenzie O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside poses for a portrait at Schenley Park, Tuesday, June 27, 2017.
Makenzie O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside approaches the finish line of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge on Saturday, June 24, 2017.
Makenzie O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside approaches the finish line of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge on Saturday, June 24, 2017.
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.
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.

Makenzie O'Connor's day during the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge was like many others.

She started with the goal of finishing the 36-mile trail.

She fell — only once — near the beginning, when the trail was muddy and slippery.

And she got lost — a couple of times, actually.

But O'Connor made challenge history Saturday. She crossed the finish line first. It is the first time a woman finished first in the 21-year history of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge.

“Winning the race wasn't about me personally,” O'Connor said. “But that I could even that playing field for women and say to them, ‘Look, you can do this.'”

O'Connor, 23, of Shadyside finished the challenge in 6 hours and 56 minutes, running at an 11:36-mile pace. She beat the next finisher — a man — by more than 20 minutes. The next 11 people to finish the challenge were men.

She was 15 minutes off the course record. When she emerged from the woods in Harrison Hills Park to finish, event organizers hadn't yet set up the finish line.

“The trail has lots of changes and abrupt turns which put constant demands on your mind, and lots of climbs and descents, which put constant demands on your body,” said Steve Mentzer, vice president and events director of the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy. “Finishing is quite an accomplishment, but doing so in under seven hours as Makenzie did is extraordinary.”

36 miles in one day

The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge isn't a race. There aren't medals at the end or prizes for the top finishers. The goal isn't to finish first. It's to finish.

The trail stretches from North Park to Harrison Hills. It crosses over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, snakes over bluffs along the Allegheny River and meanders through neighborhoods and along busy roads. It follows power-line cuts and crosses private property, including a horse farm.

It passes the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale near its midpoint.

“Rachel Carson was a pretty incredible woman,” O'Connor said, adding that she read the environmentalist's seminal work, “Silent Spring,” in college. “Just kind of keeping her in mind the whole time was energizing.”

The Rachel Carson Trail Conservancy holds the annual challenge on the Saturday after the summer solstice. Runners and hikers in the challenge have from sun up to sun down — this year about 15 hours and 4 minutes — to complete it.

There were 567 people who started the challenge this year. Of those, 435 finished by sundown. Thirteen crossed the finish line after the cutoff, and 119 people dropped out.

The challenge went from North Park to Harrison Hills Park this year. Next year, it will flip and go the opposite direction.

Yellow blazes on trees, rocks, signs, guard rails and sometimes the road itself mark the trail. It's easy to get lost. O'Connor did. By the end of the challenge, her running watch said she had traveled about 38 miles.

The trail climbs 8,151 feet — nearly 10 U.S. Steel Towers — and drops 8,214 feet, deeper than the Grand Canyon. Where most trails would go up or down hills with switchbacks, the Rachel Carson Trail goes straight up or straight down. Hikers will crawl up hills on all fours and slide down others on their backsides. Some of the hills are so brutal, they have names.

Without a blister

O'Connor, a cross-country runner in high school and college with a marathon as her longest run before Saturday, started her day with the goal of finishing in about eight hours. She never did the challenge before, never hiked on the Rachel Carson Trail and never ran a trail that long.

To train, she ran 16 miles on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail starting and then paced Todd McCormick, general manager of the South Side rock climbing gym Ascend Pittsburgh, for about 18 miles in the Worlds End Ultramarathon in Northeastern Pennsylvania at the beginning of the month.

McCormick ran with O'Connor for the first half of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge and finished fourth, more than 30 minutes behind her. McCormick, still recovering from the 100k Worlds End race a few weekends before, said a nagging knee injury caught up with him about halfway through the challenge, making the down hills difficult.

“I told her about halfway to take off,” McCormick said.

O'Connor resisted and said she would stay back with him.

“I was like, ‘Don't be silly, just go and try to pick off as many as you can and try to finish as best you can.'”

McCormick said when O'Connor left him, he knew he likely wouldn't see her again until the finish. He didn't know that she'd reach it in less than seven hours and be the first to cross the finish line.

O'Connor finished the challenge without a blister. She went home, rested, and then rode her bike from Shadyside to Schenley Plaza and danced at the WYEP Summer Music Festival.

“I think that helped loosen up my legs a little bit,” O'Connor said.

She said she doesn't know what she'll do next. She'd like to do another ultramarathon, maybe a 50-kilometer race.

And she said she'll definitely do the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge again.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He completed the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge this year, crossing the finish line just before the sunset cutoff. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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