Group of teachers, coaches take hiking challenge

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Hiking 35.1 miles in steamy, hot temperatures probably isn't what most schoolteachers dream about doing on their summer vacation.

For five Hampton School District teachers and coaches, though, it was their idea of a "challenge."

The group got together June 22 for the 17th annual Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy Challenge -- a 35.1-mile hike between North Park and Harrison Hills Park in Harrison through woods, across highways and in creeks.

Hikers have 15 hours and 4 minutes to complete the challenge officially, but participants are allowed to continue as long as there is daylight.

The teachers were among nearly 600 hikers this year braving the uncomfortable heat. Another 200 hikers attempted the 18-mile Homestead Challenge between Springdale High School near the homestead of Rachel Carson and Harrison Hills. About 100 hikers participated in the Friends and Family Challenge, an 8-mile course.

The idea for the group hike began a few years ago when high school mathematics teacher and head wrestling coach Joe Bursick started talking with a wresting referee.

"He arrived early and asked if he could work out while he was waiting for the match. He told me he was training for the Challenge, and I started asking him questions about it," he said.

Mr. Bursick, 43, of Indiana Township asked some of his fellow coaches if they wanted to try it in 2011. Mark Gartner, 36, of Cranberry and coach Brandon Allison, 29, of Oakmont, who is a teacher at Apollo Ridge School District, both said yes.

Mr. Bursick and Mr. Allison completed the 2011 event. Mr. Gartner had to stop after about 20 miles because of a knee injury.

Last year, Mr. Gartner and Mr. Allison completed the event. Mr. Bursick had mononucleosis and couldn't enter.

This year, the teacher-coach group enlisted Dean Longwell, 44, a high school social studies teacher, and Dan Thompson, a government contractor and volunteer coach, 52, both of Hampton. Two other friends, John Buechli, 29, of O'Hara and Scott Ortsey, 37, of Mars joined the group.

The coach group started hiking together slightly after 5:30 a.m. from the North Park shelter.

"We started together, which is part of the fun, but then some hiked faster and moved ahead," Mr. Gartner said.

Mr. Longwell and Mr. Thompson jogged early in the day, hoping to beat most of the heat.

"We wanted to go fast while we could. We thought as the day went on, we would slow down," Mr. Longwell said. Although the two were ahead of the rest of the group by the halfway point, Mr. Bursick ran and caught up with them, about 20 miles into the hike.

As the temperatures and humidity rose throughout the day, the hikers moved a bit slower with Mr. Bursick, Mr. Allison and Mr. Buechli hiking ahead of their friends. At the last rest area with only eight miles to go to the end, Mr. Longwell had to call it quits.

"I had shin splints that were incredibly painful. I seriously underestimated the hills. This last stretch was really a killer," Mr. Longwell said.

Later in the day, Mr. Gartner also ended his hike at the same rest stop.

"I had developed blisters that just proved to be too painful," he said, "I'm sure I'll never hear the end of it for another year."

Mr. Bursick, Mr. Allison and Mr. Buechli continued hiking together and completed the event in 10 hours and 20 minutes. Mr. Thompson completed the event on his own, finishing in 11 hours, 11 minutes. Mr. Ortsey finished in 15 hours and six minutes, two minutes too many to be an "official" finisher, but finishing nonetheless.

This year had a higher number of participants who did not complete the event, with the high temperatures blamed as the cause. Last year, 85.9 percent of the participants successfully completed the Challenge within the allotted time limit; this year only 70.8 percent did so.

Mr. Bursick's son, Avery, 11, and Mr. Gartner's wife, Amanda, parents Rick and Regina Gartner, and his son, Mark, 8, all participated in the 8-mile Friends and Family Challenge, successfully completing it.

Some of the coaches are already talking about the Challenge for next year. Mr. Longwell said he isn't sure if he will give it a try, but both Mr. Bursick and Mr. Gartner are checking their calendars.

"If I am in town, I am definitely going to do it," Mr. Bursick said.

"I'm going to do it. My ego wouldn't let me finish on a sour note," Mr. Gartner said.


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:


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