The morning of October 12 was cold and windy in Cumberland, Maryland, where the Great Allegheny Passage begins. Despite the weather, the ten PEC staffers and friends milling about at the Mile Zero marker were smiling as they awaited the signal that would launch their 149-mile journey north to Pittsburgh. Some had already traversed the route by bicycle, as thousands do every year. But this trip would be a first: a 26-hour relay race, on foot.
Planning for the inaugural GAP Relay began in earnest more than a year ago as a collaboration between the Allegheny Trail Alliance — the coalition of trail groups that created the GAP between 1978 and 2013 — and P3R, which organizes the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon each spring.
“The relay aspect of the running industry is really growing. It’s really catching on, and these events are starting to happen in a lot of places,” P3R Operations Director Jeff Racicot said. “So what better place to do it than here?”
Around 400 runners participated in the first running of the GAP Relay — most in teams of eight, with a handful of truly hardcore athletes tackling the trail in four-person “ultra” teams. Teams were split into two squads traveling in separate vans that leapfrogged one another as they made their way along the route, picking up and dropping off runners at exchange points anywhere from 4 to 11 miles apart.
Team PEC had a competitive edge in the person of president Davitt Woodwell, who followed in a third van loaded with food and a 36-inch gas griddle.
“We’ve got lots of eggs, pork chops, chicken breasts, vegetables… ” Woodwell said. “Really, just trying to keep people going and keep them enthused.”
“It was a lot of uphill, but a lot of fun,” said Lisa Schaefer, a veteran marathoner and Team PEC ringer on loan from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP). “I saw a couple deer, some really nice views, a couple tunnels.”
“Once you get out on the trail, it’s beautiful,” PEC mapping coordinator Helena Kotala said after finishing her first leg at a blistering 8:30/mile pace. “There are a lot of cool rock features and waterfalls. I wanted to stop and take a picture, but I was just… I was in the zone!”
The race’s organizers are betting those breathtaking views will entice first-time visitors to return to the GAP — if not for next year’s relay race, then perhaps for a somewhat more leisurely cruise on two wheels.
Carla Barkley is a trail ambassador with the Somerset County Rails to Trails Association, one of the seven organizations that make up the Allegheny Trail Alliance. She spent Friday afternoon greeting runners from her post at the trailside visitor center in Rockwood.
“I think it’s exciting,” Barkley said. “I think it will bring new recognition to the trail. And I think maybe people who weren’t aware of the trail, and what’s here in the Laurel Highlands, will take advantage of it and come back.”
Thank you Patrice Matamoros & @P3Revents team for this great event. Thanks also to the many VFDs & community groups that came out along the @GAP_Trail to support the teams, like this one including Davitt Woodwell and the folks from @pecpa pic.twitter.com/IrzKyhYwEj
— Allegheny Co. Exec. (@ACE_Fitzgerald) October 13, 2018
As a grey and blustery day shaded into night, rain showers began to roll in. But the PEC runners soldiered on, donning headlamps and illuminated vests to light their way along the dark and lonely miles between exchange zones. By morning, Pittsburgh was in sight. Team PEC crossed the finish line at Southside Riverfront Park a few minutes past 11 a.m., just in time to join the after party at nearby Hofbrauhaus. Maybe it was the beer talking, but everyone agreed: we’ll be back next year!