For Runners and Walkers, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Runners participating in the Summit Climb

Walkers participating in the Summit Challenge

Races along a flat track are difficult enough. But racing up hill is even more of a physical and mental challenge.

For the past 33 years, people from all over the region have been meeting at the Hopwood Fire Hall one Sunday, in middle to late April, to take on the challenge of running or walking 3.5 miles along a steep mountain road up to the Summit Inn. It’s an elevation climb of about 1,400 feet from Hopwood at 1,100 feet to the inn at 2,500 feet above sea level.

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, April 26 the area around the fire station was already filled with 748 participants enjoying a cool but sunny morning and limbering up for the 9 a.m. starting time for one of the toughest races in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Many use the race as a way to prep for the Pittsburgh Marathon, scheduled for the following Sunday.

One of the hopefuls Gary Atkins, 56, of Perrysville took on the Summit Challenge for the past 14 consecutive years. “My best time running was 32 minutes, 39 seconds,” Atkins said. “The Challenge is the race I’ve kept up with the most. It’s a milestone and something I look forward to each spring because you get an unbelievable feeling when you get to the top.”

Standing nearby was his wife, herself a runner for ten years, but only a bystander for the past three. “I’m not in good enough shape to run anymore,” she explained.

The origins of the Summit Challenge can be traced back to two friends and talented runners, Brent Hawkins and Donnie Norman, both Fayette County residents at the time. Rumor has it a group of guys challenged them to run to the summit from Uniontown. Taking up the gauntlet, they raced up the mountain in the middle of a February night.

For this year’s race, the weather couldn’t be better – cool with temperatures rising to the high 40s by 10 a.m. Promptly at 9, the runners took off in a flash filling up the width of Route 40 in a 50-yard-long sea of humanity. A few minutes later, the walkers took off behind them, primed and just as eager to get to the top.

Robert Pauly, 55, of Kingwood, West Virginia, along with two of his brothers, joined the walkers in the Challenge for the third time. “The walk takes me over an hour to finish,” he said. “The trick is to set a good pace at the beginning and not go to fast to tire yourself out. At 55, I’m in the most competitive age group. It’s when people start thinking about doing something about their health.”

Joining in with the walkers, I found myself in my first Summit Challenge. A bit out of shape due to winter lethargy, I was determined to cross the Challenge off my bucket list and finish the climb come hell or high water.

Initially, the road out of Hopwood is fairly level, and it’s not until you loop around to the main road up the mountain that you begin a more challenging climb. Originally at the head of the crowd, I soon found myself overtaken by many, including some older and a bit heftier than myself. Undaunted, my goal was not to set a time record or win a trophy, but merely finish the race.

Half way up the mountain I eagerly grabbed a glass of water offered by the race crew, and at mile 2.5, my ears popped due to the altitude change. Fortuitously, the road levels out for about a quarter mile at one point which gave me a chance to get my energy level back up. “Thank God the wind’s not blowing in my face today,” I joked with a fellow racer as we watched some of the runners who’d already finished the race jogging back down the mountain to their cars.

The finish line

The finish line

At the scenic overlook near the top of the climb, I debated whether to stop and take a look at the valley, now far below. With a picture perfect day, a clear blue sky and spring just beginning to spread its green carpet over the surrounding forest I couldn’t resist a look that added 5 minutes to my total finish time.

Surprisingly, as I approached my goal, the only physical discomfort I felt was a slight ache in my hips, but the sight of the inn just a quarter mile away spurred me on. Crossing the finish line, I recorded my time at 1 hour, 22 minutes. Not bad for an out-of-shape novice I thought.

With nothing to eat that morning but a thin slice of toast, I was ravenous, and the complimentary pizza and ice cold lemonade served at the inn proved a tasty Godsend. In the Edison Room, the mood verged on festive as a local rock band, Martyr Kanin, filled the historic old inn with modern music. No one in the crowd looked particularly fatigued, and during the award ceremony, they yelled and cheered for friends and relatives who’d won.

It was orange trophies with runner and walker images for the overall winners and white and green mugs for the first, second and third place winners of each of the age categories.

“The proceeds from the Challenge benefit the Fayette County Cross-Country and Track and Field Scholarship,” said Mike Stetson, board member of the Fayette Striders Running Club, which organizes the race. “One male and one female student in a Fayette County school each gets a $1,000 scholarship.”

To qualify, a student must complete one year of high school cross country or track and field, graduate with a QPA greater than 2.99 and be referred by a coach from their school.

At the end of the race, Challenge participants must provide their own way back down the mountain to the starting point. Many have family or friends waiting for them at the top, cameras in hand at the finish line and car keys in their pocket for the descent back down from the summit.

I managed to hitch a ride with three of the walkers, and we exchanged pleasantries about the race along the way. Before you know it, I was back home and in bed, taking a 2-1/2 hour long afternoon nap, a rarity for me. But, considering the circumstances, I felt I deserved it.

This year’s male running open winner is Levi Foust, 33, of Somerset at 25.10 minutes. The male walking open winner is Don Slusser, 63, of Monroeville at 40.01 minutes. The female runner open winner was Heather Parks, 40 of Bruceton Mills, West Virginia at 2930 minutes. The female walker open winner is Karen Mizikar, 56, of Jeanette at 42.54 minutes. For a complete list of winners, go to
Story by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges


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