The same as his long walk up 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa barely 15 months earlier, UPMC neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon, M.D., knew a 70-mile hike through the Laurel Highlands would be no leisurely stroll.
He didn’t expect it to be almost as grueling as any of his seven Ironman Triathlons, a punishing combination of a 26.2-mile marathon, 112-mile bicycle race and a 2.4 mile swim through ocean or lake water. . . all in one day.
“It was clearly harder than Mount Kilimanjaro, and I’d say almost equivalent to the Ironman. Yes, indeed, it really was an effort,” said Dr. Maroon, who served as Medical Director and fellow hiker on this Crucible excursion to raise funds for the Checkpoint organization, a western Pennsylvania resource for area military veterans. “Most people hung in pretty well. A few people dropped out for a few miles here or there and then returned. A couple of them had to drop out completely because of exhaustion. But the majority finished.”
There were some 60 hikers who started out Friday at the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, Pa., and, joined by some 30 more for the final day’s slog, finished Sunday at Ohiopyle. That number doesn’t count Dr. Maroon and his daughter, Bella, 19 (who was the youngest in the field and the first women to finish the hike and also joined him on the Kilimanjaro climb in 2014). Two UPMC Sports Medicine certified athletic trainers also participated in the three-day trek: Lydia and Nick Heebner.
“The weather was horrible – storms, rain most of the day — Saturday and Sunday. So we were basically walking in mud. Very slippery. Particularly going downhills. The last three miles, they were the hardest. Up and down mountains. In an all-day drizzle. Your clothes, everything was soaked.
“But, in the end, it was extremely gratifying knowing that [the charitable donations behind the hikers] were going to help veterans and veterans’ families, with a whole menu of different areas – jobs, education, mental health, substance dependency, all the things Checkpoint does. The camaraderie that develops in something like this, it’s kind of like going to boot camp with people. You’re focused on nutrition and hydration. And how light you can make your backpack in a day. Mine was about 20 to 25 pounds. Some of the military people were carrying 45 and 50 pounds. I said, ‘Oh my, I’ll get a little wet and bit cold before I carry that kind of weight.’ You become very, very close. So as a hiker, the Medical Director and an honorary co-chair with former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, it was a very rewarding and worthwhile experience.“