It’s been a week since 26-year old Joe McConaughy broke the Appalachian Trail record. The Boston College graduate is currently seeking medical treatment from a Boston-area sports medicine physician for a range of injuries – blisters and sores all over his body, possible tears in both hamstrings, an infected foot, and an injured knee. Despite all the strain and injuries, McConaughy is in the middle of brainstorming for his next track record. “I keep thinking I’m in really good shape, even though I know I’m actually destroyed,” he jokingly adds in an interview with Outside magazine.
McConaughly first made a name for himself as a distance runner when he broke the FKT (Fastest Known Tine) record on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 – taking him 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes. Though he’s never run more than 20 miles in a day, McConaughy dedicated the run to his cousin who died of cancer at the age of two, and managed to successfully raise $30,000 for cancer research. Without any prior experience of running a tremendous distance of 4,265 km, naturally the effort took a toll on McConaughy. “I didn’t enjoy it anymore,” says McConaughy. “I got chubby. My body was eating so much, and I wasn’t being active. When I did actually run, it felt miserable.”
THE TRAIL: The Appalachian Trail covers 2,189 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine. The total elevation gain over that stretch is ~464,000 ft, or the equivalent of 16 Mt Everests. It passes through 14 states and is constantly marked with white blazes that you see in the picture. The trail itself is overseen by the @appalachiantrail @nationalparkservice and @u.s.forestservice, and regionally maintained by thousands of volunteers and local hiking clubs. I found the trail quite quirky, flat farmlands in one section, boulder climbs in another. You'll meet some amazing people and see all different kinds of small town America. Our nations past is intertwined in historic sections in Maryland and West Virginia. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermud will kick your butt but astound you with views. My perception of states like Georgia and New Jersey are forever changed – surprising me with their beauty and ruggedness. 2-3 million people each year hike some part of the trail, hopefully you will be one of those people 😁
But despite all this, he knew he had the ability to do 80 km per day, which was the approximate pace required for the Appalachian Trail, previously set by Scott Jurek and then bested by Karl Metzer in 2016. And compared to the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail is much easier with a less treacherous trail. But even McConaughy knew that it was crazy going up against Meltzer and Jurek. “ You read about them in books, which is enough to tell that they are some of the best, to say the least. These guys have all the pedigrees and all the support,” says McConaughy. “Still, at the end of the day, I thought I had a shot if I could figure out a resupply plan.” After four odd months did McConaughy and his girlfriend, fellow ultrarunner Katie Kiracofe, were able to get the logistics for McConaughy’s next FKT. This time he was prepared and did training runs with friends on sections of the trail and even completed two ultramarathons during the back-to-back weekends.
But the larger portion of the trail was still uncharted. Despite all the odds, McConaughy bested Meltzer’s time by more than 12 hours – completing the route in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes. All this, even after he nearly lost two days in the White Mountains due a foot injury and a bout of rhabdomyolysis. A potentially life-threatening condition, rhabdomyolysis causes the release of dead muscle fibers into the bloodstream, compromising kidney function and sometimes leading to cardiac arrest or organ failure. The first symptoms of rhabdo is unusually dark urine, which McConaughy started seeing less than a week into his attempt. Unlike Jurek and Meltzer, McConaughy didn’t have a crew of men who’d rub his legs and spread out food for him. He carried his own 25-pound pack and set up his own camp, where he slept on the ground every night. He was lucky in both the cases, where he received timely help from fellow trail runners in the form of salt tablets for the rhabdo and antiseptic for his open sore.
“From the start, I was always injured, always knocked around from the trail. You don’t really factor that into your calculations before getting started,” he says. If not the physical, there is always the psychological toll that a trail run of such a long duration can take on one’s mind and body. Though his friends and family offered to meet him along the trail, McConaughy straight-out refused them as he didn’t want any unwanted claims that they were helping him. Instead he made the decision to grant FKT board member Peter Bakwin, full access to his Spot, a satellite tracking device. This helped his friends and family keep track of him where the device would send an automated update that would show his manual location stamps and allow him to take photos and videos, which he then posted on Instagram.“It was kind of frustrating,” says McConaughy. “You’re already concentrating on accomplishing the most challenging thing you’ve ever done. You’re out on the trail, you’re worrying about a million things and the 50 miles you have to finish, so a GPS isn’t really your first thought. But it’s the reality of what you have to do.”
Bakwin says McConaughy did a an incredible job at validating his attempt and set the bar really high for all those who will try to best him in the future. Though there was still some criticism about McConaughy receiving “help” in the form of the salt tablets for his rhabdo and an Instagram picture of himself with a pizza that he ordered from outside Sugar Grove, Virginia. In his defense, the Partnership Shelter there is legendary for its pizza delivery, and regularly caters to passerby hikers. Though ordering food is not against the rules, McConaughy’s detractors argued that he was receiving assistance from the delivery service. According to Balkin, if McConaughy were to receive help of any sort, his Spot would record a long period of inactivity.
45d12d15m – a new self supported and overall Fastest Known Time record on the #appalachiantrail. Greetings from the top of Katahdin at 6:38pm where I was greeted by 70 mile winds, hail, rain, mist, endless boulder scrambles, @kekiracofe and @josh.katzman. After a 37 hour push, i managed 110.8 miles straight to do what I had to do, more than I have run at once by almost 50 miles. I honestly don't know what to say. I'm am in shock and pain, joyful and thankful, humbled and tired, in disbelief and exhilaration. I will be forever perplexed and appreciative of what the wilderness brings out in myself and others. I hope anyone watching is at least inspired to become more involved in the outdoors. Every day has been a battle, but I am very thankful to be safe and have accomplished my dream ever since the PCT. I've had a lot of time in my own thoughts, and what I took away most from this journey is community. It is the people you love and who surround you who provide the greatest joy. It really took a village. I want to give a heartfelt thank you to my lovely girlfriend, Katie, my parents and the Katzmans who came to the start/finish, friends and family who I have HEAVILY leaned on, hikers, trail angels and the trail community who have given me everything from sloppy Joe's to an extra set of batteries to allow me to run through the night, @anishhikes and @meltzerkarl for pushing the FKT record, @efnorthamerica and @efcollegebreak for being an awesome company and letting me take time off work to pursue my dreams, to @heartbreakrunco, @brooksrunning, @palantepacks, @mountainlaureldesigns, and @cieleathletics to help me get here, and everyone who has followed or watched or commented. I've been brought to tears and laughter even though I may have never met you. Thank you all, Stringbean out. OOHYEAH!
These big gaps don’t appear in Mcconaughy’s data and the little one’s are closed by his Instagram posts. Even after a week, no one has contested McConaughy’s time claim, and other than those salt tablets and pizzas, no one has taken any issue with how McConaughy ran his race. Balkin says that it is indeed commendable and nothing short of epic that McConaughy did all this by being self-supported and still managed to best the records of heavily sponsored runners like Jurek and Meltzer. “I really love it where these real traditional thru-hiker types lay it down and go after the supported record,” he says. “Joe isn’t really a traditional thru-hiker, but he saw the value and the aesthetic of the thru-hiker style.”
Over to McConaughy, who is still thinking about other record attempts in his future and is hopeful that he’ll be back to ultrarunning after recuperating a lot faster from his current injuries.
Image Courtesy: the string.bean on Instagram