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When Karl Meltzer set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail in 2016, running the 2,190 miles from Maine to Georgia in 45 days 22 hours 38 seconds, it seemed as though the entire running world was watching.
Nearly one year later, on July 17, 2017, 26-year-old Joe McConaughy, of Brookline, Massachusetts, stood at the summit of Springer Mountain, about to set off on an AT journey of his own. He was hoping to pull off a feat that most people would have written off as impossible: to break Meltzer’s overall, supported record in self-supported fashion.
He would not have a crew meeting him at trailheads with hot food and extensive medical supplies; he would not have a van to nap in each night. He would have only what he could carry, or buy along the way.
When he reached the summit of Mount Katahdin on August 31, even he couldn’t fully believe it. His time, 45 days 12 hours 15 minutes, was more than 10 hours under Meltzer’s time.
“I don’t know if I fully appreciate it,” he says.
McConaughy has been a runner for most of his life. He grew up in a suburb of Boston and ran track and cross country for the Division I team at Boston College.
“I actually identified more as a miler in college,” he says (his mile PR is 4:12:74). “I didn’t think of myself as a distance specialist.”
After graduation, though, McConaughy made a drastic about face: in 2014, he traveled to California to make an attempt on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from the California-Mexico border to the Washington-Canada border. Fifty-three days 6 hours 37 minutes, he limped away with the supported record (that time was beaten last summer by the Belgian Karel Sabbe).
“Running was awful when I first came back,” he says. “It was two or three months before I started running at all, and another two or three months before I started to enjoy it.
McConaughy holds down a regular, nine-to-five job as a sales rep for EF College Break, a travel company, and didn’t start thinking about the AT record in earnest until about eight months ago.
“I thought I had some serious reasons preventing me from doing the trail, like quitting my job,” he says. “I had done a decent amount of daydream research, but it always seemed like such a long shot.”
Last fall, though, his manager allowed him time off to tackle the AT. That’s when the gears started turning and he started “planning to make it a reality.”
To break the record, he would need to travel roughly 50 miles (or around 15 hours) per day. He gradually ramped up from 70-mile weeks to 100-mile weeks, with a focus on “as much long, slow mileage as possible.”
He ran the four-and-a-half-mile commute to work, both ways. Weekends, he logged long runs between 25 and 30 miles, all with a five- to 12-pound pack.
In June, he traveled west and ran the Gorge Waterfalls 100K and Lake Sonoma 50 on back-to-back weekends, finishing sixth and fifth, respectively.
By the time he left for the AT, on July 17, he “had talked, planned and envisioned the adventure for months. It had consumed my life outside of work. I just wanted to go.”
McConaughy planned to eat about 8,000 calories per day. His daily menu included peanut butter, banana chips, chocolate-covered almonds, pop tarts and sleeves of Oreos. He also downed an entire salami and one pound of trail mix per day.
Charged up, McConaughy made good progress from the start—better even than he had imagined. “I just felt like I had momentum,” he says. He started pounding out 53-mile days.
Following along on social media, Karl Meltzer wasn’t surprised to see McConaughy on pace to break the overall record.
“With a van-supported crew, many times we stop at road crossings when there is plenty of time to accrue more miles,” he says. “Being self-supported, it’s far more efficient to keep moving until “bedtime.”
Running self-supported has its drawbacks, too, though: namely a lack of regular medical assistance. Every day presented a new litany niggles—blisters, crotch chaffing, acute muscle injuries of all sorts. The worst, was the rhabdomyolysis, a condition involving the breakdown of muscle fibers and release of byproduct waste into the blood stream. “I was peeing bright red,” he says. A few salt tablets, gifted to him by passing runners, turned things around.
The “rhabdo” did not return for the rest of his run—he made sure to keep up on salt intake and hydration—though he had plenty of other issues to keep things interesting.
His knees became painful, swollen and stiff, slowing him to a hobble. “That happened five or six times,” he says.
Near the end of the run, he suffered a foot infection, which would not fully heal until after he was off the trail.
Asked how bad things would have had to get before he called off the run, he laughs and says, “If I had to chop off my legs. And even then, I’d probably still be thinking, ‘Well, maybe I can just do 40 miles today’.”
McConaughy finished his run with a 110-mile, 37-hour push to the summit of Mount Katahdin. “It was some of the best running I did on the whole trail,” he says. “I was on pace to [break Meltzer’s record] even without the final push, but I didn’t want to leave it to chance. If I gave anything less than what I had within myself, I would have been deeply disappointed.”
Running through the night, he had fixated on what the summit moment would be like.
“I had an image in my mind of the finish. It was going to be the most beautiful thing in world, my girlfriend and best friends were going to be there on this amazing mountain,” he says. “I actually cried about the finishing experience before I got to the finish.”
On the final 4,000-foot climb up Mount Katahdin, that image was immediately shattered. Two wasps stung him in his injured hamstring. Then, the wind picked up.
As McConaughy stumbled over the broad, gently sloping summit plateau, craning to see through the mist, he yelled out for his girlfriend, assuming he was close to the official summit.
“Of course I was actually like two and a half miles away,” he says.
A quarter mile from the top, the rain turned to hail.
The actual summit moment, he says, was “incredibly not surreal.” He hugged his friends, snapped a photo and then, simply, sat.
“I was incredibly relieved and full of lots of emotions,” he says. “But at the same time, I felt almost empty. I thought about everything and about nothing at once.”