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Last year, Karl Meltzer drove the length of the Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia. Alone, he stopped at every road crossing, taking meticulous notes.
“Hopefully, the third time’s a charm,” says Meltzer, 48, of his upcoming speed-record attempt on the AT. “I really hate that cliché. But the more times you do something, the more familiar you become with it, and the better chance you have.”
As Meltzer hinted, it’s his third try for the record on the 2,189-mile trail that runs along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The current fastest known time (FKT), set last year by Scott Jurek, is 46 days 8 hours 8 minutes, an average of nearly 50 miles per day.
Meltzer chalks up his previous two failures to avoidable mistakes – lack of attention to details he’s since gleaned from the two attempts and some extracurricular recon.
The AT is an unforgiving trail, replete with challenges that can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans, and Meltzer’s goal this time is to minimize the avoidable risk. So he’s learned which sections of the trail are most slowed by rain, or how far some sections go between road crossings and crew access.
“All that research, plus time on the trail, is where you really get the knowledge to do it,” he says.
The Draw of the AT
If Meltzer, who has won an unmatched 38 100-mile races, has a White Whale, it’s the AT, which crosses 14 states and covers roughly 515,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Currently based in Sandy, Utah, Meltzer grew up adjacent to the trail in New Hampshire. He first tried for the speed record in 2008, but found himself injured 14 days in.
“We lost four days because I didn’t go anywhere,” he says. “You lose 200 miles on the record pace like that, and you’re done.”
He still finished, but well over record pace.
“I wanted to learn about it for when I came back,” he explains.
In 2014, Meltzer quickly fell off pace of the record, which in 2011 had been lowered by Jennifer Pharr Davis by over a day, to 46 days 11 hours 20 minutes.
“We stopped about 1,500 miles into it,” he says. “I was funding it myself, and didn’t feel like I had a chance to break it, so I called it.”
The record was lowered again last year by just over three hours when Jurek ran it south to north (the opposite direction of Meltzer and Pharr-Davis’s treks). Meltzer helped crew Jurek for part of that record push, and confirms that Jurek and his wife, Jenny, will return the favor, crewing him in the last half of his attempt this year.
So what is it about the AT that keeps Meltzer coming back?
“It’s the most iconic trail in the U.S., maybe the world, for long singletrack trails that are difficult,” he says. “It has a lot more history, I feel, than the [Pacific Crest Trail] or Continental Divide Trail. It’s also super easy to follow, with a white blaze every 200 yards, and really accessible for crew.”
The notoriously rocky and root-laden terrain, Meltzer adds, fits his running style.
“[The AT] has an amazing vibe to it,” he continues. “It’s weird, weirder than the PCT. There’s a weird vibe that I like.”
Meltzer will be attempting the record supported, meaning he has a crew and is not carrying all of his own food and gear. The unsupported record was also set last year, by Heather “Anish” Anderson, in 54 days 7 hours 48 minutes.
Less Is More
On the subject of crewing, Meltzer says he has learned that too many cooks in the kitchen is a recipe for failure.
“Everyone assumes you need this big organization, but then you can have strong personalities and people trying to boss others around, when in reality it’s a pretty simple task,” he says. “I think less is more. Three is the max number of people you’d ever want to have, to avoid the train of cars and to keep it as low-key as possible.”
When Meltzer starts at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine – he notes he’ll have to climb the 5,267-foot peak before he even begins – he’ll be crewed by his father, along with his friend Eric Belz, who will serve as crew chief throughout the journey. After two weeks, his wife will replace his dad; friend and fellow ultrarunner Mike Mason will join in Pennsylvania, and the Jureks will take over in Virginia, near Shenandoah National Park.
“[Former AT record-holder] David Horton, from Pennsylvania, will join here and there,” Meltzer adds. “He knows the trail really well, and is really self-sufficient. You can just say ‘Dave, go here and do this,’ and he’ll be like ‘Okay,’ and go do it.”
Aligning the Stars
“The record can be broken,” Meltzer says. “Things didn’t quite go perfectly for [Jurek] or [Pharr-Davis], so there’s room for improvement, but I’ll need the stars to align for me.”
The question is whether his experience and meticulous attention to detail can eliminate every avoidable roadblock. As a litmus test of his preparation, last September, Meltzer went to Maine with his dad and Belz to simulate the attempt’s first six days, through the trail’s northernmost state.
“I didn’t really nail the first week” in 2008 and 2014, Meltzer says. “There are long sections between roads in Maine, and if you don’t get to points B, C or D on time, you can find yourself behind before you get to New Hampshire and the White Mountains, which are brutal and will cost you even more time.”
One factor will be the weather. In 2008, Meltzer started in the rain, not appreciating how badly trail conditions deteriorated when wet.
“We have a campsite at Katahdin August 3 through 5, so depending on weather, I’ll start one of those days,” he says. “If I need to, I’ll wait longer, even until the 7th.”
At least in Meltzer’s simulation of Maine last year, it seemed all the preparation might be about to pay off.
“I finished the six days 15 miles ahead of where I was at that point the first two times,” he says.
Meltzer will depart for his third attempt at the Appalachian Trail speed record, running from Maine to Georgia, in early August. You can follow his progress at redbull.com/atrecord.