How Karl Meltzer Broke the Appalachian Trail Record

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Karl Meltzer was running down the eastern seaboard, but his mind was out west.

“I got busted singing ‘Rocky Mountain High’ out loud a couple of times,” says the seasoned ultrarunner, nicknamed “Speedgoat.”

Meltzer, 48, of Sandy, Utah, had more than John Denver on his playlist. “There was a lot of Grateful Dead, but not the studio stuff – the stuff where they really get jamming for a long time,” he says. “I had some Strange Folk, a little Phish. I like that jam stuff.”

He had a lot of time to fill. Meltzer, who has won more 100-mile races than anyone, ever, was trying to run and hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) – all 2,190 brutal, rocky miles of it, from Maine to Georgia – in record time. He succeeded, wrapping up the trek in 45 days 22 hours 38 minutes at Georgia’s Springer Mountain early Sunday.

But 46 days is a lot of time to fill. For around 47 miles, and 15 hours, each day, Meltzer passed the time by rocking out, unless he had a pacer or crew member to talk to.

“That’s a long freaking time to go that far every day,” he says. “But over time, the days started to pass quicker. When I’m running a 100-miler, the miles seem to go quicker for me as the race goes on, and it was like that.”

Joined by Jurek

Meltzer’s time was about nine-and-a-half hours faster than the record set by Scott Jurek last year. But Jurek, the legendary seven-time winner of the Western States 100, didn’t seem to mind seeing his record fall. On the contrary, he hopped onto Meltzer’s crew and paced him to the finish, returning the favor Meltzer had provided him during his northbound trek last year.

“[Jurek] was a really huge piece of this thing,” Meltzer says. “Not once did he reference the fact that I was trying to break his record. He just kept saying, ‘Come on, Karl, we’re going to get you to the finish, we’re going to get this done.’”

Meltzer was also joined, at times, by former AT record holder David Horton.

“Time passed really quickly with him,” Meltzer adds. “We would talk for hours about the old days.”

Jennifer’s Ghost

Jurek was unique in chasing the record from Georgia to Maine, rather than the reverse. Meltzer says he chose to run southbound because the trail is more difficult and rocky farther north, and the northbound direction finishes with a climb up 5,269-foot Mount Katahdin. The difference in routes even sparked some discussion online about whether separate “northbound” and “southbound” records should be kept.

“I think there should be two records, although it’s nice that mine is the fastest overall,” Meltzer says. “It’s also really remarkable how close the records are in different directions. Jennifer [Pharr Davis, who set the record southbound in 2011] was only three hours or so behind Jurek, which is pretty amazing.”

Meltzer used Pharr Davis’s itinerary as a reference for his own progress. After 19 days, he had built a 50-mile (approximately one day) cushion over her pace, which proved handy when shin pain slowed him down.

“I lost all my miles to her with the shin injury, and then I built about a 17-mile cushion up through Virginia,” Meltzer says. “That’s where I had a terrible day, slept terribly, didn’t make it very far the next day and had to make up ground again.”

Final Push

The ace up Meltzer’s sleeve was a mega push on the last day. This time – it was Meltzer’s third attempt at the record – he had about 85 miles to cover in the final 24 hours.

“I knew I had it in me,” he says. “With how many 100s I’ve run, it’s – I don’t want to say it’s child’s play, because your body has to hold together and some things still have to line up, but when I started that morning I knew I was going to push through to the end.”

He had started his final day from the same spot in 2008, on his first, failed record attempt. (He finished that year, but over record pace; in 2014, he threw in the towel partway through.)

With Jurek lighting his way, Meltzer was joined at the AT’s southern terminus by his dad and his crew chief Eric Belz – they crewed Meltzer throughout the trek – and his wife, who had traveled from Utah for the occasion after making multiple trips out during the attempt.

Doing His Homework

Meltzer says his legs grew stronger throughout the effort, and that he got reasonable sleep most nights. But by far, he attributes most of his success to the recon he and his crew did ahead of time.

That included a “dress rehearsal” of the demanding Maine section last September, complete with his dad and Belz, as well as driving the complete length of the route to plan for road crossings.

“The other two times we didn’t really do our homework,” Meltzer says. “I think the record will be broken, but doing your homework first will give someone a lot better chance.”

For now, Meltzer says, he has no plans to return to run faster, or make a northbound attempt. “It takes three to four months to recover from an effort like this, so I’m not really planning on much other than rest and relaxation for now,” he says. “I have some projects around the house I have to get done. I’ve been gone for a while.”

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