Meet the fastest man on the Appalachian Trail

Joe McConaughy recently set the speed record for the full length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) — that’s nearly 2,200 miles — finishing in 45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes.

Running two marathons a day meant starting early and ending late. Photo: Courtesy of Joe McConaughy

It’s not that McConaughy, 26, is an unknown. The Seattle native ran for Boston College and has already showcased prowess for running long distances in the wild. He smashed the supported speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014.

What’s so remarkable is that McConaughy, known like many distance runners by his Appalachian Trail nickname, “Stringbean,” accomplished this summer’s AT feat self-supported. He had no crew, unlike the previous record holder, Karl Meltzer, a professional endurance runner; he carried just a 25-pound pack and picked up mailed-in resupplies every two to four days that he had to run into towns to retrieve.

Without a support crew, Joe McConaughy took a lot of selfies along the AT. Photo: Courtesy of Joe McConaughy

GrindTV recently caught up with McConaughy to find out how he earned the AT FKT (fastest known time).

Your record is remarkable. What kind of proof have you offered the non-believers?
Validity is always a concern, and with the internet everyone has their own opinions. I have tried to be as open and honest with my documentation given the limit of the trails. I will be posting all my data (Spot GPS tracker points, an Excel spreadsheet of my daily mileage and campsites and a trip report). In addition, I also have pretty extensive video and photo documentation, as I carried a GoPro for my entire journey.

Why this challenge? What is it about the AT that draws you, like others, in so much?
The Pacific Crest Trail is the sister trail to the Appalachian Trail. When I was on that journey, I told myself that if I were to ever do a long record attempt like this, I would do the AT.

Over the past two years, my interest in doing the trail slowly built. There has been a lot of action on the Appalachian Trail speed record; the self-supported record has been broken once and the supported record has been broken twice. I wanted to give it my best go and thought I could do a pretty solid job.

Plus it was such an adventure. I saw incredible parts of the country, met some amazing people along the way and had a blast. The AT is such a historic trail in its own right, and you see our country’s history in the mountains, small towns and scenery along the way.

While he didn’t have much time to take it in, some of the scenery was stunning. Photo: Courtesy of Joe McConaughy

Describe a moment when you wanted to give up.
A really memorable moment was climbing Mount Moosilauke [in New Hampshire] — the gateway to the White Mountains and the most challenging section of the trail. I was star struck, as I finally got some elevation under my belt from the long climb. I am most familiar with the White Mountains and I felt like I was coming home.

As I summited, I traversed a long, semi-exposed ridgeline, but I was totally fogged in. I couldn’t see a thing — only the orange hue from the sunrise. I had a good little cry, which I will proudly admit.

Then I ran down the Beaver Brook Cascades. You are losing elevation at the same time as a cascading waterfall for a mile or so. It tore my quads apart and a few hours later I wasn’t running anymore! It was a little bit of a roller coaster both literally and physically.

There were a few moments of reflection on the trail, but many more after. Photo: Courtesy of Joe McConaughy

What tricks did you use to power through in such an epic time?
Every day and hour was filled with different tricks that I would use to cover as much ground as I could. Physically, I picked up some Vaseline lip balm, which saved my feet. It staved off a small infection on my big toe that I had since Day 3 by preventing my skin from drying out and helping my skin heal.

I also elevated my legs for 30 minutes every day. I was able to recognize pretty early when an overuse injury was setting in and had to discipline myself to giving up running for portions to prevent a bad injury. I’d walk for a few hours, or even a few days if it was really bad.

Mentally, I took it step by step. I broke up each day into where my next water source was, where the next shelter would be, where I would take a larger food break, etc. I never let my goal of 50 miles a day daunt me, and just knew that if I gave a solid effort for 13 to 15 hours, I would cover the distance I needed to cover.

If you can accept that your best effort each and every day is a success, a bad mileage day or an injury day can even make you proud. I would pass time by singing songs or getting lost in my thoughts. I did a lot of reflection on my past and on the people who helped me get to where I am today.

McConaughy says you don’t have to go set a speed record to get a taste of the AT. Photo: Courtesy of Joe McConaughy

For people wanting to experience the AT, but perhaps not on record pace, what advice can you offer?
Go out and hike a section! The Appalachian Trail is very accessible and doesn’t require any genius or supreme fitness. I remember meeting a group of hikers; one had diabetes and had lost over 40 pounds, another was using the trail to avoid a negative, drug-filled lifestyle and the third had metal rods coming out his back from a previous break. They weren’t covering huge miles each day, but they were loving the experience.

The wilderness really is for everyone. Don’t get caught up in the ultralight movement or intimidated by a hairy, lanky hiker who is doing 25 to 30 miles a day. Hike your own hike and go on an adventure.

Read more about the AT on GrindTV

5 of the greatest long-distance hiking trails on the planet

How to train for an Appalachian Trail speed record