How to train for an Appalachian Trail speed record

This August, 48-year-old ultrarunner Karl Meltzer will step onto the northernmost point of the Appalachian Trail and begin his 2,189-mile southbound journey to break the AT speed record.

This will be Meltzer’s third attempt, and he’ll be using every crux move he learned from the first two to reach his goal in under 46 days. Meltzer offers up a handful of lessons for anyone interested in taking on the challenge themselves.

Before you go, Do your homework

AT speed record

Karl checking out the AT trail map with Eric and Karl Sr. Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull

Don’t think that because you’re looking at a topographic map you know it.

“You’ve got to train on the AT, study it, think about it, be as efficient as you possibly can,” Meltzer says.

For him, that meant hiking the spots he fell behind on in his last attempts as well as doing a recon of the Maine section in September. He came away from the recon spot on with his time and his crew, a confidence boost every hiker needs to go in with.

“You have to expect to deal with variables all the time,” Meltzer says, “Some days you may not feel good other days you may go farther. The homework is how you’ll get where you need to.”

Train for the hike … by hiking

Karl Meltzer runs the Appalachian Trail while attempting to break the record for fastest completion of the Appalachian Trail in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire on August 4, 2014

Karl Meltzer runs the Appalachian Trail while attempting to break the record for fastest completion of the Appalachian Trail in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire on August 4, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull

Meltzer has decades of running experience including 57 ultra-wins, seven marathon wins and 38 100-mile wins (world record), but he’ll be the first to tell you the best way to train for the Appalachian Trail is by hiking.

“People get surprised by that. Let me just say that you jog the easy sections, but you’ll never average more than 4 miles an hour. Your body is tired after that many days of that many miles,” Meltzer says.

Instead, train yourself to be comfortable with hiking fast for long periods. For example, his last three months have been waking up at 4:30 a.m. and out the door by 5 a.m., hiking all day and be done in the early evening, giving himself an hour from done to asleep. Logging hours and miles — about 20,000 vertical feet per week — conditions the body to expect what he’ll be going through on the trail.

Save up

Meltzer emphasizes that anyone can do this on the cheap as a regular thru-hiker. That’s part of the experience of going slower.

If you want to break the AT speed record, however, you’ll need to save up because it’s not cheap. Meltzer has spent $30,000 — the low end of a budget to have a support crew — to make the attempt.

Pick the right crew

AT speed record

Karl with his crew chief, Eric. Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull

You will need the right resupply in the right time at the right spot. Making that all happens boils down to your crew. Pick the right people who will know what to do and how to work well with each other.

“It’s not just the runner it’s the crew, too; they need to stay positive and supportive,” Meltzer says. For example, they may sometimes sit around and wait, but usually they’re hurrying to go to the store and do laundry.

Laid back and good work ethic help keep tensions low and generally prevents anyone from vying for alpha status, which cannot happen for a successful attempt at the AT speed record.

On the trail, don’t forego sleep for the extra miles

Sleep is super important. You’ll want to try and get seven to eight hours a night, so do your best to manage how fast and how slow you go to get the right amount of sleep, even if it means you’re stopping at road crossings.

“It’s important to get through that first 10 days without killing yourself and managing to maintain what you’ve done so far,” Meltzer says.

It’s not just about you

AT speed record

Karl checking out the AT trail map with Eric and Karl Sr. Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull

They may not be on the trail, but your crew is as much a deciding factor in your success at the AT speed record as you are. Keep morale as high as you can every time you see them.

“Whenever I come to a stop with a crew I do my best to smile and be cheery so when they see that I’m great they feel great,” Meltzer says, adding he’s confident about the five people he chose to to be on his team throughout the route.

Expect the downs

We’re not talking about the descents on the trail.

“It’s a very mental thing — you have good patches and bad patches all day every day,” Meltzer says. For him and others, usually a bad mental state is often food related. For those moments when it’s not, he advises to laugh and remember who gets to attempt something as great as breaking the AT speed record.

He also thinks to back to a quote from David Horton, another ultrarunner who held the AT speed record in 2009, which is that: “It doesn’t always get worse. Just hang in there.”

And, above all, expect that anything can happen.

“There are variables that you can’t control, and you don’t ultimately know if you will make it,” Meltzer says. “Hopefully, my experience will show, and I’ll get to Springer in the right time.”

Track Meltzer’s progress at redbull.com. The site will track the Meltzer's steps, calories burned, average speed, heart rate, distance covered, distance remaining, elevation, even how many shoes he’s gone through.

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