When ultrarunner Karl Meltzer reached Springer Mountain in Georgia early Sunday morning, he achieved a feat he’d dreamed of since 2007 (and attempted twice before): to break the Appalachian Trail thru-hike record.
The 48-year-old Red Bull athlete reflected on the experience, including his toughest moments, in this interview with GrindTV.
What were some of the highlights?
Of course, finishing is the favorite part, but that’s a cliche. Maine and New Hampshire are super beautiful as you’re hiking mostly above the tree line.
What’s great about the AT is that it’s a green tunnel, and you don’t get the views like that anywhere else in the U.S. Being out there alone doing what I love to do — it’s a special place. The AT has a unique vibe to it. I loved to be in the woods and that’s what the beauty of the AT is, being out there.
I saw six bears; one was the size of a small puppy 50 yards away from me. I don’t see bears where I live in Utah, so that was cool. One surprising fact is that there are more bears in New Jersey than anywhere else if you can believe that.
I also came across two rattlesnakes, an opossum and two copperheads. A ton of deer might as well be humans so close and used to people in the Shenandoah. I never had problems with any of the wildlife, though.
What were the hurdles you faced physically and mentally during the trek?
Pennsylvania is super hard, not because it’s hilly but because it’s rocky — nasty sharp rocks all the time. The heat and humidity were hardest to deal with during the afternoon.
Evening cooled down everything and was a little better.
Days 20-35 were the hardest because I’d done 1,000 miles already, but so far to go still with over 1,000 miles remaining.
I thought, “I’ve been doing this for 20 days, but have 20 something more to go.”
As for the hardest part inside, that became getting up in the morning. You go to bed say 8:30 or 9 [p.m.], and all of a sudden it’s 5:30 [a.m.] and the alarm goes off.
Getting up the next day is brutal you just want to sleep in, but you can’t. You have to keep going; that’s the mental part of it.
At one point you fell behind the previous record and almost quit. What happened?
By Day 19, I was a full day ahead of former record-holder Jenn Davis, whose itinerary I had, so I was in a great position in New Jersey.
Then my right shin became inflamed and super tight, so lots of pain forced me into hobbling. I was still having higher days and tried to control my shin.
By the time I entered Pennsylvania, I was suffering a kind of misery that’s just hard to explain. By the time I got to the end of rocky parts of Pennsylvania, I was eight miles behind where Jenn was, and I had lost 60 miles of pace.
Despite some improvement at points, I had a bad mental day in Roanoke, Virginia on Day 33 after a bad night sleeping on the trail.
I woke up and got going after Eric made breakfast, and my legs were just dead just junk. I was slow, and I was frustrated and kept going but before long I asked Eric just to put the Thermarest down so I could take a 20-minute power nap.
I got back going again, and it took me five hours to go 10 miles, which is ridiculously slow. I was really mad when I got in the van and eventually started walking again three hours later.
After the end of that day, I went only 24 miles, and, boom, I was nine miles behind Jenn’s pace again.
But you had a surprise when you needed it.
I didn’t expect Dave Horton, who held the record a few years ago, to be there during that 24-mile day. He had joined me for a little bit earlier and said, “I won’t see you ’til the end.”
But Dave loves this stuff; it’s what he lives for. He is one of those few people who knows how you feel because he’s suffered like that.
Really in that way, only he and last year’s record holder Scott Jurek know was it’s like. Dave also has good words and inspiration, and so he was a big help just from the mental side of things.
He showed up that afternoon on Day 33 and came with ice cream and fried chicken. Dave always shows up with ice cream. It all got me going again, and he returned at the very end.
The man traveled 11 hours from Arkansas to see me 12 miles out from the finish.
You beat the record in over 10 hours, so you could have taken a break from the ultramarathon. Did you know that? Why did you decide to push?
It is what it is; the more you cut it the tougher it’s going to be.
I knew on Day 45 that I was going all out on the last day. The end is the end, so if it had been 74 miles, I was going to do 74 or if it had been 94 I was going to do 94.
I’ve run 100 miles 75 times in my life so to do an 83-mile push honestly wasn’t a big deal because it’s what I do.
you started ultrarunning in your late 20s, and this achievement came later in your life. Age isn’t a factor for you, is it?
I’m not 48 years old in my head. For events like this, it’s not about speed it’s about how long you can endure. The older you get, the more pain you can endure.
Word has it you enjoyed beer in the evening when you could.
Yeah, one to two glasses of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Yuengling.
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