Editor’s Note: The interview with Joe McConaughy for this story took place July 14, a few days before he began his Appalachian Trail Fastest Known Time pursuit. As of today’s publication, Joe should be about halfway through his journey if all is going according to plan.
Whether on the trail or in everyday life, Joe McConaughy is a tough guy to track down. That has been particularly true this year. Whether it’s racing among national elites at West Coast ultramarathons, putting in long hours at a job he enjoys in sales for international travel/education company Education First, or spending quality time with his girlfriend Katie Kiracofe, most of McConaughy’s time has been spent on the go.
Knowing this, it was no surprise that it took a week to coordinate a time that would work to discuss the Boston resident’s grand summer adventure. This was the last – and only – time that would work. He’d spent a week in Canada with spotty cell service.
Today (July 14), he’s in Seattle, dropping off Katie at a Ragnar Relay event and visiting his family. Tomorrow he’ll hop a plane to Georgia. Shortly thereafter, he will disappear into the woods.
Elite Ultrarunners and the AT Speed Record
The Appalachian Trail has been a bucket-list item for many an endurance hiker, and a vacation getaway for outdoor lovers seeking a few days or perhaps a week of solitude. Most hike the trail slowly. Thru-hikers may spend half a year on the trail, in part to manage the distance, but also because much of the terrain along the East Coast and in New England is littered with rocks.
In the summers of 2015 and 2016, however, the ultrarunning world was fixated on the 2,189-mile trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
A pair of professional ultrarunners – Scott Jurek and Karl Meltzer – embarked on pursuits of the AT speed record. At the time, the record was held by Jennifer Pharr Davis (46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes).
In 2015, the 41-year-old Jurek completed the northbound journey in 46 days, 8 hours, 7 minutes, earning the title of fastest person to complete the trail.
In 2016, it was Meltzer’s turn. The 48-year-old tackled the trail in the opposite direction and finished the southbound journey in 45 days, 22 hours, 38 minutes, averaging about 47 miles per day.
Jurek and Meltzer had support crews and pacers helping them along their journey. In fact, they supported each other’s record pursuits. Pharr Davis also had a crew that met her along the way.
An Ambitious Goal
McConaughy followed along with interest as Jurek and Meltzer embarked on their record-chasing exploits. In some ways, their pursuits took him back to the summer of 2014 when he set the supported speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches 2,660 miles from Mexico to Canada. He averaged more than 50 miles per day for 53 days and broke the previous record by nearly a week.
Jurek and Meltzer’s journeys added kindling to a dream that had burned in McConaughy’s brain since stepping off the PCT.
“Doing the PCT, I thought if I ever did something like that again it would be the AT,” McConaughy recalls. “It’s similar to something that happened with the PCT, but it happened quicker. In middle school, I had this idea that I’d run the entire West Coast, and it evolved over time. With this, ever since doing the PCT I thought maybe I’d do the AT.”
“I thought maybe I’d do it self-supported.”
Although not as fast as Jurek or Meltzer’s times, arguably a much higher bar for AT speed is the self-supported record. That mark is held by Heather “Anish” Anderson. In 2015, the then-34-year-old set out from Katahdin and headed for Georgia without a support crew or pacers. Relying on herself and the camaraderie of hikers she encountered along the way, Anderson completed the trail solo in 54 days, 7 hours, 48 minutes.
McConaughy plans to take on the Appalachian Trail in true thru-hiker fashion like Anderson did. That’s plenty ambitious. But there’s something more: he wants to complete the self-supported journey faster than Meltzer’s supported record time.
This is the grand summer adventure McConaughy has been dreaming of. He has been planning it for about eight months with Katie’s help.
The timing is perfect. Katie supports it. His family gave its blessing. The 26-year-old’s fitness is prime after posting top-10 finishes at the Gorge Waterfalls 100K and Lake Sonoma 50-miler on back-to-back weekends in April. Heck, even his employer signed off on allowing him to take an unpaid sabbatical.
Now is the time. No regrets.
“That would definitely happen if I didn’t do this,” he says. “I think it’s a little like taking the dream vacation that you never took, or what about that girl you never dated? Especially after all the planning that’s gone into this, it’s going to be hard to do another big run like this, so I’m really fortunate. I needed to move a few boulders to get to do this, but I got them moved before they became unpassable.”
The first step for officially making a Fastest Known Time (FKT) attempt is declaring it publicly. McConaughy did that on June 21 with a post on the Trail Animals Running Club’s Facebook page. He spelled out his intentions of breaking Meltzer’s supported record, but doing so in a self-supported fashion.
His goal: 43 days.
“Meltzer’s record is 45 days, 22 hours, and I am assuming a few things will go pretty wrong, so I think 43 days would be very, very bold,” he says.
“The self-supported part of it is a bit intentionally masochistic,” he admits. “I think in some ways you can do it a bit quicker without a crew. They are two different styles (supported and self-supported), and both are very respectable. What intrigues me most is doing it in self-supported style. I keep thinking nobody’s done a long trail like this self-supported while running. I’m hoping that is a possibility, and I’m hoping it’s something that the human body can withstand.”
Fast and Light
McConaughy has a strategy that he hopes will allow himself to run and hike quickly and efficiently enough to achieve his lofty goal.
He’ll carry only the essentials: a Pa’lante backpack custom-made by a friend he met on the PCT with a back pad that doubles as half a sleeping pad; a 35-degree sleeping quilt from Enlighten Equipment; a Klymit six-ounce inflatable sleeping pad for his legs; a six-ounce bivy sack from Mountain Laurel Designs; a poncho tarp for rain protection while running or sleeping; a headlamp with extra batteries; a small pocket knife; a light-weight Brooks running jacket and pants; moleskin; vitamins and iron; trekking poles; and his GoPro camera and charging cable.
He will only eat cold food to save the weight of carrying a camp stove.
He’ll also have one outfit for the entire journey, so other trail-users will smell him coming and bears will be either terrified or tempted by his aroma.
“I’m pretty much having one of each of the essentials, and that’s about it,” he says.
As for food, his girlfriend helped him develop his nutrition plan based on total calories, and they packed resupply boxes that he’ll ship ahead to himself to reload in thru-hiker fashion.
“Katie is amazing,” McConaughy notes. “I’ve done a lot of planning when it comes to ideas for food, especially on the nutrition side, and she helped make an Excel document where we broke down 50 different foods I’d like to have on the trail by calories per pound, and she helped make 13 different resupply boxes where we calculated the average calories I’ll burn.”
They began by identifying resupply spots, and then estimated the mileage between pickup points and his fitness level. From there, they looked at the elevation profile and projected his miles per day, and then plugged in how many calories per day he estimated needing. Resupply boxes were packed based on exact calorie burn totals.
“Katie spent more time working on that in her free time than I did,” McConaughy says. “So you’re saying you’re doing it self-supported, but Katie and a bunch of people have supported me emotionally, with preparing, and in a lot of different ways to get ready.”
Documentation and Transparency
One of McConaughy’s greatest concerns with running the AT in self-supported fashion is completing the journey in the manner he says he will. He admits he is worried about friends making surprise visits along the way and potentially raising questions about whether they provided him with aid.
McConaughy will carry a GPS spot tracker with him to document his progress, but it will post updates to his Instagram account on a delayed basis.
“I want to do it as cleanly as I can,” he says. “No blurred lines or gray lines.”
While his Instagram updates will be delayed, a decision that prompted some internet criticism, McConaughy will send real-time updates to a handful of people for safety reasons. That list includes Katie, his family, a few friends, and the person who runs the official Fastest Known Times website, Peter Bakwin.
Similar to when he set the PCT record that was captured in the documentary film, “The Run for Colin,” McConaughy will film parts of his run with a GoPro camera. Michael Dillon, one of McConaughy’s friends from Boston College and part of the filmmaking crew for “The Run for Colin,” filmed some pre-run footage and is planning to use McConaughy’s GoPro footage in an AT documentary.
Time to Run
There’s a calm confidence in McConaughy’s voice throughout the phone conversation. He has taken on a massive endurance challenge like this before – one that entailed more miles and more days than he projects for this one – so he knows what he’s getting into. That said, he admits he has some concerns.
Achilles tendinitis nearly derailed his run on the PCT, and a crack at the Long Trail FKT this year ended early when his knee swelled up after 30 hours.
“There’s a lot that could go wrong nutrition-wise and injury-wise,” he says.
More than anything, McConaughy is curious about the unknown. What are his limits? How will his body respond when the going gets tough, as he knows it certainly will?
There’s only one way to find out.
After a quick night’s sleep, cross-country flight and ride to the trailhead, he’ll go seek the answer.
“Failure is a possibility,” he says. “I’m setting a bold goal for myself, so I could be burning at all cylinders which could force me to tap out. I’m hoping it’s within the limits of my physical capabilities and that I’m not dreaming too big.”