At 6:38 p.m. on August 31, amidst 70 mile-per-hour winds, hail, and rain, 25-year-old Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy made it to the top of Mt. Katahdin. He finished the Appalachian Trail, unsupported, in 45 days, 11 hours, and 57 minutes. That’s almost eleven hours faster than the supported speed record set by professional ultrarunner Karl Meltzer in 2016, and nine days faster than the unsupported speed record set by Heather “Anish” Anderson in 2015. He averaged 48 miles a day along the 2,189-mile trail, finishing his hike with a 37 hour, 110-mile push—50 miles longer than he’d ever run in one go.
McConaughy is no stranger to the community of record-setting thru-hikers. In 2014, he set the supported speed record on the PCT, completing the 2,660-mile trek in 53 days, 6 hours and 37 minutes—nearly six days faster than the previous record. With a history of long-distance running, including college athletics and ultramarathons, he had plenty of experience pushing his limits when he set out on his first record-setting thru hike.
Unlike some recent claimants to the Fastest Known Time title, McConaughy painstakingly followed the guidelines and expectations set forth by the unofficial arbiter of FKTs, dedicated FKT enthusiast (and record setter himself) Peter Bakwin, founder of the online community that tracks FKTs. McConaughy dutifully tracked his location with a GPS, using Instagram to provide time- and date-stamped photos and updates to his trek. He respectfully acknowledged those who had come before him, Anderson and Meltzer, made his intentions to break the record clear, and was careful not to slip up in completing his hike unsupported. (A recent would-be record-setter faced controversy for passing along his credit card to other hikers and asking them to pick up food for him in town). Bakwin has yet to verify his record, but, at the moment, there’s no evidence to the contrary and no reason to believe he won’t.
“I’m am in shock and pain, joyful and thankful, humbled and tired, in disbelief and exhilaration,” McConaughy wrote on his Instagram when he announced his finishing time. “I will be forever perplexed and appreciative of what the wilderness brings out in myself and others. I hope anyone watching is at least inspired to become more involved in the outdoors. Every day has been a battle, but I am very thankful to be safe and have accomplished my dream ever since the PCT. I’ve had a lot of time in my own thoughts, and what I took away most from this journey is community. It is the people you love and who surround you who provide the greatest joy. It really took a village.”
Despite running unsupported, McConaughy had a huge community cheering him on, including Meltzer himself, who followed along with his Instagram, commenting his encouragement as McConaughy neared the finish. After running nearly 50 miles a day with food and shelter on his back through all the variables a nation-length trail could throw his way, McConaughy will need plenty of time to recover. His athleticism and determination couldn’t carry him through the hike without profound physical impact: weight loss, severely swollen joints, and dramatic muscle fatigue. Setting a record on a trail like the Appalachian is vastly different than running, say, a gnarly ultra-marathon. It takes grit and persistence and an incredible pain tolerance across a remarkable span of time. For example, McConaughy finished his 45-day sufferfest with an 110-mile, 22,500-foot elevation gain “ultra-marathon,” which is just 10 miles and 6,000 feet shy of one of the hardest ultras in the world, British Columbia’s Mad Dog 120. This, after battering his body with a successive 43 days of 50-mile “ultras” across rocky, unforgiving terrain, with a pack on his back.
It should be noted that, since McConaughy was unsupported, Meltzer still holds the supported speed record on the trail. Anderson still holds the women’s unsupported speed record. McConaughy holds the overall speed record and the unsupported speed record.