On Sept. 18, 2016, ultra-distance-running legend Karl Meltzer put a solid stamp on his already impressive career when he set the speed record for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, which winds 2,190 miles through 14 states.
Starting from Mount Katahdin in Maine at 5 a.m. on Aug. 3, he reached the trail’s southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia in 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes, beating the 2015 record held by his buddy Scott Jurek by over 10 hours. Known as "Speedgoat," Meltzer capped off the feat with an incredible final push, running 23 hours straight for 85 miles to finish at 3:38 a.m.
With 10 days to go, the confidence was there and I knew I could pull off an 85-mile day at the end.Karl Meltzer
For the 48-year-old Meltzer, the longest hiking-only footpath in the world was filled with lows, both mental and physical, but he was supported by a crew that made victory possible on this, his third attempt.
"[It] panned out like I thought it could," he says of his successful run. "I knew I had the ability to break the record but the stars have to line up for you for something like this. The record is stout."
Twenty days into his record-setting run he woke up with his shin on fire but knew he had to fight through it. "I didn’t think I was done completely because I still had a pretty good lead on the record pace," he says. "At the same time, injury drives you down into mental breakdown. I just had to fight through it."
The first AT speed record holder, Dave Horton, told Meltzer that "it doesn’t always get worse," and Karl kept repeating the mantra, knowing it would get better. "It’s just shin pain, just overuse." Meltzer cracks a grin. “No shit, huh? 50 miles a day, it’s overuse.”
With the help of Jurek, who gave him a brace for the injury, Meltzer powered through. "It wasn’t pretty, but I made it," he says. "You hope that the mental stuff doesn’t break you down, but it did. Mostly because I was so frustrated because my body wasn’t responding the way I wanted it to."
Learn more about Karl's record in the video below:
The worst day, mentally, happened in Virginia. He’d only managed two hours of sleep the night before. "That was really hard because I was being a jerk to my wife and everyone else on the crew, who handled it really well. My dad, my wife, my good buddy Eric [Belz] — they let it roll off their heads. They tried to keep me positive. Enduring 46 days of this was probably harder for them than it was for me. Without them it wouldn’t have happened."
Attempting the record meant 46 days of waking up at 5 a.m. and being on the trail until sometimes 10 p.m. "Eric, was on key, every day," Meltzer says. "He woke up at 4:15 to make my coffee. I’d hear him start that damn Jetboil and think, ‘oh my God, I’ve got to get up.’ That’s the grind."
"What’s crazy is that the day goes by so fast. I’d be out there and wonder what my 10-hour split was so I could calculate my miles per hour more easily. I mean, who talks about a 10-hour split, right? The further you get into the race, it seems like the clock moves faster."
Early on he logged a 47-mile slog over the White Mountains. "It is a brutal section," he remembers. "No one does those two legs in one day, it’s ridiculous. I felt really good about that day because I was able to accomplish that and not be destroyed the next day. That was a good confidence booster for me. That propelled me forward."
"It’s weird how you have highs and lows all the way through. You have to accept that, expect to have low times and not be happy boy all the time." Meltzer could count on his daily low between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when it was hot. "I didn’t really slow down, but I was a little worked over," he says. "Once it cooled down around 5 in the afternoon, my world changed. I caught fire again."
Being on the trail was never boring, but while running 98 percent of the trail on his own through the woods in the dark, there was some loneliness to deal with. "I like to crank down to my music, do my thing, talk to myself. I like to be in my own world." The only people to run with him in some stages were close friends. "I’m not the kind of guy who likes to have nine people running behind, asking questions every day. Had that happened, had that been the experience, I probably never would have made it, honestly."
About three-quarters of the way through, Meltzer knew Jurek’s record would fall. "With 10 days to go, the confidence was there and I knew I could pull off an 85-mile day at the end," he says. "I knew that big day would save me like six or seven hours, as long as my body didn’t break down."
"I’ve run like 75 [hundred-mile races], so I sort of treated [the last day] like a hundred-miler, but a little short. It wasn’t that hard for me to push to the end like that, especially with Jurek with me the last 30 miles. He’s always been such an inspiration to me. Having him there made my record a little bit faster than it would have been."
Holding the record, even if it’s just for a year, is a key achievement for Meltzer. "It’s a special experience," he says. "It’s sort of a stamp on my career — it doesn’t mean I’m done with my career, it just means that I was successful again.
"I’m 48 years old. But you’re only as old as you think you are, to some degree. Hopefully I can inspire people to get out there. You have to want it and I wanted it this time. I stayed focused and finally I got it."