The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike stretches across 14 states, ambles over 2,180 miles and features 465,000 feet of elevation change. Despite thousands of attempts every year, only one in four people ever complete it.
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None of this, however, stopped professional ultrarunner and Red Bull athlete Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer from smashing the A.T.’s speed record on September 18, after 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes of hiking. Meltzer beat the previous record, set by Scott Jurek in 2015, by more than 10 hours.
“It feels great to finally be successful,” Meltzer tells LIVESTRONG.COM. “The journey took a huge amount of time and money, and I can finally sit back and say I did it.”
Meltzer started the thru-hike on August 5 on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. He averaged about 47 miles a day at a pace of 3.2 miles per hour.
According to a Red Bull press release, Meltzer took about 4.2 million steps (93,000 per day on average), burned 345,100 calories (7,500 per day on average) and ran for 678 hours (14.8 per day on average). He also went through 20 pairs of shoes.
Speedgoat’s Support Crew
Though Meltzer may sound like a modern-day Hercules, he’s totally a human being. His achievement comes after two failed attempts at the record in 2008 and 2014.
This time around, Meltzer spent more time preparing logistically. He handpicked his crew, which consisted of his father, Karl Sr., and crew chief Eric Belz. The duo traveled along with Meltzer, meeting him at crossroads to give him medical support, food and water.
Their cavalry consisted of a truck and a van that doubled as the team’s kitchen and sleeping quarters. The crew kept track of Meltzer using a satellite-linked SPOT tracker that updated his location every two to three minutes.
Despite being in the middle of the woods, Meltzer couldn’t avoid the spotlight. Red Bull documented his journey online in real time. A camera crew also filmed the hike for a documentary that will be released next year, according to the press release. They made sure not to get in Karl's way by filming primarily at night and during his fuel stops.
A Diet Fit for a King
If you love to eat, then you might want to consider becoming an ultrarunner. Meltzer usually hit the trail at 5 a.m. and called it a day between 7 and 9 p.m. His diet consisted of high-calorie foods like pancakes, doughnuts, steak, fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hamburgers, steamed vegetables and beer (but only at dinner).
On top of all that, he’d eat a “power food” every half hour, according to Red Bull, which could be anything from a quesadilla to fresh fruit.
His favorite calorie punch? “I ate a ton of ice cream,” he says. “I can finish a pint in three minutes.”
Despite his insane diet, Karl lost 3.4 pounds during the thru-hike. This is nothing, he says, compared to Jurek, who lost 19 pounds on his journey last year. Karl notes that the secret to maintaining his energy and body weight was the amount of fat he consumed (a difficult task for Jurek, who’s vegan).
How His Rival Actually Helped Him
Jurek joined Meltzer during the last week of his run to help with logistics, returning a favor that Meltzer paid him when he killed the record last year. Jurek also ran alongside him for the last 30 miles of the trail.
“It was cool to have him on my tail, lighting my way through the dark,” Meltzer recalls.
Others joined him for short legs of the journey, including his wife and fellow ultrarunners. Ninety-eight percent of the time, according to Meltzer, he ran alone.
The Biggest Challenges
Meltzer’s journey ran smoothly through Day 19 in New Jersey. Then the Speedgoat hit a speed bump when he got tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon) just as he was hitting the most difficult leg of the hike in Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania was a nightmare as far as the trail,” Meltzer recalls. “It was rough technicality-wise, and my shin was bothering me a lot.”
By that point Meltzer had gained a lead on the record pace, so he used those extra miles to take it easy until his condition eventually improved.
It turns out the real challenges were not of the body, but of the mind.
“Getting up in the morning at 4 o’clock every day was the hardest part. You’re always very tired all the time,” Meltzer says. “After two or three weeks you get your trail legs, and your body starts to adapt and get used to the rigors of the hike. It’s the mental part of it that really kills you.”
Meltzer crashed (ultrarunner speak for “ate dirt”) a total of 121 times while on the trail, according to Red Bull.
The Ultimate Ultrarunner’s Playlist
If a Speedgoat sings dad-rock in the forest and no one’s there to hear him, does he make a sound?
Meltzer listened to music 24/7 while on the trail, according to him. His playlist consisted mainly of classic rock: The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and John Denver among them. He also disclosed that while alone on the trail, between checking his GPS watch and making plans in his head to go skiing next year, he was singing aloud to his playlist.
The Final 85 Miles
Meltzer completed the journey at 3:38 a.m. on Day 46 at Springer Mountain, Georgia, the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus. That’s right -- between 5 a.m. on Day 45 and 3:38 a.m. on Day 46, the Speedgoat got zero hours of sleep.
“The last day was 85 miles, so I told myself, ‘I’m going to the end, whatever it is,’” Meltzer explains. “Forty-five days and change looks better on paper than 46 days, so that became the goal as I was getting closer.”
Now Meltzer plans to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor. “I’ll go running for the first time when I feel like running,” he says. “It could be two weeks, or it could be two months. My body’s feeling kind of hammered right now, so I’m just going to enjoy the moment and chill out.”
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever hiked on the Appalachian Trail? Do you have any goals that involve major fitness feats? What’s on your running playlist? Let us know in the comments section!