Dreaming Bigger Than Big: Joe McConaughy’s Pacific Crest Trail Supported FKT
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” –Henry David Thoreau
Joe McConaughy did something almost unfathomable this summer. He began by covering 40 miles in a single day on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Then he did that again the next day—and the next day, and the next day. After a few weeks, he began to go further: he covered 50 miles in a day, then 55 miles, then 60 miles. In fact, Joe covered an average of about 50 miles per day for 53 days straight. Beginning at the U.S./Mexico border on June 18, and ending at the U.S./Canadian border on August 10, Joe McConaughy covered the 2,663-mile PCT in 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes—six days faster than anyone ever had before, breaking the previous supported fastest known time (FKT) of 59 days, 8 hours, and 14 minutes held by Josh Garrett.
Here’s the kicker: Joe had never traveled further than 40 miles in a day prior to his 53-day rampage on the PCT. In fact, Joe had never covered more than 20 or so miles in a day until just a few months prior to his FKT on the PCT.
That’s worth reiterating: Joe had never covered the marathon distance in a single day up until May of 2014; and in the months leading up to his PCT journey, he covered distances beyond the marathon only a few times. Yet Joe was able to average around 50 miles per day for over seven straight weeks on the freakin’ Pacific Crest Trail! The heroic feat of completing the PCT in 53 days and some hours would have been beyond impressive had it been accomplished by a seasoned ultrarunner. But it wasn’t done by an experienced ultrarunner: it was done by a guy with the nickname ‘String Bean,’ a guy who, four months prior to the start of his journey, was competing in the 1500-meter and one-mile events in college. How did he possibly do it? The impetus for his feat was the pursuit of a long-time dream. Although his original dream morphed into something more difficult and more significant, his fearless determination and fortitude remained.
I do not think that the English language can be used to adequately describe the magnitude of Joe’s accomplishment. If there are words that can properly capture the scope and heroism of his journey on the PCT, then I am unable to find them. What Joe ultimately did seems very probably beyond any meaningful adjective. It is as though the 22 year old and recent Boston College graduate has no concept of physical impossibility. Joe made no predetermined judgments about his physical limits nor did he preemptively or hastily forecast the upper boundaries of his capabilities prior to his adventure on the PCT. He seemed to say, I don’t care what anyone thinks is possible. I’m going to go find out for myself. He had a dream, he advanced confidently toward it, and accomplished something entirely unexpected of him. Joe dreamed bigger than big.
“I think it was my sophomore year of high school, I had this big dream to go run from Seattle[, Washington] to my uncle’s place in Mission Viejo[, California],” Joe recounts as we talk online, with audio and video. He walks, his computer in hand, from his parents’ living room in Seattle into his bedroom. “I got MapQuest out and I made a huge MapQuest map from Seattle to Mission Viejo. I had this big dream to go run 20 miles a day on I-5 and there were enough random cities that I could pop into, where there would be hotels, and I could crash for the night,” he explains further as he flips his laptop away from his face. On my screen I can see a large map pinned to a wall in Joe’s room, displaying the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, with a dark-blue line weaving slightly east, then slightly west—but always directed south—from Seattle down to southern California. “I was this kid, thinking, This will be this crazy adventure, this crazy thing to do. So I mapped it out, found all the little cities, did all the logistics. But I thought, I’ll never actually do it. Then last year, I got to thinking about that again. And I was like, Man, I’d really like to do a long thing like that, and actually live out that dream.”
Joe thought: Do I really want to run on a paved highway for 1,300 miles without any shade or respite from the sun? “That’s the dumbest thing,” he says with a laugh, “to want to run on a highway. I don’t know what I was thinking.” It’s safe to say that the soon-to-be college graduate didn’t find the highway dream so enticing anymore. But the pursuit of a long journey remained of interest and Joe started considering other possibilities. Throughout his life, whether with his family or through the Boy Scouts (Joe eventually became an Eagle Scout), Joe had spent considerable time on the PCT: several trips a year, often covering dozens of miles over several days. So the dream changed.
“You know what, I could just go on the PCT,” says Joe, as he explains his thought process last year, “and try to run—I don’t know if I’ll be able to—but try to run, maybe 20 days, or maybe 15, and have that be my graduation present. I’ll go be on the PCT that long and see what I can do.”
That really got the ball rolling. When Joe searched ‘run the Pacific Crest Trail’ on Google, the FKT popped up. (It was 64 days then and was ultimately set at 59 days prior to Joe’s start.) The floodgates opened: Joe had a new dream. Through research, he came across several names of people who had completed or attempted a thru-hike of the PCT. Sam Fox, who successfully navigated the PCT in 2011 (well, most of it, including a 300-mile detour due to impassable snow conditions in the High Sierra), was particularly inspiring to Joe—he had done his whole trip in memory of his mom. Joe’s second cousin, Colin, had passed away just after turning two years old from a rare type of pediatric brain cancer. Inspired by what Sam Fox had done, Joe felt that completing the PCT would be a great way to give back to Colin and make his parents and siblings proud—a way to celebrate a life taken too soon.
“I saw [what Sam Fox had done] and I thought, Wow, that’s a really cool thing to do—to do it for someone else, or to do it for your family. And Colin popped into my head, and I was thinking, That would be awesome, to do it for him, to have that aspect of it, to really feel like I was doing it for my family.”
So now Joe was armed with a potent double-edged sword. On one side, he had a record that he believed he could break, and he wanted to see what his body was capable of accomplishing; on the other side, he had a more fundamental and more significant purpose to his journey, as he would be completing the PCT in remembrance of a beloved family member. As Joe sagaciously put it: “I felt like doing the trail as well as I could was the best way to honor Colin. I was less concerned with breaking the record than putting my best foot out there. I felt that if I put my best foot out there, the record would come, and if it didn’t come, that meant that it wasn’t something I was physically capable of and that’s not something I can change.”
And so, on June 18, 2014, the dream began.
Michael ‘Hot Flash’ Dillon and Jack ‘Fish Tacs’ Murphy—two of Joe’s three crew members—await the arrival of Joe ‘String Bean’ McConaughy and Jordan ‘Brightside’ Hamm—the third crew member—in the Sierra high country late one evening. They’ve set up the tent and they are getting food prepared and water made available for the pair when they arrive. Brightside is running the last few miles of the day with String Bean—which his mother calls him. (Apparently he looks like a string bean.) The two will arrive shortly. String Bean will sit down and eat and drink for an hour and a half before crawling into his tent. Brightside will stretch and roll String Bean out, making him as limber and string-bean-like as possible before bed. Just like the other nights on the PCT, there won’t be much sleep this night: maybe five hours or so before rising with the moon, before the sun.
“The biggest thing was just getting out of my sleeping bag. But once I did that, we kind of got the ball rolling,” says String Bean.
In the moon-lit morning, Brightside will finalize the days’ meeting points after looking at a detailed map for road intersections and accessible areas; he’ll load String Bean’s pack with all sorts of goodies—granola bars, chews, gels, sandwiches—and 2.5 liters of water. String Bean will need it all: it will be another 40-plus-mile day and he’ll be consuming between 100 and 350 calories an hour. Before String Bean double checks the contents of his pack, he gobbles down four packets of oatmeal and two cream-cheese sandwiches. String Bean will have his feet taped up, if needed, put on his socks and shoes, and get on the trail by 5:45 or 6 a.m. He’ll get moving early, but he’ll start slower than his steady average of four miles per hour. He’ll meet his crew 15 or 20 miles in, sit down for 15 to 45 minutes, take in some calories and water, and be on his way. It is mostly business on the trail for String Bean: “Every 15 minutes is another mile on the trail. That’s how I thought about it. I tried to get in and out as fast as I could.”
Another 20 miles later, he will meet his crew again, get more substantial food and be back on the trail within 30 of 45 minutes for the last six or eight miles of the day, during which time he will occasionally be accompanied by one of his crew members. At 8, 9, or even 10 p.m., String Bean will again join his crew to repeat the cycle.
This went on in similar fashion, day after day, for over seven weeks—on the days when String Bean was lucky. On the days when he was less lucky, things didn’t go quite so smoothly.
“My Achilles is really hurting—both my Achilles are hurting, and my ankles are swelling,” String Bean tells his crew. String Bean has been consistently covering 40 or so miles a day for over three weeks and he’s reached the High Sierra—one of the more difficult sections of the PCT. They honeymoon period of the trip is over: it is no longer novel or new and his body is not quite as fresh. Though he has gained strength from the first three weeks, his body is starting to break down.
“I looked miserable, and I was miserable. Every single step was just difficult,” recounts String Bean.
His lower legs begin to swell and his gait begins to alter. These inconveniences don’t stop String Bean, they just make locomotion more difficult. But he and his crew are quick to remedy the situation. String Bean takes ibuprofen to reverse the swelling and obviate pain; his crew assists in massage therapy to loosen tightness in his calves. This mitigates the stress on String Bean’s Achilles and, just as his pace slowly begins to increase as the day progresses, his Achilles slowly begin to loosen up as the day wears on. The problems continue. Blisters, heat cramps, swelling in the back of the knee, tight quadriceps, compromised range of motion in the knee joint, foot tendinitis, and shin splints. All in succession: the next problem surfaces as the last one is rectified. The shin and ankle trade off hurting as String Bean hobbles along the trail. As those discomforts begin to subside after a dozen miles, foot pain kicks in.
String Bean has no choice but to continue: in honor of Colin; for the sake of putting his best foot forward every day, every hour, every minute, every step; to push his body to its physical limits and beyond. He is driven to keep moving forward, come what may.
It is July 16, 29 days since String Bean began on the PCT. He has now covered about 1,330 miles—he is about half way finished. Despite all the injuries, the continuous and relentless painful setbacks, and the difficult sections of the PCT through the High Sierra, String Bean has averaged about 45 miles per day. He has become stronger, and he and his crew more trail savvy, too: his soleus muscle has strengthened and the Achilles pain has mostly subsided; the blisters and swelling and cramps and fatigue are all being routinely dealt with in military-like fashion now. String Bean forecasts blue skies ahead.
“If I replicate the first half again, do the exact same thing—with all the injuries, all the setbacks, with the High Sierra, with all those difficulties—I can still set an FKT. It definitely seems possible,” String Bean informs his crew before embarking on the second half of the journey.
String Bean forecasted correctly: he will go on to average around 55 miles per day on the northern section of the PCT. He will replicate the first half of his journey, except that he will do it five days faster: he will finish the remaining 1,330 miles in a mere 24 days, seemingly gaining strength the longer he is on the trail and the more miles he covers.
String Bean is over 2,000 miles into his journey. He’s been hiking and running in the Cascades of Washington for most of the day. It’s getting dark and he plans to meet his support crew around 10:15 p.m. at a predetermined spot on the trail. He arrives, but no one is there. He waits for an hour, but no one shows. Then he realizes: I’m going to be on my own tonight.
As an industrious Eagle Scout, he finds huckleberry bushes and covers himself in branches as he tries to get some much-needed rest. He awakes an hour later, shivering. No matter. He must sleep, so he finds more branches and gets back to it. Two hours later, he awakes again. The moon is bright above the horizon. It’s 4:15 a.m. now, and String Bean knows that there is only one thing he can do: the same thing that he has done for the last five weeks; the same thing that has brought him more than 2,000 miles north from the border with Mexico.
He rises, eats, gathers his things, and puts one foot in front of the other. Slowly, laboriously, he begins to move faster as the day brightens, the sun shows, and his body warms. He maintains his steady four-mile-per-hour pace, running 30 to 40% of the time, hiking and walking the rest. On this particular day, he does this for 19 straight hours, with little rest, and covers the 58 miles between his huckleberry-branch bed and the day’s end point. His journey continues unblemished.
As it turns out, Hot Flash, Fish Tacs, and Brightside had a gnarly hike-in to meet with String Bean the night prior. Toward the end of that hike, once it was dark, they found a raging river to cross in order to continue. They had to turn back, and, on that night, String Bean was left to fend for himself.
“That was pretty crazy,” Joe says now with a laugh, looking back on his solo overnight adventure.
The sun won’t be up for several hours, but String Bean has already begun his work for the day, grinding out miles under the moonlight. He’ll barely go beyond the marathon distance today: in 27 miles, he will arrive at the north terminus of the PCT, 2,650 miles from where he began. It is the morning of his 54th day.
Luck seems to be on his side this morning: the moon in the sky is a super moon and it is as big and bright as it has ever been during his early mornings. String Bean has nearly finished the entire PCT without any serious injury, catastrophic event, veering off course, etcetera. Indeed, luck seems to be with him.
But, as String Bean learned continuously during his 53-plus-day journey, luck is a fickle friend on the rugged PCT. A few miles into his last morning—after he had woken up earlier than normal to run under the moonlight—he slips, nearly falls down a steep ravine, and loses his headlamp to that ravine in the process. It will be a slower morning than expected. Several miles later, he falls again. A root, a fall, a trekking pole flashing before his eyes, a turn of his head, and a gash to his ear. A trickle of luck must have remained this morning, though, like his other falls throughout the journey, String Bean is able to continue without any serious injuries. This last morning is yet another reminder of how difficult and tumultuous a single section of the PCT can be.
Alas, the finish is in sight and his support crew awaits him. Brightside, Fish Tacs, and Hot Flash are sitting around the four wooden monuments signifying the end of the PCT at the U.S./Canadian border. String Bean triumphantly arrives; he climbs atop one of the monuments, and screams. Suddenly, it is all over.
String Bean summarizes his finish this way: “It was incredible. I laughed and cried for probably about an hour. It was so thrilling and at the same time, it was sad and exhilarating. I was still hungry, and my legs still hurt. I was still reeling from falling on the trail earlier that day. I was thinking about Colin and my cousin and about everything—all the little stupid stories we had seen or heard, drinking water out of mountain streams, seeing sunsets, knowing you have five or 10 miles left in your day—so many different emotions. I would be completely laughing about something. And then I’d think, It’s over. And then I would want to start crying. Then I would think about Colin and how I had done something for him and that I was safe and alive and how crazy it was and all the beautiful sights I had seen. I was all over the place. Weird experience.”
If you dream big enough, and you advance with enough confidence toward it, success can come, even if it is not expected. Henry David Thoreau said that, and Joe McConaughy has taught us that most recently.
What’s your next big dream? Here’s to realizing it.