Karl Meltzer 2016 Appalachian Trail FKT Interview
It took Karl Meltzer three attempts, but he finally holds the fastest known time for a supported effort on the Appalachian Trail. In the following interview, Karl talks about his training and preparation, what effect his previous two attempts had on this one, the highs and lows of his journey, and his company along the way.
[Editor’s Note: The interview cuts out 48 minutes in due to borrowed camcorder unknowingly freezing. We hope you still get your fill!]
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Karl Meltzer 2016 Appalachian Trail FKT Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Karl Meltzer after his record-setting run of the Appalachian Trail. First off, congratulations, Karl.
Karl Meltzer: Yeah, thanks. It’s a good feeling to get it done after three times.
iRunFar: You have done this three times, and now you finally have done it. You’ve had about a month to reflect. How does it feel?
Meltzer: I feel successful finally. To do it three times and do all the recon and all the work I put into it, it would have been a bummer not to come out of it ahead, but it feels good. I don’t have to run for a month, haven’t run a step in a month. I’m chilling out and relaxing and trying to enjoy life and Bernie here. It feels great to finally have the record. At the same time, it’s going to go down, of course. It depends who does it, of course. It’s a stout record either way, but it’s breakable. I had some slow days.
iRunFar: There are so many things to talk about. You’ve been doing this three times, and it wasn’t just that. You did tons of reconnaissance and a ton of planning. You seem like a totally laid back guy, but when you get into something… you’re low-key in outward presentation, but…
Meltzer: We talked about in 2015, Red Bull came to me with the idea, “Hey, Karl, do you want to do the AT one more time?” Actually, they came to me in 2014 right after I bailed out. I was like, “No way am I going back.” But time passed by a little bit and we talked about it a little bit in February and said, “Well, if we do it, let’s not do it in 2015. Let’s do it in 2016 because you can do more recon. Karl, do what you need to do to get it done,” which was really cool. So I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I went to the East Coast in 2015 September and did all of Maine and reconned it the way it’s supposed to be done because the first two times I didn’t do it right. So I did that, and then I came home and went back in March and did all the southern part. I reconned a lot for my crew, too, so they would know it and stuff like that. Just me knowing the trail and being on the trail made me feel better about it and more confident especially the Maine part.
iRunFar: The first time around was…
Meltzer: The first time around was a nightmare with the water. That’s a whole other story. The second time on day one, we really didn’t go far enough. We went to a place called Nahmakanta Lake Stream which is 42 miles in. This time we went to 56 miles at Jo-Mary Road which made a huge difference. It doesn’t sound like that much of a difference, but it sets you up for future days.
iRunFar: It’s 14 miles out of 2,200.
Meltzer: It doesn’t sound like much, but the way Maine is, my idea was to get a lot of sleep. I slept seven or eight hours per night. By doing that the first day, I was done by 7:30 in the evening. I slept well, and all of Maine was like a cakewalk which sounds crazy, but Maine was not that hard for me this time. That really set me up and gave me a lot of confidence.
iRunFar: It has been hard.
Meltzer: It’s always hard. It’s hard. It’s a tough trail in Maine, but the more times you do things, the easier things get just like any race like Hardrock, like Wasatch or any of that kind of stuff. So I was really confident going into it. I was in better shape. My crew was better. Eric Belz was awesome. He went with me to the recon efforts, too. He was also there not to just jump in at the end. He saw all that part and pieces of it. He was ready; I was ready; my dad was ready, and Cheryl was ready. That was really… between the three of them, that was pretty much most of my crew. Scott Jurek helped at the end which we’ll talk about in a minute. Monumental ten days he had there… and Mike Mason. Other than those five people… Dave Horton showed up of course. Of course.
iRunFar: Probably to heckle more than…
Meltzer: Yeah, he heckled, but he was inspirational and talked to me and tried to push me a little further sometimes if I didn’t want to. Yeah, that was it. Another thing we did, too, most people know we didn’t post live right away so people didn’t really find out where I was. That was just because I like to do things by myself, nothing against anyone running with me, but it made the crew also focus more on the objective as opposed to chatting with people and taking pictures and stuff.
iRunFar: Did it help to get into a rhythm for everybody?
Meltzer: Everybody was totally in a rhythm. It was, take it out of the van, put it in the thing, put it back in the van, go to the next stop. It was 232 crew stops later, it was over. That’s how many it was. Eric counted those up at the end. They were in a very good routine, and that was… this time I was more focused than ever, and I didn’t want anything to throw a wrench in or anything like that, so I didn’t want people around, or having less people around was better. Every night I went to bed within 30 minutes.
iRunFar: Going back to before things start. Obviously over the last couple years, you have had a couple injuries. How was your physical preparation going into this?
Meltzer: My last race was the Sonoma 50 which was early April, and I said I wouldn’t race after that to really prepare for the AT. I went out and hiked around a lot more around the Wasatch and anywhere else. I was more hiking and learning how to… teaching myself to walk a little faster. You can walk 3.7 miles per hour, and that’s pretty fast. I had these calculations in my head. I really trained, and I kept myself healthy. In 2014 I went to run Western States and dropped out after 80 miles. I was pretty hammered. I started the AT a month later. I wasn’t really ready. In 2008, I was ready in 2008 but I wasn’t… I didn’t do all the recon. I didn’t really know the trail all that well. This time I was super fit when I started. I just stuck to my game plan. That’s what really paid off. The crew was right, and I was sticking to my own plan.
iRunFar: It was your own plan. You started in the north. Some other attempts have gone from the south. Scott’s record was from the south. You’ve always gone from the north. What’s the reasoning behind that?
Meltzer: In 2008, we went from the north because that’s the way the record was set. Andrew Thompson had it southbound. “I’ll do it the same way he does it.” So, I knew it southbound. In 2014, Jennifer Pharr-Davis, when she broke it in 2011, she went southbound, so I went southbound. Scott went northbound because he wanted to do it apparently because it’s more traditional the way hikers do it which is cool—nothing wrong with that. Do I think one’s harder or easier? It’s hard to say. It can work both ways against you either way, but getting the hard stuff out of the way—harder terrain anyway, Maine and New Hampshire, the Whites are ridiculous—it’s kind of nice to finish… I finished 85 miles this time. I never would have finished 85 miles in Maine. It’s a different way to look at it. It’s a better way to finish going southbound, I think.
iRunFar: Starting out, you get in a rhythm. It’s hard to compare paces. You had where Jennifer was, but you didn’t have the current record holder was. How did you keep yourself on track?
Meltzer: I kept myself on track, if you think about it, Jenn was three hours off Scott, right? Three hours translates to 10 miles. It’s pretty easy to check it out. I was right on Jenn’s itinerary. I wasn’t even looking at Scott’s. Trying to do those calculations in my head was not worth my time.
iRunFar: You didn’t need to.
Meltzer: I didn’t need to. As I went along, we stayed right on Jenn all the way through Gorham, New Hampshire at the end of day seven. From that point on, she struggled a little over Mt. Washington. She slept on the peak in an engine room. She slept a few hours. She was tired. She had a bad time. Her shins were starting to hurt. So I took advantage of when she had her bad days which is five or six days in New Hampshire and Vermont. I went over Mt. Washington to Crawford Notch “12 miles ahead of record pace.” I just kept track of it there. My following day after that, I was a little low in miles at only 28, but I was tired. Going over Wildcat Ridge and the Presi’s in one day is ridiculous, but it paid off. It put me in a good spot. To think about all that, too, it did not rain on me until after Mount Moosilauke, which the terrain gets better in New Hampshire. Nine days, no rain…
iRunFar: That sounds ridiculous. In a 2190 mile effort, and you’re talking about a 28 mile ridge, and that’s ridiculous?
Meltzer: It’s ridiculous.
iRunFar: So it’s not just the enormity of the effort. There are little pieces that are…
Meltzer: There are pieces that are… Maine and New Hampshire are so ridiculous. It’s not just the elevation gain which is big. There are big things out West here in a lot of places, but the terrain is just much more technical. You just move slower. Not one day did I average four miles per hour, maybe some pieces, but 3.4 miles per hour was my average. That’s painfully slow, but it’s not on the AT. That’s something you have to think about. I can look back to every day and say why this was hard and why it wasn’t, but it’s just a matter of… it’s 46 days, so you have to get up and want to do it again and deal with it.
iRunFar: Some people who have done long efforts sort of feel like they run into it. After a week or two, physically some of the little stuff goes away and you just are stronger and more solid or more used to it. Did you feel that at all?
Meltzer: I was in good shape when I started. Hiking around Maine and New Hampshire for eight or nine days before I even started again… just to get on that techy, junk terrain… I think that also helped a little bit in terms of getting into my run. I was… it’s true, you get your legs after two or three weeks on something like that especially when you’re just hiking and not running. You get that stride. You’ve got that… once you get out of the junky terrain, you can move a little faster. It’s ironic. Everything for me was on cue. I was a day ahead of Jenn’s “record pace” after 18 days. I was cruising, and I wasn’t even… It wasn’t like I was really working hard to do that. I was working hard, but I wasn’t…
iRunFar: You weren’t burying yourself.
Meltzer: I wasn’t killing myself. I wasn’t burying myself at all. Then my shin breaks down on a flat, grassy area. Then I had struggles in Pennsylvania, but I had time to get back. It’s not my idea to bank time in a race, but I had 50 miles in the bank so to speak. I was able to give time back and not get too, too discouraged. I stayed close to where she was and just said, “I’m probably not out of it.” I was definitely more focused this time.
iRunFar: From the outsider’s perspective, there definitely seemed a point in there where like, “Crap, Karl. Karl ain’t going to make it.”
Meltzer: I imagine after my… my 32 mile day was… I’m way ahead and all the sudden, “Whoa, you’ve lost 20 miles.” Then I had a painful but 50 mile day which was fine, and then a 16 mile day where everyone was thinking, Oh, it’s over. He’s out.
iRunFar: Especially two days after.
Meltzer: Especially two days after. My shin was on fire. I was just like, I didn’t say to myself, “I’m not going anywhere.” All I said to myself was, “Let’s do what we can to make it get better,” instead of negative all the time. My crew never got negative either, so that was really a positive thought. Again, I had time in the bank. Even after that 16 mile day, I was still seven miles ahead of “record pace.” So, I wasn’t out of it. I was just hoping the NSAIDS would kick in, which I guess they did. Then a few days later, I was able to muscle through it.
iRunFar: When did you feel like you got back in a rhythm?
Meltzer: So that lasted all of Pennsylvania. The funny thing is I fear Pennsylvania because it’s ugly. It’s rocky, like ridiculously rocky; it feels dirty in a way. It’s kind of a weird feeling in Pennsylvania in a way. It’s a tough, nasty part of the trail. I don’t really fear it, but it’s like you just want to get through it because it’s ugly. So we’re going through Pennsylvania, and that’s when I went back and forth with my big mile… 50, and 16, and 32 and stuff like that. We got to Duncannon, and we stayed at the most ghetto campground I’ve ever stayed at in my entire life. It’s another story in and of itself. We don’t have to go there. At the same time, we stayed there, and I talked to Jurek on the phone that day. He suggested doing one thing with the compression wrap on my shin, and I can’t really say that was the game-changer, but it was basically putting the compression over the belly of the muscle which helped the tendon release a little bit. Whether that helped or not, I walked out of Duncannon. I got up the hill—it was about a two mile hill—and I had a little wrestle with a possum which was running down the trail which was pretty funny. The things I remember, right? Weird. I started jogging uphill a little bit. Uphill didn’t hurt much. Downhill is when you stretch your foot out like this…
iRunFar: Anterior tibialis? So you were slapping a little bit?
Meltzer: Yeah, it was right here. When I slapped it was just on fire. I started jogging uphill. Huh, this doesn’t feel too bad. I started jogging downhill a little bit. It didn’t feel too bad. Right after Duncannon, the terrain gets easier. You get to a place called Cumberland Valley. You have Maryland, you have Virginia-Shenandoah, and all those areas are pretty smooth. I bumped into a through-hiker going north and he was like, “Hey, Karl, hang in there.” He knew what was going on. However he knew, I don’t know, but he knew. He’s like, “It’s getting smoother, man. You’ll heal in the smooth terrain.” I left Duncannon, and I put in 53 miles, and I was done at 7:00 or 6:45 that evening. I could have gone further, but I was like, Don’t push it. I could have gone a seven mile leg and gone 60 miles, but I waited and said, “Tomorrow we’ll go sixty,” because it’s been right there. I went 53, then 60, then 57, and boom, I’m back ahead of Jenn again. I was eight miles behind Jenn at Duncannon. All the sudden I was seven miles ahead again. Then I went over The Priest and Three Ridges, and my shin pain was gone. It’s gone.
iRunFar: So you run into Virginia, and you’re good?
Meltzer: Yeah, I was good. It was still stiff. It’s still even a little stiff now.
iRunFar: Now, Jenn made good progress all through that. Did it feel like you were racing her? There was a stout comparison every day.
Meltzer: Totally. I was racing Jenn for sure. I was looking over my shoulder all the time. For sure, you have this thing where you’re thinking of the virtual reality where she’s either behind or ahead of you because you’re looking at her itinerary. It’s kind of like we’re both on the trail at the same time. It’s pretty weird how that happens, but yeah, I was racing her the whole time. All I had to do was stay on her pace and throw down 80 miles on the last day, and I’ve got it. Her last day she didn’t do that.
iRunFar: You kind of had that… that was the wild card. That was your trump card.
Meltzer: It totally was my trump card. She did 53 and 52 miles. I’m sort of racing her. She slept that last night, only five hours, but she slept. That’s five hours.
iRunFar: That’s five hours.
Meltzer: I knew that all I had to do was stay even with her and I was fine. As I progressed southbound, I had that one bad day where I slept in the woods. People saw that picture of me sleeping on the trail. It was only 20 minutes. It wasn’t all night. Regardless of that, it was a horrible day. I woke up that morning on the trail in a tent. I don’t know, I didn’t sleep very well. That’s always a key for me. I don’t do well with sleep deprivation. I just couldn’t move. I went 10 miles in five hours. It was horrible. I slept in the van a couple hours in the late morning, and then I got up and wandered off on the trail. My crew didn’t know where I was. I left without my SPOT locator and stuff. I was just kind of bummed. I wasn’t really bummed that I was behind, but I was bummed my body wasn’t feeling better. I went and got through that day and did 32 miles. Dave Horton kept telling me to go seven more. “Go seven more! Go seven more, and you’ll be ahead of Jenn three miles!” “Dave, I’m going to sleep tonight.” I slept. The next morning, I woke up, and I was still a little grumpy, but I said, “Karl, you’ve got to turn the switch.” So I turned the switch off, the mean switch, I call it the mean switch, because I was being a little grumpy, and I continued on. I knew as I was going along, again, I was right where I needed to be. I wasn’t pushing it, but I was where I needed to be. And that’s all that it took. I knew that last day was going to be big.
iRunFar: Now did flipping the mean switch off help you as much as it helped your crew?
Meltzer: Oh, for sure. I got to the aid station the first day after the terrible day and said, “Alright, the mean switch is turned off, guys.” My dad said, “Oh, thank goodness.” He’s funny. Both him and Eric let it blow right over their head like nothing. Whatever. That’s part of it. You have to deal with those things, too.
iRunFar: Is that something that’s come up… wisdom that’s come with age and experience? You have had intensity come through in a checkpoint in a race. You can be… it’s focused. It’s not like you’re…
Meltzer: What’s funny about it is my crew was there, and their waiting for two or three hours every day. For 233 stops, they’re waiting. When I come in, it’s like *done done done*, and I’m out in two or three minutes every time. I would sit down, drink some Ultragen, do a little food, pack my little pouch, and I’d be out. It was intense those three minutes. Sometimes you’d forget something. I’d walk off and, Oh, I forgot. I’ve got to apologize again. It wasn’t all the time, but they were… never did we bark at each other or anything like that.
iRunFar: No one was walking off the crew?
Meltzer: No one was walking off the crew. No one was getting kicked off the crew. They stayed money. I know they were ready to be done with two weeks to go, of course, but my dad and Eric Bells, they bounced off each other really well. They get along great. That was a bonus for me to see their positivity every time. Not once were they negative with each other. That made everything…
iRunFar: That crew…
Meltzer: Crew is huge. Yeah, it’s me walking the miles, but without a happy crew, you’re…
iRunFar: You’re not a pacer guy, but a crew guy?
Meltzer: Crew guy is tough, man. Bells was so ready to be done, but all the way to the end, he was still… even at the hotel in Atlanta after it was all over, he was still kind of crewing for me. He was still doing this for me, doing that. I was like, “Dude, job’s done, man. You’re good.”
iRunFar: Now, with a day to go, are you confident you’re getting the record?
Meltzer: No problem. I’m waiting on day… 44… After 44, I’m on my 45th day. I had 85 miles to go, and I had about 32 hours or something like that to get 85 miles. “I’ve got that. No problem.”
iRunFar: Physically you’re okay?
Meltzer: I was money.
iRunFar: Sleep deprivation? Or you hadn’t gone there yet?
Meltzer: I hadn’t gone there at all. I didn’t have to do that. I slept eight hours per night.
iRunFar: Maybe that’s sort of an advantage a runner might have… you’re hiking a lot, yes, but getting done a little sooner, and going a little faster just allows you to stay up on sleep.
Meltzer: It worked for me. I think when Scott was going northbound, he was crawling because he was so sleep deprived he couldn’t move. I don’t know how Jenn… Jenn was probably okay. She was fired up. Jenn also had… if she was racing virtual Andrew Thompson, she had a day off. So she didn’t have to go all night. She could sleep because she still had it. For her, it was like she wasn’t rushed at the end. I sort of had to throw that last one down. Jenny Jurek was like, “Why don’t you take a nap for seven hours?” “No, Jenny, I’m not taking a nap.” “Make it interesting?” “No, no, I’m going to keep going.” Yeah, when I was at a place called Deep Gap, the place I started from with 85 miles to go, I also did that in 2008 from the same place. Eh, I’ve got it. But I negative splitted it, too, which was pretty amazing.
iRunFar: Were you doing the calculations every 10 miles? All I have to do is go at this pace for the next…
Meltzer: I was doing calculations from Katahdin. When you’re walking a long trail like that, calculations are going through your head all the time. You’re looking at your watch all the time. I was racing “3 MPH guy,” which is 20 minutes/mile. So every time a mile would click up on my watch, I’d be like, “Oh, 23… I fell behind ‘3MPH guy.’” But at the end of the day, it always would average 3.4 miles per hour or something like that. That’s with stops, so it was always coming out ahead. All I had to do was race that guy 16 hours per day times three is 48 miles. You get it.
iRunFar: What did it feel like getting to the finish and setting a record?
Meltzer: It was exciting to know that I succeeded. I kind of knew I had it from Davenport Gap with 230 to go unless something happened bad, but some of it was relief. Many people said, “What did you do afterwards?” “Well, I had a piece of pizza and a beer, and I went back to the van and went to sleep.” I woke up the next morning and was sitting in the van, “Whoa, what do I do now?” Yeah, it feels fantastic. It goes by really fast. When you’re out there on the trail every day, you think it’s going to take forever to get to point B, but all the sudden you blink, and the whole thing is over. I’m in my back yard a month already playing croquet. It’s like, I’m back to reality.
iRunFar: Do you think you needed those first two attempts to do what you did this third time?
Meltzer: I think the first two attempts helped a ton, for sure. The recon that I did in Maine last September in 2015, again it seems like only six days doesn’t make a difference, but that gave me a lot of confidence. In Maine the last two attempts, I really wanted someone with me while I was out there because it’s a little more remote, more technical, and you can get hurt. When I did the recon, I did it myself. I’m going with myself. I’ll cross the rivers with myself. Whatever. Then I went there and, Ah, this is a piece of cake. I’ve got it. I was just so much more confident.
iRunFar: Did your perspective change or your approach to the actual physical tasks each day or the overall picture and how you’re going to pace your effort change during those three attempts?
Meltzer: You don’t really think about pacing. You just kind of take what it gives you. You’re going to hike. All you have to do is walk fast. You don’t have to run. You don’t push this section or push that section. It’s really about getting from point A to point B each day. My goal was always to get out of the van at 5:00 am or better. I didn’t miss that. One day I was 5:40; one day I was 5:20. Every other day I was 5:07 or before. I was money on that. I was up at 4:30 am and out by 5:00 am. That was really important because the earlier I got out, I was thinking in my head, the earlier I got to go to sleep. I was off and going to bed by 8:30 pm at the latest.
iRunFar: Either through your approach or through what you requested or anything, did it change the efficiency of your crewing from those first years to the end?
Meltzer: Yeah, I mean, I think so. Eric was just so much better. He likes… this sounds silly, but he made my bed every day. I’d walk in the van, and everything was clean and neat and organized. In the morning, the coffee was ready for the press. Everything was ready and in line. Jetboil was ready to fire—little stuff like that. To me, it gave me confidence because it’s organized. I hate this big mess. In 2014, stuff was everywhere. I’m just like, GAHHH, telling the crew what to do, which I shouldn’t have to do that. The efficiency of the crew was pretty freaking amazing.
iRunFar: There’s a lot of fueling that goes on in something like this. You wake up in the morning and have a cup of coffee. What are you throwing down with it?
Meltzer: Every morning, I’d have a yogurt. I ate 40, 50, 60, 70 yogurts. I may eat a banana or eat something small. I ate a small breakfast. I didn’t have them get up early and cook me a big breakfast.
iRunFar: Not eggs and bacon?
Meltzer: No, that would come to the next stop. I’d eat something going out the door, and start my walk. Usually it was maybe five miles and they’d see me, and they’d cook me something more substantial. I’d usually take it to go and eat it on the way out. It was more efficient. In the earlier years, I wanted them to make me breakfast which meant I had to get up earlier.
iRunFar: And you’re sitting there.
Meltzer: Yeah, I’m sitting there eating, and why am I sitting here eating when I could be walking? I’d pound the yogurt down. I didn’t have any feet problems.
iRunFar: So you’re not taking all the time to tape, and…
Meltzer: I had to do… what I did was, I sat down in the morning. Eric had the tabs pulled on the two pieces of moleskin I had to get. Little things. I was like, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. I could put my shoes on and my socks and my feet in three minutes. I was an hour in 2014 every time.
iRunFar: I guess in 2008 for awhile…
Meltzer: Same thing in 2008. I was all the way to the bottom of the AT. Think about it. One hour per day for 46 days is 46 hours or two days of time. The feet thing was massive. It was a very dry year. Things happened to me out there where I was really thinking, Things are falling in place. One thing I’ve got to say, on day three, there were showers around, and I’m walking through the woods, and it looks like it’s going to come and hit me. The very same moment I stepped in a shelter that the trail goes right in front of it. It starts sheeting rain, pouring, and I didn’t want to get my feet wet, right? It’s pouring. I wait in the shelter for nine minutes. The rain stopped as fast as it started. I walked out, and I never got wet. I went across every river in Maine dry except one, and there was a crew a half mile after that where I changed my socks and shoes. Otherwise, my feet were dry all the way. That had to have been a bit of a factor in terms of my feet staying strong.
iRunFar: Not just time, but mental effort in terms of if you’re dealing with foot issues, it’s distracting.
Meltzer: Do you want to walk with painful feet every single day for 46 days? No. I didn’t have that problem. I had another problem in Virginia when John Basham showed up, another story that happened random. His wife is an ER doc. That’s another story, but he shows up because she had the day off. He’s a stay-at-home-dad, so he can’t always just leave. He randomly has this day off. He comes out to see me and say hello. He identifies under my foot that I have a super deep blister as opposed to my neuroma. It felt just like my neuroma, painful, like step on something. I would sit down like this, and I would have to hold my foot up in the air so it wouldn’t throb. That’s how painful it was. He looks at it, “Oh, that’s one of those deep blisters.” We tried to lance it there, but we didn’t have much success. “Tomorrow morning I’ll bring a surgical needle…” He comes in the morning, 4:00 a.m. like he says. I’m ready. Pop, we pull the fluid out. Foot never hurt again. If his wife would have worked that day, that wouldn’t have happened.
iRunFar: So those are moments like trail angel moments.
Meltzer: Totally trail angel moments. Those two times were just things I remember off hand. Sticking my foot with a needle was money. My foot was super painful for a week before that. That one thing… in three minutes, the pain was gone.
iRunFar: What was your favorite moment out there or experience? It doesn’t have to be a single moment.
Meltzer: Just the… maybe five or six days out when I knew I had it. It’s not a particular moment, but I was like, “I got this thing.” I actually… Don’t fall apart now, and you’ve got it. That was a really good feeling just to know I could bounce back. I had a tough time in a place called Dennis Cove where I sort of bonked going in there. It was like, Oh, my gosh. This could kill me because of what I’ve got ahead of me. Then all the sudden, I bounced back again. Dave Horton always said, “It doesn’t always get worse.” I used that line a lot, but it didn’t always get worse. That was great in North Carolina. That was about in North Carolina where that happened. I was like, Now I’m pretty confident I’ve got it.
iRunFar: Are you pretty confident that 2,200 miles isn’t that hard?
Meltzer: Yeah… it’s a long way. It’s just a saying. I can say “100 miles is not that far” when I’ve gone 2,189. The AT is a daunting trail. It’s so hard. What do I do next? I don’t plan on going northbound. I don’t know what Scott plans on doing next, but it’s great to have that record finally in the books. Obviously I’ve been chasing it for eight or nine years.
iRunFar: Would you say you’re obsessed with it or were obsessed with it?
Meltzer: I’m sort of obsessed with the stupid trail.
iRunFar: It’s the trail.
Meltzer: It’s the trail. It’s the camaraderie with the people on the trail. It’s the feeling you get walking through the tunnel. You don’t get views hardly anywhere unless you get off the trail a little bit, and I didn’t go check out any views. Scott wanted me to go to the top of the tower on Clingmans Dome because he did. I’m like, “I’m not going up there.” When I saw him with the crew, he’s like, “Did you go up the tower?” I’m like, “…” He’s like, “Ahhhhh.” “Dude, I’m trying to break your record. I’m not going up the tower and wasting any time.” I spent no extra time looking around, but the beauty is the tunnel—the views. You like it green? The AT is the place for it. People walking… the people you see and talk to briefly… I didn’t talk to that many people either… It’s a pretty cool experience.
iRunFar: It’s interesting you say that because there are occasionally a small number of vocal through-hikers that just aren’t pleased with the whole FKT thing, but in general it sounds like there’s really good camaraderie, and you’re fellows on the trail.
Meltzer: There’s amazing camaraderie for sure. I’d love to hike it like a normal person one day just to kind of get that feeling of camaraderie. We all stink. None of us take showers when we’re out there. It’s killer. It’s kind of fun. The camaraderie is pretty amazing. I did talk to a lot of people, and those who wanted a photo, yeah, I took them. But I wasn’t out there to tweet and blog and all that.
iRunFar: You were not hosting group runs?
Meltzer: I was not hosting group runs. It was me about getting to Springer and talk about it later when it was over. That’s what trail running is about.
iRunFar: What’s your trail name?
Meltzer: Speedgoat, of course—everyone knows that.
iRunFar: It sounds like, one, you haven’t sworn off the trail because you’ve thought about hiking it. The record has gone down a couple times in the last couple of years. Sounds like maybe Jurek…
Meltzer: I think Scott has… I do to have the potential to do it faster. I think both of us don’t want to do it again… I doubt it. The thing is, whether it was Andrew, Jenn, myself, or Scott, or even David Horton when he had it, and Peter Palmer, everybody had issues. None of us nailed it. I nailed it for 19 days. Seriously, my first 19 days was like “click.” I’m a day ahead of Jenn. All I have to do through Pennsylvania is stay even. That’s all I wanted to do in Pennsylvania was stay even and just roll with it from there and throw down the big last day. I would have done 44 days and something. But things happen. It happened to all of us. It definitely can be faster.
iRunFar: And if somebody else shaved a couple minutes off the record, you’d consider going out there again?
Meltzer: I don’t know. I’m getting old. Age isn’t everything. I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
iRunFar: It’s not a no.
Meltzer: It’s not a no, but will the itch come back? I don’t know. I think… I got it once. I’ve had it. Scott said the same thing. Scott helped me; I helped him. If there was someone… thinking about Pete Kostelnik running across the country, right? He’s killing it. He’s probably going to get that record for sure. Maybe he’ll go after the AT. If he went after the AT next year or the following year, I’d be happy to help that guy because I love being out there. I like sleeping in my van and being out on the trail and doing that kind of thing. It will be broken. It’s not going to be broken by five days, but there’s a day or two to shave off, I think. But again, it has to click, man. I would say to Eric Bells, too, when I had those low days in Pennsylvania, I was falling behind a little bit, “I may be having low days, but these are rest days.” Positive, I wanted to be positive all the time. I was more rested when I got going again. I was able to throw down 53, 60, 57 three days in a row.
iRunFar: So you weren’t just burying yourself when you weren’t able to go.
Meltzer: What’s funny on the AT is 60 miles is a lot further than 50. It seems like a whole other day. So to go over 50 is big. It’s amazing how a couple extra miles make a difference. At 17 or 18 minutes per mile, it takes awhile.
iRunFar: Obviously you’ve had a singular obsession on the Appalachian Trail. Are there any other non-race goals that you have or that intrigue you?
Meltzer: Maybe… I’d like to run across the Winds and run across the Unitas. Those are short 100 milers. They’re not super long. As far as super long trails, people ask me about the PCT all the time, and to do that again? What does that require? I would want to do recon again. It takes time. It takes money. I don’t have the money for it anymore. It’s a lot of time, and I’m kind of running out of time in terms of being able to do that kind of thing. I’m 48, almost 49. I don’t think I’ll get much slower, but I don’t know. I’m just going to roll with it and see what happens. I haven’t run yet. People ask, When are you going to run again?” I’m like, “When I feel like it.”
iRunFar: It could be next year.
Meltzer: It could be December. I’m sort of thinking I might want to, but then nah, I’m going to do something else with my house. I’ve kind of been tooling around or something else. It will come back. The one good thing I can think positive is that after all my three long runs, the Pony Express and the two AT runs, my following year racing was pretty good, so let’s hope age 49 is solid for me.
iRunFar: Do you have any races in particular you’d like to race next year?
Meltzer: I’d like to race Western States, but I can’t get in. I don’t qualify. I didn’t run a qualifier, but that’s another story. I’d like to run Western when I’m 50. I will try to finagle my way whether it’s a qualifying race or even a sponsor exception kind of thing and try to get in when I’m 50. That record at Western is 18:43, and I know I can run 18:43.
iRunFar: Is that Mark Richtman?
Meltzer: I don’t know, but it’s old. It’s a 30 year old record. It’s their oldest record on the books. It’s not about how old it is. I don’t care if it was broken last year, but it’s 18:43 and I know I can run that at Western. I think we all know I can run that at Western.
iRunFar: But you’ve got to do it.
Meltzer: I’ve got to get in first of all, and that’s a bit of a challenge these days. If not, next year I’ll probably run—once I get myself back together—I’ll probably do a couple 100s I’ve never done before. Superior is one that I’ve wanted to do because it’s technical, and it’s kind of a cool area. Cascade Crest is on the list. It’s about the same time of year, so I don’t know.
iRunFar: You’ve got to choose?
Meltzer: Something different. I still haven’t put my name in for Hardrock yet, and I don’t know…
iRunFar: You still haven’t, but you haven’t decided not to.
Meltzer: I haven’t decided not to, but I’ve done it 10 times, 11 times. It’s okay to move on and let the young kids go faster. We’ll see.
iRunFar: You’ve got somethings you’re looking forward to.
Meltzer: I’m looking forward. At least I’m not looking back and saying I’m retired and gotta go play golf. I’ve been playing a lot of golf. I’ve been playing pretty well, too, actually.
iRunFar: Do you think you can lower your speedgolf times next year?
Meltzer: I would hope so. It just happened this last week, the Speedgolf World Championships in Chicago.
iRunFar: You’ve missed it.
Meltzer: Well, I’m running pretty slow. That’s kind of the reason I didn’t go. My legs are so fried, and you need to go fast. I really would have like to have played though. I saw the results, and if I was ready, I could be in the money for sure. I’ll play that again, and I’ll do that 12-hour thing again probably next year because it’s a fun charity thing. Play golf and hang out and play croquet.
iRunFar: Now, there’s snow up at the Wasatch Crest right there. Luge year again, or no?
Meltzer: Little bit. Luge year is good when it snows a lot early. This year would be an ideal year because luge actually gets me in shape to get running again. If it snows a lot in November and December, maybe. If it doesn’t snow much, then it’s not really worth… just because of the way the sun goes down and stuff, later in the season it firms up and gets soft and isn’t good. Early season, if it snows a lot, maybe. I can’t really say for sure. It’s a lot of work… obviously.
iRunFar: You’ve already put in a lot of work this year.
Meltzer: Yeah, I’ve focused more on… it’s talking about croquet, but my buddies and I play croquet in my back yard, and we make this cool winter court. We pack down the snow, and it’s like glass, really smooth. The ball rolls like a pool table.
iRunFar: When did it go from horseshoes to croquet?
Meltzer: About two years ago. We still have horseshoe pits, but they’re sand bunkers now for croquet. Yeah, croquet is more user friendly for anybody to play. Horseshoes get a little dangerous for some people. You can’t have kids running around.
iRunFar: Probably not with errant horseshoes flying around.
Meltzer: Or dogs. Bernie decided to take off.
iRunFar: You try to keep things simple. Gear-wise, what did you use out there on the AT?
Meltzer: 19 pairs of Speedgoat shoes (Hoka). They didn’t all break down, but I wanted new shoes all the time.
iRunFar: Fresh feels good.
Meltzer: Fresh feels good exactly. The Speedgoat waistpack from Ultraspire—it’s a two bottle waistpack with 18-ounce bottles. I really didn’t need much more than that. I can go about 13 miles on that. I had a small pouch that was connected to that in the front which was another pack that Ultraspire makes. That’s where I carried my food and the bottles in back. Speedgoat Drymax socks, of course.
iRunFar: I guess you didn’t need to carry a lot of extra clothing.
Meltzer: No. I never carried extra clothing. When it rained, it rained four days the entire time, but when it did rain, it wasn’t cold. I was running in just my Speedgoat race shirt most of the time which is a Patagonia shirt.
iRunFar: And you’d see your crew two or three hours later if you really needed something.
Meltzer: Right. Over Mt. Washington I carried a little more. Generally, that’s about it.
Meltzer: I didn’t use poles. Poles, I have a love-hate relationship with poles.
iRunFar: I know. I remember the first time you used them at Hardrock… “felt like cheating.”
Meltzer: “Felt like cheating,” and it kind of was. On the AT, when I do use poles, I put my hand on top like that and I push off them sort of like a fulcrum, and I drop them a lot which is frustrating because then you’ve got to go back and try to pick them up. Then also, I don’t eat and drink as much when I’m carrying stuff because it’s more of nuisance, so I didn’t use them. A lot of places, especially Maine and New Hampshire, there are junky places where with the rocks they get stuck and caught. Pennsylvania, I did use poles when my shin was hurting for stability. They worked there.
iRunFar: Black Diamond Z-Poles?
Meltzer: Yeah, BD Z-Poles. Once my shin was okay, I threw the poles back in the van, and I was done with them. I just felt better without them. What did you do for lighting?
Meltzer: For lighting, I had the Black Diamond Sprinter. In the morning, it was dark for about an hour-and-a-half. The Sprinter would last, but I’d carry a small Ion on my wrist, too. I’d always have two. I’m a fan of having two lights. One morning…
iRunFar: You’d use them at the same time?
Meltzer: Not at the same time, more as a backup. The one morning I left with just the Sprinter, after 40 minutes, and it was still dark and just just barely getting light, the Sprinter went out. It just wasn’t charged 100%. I was like, ahhhh. I could still see. I actually survived it, but take two. TAKE TWO. The second one would have made a difference. I’m trying to think of other stuff I really used, and it was that simple. I wore two different pairs of shorts the whole time. I took five showers the entire time, not that you need to know that.
iRunFar: That’s not a lot of showers.
Meltzer: Not a lot of showers. The last shower I took was in Shenandoah National Park.
iRunFar: So you did a good…
Meltzer: I did 18 days without.
iRunFar: How many miles was that?
Meltzer: 900? 800?
iRunFar: That’s a lot of miles without a shower. Having done that for some days in stage races and whatnot, it’s fine, but sleeping after awhile…
Meltzer: You get used to it. It’s humid on the East Coast, which is not pretty.
iRunFar: You’re sticky. You’re in the sheets.
Meltzer: So, my comment to everyone was, “If nobody takes a shower, then nobody stinks.” We all smell the same. Seriously, you kind of… Scott said the same thing. You want to clean off. You want the clean feeling. It did feel good those few times I took a shower, but I’d rather sleep than take 15 minutes to take a shower. I was more focused on what I really needed to do as opposed to being dirty. When I stopped every night at the van, I came in, sat down, and cleaned from my knees down. I was cleaning my feet completely. You could have eaten off my feet. That was something we did every day. Other than that, it was like brush your teeth, clean your feet, you’re out of here.
iRunFar: You listen to music when you run often. Did any song run out of favor? Did you just listen to one song way to many times and really need a break?
Meltzer: Always. I had five iPods—three Shuffles, a Nano iPod, and another Sandisk thing. Sandisk was different, the regular iPod was different, and the three shuffles were the same just because I loaded music at the last minute. Yeah, people asked me if I got bored on the trail. I think the only time I got bored on the trail was when I had to go forward on a song. I was sick of the song. I listen to a lot of stuff. I really didn’t get sick of the same song all the time because, number one, it was all new to me. It wasn’t an old iPod I’d been using for two years. I’d put all new music on.
iRunFar: It wasn’t your favorite jam band song.
Meltzer: No, I’m not going to listen to the same music for three years on my one iPod. After I switch to new stuff, it was all new again. That was good. It went from AC/DC to the Dead to John Denver to Neil Young, to Johnny Cash, to…
iRunFar: So it was a good mix.
Meltzer: It was a good mix. I’m from the 80s. Do the math. Def Leppard was on there, some junk like that, but that’s just what I like. It wasn’t all Dead but there was a lot of Dead on there.
iRunFar: Scott Jurek, the former record holder, did join you out there. What was your time like together?
Meltzer: Scott and I go back to 2002 when I got to know Scott a little bit in Hong Kong.
iRunFar: Trailwalker Oxfam? Old Montrail teammates.
Meltzer: Yes, Trailwalker. Old Montrail teammates, yes. That was way back. Scott and I were good friends. We don’t live near each other, so we don’t hang out much, but when we do hang out, he’s like a friend you’ve known forever. He’s one of those kind of guys. He shows up, and I’m excited to… he didn’t really run with me much. He was super focused on crewing which was his job. He was there to crew. He wasn’t there to run with me or pace me. He took a little load off Eric and my dad at the end because they were ready to be over it. Scott shows up and says, “I can meet Karl here.” “I can run in there.” “I can crew here.” “I can do that and do this.” Eric and my dad were like, “What a relief.” Scott was very instrumental though in me breaking the record by as much as I did. What was really important were those times where he went in and took some off the other guys. From Davenport Gap, which is before the Smokies, there’s a 31 mile section of nothing. I’ll just explain this a little bit, but Eric walked in 10 miles with me and muled in water. So when I got 10 miles in and my water was gone, he gave me more stuff, and I took off and he went back. Scott came in…
iRunFar: Just like a remote aid station.
Meltzer: Pretty much. Scott came from the other direction about 10 miles in and did the same thing. It was like three 10s—no big thing. Once Scott got out to Newfound Gap which is the gap in the Smokies, he drove all the way down and around, hiked in four miles with my bag, my pad, my tent, and we went to this shelter. I connected with him after going over Klingman’s Dome 56 miles that day, and he laid down my bed. Getting back to Jenn, she slept up on Klingman’s Dome. So now I’m 15 miles ahead of Jenn again. At Davenport Gap, we both slept there. So that was a huge jump on what she had and where she was. So, Scott, that one day, was huge because Eric and my dad were not hiking in my stuff. That leg is 33 miles without car support. That was a huge day. He was fired up. He just brought it in. “What do you need?” He didn’t really ask me what I needed. We put a small list together as we walked along. He had just the minimal stuff we needed. I got up at 5:00 am and hiked out. He hiked out. He went to Atlanta and flew to New York for a meeting. He flew back to Atlanta the next day and came back. Then he was right back on it. He had my truck. He left my truck at the airport, so he was in and out. Then he came back, and he was right back on it again. I’m like, Killer. The last day, he went the last 30 miles with me. That was the best time because he and I talked about old times and talked about stuff. It’s just friendship stuff. Talked about old races and what’s going on now—it wasn’t all about running either, just friends.
iRunFar: Family, life.
Meltzer: Yeah, life. That was great because it took my mind off just running. I was just running along, and everything felt fine. Dave Horton showed up the last day. He drove all the way from Arkansas. He was at a… he had to be in Arkansas for something. He drove 11 hours, got out of his car, parks at a parking lot with 12 miles to go to Springer. Dave jumps out, “I want to roll with him. Someone take my car to the next spot.” Someone was able to do that because there were some Red Bull crew people there. They were able to take his car. Dave starts walking with us. Half mile later, Dave crashes, smashes his arm, and he’s all bloody. Dave says, “I know where I’m going. I’m going to go out to the road and hike up to that thing.” It’s dark out. We’re in the Georgia woods, and it’s dark, and Horton is over there on some road walking. Does he know where he’s going? He knew where he was going. That was pretty fun. Stuff happened like that. Scott was just fired up to help like I was when I helped him, too. It’s great to have the guy who holds the record help you out like that. It was pretty inspirational.
iRunFar: Now the last time you were going for it in 2014, Jennifer Pharr-Davis had the record. Did you have any contact with her?
Meltzer: She congratulated me when it was over. We had more contact with her husband, Brew. In Maine, Brew bumped into my dad in the grocery store in Maine in Millinocket just randomly. Jenn was up there doing something at Katahdin, some hiking thing. Brew bumps into my dad, and then Brew also brought us some beer in North Carolina when we were out near Ashville. That was cool. I never saw Jenn though. She did congratulate me which is cool. It’s cool to have all of us… I don’t know Jenn very well or anything, but it’s cool that we’re sort of friends. It’s all good.
iRunFar: It’s a community.
Meltzer: It’s a community.
iRunFar: You said Brew brought you some beer. You didn’t have a lot of surprise people on the trail, but did anybody bring you any food or a hiker who said, “Oh, I’ve got this brownie. It’s awesome.”
Meltzer: Dave Horton knew where I was. He had a log-in so he could follow daily. A few people had that. He brought his classic bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken…