A Day Inside Karl Meltzer’s Appalachian Trail Record Attempt

AJW's TaproomBack in the Summer of 2011, along with many others, I watched in awe as Jennifer Pharr Davis hiked from Maine to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail faster than anyone had before. With extraordinary consistency that I wrote about. Davis re-defined the boundaries of human endurance and documented it in her outstanding memoir Called Again.

Ever since that summer I have become fascinated with and inspired by the Appalachian Trail. Living as I have in Central Virginia for the past five years I have had ample opportunities to enjoy many miles of the trail and have become enamored with the elegant simplicity of the “long green tunnel.” And so it was with great excitement that I received a call from Cheryl Meltzer last week letting me know that her husband Karl Meltzer was nearing the middle of the state and would love a little company on the trail. Within minutes, I changed into my running clothes, tossed some camping stuff in my car, and headed for the trail with coolers full of ice cream and beer.

I met up with Karl’s crew Erik and Karl Sr (known on the trail as Senior) at a remote parking along Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park. It was 7 p.m. and they were expecting Karl any minute. Sure enough, as if on cue, Karl came striding out of the woods and tagged the trail marking post,

“OK, I’m done, let’s go.” He had just finished a 51.4-mile day. It was 7:15 p.m.

And with that, he jumped in the back of his customized Ford Econoline van and collapsed on the full size mattress in the back. Senior and Erik sprung to life and loaded up the van and Senior’s truck and we headed down the parkway to that evening’s camp spot about 8 miles away. On that short drive Karl took off his shirt and shoes and began to eat–first, some Mandarin oranges and, then, some more substantial stuff. Karl did not stop eating or drinking for the next hour.

When we arrived at the camp, Erik took out the gas grill and began preparing Karl’s evening meal, six chicken drum sticks and two pounds of foil roasted vegetables. While Karl stretched out in a camp chair, Senior began working on his feet, cleaning and drying and preparing for the next day. Looking at me in his sly way Karl saw me looking at his feet and said, “Yep AJ, my feet are total money!”

While Senior did the footwork and Erik was doing the grilling, Karl dove into his pre-dinner snack of a half-gallon of Turkey Hill ice cream I brought up from town. Rinsing it all down with a Dale’s Pale Ale, Karl began to settle into relaxation. Doing some quick math in his head he said, “Well, I am 11 miles ahead of the record at this point. This is going to be really close.” As I would learn repeatedly over the next day, Karl knew exactly what he needed to set the record, and he was pursuing it with every bone in his ever-shrinking body.

By nightfall, approximately 90 minutes after stepping off the trail, Karl was nestled warmly in his sleeping bag asleep and Erik and Senior began prepping for the next day, Day 30. Sandwiches, bacon, Ultragen, Red Bull, fruit, socks, shoes, headlamps, and just about anything else you could imagine were shuffled around, packaged up and prepared for the day ahead. By 10 p.m. we were ready for sleep. The morning wake-up call was but six hours hence.

I awoke at 4:15 a.m. to the rustling of plastic bags and the hiss of the coffee maker. Erik and Senior were busy at work preparing for the day. Fresh shoes and socks were laid out and waiting. A new singlet and shorts had been placed on the end of Karl’s bed and his trademark fanny pack was already loaded with water and half a day’s worth of provisions. Without even waking him up, we pulled out of camp at 4:45 with the goal of hitting the trail shortly after 5:00.

On the drive up to the trailhead Karl began to stir. He grabbed his coffee and gulped it down. Shoveling in food while getting dressed seems to have become an art form for Karl and by the time we reached the day’s starting point he was raring to go. We strapped on our headlamps, high fived Erik and Senior, and plunged into the darkness of the pre-dawn gloaming of the Appalachian Trail.

Karl Meltzer AT 2016 - AJW

Karl and AJW on the AT. Photo courtesy of AJW

As soon as we had a rhythm going we began to talk. The topics were far reaching and disparate. From family and friends to the Ultrarunner of the Year voting, Karl and I literally covered dozens of topics. Mostly, I just let him take the conversation where he wanted it to go and in the process I felt as though I was in the presence of pure focus. Karl’s pace was extraordinarily consistent. The terrain and trail surface seemed to be impertinent, as he remained purposeful in his steady 3.5-4.5 miles per hour pace. When he felt like running he did and he loped along in that classic Meltzer stride, slightly duck footed, perfectly upright posture, seemingly floating over the rocks. When he hiked, which was about 70% of the time, he did so with a sense of calm precision that seemed to suggest barely a bit of wasted movement.

Just over two hours into our day’s journey we came to a road crossing where Erik and Senior were waiting with a table and chair, a huge plate of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and bread, along with the gleeful smiles of a sleep-deprived crew. Within two minutes of our arrival we were off. Senior hiked with us for the first half mile checking in on Karl’s condition, asking questions and assessing his son’s well being. I lingered a few yards back and couldn’t help but marvel at the wonder of their father/son bond. When Karl started running again Senior turned back, trotted back down the trail, gave me a wink, and returned to the van to load up and head to the next supply spot.

Two hours and eight miles later Karl and I arrived at that spot. Just like before, Karl dropped into his chair and began to eat. Due to the wet morning conditions he also changed shoes and socks as fast as a NASCAR pit crew changes a tire. Once again, within two minutes, he was up and on his way. I trotted along with him a bit then, thanked him for letting me share a little slice of his quest, and gave him a hug. With that he plunged back into the long green tunnel and I returned to the rest of my life.

Karl Meltzer - Appalachian Trail 2016

Karl headed back out onto the AT. Photo: Andy Jones-Wilkins

After he left I lingered a bit at the trailhead before returning to my car. I thought of the dozens of Karl Meltzer experiences I have had over the years and felt a lump welling up in my throat. I wasn’t sad, necessarily, but rather more than a bit humbled. This guy, this seemingly regular guy, self-proclaimed run bum, the winningest 100-mile runner in history, was left to chase his dream alone. In his third and final attempt at the record, Karl was as focused and purposeful as he’d ever been. It was all out guts from here to Springer Mountain, Georgia.

As of this writing Karl is slogging through Day 37. He’s a couple 100 miles south of here and on the knife edge of the record. Time will tell whether he gets it or not. But for me, that’s not altogether relevant. For me, the inspiration comes in the chase, in the ever-elusive hunt for the satisfaction of a job well done. It comes in the midst of a time in one’s life when you are all in, all at once, for now and forever. In my one day on the trail with Karl Meltzer I felt the electricity of his vision quest. That jolt, Karl’s spark, will be with me for a long, long time.

Bottoms up!

[Editor’s Note: You can follow the remainder of Karl’s AT attempt here.]

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Smuttynose Scotch Style AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Karl’s native New Hampshire where the White Mountains rule and Smuttynose Scotch Style Ale from Smuttynose Brewing Company reigns supreme. This wonderfully balanced Scotch Ale tips the scales at a stout 8.20% ABV but is not at all boozy. And, as it befits the state from whence in comes, it is a ruggedly individualistic beer!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Are you following Karl’s latest go at the AT record?
  • Are you tempted to go out and run a long trail yourself?