Back in 2008, Karl Meltzer attempted a supported speed record on the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail stretching between Maine and Georgia in the United States. He didn’t beat the then record of 47 days, 13 hours, and 31 minutes, but he did complete the trail in 54 days. In 2011, Jennifer Pharr-Davis reset the supported speed record at 46 days, 11 hours, and 10 minutes (post-FKT interview). Over the next couple months, Karl will make a second attempt at the AT supported speed record.
In the following interview, which took place on Sunday, July 20, Karl talks about why he’s running the AT again, what will be different with this attempt, what the most difficult aspects will be, and so much more.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Karl Meltzer Pre-Appalachian Trail Speed Record Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Karl Meltzer before your second attempt to run the Appalachian Trail.
Karl Meltzer: Yeah, 2,182 miles. We’re going at it again. In two days I’m leaving. We just put on the Speedgoat 50k race. I’ve got to put my stuff together tomorrow and we’re off. I’m pretty excited.
iRunFar: Saturday, you put on a 400-person 50k. Today you’re breaking it down or finishing breaking it down. Tomorrow you pack. Tuesday, you’re on the road?
Meltzer: Yes. That’s how it’s going to work, and a couple days at the wheel to catch up with the work things before I actually get off the trail and go off the radar. It’s been a great month-and-a-half. I’m pretty wired. I’ve got my stuff together. I’ve got the right vehicle and the right crew, the knowledge of the trail a little more than last time, so hopefully things will go well for me. Being that long, it’s an adventure and you kind of have to take it stride by stride and see how it goes. Hopefully it will pan out well for me.
iRunFar: Last time you went it was 2008—’Where’s Karl’ with Backcountry.com. This year you’re not off the radar because you’ve made announcements, but…
Meltzer: Sure, everyone knows… I think most people know that I’m doing it which is great. It’s fine, but we’re not really going to promote…
iRunFar: It’s still a very different approach.
Meltzer: Yeah, it’s more of the stealth approach. Call it stealth if you want. We have a van to sleep a few people instead of the RV. We’ll be able to park at a lot of places the RV couldn’t park. It’s very simple with just four people crewing instead of someone coming in every week which was more of a promotional thing, which was cool in a way, but this time it will be… I’m not really going to tell people where I am the first couple weeks. We’ll kind of let it evolve and then hopefully, hopefully I’ll still be going by the time we get to Pennsylvania or something like that and we’ll maybe hear about it a little more. I really just want to kind of get off the radar and do things on my own and hopefully it will go well. Hopefully it won’t rain nine inches in Maine that week.
iRunFar: Yeah, you got off to a rough start last time.
Meltzer: Well, we had a specific date to start which last time was August 5 which was fine in terms of the date, but we were starting this date regardless of the weather. This time I have a campsite at Katahdin Stream at the base of Katahdin and for a couple days. You pay for that, but I’m just going to wait for the weather to be right so I can get across the Kennebec River which is three-and-a-half days into the route. If I can get across that river and kind of through Maine comfortable, then from that point I should be okay. But that’s really the thing—we’re going to really play the weather and try to start off on the right track instead of just going.
iRunFar: Last time, it really ruined any chance of you setting the record. It wasn’t that it was nine inches of rain, you got trench foot and it sort of led to injury.
Meltzer: The rain caused problems. It’s funny because in 2008, I made my miles those first couple days even though it was tough and the rivers were at times chest deep, but we made our miles. But I got stuck at the Kennebec. That was the initial thing where I couldn’t get across the river. The river was six feet above flood stage. So the ferry man wasn’t there. We had to stop, and he didn’t come back until the next morning. So I lost essentially a day there almost. Bam, then you’re a day behind already. That was like, That’s a problem. The way Maine is, it’s very complicated to make certain times through there. This time, we’ll sleep on the trail kind of the way Jen did a little bit. We’ll play that game a little bit more and be more stealth about it. My crew is pretty prepared for that. Hopefully, again Maine, you kind of have to get through Maine through the Mahoosuc Range and Grafton Notch by six days. If I can get there in six days, then, bam, I think we’re on our way to a successful route.
iRunFar: Who’s on your team? Anybody coming back from 2008? Is ‘Old Man Karl’ coming out?
Meltzer: Yes, Old Man Senior is coming back. I reconned the whole trail in May. I drove the whole thing, 2,000 miles. I drove to the East Coast. I reconned everything for my crew with my dad and me. So he got to see it again. It’s really important because now there’s no second guessing where to make turns for him and for our crew to follow him to our locations to see me. Last time, they barely made it sometimes. So my dad is crewing, yeah, he’ll help out in Maine. Fred Abramowitz is going to kind of follow along and jot down some notes about it. The real crew is Mike Mason from North Carolina. He’s an ultrarunner, too, a good friend of mine, and he speaks Maine language, so to speak. Then the next guy will be Eric Bells who was on the Pony Express with me for three weeks. He’s money. He’s coming with a small little towel to clean his body. Still applies. Then, after that point is Billy Simpson who was on in 2008. He did the whole second half in 2008. He knows me and the whole deal. My wife will finish. Then amongst those four, I guess, Larry O’Neill, one of my good friends, he’s going the whole way. He’s going top to bottom. He’ll call himself the ‘Captain.’ Call him whatever you want. I think it’s really important to have one person all the way because he’ll know the ins and outs and the upside downs of everything.
iRunFar: You’ll have a routine.
Meltzer: We’ll have a routine. Last time we didn’t have a routine. It was always a new guy every week. You kind of train him for three days, and then they get it, but then they’re gone three days later. Then they have to coordinate a ride from the airport and back and all these things. Now, we’re kind of doing it more stealth-wise—one guy. It should go smoother. It’s really about 48-plus miles/day which is huge for me and is hard as a runner. But the crew is, like any 100 miler run, the crew is important. I think if we can mesh together and not argue with each other too much, we’ll do pretty well. I think we have a pretty good line up.
iRunFar: It’s interesting. It brings in your 100 miler philosophy. You rely heavily on crew. You don’t do pacers, but you do crew. You’re physically running solo.
Meltzer: I can make do without crew, but at the same time, the crew is super important. They have to know how to kind of read you, when to say something and when not to say something, when you need food or water or whatever. The first week will be a little bit of a learning curve for everybody, but once that first week goes by, we’re going to know where everything is. Everything will have a home and a place. Then it will just become routine. On a route 2,000 miles long, anyone on the AT will tell you that you get your trail legs after about three weeks. My real goal here in the first three weeks is just to give it a lot of respect, take my time, get my miles in, but take my time. I’m not going to rush. We ran a little bit more than we probably should have last time. It just felt good. This time I’ll probably walk a lot more. I’m going to use poles this time which will take a little shock off of me. I have Hokas which we all know have a little more cushion than any other shoe. I really think that’s going to help a lot, and then just the knowledge of just kind of knowing what to expect the whole time is going to make a big difference.
iRunFar: You say that 100 miles is not that far, but 2,000 miles is. I’d imagine, and you’ve done this once, there’s an emotional aspect to it. It’s not just getting out there every day. You’re saying they have to say the right thing or not say the right thing. You’re going to be tired and you’re going to have emotional stresses, and fatigue.
Meltzer: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s so mental out there. Every day you wake up and you start in the dark and you have to get out of bed and get going, and then once you kind of get going during the day it’s okay. But when you stop, you have to mentally think, Okay, do your stuff, and then the next morning you get up and do it again. In 2008, my best day was in Virginia. I ran 60 miles and I felt great that day. I totally could have kept going. It wasn’t even dark yet. I went nine miles the next day. I totally broke down. I did this nine-mile section and I got in the RV and I was like, “I’m done.” I was just kind of mad and angry, but I mentally broke down. That next week or the next four or five days or something, it was nine miles, 19 miles, 29 miles. It was just mental, but I had to slowly bring myself back mentally. I think this time, I kind of know what to expect a little bit more. I’m just going to keep trying to do… when I have a bad 100 miler, I kind of laugh at myself and I move on usually. I don’t worry about things anymore. It is mental. This is the thing, too. If I’m off the record pace and something happens, I’m probably going to go home. If I know I’m not going to have a chance at the record, I’m probably going to go home.
iRunFar: You say in a 100 miler when things are going wrong you laugh at yourself, is the ‘100 miles is not that far’ sort of something that you’re getting at with that?
Meltzer: Well… it’s not that far. It’s one day. This is a different thing. When I think about 100 miles, I’ll just tell myself on the AT, if I do 50 miles, what is that? It’s all day. Big deal. I go to bed. You just have to kind of take everything with a grain of salt and take the good with the bad and just try to have fun with it. There are going to be really hard times when we’re going uphill and I don’t want to walk anymore or something hurts. I have a pretty nasty neuroma on my left foot. You have to wonder about that. Honestly, once I start going, even this morning, I start walking and I’m fine. In Hokas, I can’t even feel it. Hopefully that thing will survive, too. Who knows?
iRunFar: That’s a big question mark.
Meltzer: It throws the question mark on it already whether or not I’m going to be able to do it, but I’m definitely going to go after it. It doesn’t hurt much when I run. It’s when I wake up in the morning; it’s silly soreness. I’m just like, whatever, just keep going.
iRunFar: What causes you to go back out there again? You’ve done it.
Meltzer: I kind of want that record.
iRunFar: What is the record?
Meltzer: It’s 46 days, 10 hours, and I believe, 21 minutes. I keep saying 12, but I think it’s 21 minutes. It’s basically 47 days because that last day… I mean, the last day here at this time, if I’m doing well and I’m probably about 100 miles out, I’m probably just going to keep going. Last time I went 81 miles the last day because I was close enough to say, “Just keep going, Karl.” I’ve had this great career and I have all these 100-mile wins and this wonderful time for 15 years running ultramarathons, but to me, if I can be successful in this, this is a big stamp on my career. I’m like, Alright, I can rest. What happens after that… if the AT is… I think a lot of people don’t realize how hard it really is especially many of us out West. If you haven’t run out East, in Maine or the White Mountain in New Hampshire, it’s very, very technical and hard. Maine has 120,000 feet of vertical climb roughly in less than 300 miles. That’s harder than Hardrock and way more technical than Hardrock. It may not be at elevation, but it’s pretty ridiculous. So you have to think about how hard this is. Not one day in 2008 did we average faster than four miles/hour.
iRunFar: That’s the hard part. The easy part in Virginia is not easy. It’s never easy.
Meltzer: No, it’s up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. Even Connecticut, Pennsylvania (Rockylvannia) is ridiculous. It’s not that the mountains are big, but you’re on ridges all the way and it’s kind of like me making the Speedgoat course. I kind of go the hard way. Well, the AT, you’ll have a fire road next to the AT. The AT will be 20 feet over from the fire road and it will just be rocks instead of this smooth little track that someone built. Every stage is hard. It’s not like you get to the middle stage where it’s flatter. It’s not flat. There’s about 515,000 feet of climb, so 100 miles straight up which is kind of ironic. Yeah, it’s hard all the way to the end. Georgia is hard, Tennessee is hard. It’s pretty ridiculous. But that’s what I’m good at, and hopefully I’ll be successful.
iRunFar: What do you think is going to be the hardest part for you—physical, mental, location?
Meltzer: I think mentally you really have to stick with it. Technically, obviously, Maine and New Hampshire are the hardest parts of the trail. You have to kind of get through the first three weeks. Last time I made it two weeks before I had that tendonitis thing. If we can get through the first three weeks, I think after that it will become that routine kind of like the Pony Express was. I almost went down the second day on the Pony Express for my shins. If I can keep my shins intact, too, that’s why I went down in 2008 on the AT. I had tendonitis. Whether it was caused from the trench foot and curling my toes and that kind of stuff is one thing, but we need to get through the first three weeks. I think once I get my trail legs on, then it’s time to go. I’m not going to try to gain ground. Obviously, the rabbit rarely wins. You don’t try to be a rabbit on the AT. You just try to keep hiking. It’s really a hike. I’ll jog a little bit, but it’s a long hike.
iRunFar: Are you even going to think about or do you know what Jennifer Pharr-Davis’s splits are or are you going to try to completely block that out and just run your own AT?
Meltzer: Oh, I have her itinerary for sure. If you read 46 Days, which is Brew [Davis]’s book, Jen’s husband who crewed her all the way, he wrote basically a chronological order of what she did and kind of where she slept (not all the time, but pretty close). So I have her itinerary, but I’m not going to try to follow Jen. That’s kind of like running someone else’s race. I’m not running someone else’s race. I’m probably not going to go the same miles she did the first day. She did 56 miles the first day plus the five miles, so 61 really, to the top of Katahdin because the top of Katahdin is five miles and then you turn around. So will I do that? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m probably going to go 47 or 48 because there’s a place I can stop there.
iRunFar: So you’re actually going to be more conservative in places.
Meltzer: A little more conservative early, and I’m not going to follow someone else’s thing. I know where I need to be in six days to stay on it. That’s part of my crew’s deal is to keep me on pace for the first roughly pretty close to on pace for the first couple weeks. I think my running, I’m more of a runner than Jen is a runner, so hopefully if I get going and I’ll probably hopefully gain time later. Nobody gains time in Maine and New Hampshire. It’s silly to think you’re going to gain time in those kind of mountains. It’s too slow.
iRunFar: What if you get excited that first week or two? Have you told your crew to calm you down?
Meltzer: You’ve got to watch Larry sometimes. Larry gets a little competitive—“Oh, we can go further.” No, I think I’m disciplined enough now because I’ve done it that I’m not really going to worry about it. Again, it kind of is about getting across that Kennebec River without me having to stop and wait. Fording the river, I mean, Jen forded the river. She had someone who knew where every rock was in that river bottom. I don’t have that, so I kind of have to make sure I get across that with the ferry man at the right time. He’s there, like, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The way it pans out, I should get there at noon on the third day, the third or fourth day. That should work. It’s the 17 miles after the river that you have no support. So I have to get across that river and get that 17 miles down. After that, I just have to be patient and know where I’m at. If I fall a little bit behind, I can still gain ground later. It’s a long ways. If you chip away at one mile/day, you can gain and still catch up.
iRunFar: What is the daily pace that you have to…?
Meltzer: The routine will be something like this. I’ll wake up at probably 5 a.m. We’ll do a little bit in the dark in the morning. Then we’ll go until hopefully darkness. Now, my crew will determine, there’s all these road crossings, but my crew will determine whether we sleep at the road or we’ll bring in what we call the stealth kit which will have a tent, two quick pads/easy pads. (I won’t carry it, my crew will.) It’s not heavy. Then we’ll eat before we go there or we’ll eat cold food. It’s not like we’re going to wake up and cook. We’ll just, bang, and when I sleep in the woods, the next crew spot they’ll feed me more real food. Hopefully that will work. It’s just about… our average pace will always be less than four miles/hour You don’t have to go that fast. That’s including stops. So when I’m jogging, I’m kind of jogging along easy. When I walk, I can walk three to three-and-a-half miles/hour comfortably unless it’s really a mess. Three to four is all you really need, you just have to be out there for 14 or 15 hours per day. You do the math, 3.2 miles/hour for 15 hours/day is over 40 miles/day.
iRunFar: It’s not that far.
Meltzer: That’s pretty good math, actually. No, that’s not that far at all.
iRunFar: Good luck out there.
Meltzer: Alright, the goal is to have fun.
iRunFar: Is there any way we’re going to be able to track you? You’re not going to have a SPOT or anything like that. Is there going to be any place where we can get some info?
Meltzer: Well, my Facebook page—you can look on there once in awhile. We’ll throw something on there once in a great while, but it’s not going to be one of those things where… I don’t really want people to come out and run with me. It’s not that I don’t like that, but I kind of just want to do my own thing for the first couple weeks. Then once we see where we are, if things are going well again, then people will start to hear about it more no doubt about it. People are going to know I’m out there. People might be looking for me, but I really don’t want it to be a party.
iRunFar: Not a production.
Meltzer: It’s not a production. It’s not a promotional thing. I’m funding this myself which I’m kind of scratching my head on that a little bit, but at the same time, it’s what I want. It’s my passion. I said to my wife this year, “I’m going to do it, and I don’t care what it costs. I’ll pay for it later if I have to. Whatever.” This is what I like to do. This is my gig. I’m going to go after it and see if I get it. If I don’t, then I’m going to go home and continue on with my life like a normal day.
iRunFar: Bonus question for you. What was your favorite memory from that 2008 trip?
Meltzer: Well, one thing that was really cool was when I was in Damascus, Virginia, this guy named Lone Wolf—he’s been an AT guy for years, Lone Wolf—I got there and I said, “Hey, you got any moonshine?” I mean, we’re in the Virginia and Tennessee area, right? It’s kind of funny but he’s like, “I’ll be right back.” He came back a few minutes later and he had just a little bit of moonshine. We had some of that at the end and that was like… the greatest thing was sitting on that rock at the end, “Wow, done.” But the funny thing was waking up the next morning saying, “I don’t have to go anywhere today.” That felt weird. I just kind of wanted to keep going. There are a lot of great memories out there. There are some bad things, but… just being out there and walking through the green tunnel of Maine. It is a green tunnel. You don’t see above you. You don’t see things. That’s the beauty of the AT is that there aren’t that many places that have these views. You’re kind of in this tunnel, this zone. If I can stay in this zone, then hopefully I’ll get there in 46:10:10 or something. It’s not about how far you break the record. One minute is all that matters. We’ll see.
iRunFar: Good luck, Karl.
Meltzer: Thanks, Bryon.