Last summer trail runner Karl Meltzer was helping the legendary Scott Jurek attempt to set a new supported speed record on the Appalachian Trail (AT), urging him along to set a record that Meltzer had tried twice to attain. It worked. Jurek succeeded, with the help of his wife, Meltzer, and a vast team of pacers, finishing the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail in 48 days, eight hours, and seven minutes. One of the most celebrated ultrarunners on the planet, Jurek beat the previous record holder, Jennifer Pharr Davis, who was supported only by her husband, by just three hours and 13 minutes.
This year, it was Jurek pacing Meltzer, who is known as “Speedgoat,” urging his friend to break the time he had worked so hard to set.
On September 18, Meltzer arrived at the southern terminus of the AT, 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes after he left from the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. (While Jurek took the south-to-north route, both Pharr Davis and Meltzer choose to run north to south.) It was a long time coming for Meltzer, 48, who bills himself as “the winningest hundred-mile runner on Earth”—indeed, he has won 38 hundred-mile trail races and holds the record for the most hundred-mile trail-race wins in a calendar year, with six in 2006 (he also holds the world record for the most holes of golf played in 12 hours: 230). But the AT record had been Meltzer's bugaboo: He fell seven hours behind in an attempt in 2008 and had to quit after 1,500 miles in 2014 due to injuries.
Meltzer's achievement is certainly impressive. It took an 83-mile push on the last day and averaging 47-mile days to break Jurek’s mark. But how long will the latest record stand? And will the AT simply become a test piece for ultrarunners looking to make a name for themselves?
Those questions certainly came up last year when the officials of Baxter State Park bristled over Jurek’s celebration on top of Mount Katahdin and even brought up the possibility of moving the northern terminus of the trail off Katahdin. Could speed attempts ruin the essence of a legendary long-distance thru-hiking trail that most take months to finish, as they soak up the natural beauty and make friends along the way?
That depends on who you ask.
“Thru-hikers find their own pace,” says Will Harlan, a champion ultrarunner and editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, who paced Jurek last year and still owns the fastest known time for running unsupported across Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the AT. “For some, it's a six-month journey to soak in the experience. For others, it's a personal challenge to overcome physical and mental barriers. Some hikes are solo, and some are social. Some are leisurely, and some are fast. Meltzer hiked his own hike and followed his own pace, just like everyone else out there. Is Meltzer's record unbeatable? Unlikely. But it's pretty damn impressive and inspiring.”
For what it’s worth, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail, does not recognize any records on the trail. The organization prefers that each hiker find a unique experience.
With two superstars like Jurek and Meltzer setting consecutive records, the trail is sure to see even more speed attempts, both from pros and amateurs. And the true holy grail of AT speed records has seen very little press. While Jurek, Meltzer, and Pharr Davis all had support teams helping them along the way, Heather “Anish” Anderson set the record for the fastest unsupported time on the AT, going from Katahdin to Spring Mountain in 54 days, seven hours, and 48 minutes in classic thru-hike style without a support team.
“I think people will continue to chase records on the AT and other trails,” says Harlan. “Even the slowest thru-hiker sets goals: Make it to the next summit by noon, reach the next shelter by sundown. I don't believe goals necessarily take away from the AT experience. They can sometimes enhance it.”