At 3:38 a.m. this past Sunday, 48-year-old ultramarathon legend Karl Meltzer emerged onto Springer Mountain in north Georgia, having run the final 83 miles of the Appalachian Trail without stopping to become the fastest person to ever complete the 2,190-mile journey.
When he finished, he celebrated with pepperoni pizza and beer.
“It’s been a long journey,” Meltzer said, which will make you reconsider that phrase the next time your flight home gets delayed. “I’ve been trying to get this record for eight years, and I was finally successful. It just took me three tries to do it. It’s a very special time right now, definitely a stamp on my career.”
Meltzer is something like the Wayne Gretzky of ultra-running. A former bartender at the Utah ski-resort Snowbird, he is now a professional ultra runner sponsored by Red Bull. Over the course of his career, he has won a record 36 100-mile races, including five wins at the famously gruelling Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, which features 66,050 feet of elevation change through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
Yet the speed record on the Appalachian Trail had previously alluded him. In 2008, Meltzer came up about one week shy of the record (still good enough for the fourth fastest ever), and in 2014, he had to stop with 600 miles to go.
But after Scott Jurek — the man featured in the best-selling book Born To Run for his near-barefoot running style — set a new Appalachian Trail record with a time of 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes last year, Meltzer started to think that he had to give the record one last go.
“With failure comes greater success,” Meltzer said. “I knew I could do it if everything fell into place, so I just wanted one more crack at it.”
At 2,190 miles, the Appalachian Trail is roughly the distance of D.C. to Los Angeles, as the crow flies, and the 464,500 feet of elevation change over the 14 states it traverses is equivalent to summiting Mt. Everest — 16 times.
On his record-setting run, Meltzer ran a total of 678 hours: 47 miles per day for 45 days, 22 hours, and 7 minutes.
But whereas Jurek began in Georgia and headed north, Meltzer opted to go southbound.
“To go southbound you’re going through the hardest terrain early, in Maine and New Hampshire ” Meltzer said. “I would say it’s harder to finish going northbound because when you’re really tired and fatigued, you’re in some really hard terrain. It’s really hilly in the south, but it’s not as technical. You’re not going hands on the ground as much, you’re not running with technicality on the trail that much, which can be really frustrating.”
For that reason, Melzter said he wished there were two separate Appalachian Trail records: one in each direction.
“I really look at it as a northbound record and a southbound record. What’s harder? I don’t know. There’s a nine and a half hour difference. It’s pretty hard either way.”
On his run, Meltzer blew threw 20 pairs of shoes, and managed to overcome bad tendinitis in his shin all throughout Pennsylvania.
“The entire state of Pennsylvania was the hardest stretch,” he said. “I hurt my shin, I had tendinitis in my shin that was horrible. And Pennsylvania is ridiculously rocky, so that was frustrating me to no end. But, you know, once I got through that injury, it got better.”
Still, even when his shin felt better the mental battle was gruelling throughout.
“There are highs and lows all the time,” he said. “After about three days on the trail you’re already tired. The whole mental thing is that you have to understand that you have to take it one day at a time.”
He added: “It’s not about the distance. It’s really about waking up every morning at 4’o clock and telling myself I gotta do this all day, until 8 or 9. The hard part about it is getting out of bed that next morning.”
“You have bad patches where you think, oh my God I’m never going to do this, I’m never going to get to the next stop. But it doesn’t really get worse. You can always come back from feeling down.”
Perhaps most amazingly of all, Meltzer’s diet over the course of the trail remained fairly normal, if at times a little unhealthy.
“I needed food. I eat a regular diet. When you do these long things, you really crave junk, unfortunately.”
When he left his rest stops, he’d have Spree’s, the rainbow-coloured candy, in his hand, and bacon in his pockets. Meltzer often drank as many as five Red Bull energy drinks per day, or about one every ten miles. Sometimes his crew would even wake him up with ice cream.
“I tried for a combination of sugar and protein,” he said. “Sometimes I’d have sugar, so I’d have a danish or a pastry or something like that. And then I’d have some chicken or something.
“I wasn’t just eating all crap all the time,” he laughed.
When he finished running for the day, he would often let himself enjoy a beer.
“My main focus was to go to bed. So about thirty minutes after I stopped I was in bed already,” he said. “That was super important, more important than the beer. But one cold beer after a run tastes great.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Meltzer what was next on the horizon for him. I wondered if he might, in due time, tackle the northbound record.
“Do I plan on doing it northbound? I don’t. Your body can handle these distances so much,” he said. “Honestly, there’s a lot of misery out there. I don’t know if I want to go through that misery again. It’s so many days. I’m gonna sit on this. I broke it once, it will get broken again and that’s fine. I’ve got my day of glory.”
Still, he said he expected he’d run some 100 milers in the future — “just for fun.”
“I don’t really have anything planned next,” he said just before we hung up. “You can’t ask me that now. I’m just gonna sit back and play some golf.”
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