McConaughy, 26, grew up in Seattle and went on to run track and cross country at Boston College. He then set a record in 2014 for the fastest-known supported time on the Pacific Crest Trail, covering 2,663 miles in 53 days, 6 hours and 37 minutes.
In 2017 he set a record for the Appalachian Trail. On Aug. 31 McConaughy reached the end of the 2,189-mile route atop Maine’s Mt. Katahdin in 45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes. It was not only the fastest self-supported trek, but it also beat the then fastest-known completion of the AT by Karl Meltzer in 2016 by 10 hours. The current record is 41 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes, set by Belgian Karel Sabbe in 2018.
McConaughy, an ultrarunner who carried a pack of less than 25 pounds, averaged more than 48 miles per day.
To bag the record he had to run nearly nonstop over the final 36 hours to cover the 110 miles to the finish while dealing with a hamstring injury, swollen legs and a bad ankle.
McConaughy, whose trail name is Stringbean (@thestring.bean on Instagram) lives in Boston and works in sales for the travel company EF College Break. He talked about the experience for Competitor.com soon after finishing the trek.
How does your body feel?
It’s better. It’s a long process. I’ve eaten a lot and sat around a lot. I think I’ve come away from everything without any long-term injuries. I still have numbness on the bottoms of my feet. It will be around another few months or so. I had a really nasty hamstring tendon, tendinitis, and that’s gone away. My ankle was pretty bad but that’s also toned down. I’m eating more than I should. People say I don’t look as gaunt anymore, which is a compliment I think.
Why did you go after the record?
I wanted do the Appalachian Trail because it’s the sister trail of the PCT and I wanted to do it self-supported because the trail lends itself more to being self-supported (with more places along the route to buy food or ship it in advance). It appealed to me in the sense I really do want to be adventurous and challenge myself.
What was your goal?
I thought I could do 43 days. I honestly thought I was going to get pretty close to that until I hit the White Mountains. I got injured, too, that hurt, but I didn’t realize how much the White Mountains would slow me down and how much I would get injured doing them.
Tell us about your big push at the end.
I knew I was going to have essentially two days to run 90 miles, and then I had a bad day and I was like, “I’m going to have two days to run 100 miles.” Then it creeped up to 110 miles (laughs) … I was pushing way harder than I was used to because the trail allowed it and my body, for whatever reason, was agreeing. I had really good energy and made it all the way through. The last day, a couple of times I blinked and my eyes just wanted to stay closed. I was pretty tired. I did bonk toward the middle of the day with like 28 miles left. That was my low point. I had maybe 600 calories and I needed to go about 12 more miles until I’d get to a place where I could get some food. That was daunting—knowing I had a handful of trail mix to get me through another three to four hours of running. But I bounced back. I ate right and hydrated right toward the end. I was dealing with the hamstring and my feet started to hurt a bunch and they started to swell. But I pushed through and I got there.
Basically, you didn’t sleep at the end?
It was 37 hours to get to the top and I didn’t take any (long) breaks. I think the longest break I took was when I sat on a log for maybe 15 minutes and rested my head in my hands. That was the only time I almost fell asleep (laughs). All of a sudden I was like, “Whoa, do not fall asleep.”
Did you run most of the time? Or was it a combination of hiking and running?
For 45 days I was trying to cover as much ground as I could in any situation on every day. Everything you do, you feel you’re being timed. The longer I take to set up my tent the longer this day is going to take. The longer I take my rest break the less time I’ll have to run. So every day you’re pushing to cover as much distance as you can, so I tried to run as much of it as I could. I tried to run all the flats and all the downhills but some miles uphill, too. But there’s this imaginary threshold. If you go too fast for a period of time your chances of injury are increased, so there were times I’d hold myself back.
I understand you ate about 8,000 calories per day?
Everything hinged around my re-supply boxes, so I packaged around 7,500 to 8,000 per day. In the first two weeks or so that was fine. Later it was more like 9 or 10,000 calories, which I’d get through towns or trail magic, just stuffing my face. My favorite food I had was some peach bread I got from this small sort of boutique farm. I saved it for that night and just devoured it. Some of my favorite snacks were Oreos and Pop-Tarts. I ate so much, especially near the end. Any food was good food.
How do you train for something like this?
Because it’s such a big endeavor people assume you must do some kind of superhuman training to prepare, but honestly, once you get out there for a week or so you get your trail legs under you and it becomes a lot more routine. That said, you have to have a certain physical and mental shape going in. I tried to run everything (in the weeks before) with my backpack, with between 5 and 12 pounds, sometimes more, and doing 100-mile weeks. I also spent two weeks in Canada where I was hiking and running the majority of the day, just to get my body used to that sort of grind. (McConaughy created a short documentary on his training, including two ultra runs).
Joe McConaughy at the top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, which marks the end of the Appalachian Trail.
The injuries, the lack of sleep, the pressure to get the record. Was this fun or was it an ordeal?
I had a blast. I loved it … Now that I finished, I loved it. (laughs) I wouldn’t have told you that all the time on the trail, but you know you can see some incredible things and meet really interesting people. You see a lot of small-town America you wouldn’t see otherwise. You’re constantly pushing yourself physically and pushing yourself to do something impossible for that day. I find a lot of peace in being able to say I did everything I could on that day and being proud of that. If you ask if you had fun, it may not necessarily be fun when my knee’s swelling and hurt, but when I think about it, it is something I’m proud of and enjoyed.
What about other long-distance goals?
Definitely there are some shorter trails (records) I’d like to go after. Ones that have intrigued me are the Long Trail in Vermont, the Wonderland Trail (in Washington), the John Muir Trail in California, the Colorado Trail. Those are on my radar. But what’s actually first on my list, I always do a few indoor track races. So I want to do the indoor mile. I definitely need a full month of recovery before I start thinking about that.
Will you do the other long “grand slam” trail, the Continental Divide Trail?
I talked with my girlfriend about maybe hiking that one day. I would love to go over it, but I don’t have any plans to do it for speed (laughs). I’ll do it the way normal people do it.
Interview originally published September 2017