BC grad breaks Appalachian Trail record with final push of 37 sleepless hours
SUMMIT OF MT. KATAHDIN, Maine — He finished with 37 straight hours of running and climbing, soaked by rain, whipped by wind and sleet, inside a cloud that lay upon the mountain.
Former Boston College track and cross-country runner Joe McConaughy, known by the trail name Stringbean, clutched his girlfriend at the rugged summit and silently wept, his mind empty, at the end of what appears to be the fastest known traverse of the Appalachian Trail.
Then he screamed into the fog, let out an extended “Ahhhhh,” and summed up: “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Traveling with no outside help along the way, McConaughy completed the 2,190-mile trail from Springer Mountain, Ga., to the top of Maine’s highest peak in 45 days, 12 hours, 15 minutes. That’s an average of about 48 miles a day.
He smashed the old unsupported record, set in 2015, by nine days, and even broke the year-old “supported” hiking record — which permits outside help, such as food and water deliveries — by about 10 hours, according to the fastest known times recorded by the hiking community on Internet message boards. There is no official sanctioning body for Appalachian Trail records.
Along the way, said McConaughy, 26, he saw 16 bears as well as four rattlesnakes, which blend into the landscape and can be hard to spot. “I almost stepped on a few,” he said. He was stung by wasps several times, including twice on his final push up Katahdin on Thursday. He ran through blisters, a sore back, painful chafing, seven sprains of his right ankle, and quadriceps injuries that cropped up with the relentless pounding. He was generally on the move about 15 hours a day.
Many through-hikers take six months or more to complete the trail, smelling the roses along the way. It is a select few — in search of records and their own limits — who take on the historic trail as a brutal speed and endurance race.
“You’ve heard the saying, ‘Hike your own hike?’ ” McConaughy said, quoting a well-used bit of trail wisdom. “Everyone experiences hiking and the outdoors differently.
“What drives me: I love running, hiking, the outdoors and pushing myself,” he said. “I was doing [the Appalachian Trail] my own way. When you’re healthy, it’s a lot of fun. And you get to eat a ton of food.”
He consumed 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day. Favorite trail food? Oreo cookies. (roughly 45 calories apiece). McConaughy, who works in sales for a travel company, resupplied along the way in towns along the trail, picking up packages of food and fresh clothing he had mailed to himself.
Forty-five days of solitary hiking, trail-running, and rock scrambling gives a person a lot of time to think.
Running rough trails, often hopping rock-to-rock, takes mental focus, which he compared with the attention required for downhill skiing. But at times his mind would also wander to his current pace, his mounting mileage, the hill that was coming up next. He sang in his head, sometimes just counting to 10 over and over, to the rhythm of some tune.
And he thought about the people in his life, he said, such as his parents and his girlfriend, Katie Kiracofe, an accountant for a startup in Boston who lives in Brookline and run-commutes to work. Kiracofe spent late nights after work helping McConaughy plan his assault on the AT. They figured out together which foods were the lightest to carry and had the highest caloric density.
She put their research into spreadsheets, and helped him pack the boxes he sent ahead to resupply himself. She did a trial hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with McConaughy before his trip. And she encouraged him along with the way with texts or snippets of conversation over bad cell connections.
Kiracofe also tracked his progress through the GPS device he carried, and worried if he would be in time to beat the record.
“What you realize,” McConaughy said, thinking back to his time on the trail, “is there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time making your life awesome.”
It is misleading to call the final few miles of the Appalachian Trail a “trail.” The route to the peak of Katahdin is a grueling and seemingly endless boulder climb, where false summits raise — and then crush — the spirits of climbers. Just when you think you are done, you see there is much more to do.
While McConaughy raced up those final miles, a welcome committee of Kiracofe and McConaughy’s friend and fellow ultra-marathon runner, Josh Katzman, of Arlington, waited on the cloudy peak, braced against the cold wind.
With the hike complete, Josh and Katie wrapped McConaughy in an emergency blanket, and then unpacked a backpack full of layers for him: a hat, a shirt, jacket, and gloves.
“I was so grateful to be done,” McConaughy said later, “so grateful for the whole experience and so thankful they were there waiting for me. It was the perfect culmination of a 45-day trip.”
A cold Maine night was coming, and they still had to get themselves off the mountain.
They hustled down a trail that passed through a steep boulder field of slick wet rocks, and often had to grab handholds to lower down safely. As darkness fell they broke out their headlamps, and when they got below the treeline, where the wind was not so strong, they descended the rest of the way unhurried.