“The trail deserves a lot of respect,” says Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer about the Appalachian Trail. Meltzer should know. Last September he broke the record for the fastest completion of the 2,190-mile trail: 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes. Red Bull documented Meltzer’s journey in a new documentary, Made to Be Broken. The film features Meltzer and the team who pushed him to the finish line, including his dad and former record-holders.
We sat down with the ultrarunner to talk about life after those grueling six weeks, reflections on the trail, and what he plans to do next.
Congrats on breaking the record! What have you been up to since then? How do you recover from a race that rigorous?
Karl Meltzer: I knew it takes a long time to recover because I’ve done it before, so I figured it’d be three and a half or four months. I’ve gone through some crap over the past six months. It took me about 4 months before I considered myself up to speed which is pretty normal training. Nothing hurts. It was bit of a rocky road. I had some IT band problems when I first started coming back, and that’s just overuse stuff so you know it will go away. My shins that I had issues with in the movie on the trail, I still feel that effect of my shins being really tight and sore. But it’s not bothering my running. I’m still running 60-70 miles a week now, so it’s not a problem. The overall fatigue took about two months before I just didn’t want to take a nap every day. It’s weird how that fatigue is so deep, but it just takes a long time to recover from something like that. But everything is going well, my body has held up pretty well. I raced a 75 mile race a week and a half ago, and I did pretty well. I wouldn’t say I’m up to speed 100%, but I’m getting closer. In the past I’ve always had really good racing seasons the year after these long runs, so I’m kind of hoping that pans out one more time.
Most people travel northbound on the AT. Why did you decide to go southbound?
KM: It’s a seasonal thing, so you can’t really go southbound till around mid-May. Southbound, in 2008 when I first did it, the record was held southbound – Andrew Thompson had it. I didn’t really know at that time which way I should go, but the record was broken southbound, so I went southbound. Then in 2014 when I made an attempt with my buddies, same deal. Now I know it even better after 2014 and in 2016 – I know it like the back of my hand. Same with the crew, they knew it really well because the crew this time were part of the crew in the past so they knew it southbound, as well. You would you think I would go north because the record was held north by Scott [Jurek], right? But it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Is it harder or easier either way? I think it’s a little different because of the terrains. When you start in the south, it’s easier to move faster, so it depends on what you want. I wanted to get out of the shitty crap the first 10 days then get to a bit of a smoother trail. Do you get through that stuff early and then supposedly cruise earlier, or you can make up time earlier because the trail is better when you feel fresher? I think southbound is probably a smarter way to go because beyond the trail being smooth or rocky, after two or three days, your body is already so tired and you’re only going so fast anyway. I’m going to have to run northbound to see which way is faster.
How long does it take to prepare for something like this, with the food, equipment, mapping and planning?
KM: We started preparing for the 2016 attempt in March of 2015, so we had a year and a half. That’s a lot of time – we didn’t need a year and a half. But I went back and forth four times to the east coast. I drove the whole trail, mapping it out for my crew. I went back in September 2015 to run the first six days of Maine. Even though it’s the very beginning, the logistics are a little tougher in Maine so I really wanted to get it dialed in with my crew. I did the 270ish miles in Maine just to get it right and to be confident that we could start this thing off right. Two other times I did it, I didn’t go far enough the first day, but the way logistics pan out, it made a big difference to do that mileage this time. Everyone else was there for crewing – my dad was there. I went back to the east one more time and ran a race while I was there and then I did more recon south of the trail just to familiarize myself. I knew every nook and cranny, what was in front of me, what was behind me. My crew knew that stuff too. We were very prepared in terms of going. We were ready. I bought my own van and we dialed it up to make it more efficient. The idea is to bring as little as you need, like a backpack or wood, but have everything you need. We had it really refined where two guys just sleeping in a regular van was super comfortable. That was the idea, to get all that stuff right to maximize my potential of breaking the record.
You obviously had your dad on your crew, and others. What makes the perfect dream team?
KM: Eric Belz is from Michigan and he moved out here from Utah to be a ski bum for a couple of years and he ended up renting out a room in my house. So we became friends and skiing buddies. He knows me really well and the dude is hilarious. And my dad is my dad. Anything mean you say to Eric off the cuff, he doesn’t care. My dad is the same way, so those two got along really well. My dad loves Eric and he loves my dad – I bet they didn’t have one conflict when I was out on the trail. They got along probably 95% of the time. Eric and my wife are good friends, too. It was just a good mesh. In 2014, I had another friend that crewed for me and he’s a great, funny dude to hang around with, but he’s a Type A personality. He was the captain, so he would stand around and tell people what to do instead of doing it himself. That’s not good for a team like that, you just have to work together. So that hurt my attempt in 2014, and I hate to say that because he’s still a friend, but he knows it didn’t work.
Mason and Scott Jurek came [in 2016] and they were super laid back. Scott’s a little different because doesn’t know Eric or my dad as well but he’s also one of the greatest ultrarunners to walk the planet. Scott was easy to get along with and was there to help, period. Whatever he need to do, he did it. He did a couple of amazing days when he was there and ran with me a ton. He was money to take a load off of Eric and my dad at the end. When they were totally fried from being out there for so long, he stepped in and said, “I got this spot, you guys go and take a nap.” And for anyone who’s trying to break the record, David Horton would be there to help them. Dave is a great inspiration kind of guy. Everyone meshed well together. In 2014 some of my guys were going punch each other and ready to kill each other. They didn’t let me see all that, which was good, but hearing about it later…that’s no good. But my crew [this time] was amazing. I don’t know if they’d do it again because it’s harder on them than it is on me. My body certainly gets hammered but they slept less than I did, they worried about me if I missed a spot. But they just did an amazing job.
What was the best advice someone gave you, either before you started or during the trek?
KM: “It doesn’t always get worse.” That’s a Dave Horton quote. He said that to me long before I even did the AT and that’s one quote that always resonated with me. I like to run the 100 [milers], that’s my distance. I might have a bad patch at mile 45, and it doesn’t always get worse – it can get better. It’s so true. I’ve felt better at 80 in a 100 miler many, many times than I have at mile 20. It seems kind of weird, but it’s just because your body can come back by fueling yourself properly. That’s the quote that resonates with me. Dave is a pretty inspirational person. I take it all with a grain of salt and I don’t get too stressed about anything. I try not to get so crunched down by the numbers. Don’t worry about how fast you’re going – just get to point B. If you get there an hour late, who cares? That’s my attitude of having a laid back feel to it, and I think that’s good for a long journey like this. You just have to accept problems, always. If there weren’t any problems, the record would be 43 days.
What did you think about while you’re running? Are you so busy planning the next step—assessing your body, thinking about nutrition—or are you able to think freely and reflect on what you’re doing?
KM: Those are the things I mean when I say crunching the numbers, because I don’t even really think about that kind of stuff. I know my body is sore and tired. I had a watch telling me how far I was going, so I’d look at my watch a lot. You’re constantly doing calculations in your head: I’m at a 14 minute mile, that means I’ll get to point B at 3:11 p.m., and lo and behold, at 3:11 I’d pop out. I listened to music, too. Every once awhile, I’d be jamming to music and running through the woods. I wouldn’t worry so much about my body, except the problems with my shins. I certainly had to think about that a lot, but I tried not to. Why think about how much it hurts? The best thing you can do is pretend it doesn’t hurt. When I come to an aid stop, whether it’s a 100 miler or the AT, I try to make it look easy. Whether I feel like crap or not, there’s a smile on my face – piece of cake. It gives you a better vibe, not just for you, but for your crew. I just try to stay positive all the time and not let little things worry me. Because it “does not always get worse.” It can always feel better.
For someone who wants to tackle the trail, either as a hike or wanting to break your record, what’s your advice?
KM: Do a little homework. Don’t do too much homework, because the surprises are part of the fun. Do a little logistical homework and remember that there are always going to be issues. You might take one wrong step, twist your ankle, and have a problem for a week. But you have to accept those problems and just deal with it. Suck it up, buttercup. But that’s the thing, you have to expect issues and problems and respect the distant. Respect the trail. The trail deserves a lot of respect. Walking through that damn green tunnel – it never changes that much. It goes up and down, up and down, up and down. The bottom line is that it’s going to continually beat you down in your head mentally because it’s so relentlessly nonstop all the way to the end. The trail never gets easier. It’s just going to keep beating you down right to the end and you have to accept that that’s part of the deal. If you want a walk in the park, go to a park. Don’t go to the AT.
Do you have a favorite part of the trail?
KM: I always look forward to Maine and New Hampshire, and those are the two hardest states. Not in terms of the terrain but the green tunnel is a little greener and a little bit deeper in Maine and New Hampshire. Maine is all kind of like alpine region, it’s a little darker and wetter. There’s more moss. If raining, there’s funky mushrooms everywhere, it’s hilarious. It’s really cool. You have to go through creeks and every once awhile, you do pop up above tree line and get a view of where you are. But Southern Virginia is beautiful, too but to me, the views aren’t actually that spectacular. I live in the west – I look at mountains 7,000 feet above my house every afternoon. To me the view [on the AT] is the tunnel.
What’s next for you? Any other trails or races you want to conquer? Any other records to break?
KM: I’d like to keep racing, but I don’t really have anything else to prove, but I still want to get out there and be in the race. I’m 49 years old, so the younger kids are going so fast these days, it’s just ridiculous. I still want to compete with others, so I’ll do that this year. I’m running Hardrock [100 Miler] again, which will probably be the last time, but it’ll be the twelfth time. Run Rabbit Run is a 100 mile run and they have a lot of large award prices, so I’m going to try and win money. That’s sort of my outside long term goal, is to win money at Run Rabbit Run. After that, I will think. I’ve hinted at going northbound [on the AT] in 2018. I was just back on the AT for two weeks, I just got home from that. Every time I was hiking out there I was thinking, “Man, I should go northbound.” Because how cool would it be for someone to own the record in both directions? It sounds good on paper, but then I think, does someone want to support me to do that? Because I can’t afford to do that again myself. My wife might shoot me, but she would support it, too. She’s like that. She’d say, “Oh my god, you want to do what?” Then she’d say, “go for it.” I don’t know. I don’t know if I have much else to lay out there. I will try to win a 100 miler this year. I’ve won a 100 miler 16 years in a row, so that’s a record that’s kind of out there. That will be kind of cool to keep that streak going. The goal is just to be happy, run in the woods, and not get hurt.
McGee Nall is a freelance writer based out of Athens, Georgia. She was probably eating Nilla wafers and Nutella while writing this.