It’s been more than six months since a haggard Karl Meltzer slapped both hands on the rock marking the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail atop Georgia’s Springer Mountain, relief pouring out of him. For the champion ultrarunner, the nearly 45-day run (documented in sponsor Red Bull’s new film Made to Be Broken) was the end of an eight-year quest that saw him make three attempts at the trail's supported record.
Born in New Hampshire, Meltzer grew up not far from the trail, and some of his earliest memories are of playing with friends in the rocky hills of its most rugged stretch. Last year’s run was his third attempt at the record after falling short in 2008, when he finished a week behind the pace, and 2014, when he dropped out with 600 miles remaining.
“My wife knows I’m obsessed, my friends all know I’m obsessed,” Meltzer laughs. “Even [Scott] Jurek is like ‘Man, you just keep going back there! And I’ll just smile and flash him a photo of the AT’s white blaze.”
The 48-year-old Meltzer’s career began almost 30 years ago. In those three decades, he’s ticked off one of the sport’s most impressive lists of victories, with more wins under his belt than anyone in history. Still, as he racked up first-place finishes at the Hardrock and Wasatch 100s at an unprecedented rate, the AT remained his white whale. He was on hand to pace his friend and fellow ultrarunning icon Jurek as he broke the record in 2015, and though he seems to have been genuinely happy for his friend and occasional rival, the record that he couldn’t quite reach nagged at him. (Jurek would return the favor in 2016, helping pace Meltzer to the record and joining him for the post-trek celebration in Georgia.)
By the numbers alone, Meltzer’s run was a staggering feat. He averaged almost 50 miles per day, often sleeping only a few hours before hitting the trail again. In total, Red Bull estimates that he burned almost 350,000 calories, though thanks to hot meals provided by his crew his weight remained almost unchanged. Perhaps even more important was the medical treatment his crew provided, helping him through a nagging shin ailment and draining a debilitating blister deep inside his heel with a hypodermic needle.
Still, Meltzer’s run lacked the drama of Jurek’s, which required a late push after he fell well off schedule early on. Meltzer never fell behind pace, and coasted in almost 10 hours ahead of Jurek’s time.
Not everyone agrees that the AT speed record is worth pursuing. (“These “corporate events” have no place in the Park,” wrote Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell in a now-deleted Facebook post following Jurek’s citation for alcohol consumption on top of Mt. Katahdin.) Meltzer, like Jurek before him, has been the target of criticism. But Meltzer says that the AT is about more than just speed to him, and when he speaks of the trail, his tone borders on reverent.
“This trail changes people,” he said. “It teaches people so much about themselves – how to be resourceful, how to stretch their limits. They’ll never forget that journey.”
While Meltzer’s resume as an ultrarunner may be unmatched, the AT is an entirely different beast.
“With the Hardrock 100 or any other 100-miler, you’re done in one day,” says Meltzer. “But with the AT you have the mental grind of knowing that you’ve got a few hours to sleep and then you have to wake up and do it all over again,” he said.
The difference this time, he says, was a combination of experience, planning and having the right team around him. His past attempts and extensive recon (he visited the trail repeatedly in the months leading up to his run) had him far more prepared than he had been in the past. A crew headed by his father, Karl Sr., and close friend Eric Belz proved to be an ideal pairing.
Meltzer has logged nearly 6,000 miles on the AT over the past decade, and before setting out in 2008, he consulted with what he calls some of the “old boys” of the trail: sages with decades upon decades of experience. All offered the same piece of advice first and foremost: respect the trail. It took Meltzer two attempts to understand what they meant.
“You’ve gotta respect the fact that it’s going to hurt, and you just have to suck that up,” he said. “There are going to be good times and bad times, but you have to embrace it all. Trust me, it’s all worth it, because there’s nothing else like that feeling at the end when you’ve finally done it.”
With the record in the bag, Meltzer is answering the question that follows the end of every quest: what next? He’s looking forward to getting back to 100-mile racing, he says, but he’s not sure that anything could really follow up what he accomplished on the AT.
“I think I’m probably done with 2,000-milers,” he said. He pauses for a moment, and you can almost hear the gears in his head whirring. “Well, unless maybe I did the trail the opposite way and tried to break the record in both directions. I guess we’ll see how obsessed I really am.”