ASK THE PROS: FASTPACKING WITH JOE McCONAUGHY
Columbia Montrail athlete Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy is used to moving fast. Very fast. A record-breaking runner who previously set the FKT (Fastest Known Time) on bucket list routes like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Wicklow Round, Joe currently holds the self-supported speed record for the Appalachian Trail. With things at a standstill due to COVID-19, we discussed the allure of FKTs, trail nicknames, and more.
Do you consider yourself a trail runner, an ultra-runner, a speed hiker, or something else?
Joe McConaughy: I’d say where my expertise lies is in “fastpacking,” which is essentially what FKTs are. So in between a lightweight thru-hiker and an ultra or trail runner.
The big runs you’ve done, sometimes unsupported for weeks at a time, take a lot of mental toughness. Are there lessons from those experiences that apply to our current times?
JM: One hundred percent. I think the biggest one is finding consistency, routine, and meaning in the day-to-day. It’s all about those micro-moments. An interesting part of sports psychology is that the people who are successful are those who develop and stick to routines. I’m still running at the same times, I’m still taking lunch breaks at the same time. But I’m also using this opportunity to explore new trails, roads, and routes that I typically wouldn’t have time to do.
Looking ahead, what are you hoping to do this summer?
JM: I’d love to do the John Muir Trail, but Yosemite’s closed. I’ve wanted to do the Long Trail in Vermont, but that’s also closed for now. And then the Wonderland Trail in Washington. Those are projects on my radar that are cast into question now. I’m really hoping UTMB still happens. It’s the coolest race, and I was planning to do the full 100-miler this year, so I’m going to be bummed if it doesn’t work out.
What is it about chasing an FKT that excites you?
JM: I think it’s just the ultimate challenge. I almost said “the ultimate physical challenge,” but it’s so much more than that. But that’s what makes FKTs FKTs, right? It’s a spiritual, emotional, and physical challenge. And it’s a chance to leave your footprint on some of the coolest trails that you know and love. The start and finish lines are just the beginning and end of the trail. There’s no fanfare. You are your own master when it comes to the schedule. Are you going to sleep for four hours and try to rest and recover? Is it better to eat an extra 1,000 calories to keep going longer? Are you going out too hard? Are you going out too easy? Your right leg is cramping, what can you do with what you have to heal that? And when you’re doing it self-supported, you’re really out there all the way.
THE SPEED OF LIGHT: Looking for new gear to chase your own Fastest Known Time? Check out our F.K.T. collection of trail running shoes, shorts, shirts, and windbreakers.
Is that part of the appeal, that there’s always going to be unexpected circumstances?
JM: I think that’s the crazy side of you that comes out. You run through a thunderstorm in Seiad Valley in California on the Pacific Crest Trail and you have eight miles of downhill and you’re soaked head to toe and you’re the coldest you’ve been in weeks and you’re miserable. But at the same time, you’re like, “Man, isn’t this wild?” I think FKTs force you to practice gratitude and ask yourself: “How entitled am I to have my biggest problem for the day be to try to run as far as I can from Point A to Point B?”
What were the most rewarding aspects of setting the PCT and AT records?
JM: I did the PCT first, and the highlight was having three of my best friends with me as a support team. I did it right after college, and it just felt like a transformational moment. I had never really run more than 22 miles [during my running career] at Boston College, and now I was going to do 45-50 miles a day on the PCT. The challenging part was I had a variety of injuries that tore me down. So I was filled with doubts about my health and my ability to accomplish it. But having that group of guys with me and having this amazing experience really helped me define myself. You have your mind set on doing this huge, insurmountable task that seems a little crazy, but then you go through it and get out the other side alive.
What did the other side feel like?
JM: I was all smiles once the pain went away. Going into it, you’re like, “It couldn’t possibly be that bad.” But it is, and more. You just have to take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time. You go through some really low moments, but you learn how to bounce back. It really hit me like a train for the first 10 days and then, you know, you realize that the human body is just outrageously resilient.
Joe setting an FKT on the Wicklow Round in Ireland, May 2018
And the Appalachian Trail?
JM: I’d say the highlight was finishing on Mount Katahdin. I had a big lead and then I got a hamstring injury and a knee injury that put me behind the pace. I essentially had to do 110 miles in the last 48 hours, a sleepless push to Katahdin. I got stung by bees twice on my way up the ascent trail. At the top there were like 60-mph winds, it was hailing, it was like 30-35 degrees, and I didn’t really have any weather-resistant gear. And my wife, best friend, and a reporter from the Boston Globe were waiting for me at the end. It was covered in mist, you couldn’t see anything around you, it was surreal. And I just remember kissing my wife and giving her a big hug, and then hugging my friend. I couldn’t even cry because my body was so defeated, but my heart was very full.
As someone known as “Stringbean,” what are your thoughts on the trail nickname subculture?
JM: I honestly love my nickname. It originated from my mom, so credit to her. But trail names are hilarious. When I first got on the PCT, there was a guy named Rhino, and a Youngblood, and some other really masculine names. And I was like, “Hi, I’m Stringbean!”
Are there any names that you’re jealous of?
JM: My favorite name, just because it’s so awesome, is Rocket Llama. That’s one of the best, most original names I’ve heard.
And the AT record you broke was set by a “Speedgoat” (Karl Meltzer).
JM: Yeah, Speedgoat is another good one. Karl has won the most 100-miler [ultramarathons] of all time, so obviously he’s a fast dude.
Anything else you’d like to add before we let you go?
JM: Yeah, you know, this is definitely going to be a defining moment in all of our lives. It feels like there’s a lot of instability and changes going on, but also new opportunities. It’s a chance for everybody to reexamine, and for runners to search for what matters to you about running. A lot of people are having a bit of an identity crisis because they can’t do their biggest race or their aspirations have been derailed. But we just have to look beyond that, find positivity, and make new goals. Just keep your head up and keep moving forward.