On Sunday, September 18 at 3:38 a.m. Karl Meltzer emerged from the trail at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia after departing Mt. Katahdin in Maine on August 3 at 5 a.m. After 2,190 miles he bagged his biggest ultramarathon win. The winningest 100-mile racer in the history of our sport, with 38 victories at the distance, had failed in two previous attempts at the AT FKT. But at 48 years young, the third time was a charm. Following is an interview we conducted with Karl shortly after his finish.
UR: Ok, so you are known for a lot of things, including your signature saying: “100 miles is not that far.” So how far is 2,190 miles?
Meltzer: It’s not that far. But it is a lot of misery. For me the hardest part was waking up at 4am every morning and hitting the trail. I need my sleep, and that was tough. Fifty miles a day – that’s really not a problem for me.
UR: How’d you handle those early wakeups?
Meltzer: My wife Cheryl was there for me more than I anticipated, and she ran a lot with me in the dark mornings and at night. She had been part of the crew team for 12 days in August and then she surprised me by coming back on Labor Day; having her there was huge for me.
UR: Did you have any spousal tension or arguments?
Meltzer: No, Cheryl is so supportive and proud of my accomplishments, but she is not usually as directly involved in them. But one day she suggested I could just do 55 miles a couple of days, and there was no way that was happening – 55 was a ton more than 50 at that point.
UR: So what was the key to getting it done this time?
Meltzer: I prepared and researched extensively for this one – I went to the “course” on four different trips between March and July. I logged a lot of quality miles on the trail – including a “dry run” of the first six days up in Maine. That gave me a ton of confidence and positive feelings about the trail heading into it. I also did not do any ultra races after the Lake Sonoma 50 miler in April, so I had a big taper into the August 3 start. I also got really lucky with the weather – it was dry up north and I only experienced four days of rain the whole way.
UR: So what were your low points out there and how did you overcome them?
Meltzer: I reached a point where my shins were so painful it’s like they were on fire and I just had to take some downtime. I had jumped over a copperhead snake and to be honest that’s what jacked up my shins the worst. I had two really low mileage days after that with lots of icing. At that point I had a big margin – like 50 miles in the bank on where Jennifer Pharr-Davis had been, but that just evaporated. Instead of stressing out over it I found some positives – it meant more rest and more sleep. After the second day of icing the shins they were all the way back, and so was I, feeling rested and stronger.
UR: What else was pivotal out there for you?
Meltzer: In Virginia, Jonathan Basham (Vermont Long Trail record holder and Barkley finisher) joined me and that was great. But I was suffering from some foot pain that I thought was a neuroma, and it was jeopardizing this whole thing. Jonathan, however, looked at it and diagnosed it as a really deep blister. We needed to pop it but couldn’t. His wife is an ER doctor so he went home and got a surgical needle. He got back to me around 3 a.m. and we popped the blister. Without that I would not have finished with the record.
UR: How do you compare the AT from its different directions?
Meltzer: That’s a hard one and it’s open to debate. The biggest difference is hitting the really gnarly stuff up north early versus late. For me it was good to get that behind me, relatively unscathed this time, and then I knew I had more cruisable stuff ahead of me as I got further south. The elevation gain is a bit more heading north too – by a little over 1,000 feet I think.
UR: How does your accomplishment compare to Scott Jurek’s now-surpassed FKT last year?
Meltzer: Scott’s performance on the trail last year was really, really impressive. It was his first time and he had not done a lot of research or reconnaissance. Compared to me this year, he winged it. His finish on the toughest final miles where he was literally crawling over some of the trail during heavy rain was incredible and awe inspiring.
UR: What do you have to say about some of the other FKT holders on the AT?
Meltzer: Jennifer Pharr-Davis is a special breed, and the word that comes to mind more than anything with her is perseverance. She had a plan and she executed it with very long days on the trail. Andrew Thompson set the bar really high back in 2005 and he had an amazing run – lots of big days down south. David Horton was the pioneer and he is probably the biggest inspiration of all. (Horton holds the original FKT on the AT, and also previously held the FKT on the 2,600 mile PCT).
UR: Horton was with you on this journey – what did he do?
Meltzer: He was just incredibly inspirational, period. Everything he does and says out there – I remember one day when I was lagging he looked me in the eyes and said: “the fruit is there for you, just go get it.” To be honest that was my mantra from there until the end down in Georgia, his words really were key to me getting there with the record.
UR: What role did your crew play?
Meltzer: I could not have done this without Eric Belz and my dad being there for me every step of the way. Eric and I go way back – he was a ski bum and roommate with me at Snowbird and then started crewing me at some 100 milers. He’s neat and fastidious when he needs to be, and he is always happy. Naturally I had some moments when I was gruff and rough out there, but he never took anything personally and would just roll with me. He’s also a good cook. And he gets along great with my dad.
UR: What was it like having your dad out there?
Meltzer: It was such a blessing – you know I moved out west 26 years ago and I miss my dad all the time. Dad has always supported me and he knows this was a huge dream of mine, and for him to be a part of it is just so special. And he played a huge role – he always had everything ready for me. All the little-but-crucial details he had covered for me, always.
UR: We know you like a beer after a long day – what was your favorite brew out there?
Meltzer: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
UR: What gear was key for you?
Meltzer: You know, what was key was keeping my feet in good shape, and they came through this mostly unscathed. I wore Drymax socks which my crew would wash and rotate in every few days. I also used Squirrel’s Nut Butter which kept things smooth; I didn’t ever have a chafing issue. Naturally I wore the Speedgoat waist pack from UltrAspire – which I love. And I kept very fresh shoes – 19 pairs of Hoka Speedgoats. I went a half size up to avoid blisters and that worked out well – for the most part.
UR: How many Red Bulls did you actually down out there?
Meltzer: I did about 200 Red Bulls, which was great fuel for me.
UR: What did you learn about yourself?
Meltzer: I learned that I can do anything if I really try and give it everything I have. I knew I had the ability to do this, but I had not been successful. But I committed fully and got it done. This will just give me more confidence for 100 mile races in the future.
UR: How do you compare this to a 100 mile race?
Meltzer: Like in 100s I really just ran aid station to aid station – I never thought beyond that. I would just ask Eric how far til the next time I see you guys – and he’d tell me the mileage and that’s all I would focus on. Unlike a 100 miler, I was never really sore out there – just tired.
UR: So what’s next for you?
Meltzer: I’m not going to run again until I feel like it. That could be a few weeks, or a few months. I think maybe I’ll put in the Western States lottery this fall.
UR: Sounds like a prudent recovery plan. How do you see that issue impacting our sport?
Meltzer: Actually, Scott and I talked about that while we were out on the trail together. We are amazed and impressed with how fast people are doing ultras these days, but we are concerned about the shortening shelf-life of today’s top ultrarunners. Nowadays three or four years of racing at the top of the sport is the norm, whereas we used to see people enjoy decade-long careers at the top – like Hal Koerner, Ian Torrence and others back in the day. Rob Krar was at the top and is taking a break – hopefully that is just a break and he comes back strong to continue his amazing ultrarunning career. Hopefully we will get to watch guys like Jim Walmsley, Sage Canaday and Zach Miller race for a long time.
UR: When does the film about your AT FKT come out?
Meltzer: Yah, the film crew was there getting footage just about every day, and the film will hopefully be a good one. It is planned to come out in early 2017.