Life Lessons From the Guy Who Just Ran the Appalachian Trail Faster Than Anyone

By
Karl Meltzer.Photo: Lloyd C Eldredge/MCT via Getty Images

Earlier this year, ultramarathon runner Karl Meltzer set one of the most prestigious and challenging records in all of endurance sports. Meltzer thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail — trekking southbound from Mount Katahdin, in Maine, to Springer Mountain, in Georgia — in just 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes, quick enough to break the prior speed record by nearly ten hours.

Meltzer’s mark is insanely impressive for a number of reasons. For starters, the Appalachian Trail, which in his book A Walk in the Woods author Bill Bryson appropriately calls “the grandaddy of long hikes,” spans 2,190 miles. This means Meltzer averaged over 47 miles of hiking a day for 45 days straight. And these aren’t just any miles; these are hilly miles. The trail boasts over 450,000 feet of total elevation gain; Meltzer climbed, on average, around 10,000 feet — or about the distance between base camp and Mount Everest’s summit — every day. And, oh yeah, he’s 48 years old.

If you’re thinking you’ll probably never “race” across the Appalachian Trail, well, you’re probably right. But Meltzer’s insights on goal-setting, motivation, grit, and overcoming adversity are applicable to anyone pursuing excellence in anything. “I quickly learned that what was going on in between my ears and my ability to control it — my mental performance — was just as important as anything,” he says. “So much of success comes down to what is happening inside your head.”

I recently caught up with Meltzer from his home in Sandy, Utah, where we looked back on the record and discussed the psychological framework he relied upon to break it. What follows are the highlights of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Pace yourself.

I felt great early on. I had so much energy. I really had to force myself to calm down. But on the Appalachian Trail, and probably when going after any other big goal, going out too hard almost always comes back to haunt you later on. I kept telling myself that it was okay to feel really good at the end of those early days. It’s a long haul. Save your energy for when you need it.

From the Appalachian Trail.Photo: Interpret Studios/Red Bull Content Pool

Beat and broken down? Focus on what you can control.

Midway through the hike, my shin, which was an area of concern heading into this, blew up on me. It was really bad. I remember thinking to myself, “This could be over.” But I knew if I let that thought occupy my mind for too long, the attempt would be over. So rather than ruminate on the condition of my shin, I focused on what was in front of me, all the things I could do that were within my control like icing, taking anti-inflammatory meds, adjusting the pace, and eating more since I was moving slower. This not only helped me physically but also mentally, because it kept my mind occupied with productive and not destructive thoughts.

Low points are a part of long-ass hikes and low points are a part of life. But low points are just that — points. You’ve got to remind yourself things don’t always get worse and you can almost always make them better.

Practice gratitude.

Perhaps the easiest way to boost your mood is to be nice to people and show gratitude. I have no idea why or how it works, but whenever I was feeling down I’d think about how much my crew was doing for me and thank them. [Meltzer’s effort was supported by a small crew that included his wife, father, and close friends.] After giving thanks, I immediately felt better.

Choose to be positive.

When you’re going for something huge and highly uncertain, negativity is toxic. You can almost always choose to be positive. You don’t want those around you to be delusional, but you do want them to be positive, too. Under all circumstances, my crew was always focusing on what I could do, not what I couldn’t. This really lifted my spirits throughout the hike.

Meltzer on the trail.Photo: Carl Rosen/Red Bull Content Pool

And drink coffee.

Also, a pot of coffee makes just about any situation better.

Focus on the process.

I rarely thought about the “whole thing.” I focused on the process instead. I took the entire hike day-by-day, section-by-section. If my task is hiking over 2,000 miles in 45 days, I’m not so sure I can do it. But if my task is hiking 8 miles to the next break point, I know I can do it.

Ask for help.

I had the prior record holder [Scott Jurek] pacing me and I was following the itinerary of the record holder before him [Jennifer Pharr-Davis]. There’s no shame in asking for help. Scott, Jenn, and so many others helped me in a big way. I don’t think that makes what I did any less special. If anything, I think it makes it more special.

Sleep.

Sleep is so important. It’s when you rejuvenate and grow. If you don’t rest you don’t recover from the day before and you don’t feel good the day after. This isn’t just about breaking endurance-sports records; this is true in all of life. Skimp on sleep and it’s really hard to be happy, let alone effective.

Channel pressure.

Being totally honest here: this would have been a really bad time for me to fail. The endurance-sports community was literally counting my steps on an online tracker. All my sponsorship contracts are coming up at the end of this year. This was a career moment. The added pressure was always there. I just did what I could to turn the pressure into energy and use it as a focusing mechanism. I never let fear of failure gain too much real estate in my mind. The best way to do that is by focusing on what’s immediately ahead of you and staying in the present moment.

Show up.

It’s okay to stop — but only after you start. I promised myself that I would show up every day. It’s amazing how stiff and shitty I could be feeling prior to hitting the trail and how much better I’d start feeling once I got going.

Meltzer.Photo: Interpret Studios/Red Bull Content Pool

Embrace struggle.

A big part of why I do this is because I really like to struggle. Not because I like pain. (I don’t.) But because I love the feeling of making progress. And to make progress you’ve got to struggle. Nobody grows from staying in their comfort zone. Once you’ve adopted this mindset, failure isn’t this scary thing to be avoided anymore.

Enjoy it.

Each day felt long but the whole thing felt short. Now that it’s over I’m like, “Holy shit, that really flew by.” This monster goal, this thing that consumed me for so long and required so much energy, effort, and planning — it’s over just like that. At the risk of sounding really corny and cliché, it’s kind of like life. Time flies. We die quickly. If you remind yourself of this simple fact it makes it easier to fill your days with stuff you love.

Inspire yourself.

Do I do this to inspire others? I hate to say it, but not really. I do it to inspire myself. But I guess if you inspire yourself you’ll probably inspire a lot of other people along the way.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the forthcoming book Peak Performance. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.