Appalachian Trials

For a new breed of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, running is the new walking.

[O]n July 12, Scott Jurek summited Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, arriving exactly 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes after leaving Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the trail’s southern terminus. In doing so, he established a new fastest known time — or FKT — for an end-to-end supported hike of the AT. The 41-year-old Jurek is probably the closest thing that the world of ultrarunning has to a celebrity (he was featured prominently in the bestselling 2009 book Born to Run, and his own memoir was a bestseller a few years later), and his pursuit of the speed record is a high-profile validation of a trend that finds more and more AT nomads ditching their hiking boots and backpacks in favor of running sneakers and spandex.

A photo posted by Scott Jurek (@scottjurek) on

In mid-June, 33-year-old Hawaiian botanist Nadia “Nate” Stanis departed from Katahdin, attempting to run the trail north-to-south in 55 days as a fundraiser for The Nature Conservancy (Stanis later stepped off the trail due to an ankle injury). Around the same time, Nathan Conroy, an AT first-timer from Portland, told the Bangor Daily News that he’s set aside 45 days to hike/run as much of the trail as possible and likewise hopes to put in 40-mile days. Last year, Georgia runner Drew Burnett averaged more than 38 miles a day during his FKT attempt, a statistic skewed by the fact that Burnett, a devout Christian, took Sundays off. He finished the AT in 57 days, 9 hours — missing the FKT mark of 46 days, 11 hours, set by North Carolinan Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011.

For her part, Pharr Davis is an elite thru-hiker rather than an accomplished ultrarunner; she set her record hiking long days at a fast pace, rather than jogging. But among long-distance runners, as Outside magazine recently gushed, “seeking FKTs on iconic trails and peaks has become de rigueur . . . as an exercise in cred building.” And for many, there is no trail more iconic or cred-building than the AT.

“The AT is far harder than any trail out west,” explained world-class ultrarunner Karl Meltzer to Running Times magazine in 2011, following his own 54-day FKT attempt in 2008 and before a second, aborted attempt last year. “Many think that because the mountains out west are higher, they’re tougher. One seven-mile hike through Maine would be all I need to convince anyone that the AT is a beast.”

So if you hike Katahdin this month, watch out for inexplicably lean, bronzed, crazy-eyed people wearing tank tops — you never know who might be an AT FKT VIP.

Editors’ Note: This story has been modified from the print version to reflect recent updates.

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Top image credit: Steve Meyers