By: Christine Dailey
Posted on December 17, 2014
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) looms as one of the United States' truly great long-distance north-south hiking trails. It stretches over more than 2,650 miles through three states, from Campo, Southern California, to E.C. Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia. Dense forests, rocky terrain, wild elevation changes and even desert conditions face travelers along the course as it snakes its way up the West Coast. To hike it - even just a portion - requires ambition, bravery and supreme physical fitness. To run it from bottom to top? That is another story altogether.
23 year-old Joe McConaughy not only ran every one those 2,650+ miles this past summer, but he also broke the record trail record by finishing six days faster than the previously-documented record holder. The charity run, inspired by his late cousin Colin, saw Joe clocking over 50 miles per day for 53 consecutive days on a trail where only about 50% of people who start the thru-hike actually complete the journey. The PCT starts at the Mexican boarder and ends in Canada covering elevation from sea level to 13,153 feet, and makes passes through 25 national forests and seven national parks. With limited access to roads and resupply points, extreme weather and substantial wilderness dangers, people are warned not to underestimate this journey and are encouraged to do a considerable amount of planning beforehand. Injuries are common and can either end an expedition or significantly slow one down—the average thru-hike takes five months (a full three months longer than it took Joe).
As an avid hiker and runner, McConaughy was a member of the Boston College track and field team and upon graduating in May he decided to set out on this incredible journey in honor of his cousin who passed away from pediatric brain cancer. “I wanted to explore the trail and make it meaningful by giving back to my family,” says Joe, who raised over $30,000 for CancerCare. The completion of his expedition is arguably one of the best gifts ever; both a challenge and gift to himself, and also to his family and handful of charities lucky enough to benefit from his record-breaking run.
Before the journey, we sent Joe seven pairs of trail running shoes—he went through every single one of them. “I got about 300-500 miles per shoe, averaging one shoe a week," says Joe. "I ran in the 910’s through the desert which was perfect because they were light and breathable. The 810’s were great for the high treacherous terrain in the Sierra Nevada and the Leadville’s helped me over volcanic rock as well as woodlands due to their versatility.”
McConaughy had a small support crew consisting of three friends who would help by bringing him supplies, planning logistics and documenting his expedition. The plan was for his crew to meet up with him on the trail every night to bring him camping supplies, food and change of clothes. However, that didn’t always go as planned. Missing his crew on the trail, encounters with snakes and bears as well as extreme tendonitis are just a few of the predicaments Joe dealt with along his trek. We talked to Joe about some of the biggest challenges he faced during his record-breaking journey. Here’s what he had to say…
The first 11 days I had extreme Achilles tendonitis; it felt like I had needles in there. I did about 42 miles each of those days and just fought through it. Those were supposed to be the ‘easy’ miles but my calves weren’t strong enough to deal with that distance and trauma yet so my Achilles’ were taking the brunt of it. After running through a rain storm and soaking my feet, my gait inevitably changed a bit causing horrible pain on the top of my left foot, tendonitis in my ankle and eventually my shin as well. I could feel every muscle tightening, a sheering pain that was almost unbearable. I ran through the pain but when I stopped it was so bad I was basically immobile. That sucked.
There were times where it was over 100 degrees and no shade, just the occasional half-dead tree. Running in that heat was exhausting so I’d take a nap midday for an hour or two then hike until 10pm or 11pm. A couple times I was in a tough situation where I was without water in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t hurt me but it slowed me down for a day and a half or so because I got a heat cramp and my right hamstring was bothering me.
Sleeping with Rattlesnakes
After a hot trek, I was dehydrated and hungry and ended up missing my crew. It was getting late and they were nowhere in sight so I decided to start making a place to sleep in the woods. The temperature dropped as it got dark and of course all I had on was a shirt and shorts. I found a place to sleep wedged in by a log and covered myself with dead leaves to try to keep warm. Turns out it was uncomfortable and I was still freezing so I found another spot in a tree where I could hang out, and assess the situation, hoping a car would show up. I looked over and there was a white figure right next to me – a rattlesnake! I jumped away immediately. Right after that I ended up seeing my first bear. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that night.
68 Unplanned Hours Alone
I went 82 hours without seeing my crew during the climb over The High Sierras. Over this stretch of time I went over the five highest peaks on the PCT, celebrated my birthday alone, was bitten by a million mosquitos and fell into a river. I planned for my crew to meet up at mile 793 on the PCT but I was way behind schedule as it took me two and a half hours to cover a mere four miles to Forrester Pass’ Peak, so we missed each other. I kept going and eventually spent the night with little food or water – half a bag of nuts and salami. I was stuck in the most remote part of the Sierras, but luckily managed to find a sleeping bag from a ranger. I had a satellite phone, but because we were in the high mountains my crew couldn’t receive or send any messages. I managed to make it through the next few days with little food – I was miserable. Big hugs ensued after I met up with them eventually!
Never Enough Food
When I started off, I wasn’t eating enough. Once I was aware of that, I started to eat about 200 calories every hour and around 8000-9000 calories each day. I literally became the cookie monster during this journey. In the morning I’d eat two bagels and a banana and then during the run/hike I’d have nuts, snack bars, cookies and pound cake. We didn’t have an ice cooler so we couldn’t store meat etc. so my meals were limited to pasta and stews. Even though I ate around the clock I still ended up losing 15lbs.
I always had an inner fire to move and to keep moving. The first 10 days were tough but on day 11 I really felt like I had accomplished something. It was my first 50-mile day so I finally felt like I had gained some momentum, plus I had a full hamburger for dinner – what a treat! Despite any challenges along the way, the trail itself was incredible. The Sierras were magnificent and to be out there is just amazing.
We're excited to be part of such an incredible accomplishment, and what we hope is one of the best gifts ever to Joe and his family. To learn more about Joe’s record-breaking journey or to donate to the cause click here.
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