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Blog - Stringbean

Interview: Joe "Stringbean" McConaughy

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On August 31, 2017, Joe "Stringbean" McConaughy completed his northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) considers every hiker that completes the Trail a "2,000-miler," whether they take the average 6 months to thru-hike or a lifetime of section hikes. However, Joe earned his 2,000-miler status with an impressive 45-day, 12-hour, and 15-minute hike. In case you're wondering, that's an average of 48 miles per day! We chatted with Stringbean to find out how he prepared for, and completed, his hike.

Hint: He likes maps.  

Planning...

Congratulations on completing the Appalachian Trail! Traversing the entire Trail in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes is quite a feat. Can you describe your efforts to prepare for an A.T. speed thru-hike?

Stringbean on the Appalachian Trail Thank you! Having done the Pacific Crest Trail, I had a general idea of what I needed to do, but the planning was extensive, as it is with any trek of that distance! I started from scratch with food planning, put in a lot of gear research and, of course, put in a lot of planning. In addition to that, I had been tailoring my training to do the AT for six months out. For the last three months, between training, planning and testing gear, it really controlled my life. My girlfriend, Katie Kiracofe, helped me with all of that. which was a blessing. A typical weekend would be a run after work on Friday night followed by measuring the relative calorie to ounce of different foods. On Saturday, it would be a 25-mile trail run and a few hours researching on-line for the most up-to-date, lightest equipment out there. On Sunday, we would head out for a 10-mile run, spend an hour calling different businesses about resupply packages, and then I’d spend an hour at the gym that night. I used a lot of information: reading and using Matt Kirk’s data and book about his speed attempt, scouring through average elevation per section on Whiteblaze.net, Googling random info on line, the ATC Web site for details on each state, a lot of different resupply itineraries from hikers.

You previously told me that you used the ATC’s official A.T. map bundle set. How often did you refer to the maps during your journey, and how were they beneficial to you?

Official Appalachian Trail MapsI used them all the time. Points of interest like rivers and streams, shelters, road crossings are very important for their own reasons. I was constantly checking the maps to make sure I would have enough water (I only carried 1.25L at one time) and that I was covering ground at a pace that was acceptable to be on pace for approximately 50 miles that day. The elevation profiles were essential, because it gave me a really easy and quick insight for what I was up against. If it looked like I had crazy elevation gain for the next day, it would help me differentiate between the opportunity of a 45- or 55-mile day. It was nice to have them broken up into sections as well, I could mail myself the next few sections worth of maps and not have to worry about having too much weight or space being taken up. On the rare occasions when I took a wrong turn, the maps are super helpful to help you figure out where you took a wrong turn and how to get back.

Some claim that maps aren’t necessary for completing the Appalachian Trail. Based on your experience, how would you respond to that claim?

Maps aren’t necessary, but they are fun. Most people carry a guidebook which has a ton of useful information that maps don’t provide which might be useful for a thru-hiker. For my situation, I much preferred a map because the information was very well suited to what I was attempting to do! Even hiking, maps have all the information I need. Guidebooks can provide very specific details such as business hours, every stream and road crossing you come across, etc. I see a lot of those specifics as unnecessary (although I did carry AWOL’s Guidebook [ The A.T. Guide] pages to all the resupply towns I stopped in – that was crucial). You can just as easy ask a southbound hiker where the next water resupply is, and there is something special about the spontaneity of being in the wilderness that a guidebook spoils. It’s supposed to be an adventure!

Exploring...

Most thru-hikes are completed in 4-6 months. You averaged 48 miles a day. How many hours a day were you on the move to accomplish this? What was your biggest challenge to maintaining that pace and how did you overcome it?

I was moving for between 13-15 hours per day, generally. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. I was very disciplined. I had to eat a vast quantity of food (My hungry appetite hasn’t stopped…. I have gained 15 pounds from my normal off trail weight since I have been back!). This meant waking up to 1,000 calories in the morning, eating 200-300 calories per hour on the move, and 3,000+ calories when I got into camp. Injuries were also a big problem. I was constantly held back by a variety of reasons. If I went too fast for an extended period of time, some muscle strain or issue would always pop up! I would always try to stop to talk with other hikers who were looking to make conversation. That was an important aspect for me. I was always on the move, however; even my resupplies I’d really try to keep under an hour.

The natural beauty of the Trail is one of its main attractions for millions of visitors each year. Did you have a favorite portion of the Trail? Are there any locations you wished you could have spent more time at? Have you considered going back?

Shenandoah National ParkMy favorite park I hadn’t visited was Shenandoah. There wasn’t one point in that park that was sublime, but rather I fell in love with the rolling mountains and great views! I was very surprised by the ruggedness of Georgia. I have done a lot of trail running and backpacking in the NE, but Mt. Moousilauke was one of my biggest highlights. I summited in the morning on a misty day. Just as I summited, the fog surrounding me was lit up orange – it was very surreal feeling like you were floating in orange clouds. And, of course, there are places I would have loved to have spent more time at! I wish I was able to have experienced more of the small towns along the way, but I knew what I was getting into when I started. Laurel Falls, Katahdin (when the weather is more friendly). I’ve already been back and done some trail magic in Vermont and am helping some friends on the Pemigewasset loop in the White Mountains in N.H. – which features Franconia Ridge and Galehead Hut.

Following "Thru"...

Only 28% of the people that set out each year complete the Trail. Were you ever tempted to quit, and how did you persevere?

The reason I was tempted to quit was because I was worried I was doing some serious harm to my body. First, on day 7, I had extreme symptoms of Rhabdomyolyses. I won’t go into details but Google it. I wasn’t sure of the long-term side effects, but I was worried I’d do long-term damage to my kidneys, or that I might risk some kind of kidney failure. Luckily, I ran into some ultrarunners on the trail who gave me some salt tablets. This helped me get fluids and food back into my body, and the symptoms started going away. When I ran into some hikers who just so happened to be ER doctors, I was able to ask them all of my medical questions. Believe it or not, there were no real long-term complications – according to them – from Rhabdo, unless it occurred for a period over days. This made me feel immensely better, because I love having kidneys! Also, when my knee swelled up like a grapefruit on day 15, I was VERY nervous. I’d never had that type of injury before, and it was painful and prevented me from running. I didn’t have anything to reduce swelling nor an idea if it would heal. I was able to walk for 2.5 days, and, lo and behold, my body fixed itself!

What advice do you have for potential A.T. thru-hikers of any speed?

Stringbean at KatahdinBe very aware of your body. It is capable of carrying weight and itself over extreme distances and elevation, but it is a fine-tuned machine. You will run into injuries you never thought possible, and it will be able to heal itself in situations that you would never think were possible. That being said, it is a very fine line between pushing through a nagging ache or compounding an injury by trying to push through it. You need to eat a lot, so lower your expectations for food. It won’t really matter though, because you will be so hungry that you will eat anything. Your skin will do a lot of weird things, but carry some Vasoline with you no matter what and apply regularly to anything that isn’t right. Also, make sure you visit the Fastest Known Times proboard and thoroughly read the rules for self-supported and supported. Respect that community. Also, respect the Trail community. What makes the Appalachian Trail a truly spectacular experience is the people and friendships you make along the way. Leave no trace, and hike your own hike. Everyone is out here doing something amazing, and your needs are no more special than those of a day-hiker or thru-hiker! Although volunteers are up a level in my book.

And I can’t resist asking…. How many pairs of shoes did you go through?

8 – and each of them were very beat up by the time I switched!

For a deeper look into speed hikes, check out Stringbean's Instagram for photos of his thru-hike and the documentary "Why Not."

(All photos courtesy of Joe McConaughy, unless otherwise noted.)

Getting Started…

Are you ready to tackle the Appalachian Trail? Below are a list of references, including Stringbean's planning materials, to help you plan your own hike.

McConaughy's Trail resources:

Additional resources:



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