On August 10, 2014, 23-year-old Joe "String Bean" McConaughy—a recent college grad who grew up in Seattle—took his last steps on the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail, crossing into Canada’s Manning Park exactly 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes after setting off from the Mexican border. If anyone’s counting, that’s six days faster than the previous record, and it took a steady and relentless pace of 50-plus miles (and 8,000 calories of pound cake, peanut butter, and tuna) per day—plus the help of a faithful three-person support team. Inspired by the death of his second cousin, Colin, of a rare neuroblastoma cancer at age two, McConaughy started out as an average middle-distance runner and ended up in the thru-hiking firmament. Here’s his take.
What made you want to do it? Run the PCT as fast as you did?
When I was about 13, I thought of a crazy idea to run from my house in Seattle to my uncle’s in Orange County. I mapped out an entire route, with stops at hotels and restaurants, down I-5. Needless to say, it never came to pass. As an Eagle Scout, I used to be a huge outdoorsman, and the Cascades were our favorite destination. At Boston College, I didn’t hike at all—I didn’t have a car, and I ran track and cross-country, so I was competing year round. I wanted to get back into it, maybe combine hiking with running. Then I looked at my old map route down I-5 and realized how dumb I had been. Why run down a highway when I could traverse the PCT that I had grown up on? And I had an opportunity to make it so much more than just “reconnecting with the wilderness.” I wanted to do something in memory of Colin that would make my family, specifically his parents, feel proud and loved.
What were your highs and lows?
The only part where I thought about giving up was in the Sierra Nevada, the most beautiful, but also most remote and challenging part of the trail. On my birthday, I had planned to ascend Forrester Pass, the highest point on the PCT, and cover 43 miles before meeting my crew with a sleeping bag and food. I never found them, and spent 82 hours, about 68 unplanned, by myself through the PCT’s roughest section. It was a pretty frightening experience, but I had help from a ranger, a food drop, and fellow hikers to get me through. I loved my second to last day. Just after Rainy Pass in Washington, you are surrounded by the North Cascades. In early August, there is no snow and you are surrounded by rocky giants. My last night, I hiked until about 11:30 p.m. It was the night of a supermoon and everything was lit up.
Your favorite spot?
The Palisades. Tucked into the Sierra Nevada, it’s a huge effort to climb up Mather Pass. Just after it though, you find the lower Palisade Lake. It’s incredibly gorgeous. I ran by the lakeside for half a mile, with green meadows off to my right and a crystal blue lake on my left. Farther on each side were nearly vertical walls of mountains. There are a series of waterfalls that I had to descend via steep, unfriendly switchbacks. It was as if the Sierra wanted the lake to be hidden from the world.
How does one train for such a thing?
I stuck with my track training—60 miles a week with a 12-mile long run. I supplemented this with a lot of high-rep, low-weight leg lifting. After the season was done, I rested for 10 days. Then I had three weeks of training, going anywhere from 20–35 miles on long runs and doing 5 or 6 miles in between those. A week before I left, I did two 40’s back to back, and rested for 4 days.
Any key pieces of gear that saved your butt?
The Gregory Tempo 8 pack. It could carry about 4,000 calories (if I really needed it) and was incredibly lightweight. I don’t know which one did the job—my SmartWool socks or New Balance shoes—but I only got four total blisters. If anybody is doing this, have a satellite phone.
What did you eat, anyway?
My big treat was Honey Stinger Waffles. They are like mini waffles cooked in syrup. So incredible. Then there’s the driest food you will ever eat: a double peanut butter bagel sandwich. I had one next to Mt. Baden Powell. I was panting heavily, and had to stop to finish it. I think it took me around 45 minutes to eat one while running. But I loved pound cake. In the North Cascades, I ran out of food for about two days, and lived off of bumming bars and extra food from fellow hikers. One of these hikers gave me a loaf of poundcake. She made me believe in angels.
What’s your advice to anyone trying to tackle the whole PCT?
If you run, please do it supported. There are simply too many variables that are out of your control. I don’t believe it is safe to do it alone. That being said, if you have a crew, be smart and be safe. Also, please be respectful of the trail. We have a saying called “hike your own hike,” which is often stated, but not often practiced. No matter how someone else is choosing to experience the trail, no way is “better.” If you are attempting to go for some kind of record, you are not king of the trail.
What did you learn?
The importance of family. I am very blessed to be in a situation where I had the opportunity to complete such an incredible trip. My father inspired me to love the outdoors and to pursue running. My mom has always been there for me when I have lost my wallet, keys, and passport. My brother helped me learn to laugh and not to be so critical of who I am. I also learned a lot about the support of community—it took a village to get this project together. I hope Colin’s parents and brother can feel all that love. One of the reasons we were so successful was the dedication of my support crew. It’s one of the weirdest jobs: You have to get up and sleep at ridiculous hours, spend much of the day twiddling your thumbs, but then be on-point and ready for slip-ups. I don’t think I would look very happily back on this trip if Jack, Dills, and Jordo weren’t there for me.
I don’t think I am looking for a way to top this. As of now I am content with life. I would like to do a Triple Crown (Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and PCT), although I don’t know if I’d do it for speed. I might try a blitzkrieg on the 272-mile Long Trail in Vermont next summer, which sounds like a blast. I certainly do enjoy the combination of extreme distances and trails. It is very freeing.
To make a donation to the PCTA, the Mountainneers, and CancerCare, visit RunforColin.com.