Stringbean on “Stringbean”: An Interview with the Appalachian Trail FKT Record Holder

It was mind-boggling. How could an unsupported ultrarunner, carrying a pack and sleeping in a tent, not just break the unsupported record on the Appalachian Trail by eight days, but break the supported record by ten hours? But in 2017, Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy did that. To do so, he had to average almost 50 miles a day, carry a fully loaded pack, do all his resupplying without getting in a car or accepting aid, and completely alter everyone’s perspective on what was feasible for an unsupported FKT attempt. It’s been almost two years and it still seems freaking crazy.

Thru-hiking the same trail as an FKTer allows for the closest thing there is to front-row seats and I had them in 2017. McConaughy passed me at some point during the end of Massachusetts, which I know because I opened the logbook at the MA/VT border and there he was, with a logbook entry from the day before. Someone had drawn an arrow to his entry with an exclamation mark at the end, I think because they had the same reaction I did, which was, “Wait, he stops and signs logbooks?” It was an interesting and more intimate perspective to have of the whole thing beyond just daily mileage counts and occasionally updated social media if you were watching from home.

Which is why fans of his will be excited to watch his new documentary Stringbean, available on YouTube, if they haven’t already. While it’s not unusual for there to be documentaries that cover FKT attempts, it is unusual to have this close a look at an unsupported one, since the onus of filming falls completely on the runner. The documentary consists of footage shot by McConaughy (and very briefly and memorably, his mother) and includes lots of reflective voice-overs. It’s the best front-row seat you’re going to find. If you love the Appalachian Trail, it’s going to give you those little heart butterflies you get when you watch something that really reminds you what the AT is all about.

Stringbean very graciously talked with us about filming while running, what the future of AT FKTs looks like, and the intersection between hiking a long trail and running it.

Answers have edited for length/clarity

The Trek: All footage in the documentary was shot by you, because who else was going to shoot it? I would imagine that remembering to pull out a camera when you’re focused on moving forward isn’t the easiest thing to do. Did you know this footage would eventually be used for a documentary?

Stringbean: I thought I would like to (film). I didn’t really know what would come out of it. I just went into it being like, I’m just going to film as much as I can. When I did the Pacific Crest Trail, a few of my buddies were there to support and we made a documentary and I thought at least it’d be cool to have a lot of footage. So for a lot of the shots, yes, I was hoping that something would come out of it, but I had no idea what that would be.

TT: I was impressed that you filmed as much as you did. I thought I was going to film every day on my thru-hike and I lost interest right away.

Stringbean: (Laughs) Well, it’s hard because I was going to trail towns once every few days so I could charge my GoPro and do that kind of stuff. But yeah, it definitely took extra dedication and extra time to do things. Sometimes it was really frustrating, but was almost like a creative outlet when you’re on the trail doing something that does allow your mind to float a little bit. It allows you to focus on something that’s not just a purely physical, mile after mile kind of mind-set.

TT: I totally get that. I felt that way about blogging and just having something to think about that wasn’t hiking.

Stringbean: You have all that headspace, so it’s nice to have something that you can put your effort toward outside of all those logistical things (and into) the kind of things that you’re thinking about, like appreciating your surroundings or the people you’re meeting. For me it was nice have another thing to entertain myself with, I guess. It was sort of my entertainment.

TT: One of the things you talked about in the documentary is the difficulty of dealing with injuries when you’re self-supported. You had to be thinking: “What is the correct amount of pain that I’m supposed to be feeling? Were you always confident navigating injuries or were there times where you were unsure if you were doing more lasting damage?

Stringbean: No, I was very unsure. There were a few things I had a gist on but there were quite a few things that popped up that very much surprised me. I was surprised by a lot of things. A few things that I knew would happen were like extreme chafing, especially around where my pack was, all the foot issues that come along with thru-hiking or running. I knew I’d get some kind of muscle tightness or cramps or soreness I knew—well, I didn’t really know falls. I knew I was risking getting some kind of infection or something on my foot. There were a lot of injuries that I knew were probably going to happen at some point and I’d just have to tough it out.

The one thing that really took me by surprise was that I packed my bag wrong; It was actually the second day—and you know, when you’re just starting out there’s all this just shit that goes wrong—so I packed my bag wrong and there was a nozzle for my mini inflatable mattress that jammed into the back of my pack. I had a Pa’lante pack so I didn’t have any kind of frame whatsoever. I used a folded z-pad as my internal frame. But that little nozzle got in between the pad and my back and I was like, “Oh, that kind of hurts but it’s probably just rubbing on my back.” Later I realized there was actually something digging into my skin and it left me with a cigar-shaped hole that ended up becoming infected. I literally had to hike my backpack up for a good three or four weeks as high as I could on the tightest settings so that my backpack wouldn’t rub on that specific spot that had gotten infected and then took weeks to heal.

TT: ….Urgh

Stringbean: But that was one of those, “What the hell am I doing?” kind of moments where it seemed like it was such a weird, rookie mistake that caused a lot of inconvenience.

TT: Did you ever use WebMD to, like, google injuries?

Stringbean: Yeah (laughs). I did that quite a bit.

TT: I definitely did that all the time. That was probably my main medical support.

Stringbean: Really? You just looked stuff up on WebMD? “Why is my foot black and blue?” One of the biggest injuries for me was my lower quads. What I think happened, in talking with doctors after, is there were micro tears in my lower quad muscles right above my knee. What happened three or four times is I was having a totally fine day, just running along, doing my thing. My knee would slowly start to hurt a little bit and feel weird and then it would start to feel off and I was like, maybe I shouldn’t run on it. Then I’d go off and on between, “Oh, this is doable, it doesn’t really matter” or “Maybe I should just try walking for awhile and it will heal up.”

It ended up being these kind of micro tears where my whole knee would swell up. I’d have to walk for a day and a half to two days on whatever terrain I did and weirdly enough, over the next two to three days and some elevation of my legs, the swelling would go down and my knee would start to feel better. It was excruciatingly painful but I just kind of treated it as a peg leg of sorts. But the swelling would just, on its own, go down and heal itself and three days later I would be running fine. I’d just have this two-day stretch of having to walk or hike for an entire day because my knee was swollen and weirdly painful. That was one of the things that just really confounded me. I can sort of find stuff online but I really have no idea what was going on.

 

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Day 16: Daleville, VA (727.1) to Harrison Ground Springs Campground (771.8). 14:40/44.7 miles. INJURY UPDATE 🚨: so, my knee is now swollen and not letting me run. So I took the day of running – and hiked instead! It is amazing what you can accomplish when you are diligent and directed, although some easy terrain in the first half helped! I put in maybe 10-20 minutes total of running towards the end of the day, so we will see how tomorrow turns out. Which leg is tweaked? How much do you have to want it? . . #thestringbean #appalachiantrail #fastestknowntime #hikertrash #heartbreakhillrc #trailanimaltunningclub #everybodyrun Please note that all posts have been backdated to deter any assistance on the trail, as that would jeopardize the self supported rules

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TT: I feel like there’s this conversation around FKTs: You’re going too fast and you miss out on this thing and this and that, but I always think, couldn’t the inverse be true? There are things you can get from running a long-distance trail that you can’t get from hiking one? 

Stringbean: I think there’s a lot of things that are there. It’s all personal, just like anybody who hikes the Appalachian Trail. I really stand by the hike your own hike thought. Doing what I did is not right for a lot of people doing the trail. Doing what I did, for some people, is the way they’d love to experience it and I view it the same way. If I went out and hiked the trail, which I hopefully will at some point, I know I’d love it. Going out when I did in 2017, I still had my full-time job, but I really felt this passion to go after the record and say, “Hey, maybe someone can run this trail self-supported” because previously no one had really run it self-supported, it had been hiked self-supported. When I was out there, there were just so many incredible experiences that I had. I saw so much wildlife because I was always leaving super early in the morning. I’d get up at four or five a.m., and especially in the South, I’d be the first person on the trail. I’d see bear, I’d see deer, a lot of things that if you’re hiking during the day or at certain times you might be less likely to see.

Running through the night on the last day of the trip was just like… Not very many things fill you with as much passion as the final push that I had at the end of the trip. Experiencing the trail at night and experiencing running through thunderstorms. No matter the conditions, no matter the temperature, I had to, every single day, day in and day out, go as far as I could, which is just a different mind-set and allows for different experiences than going at a different pace or taking a few rest days or flip-flopping. Just like anything, it’s a different experience.

 

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THE FINAL PUSH: Nahmakanta Lake – 6am – 40 miles to go. Talk about surreal. This was one of my favorite moments on the trail, an absolute stunning sunrise on the most peaceful lake. I was 24 hours into a 110.8 mile, 37 hour push. I could helped but stop, set up my GoPro along the lakes shore and flip on the video. The night section was some of he best running I had on the trail. I was able to maintain a 3mph pace through the night when I was used to 2. Rugged Southern Maine was well past me. I treated each hour as a snack, where I would be rewarded for each hour that ticked off the clock. The highlight was 400 cals of chocolate almonds at 4 in the morning, while the lowpoint was a SPICY pepperoni that went down the wrong pipe at 5 in the morning. I cried and heaved for the next 10 minutes. Coming out of the night I knew what I had ahead of me. I didn’t feel tired or drained, but rather energized by the sun. Knowing that only 40 miles away @kekiracofe and @josh.katzman were waiting for me at the top of Mt. Katahdin. What I didn’t anticipate was how miserable the 4,500 ft of elevation, two bee stings, mist, hail, rain, mist, 70 mph winds and high 30/low 40 temperatures would be. Only with 28 miles to go, when I realized that I still had 14 more miles in Abol Bridge, a resupply stop, to go and only 600 calories. I was mid bonk and depleted. My feet hurt and my knee killed. But all I could do was plod on to the finish.

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TT: You talked in the documentary about one of the best parts of a long-distance trail is getting to meet all these people from all these different walks of life. I feel like that’s another thing where you had to be like, “Talking to people is important to me and I want to make sure to do that.” Was stopping to talk to people something you actively tried to do?

Stringbean: Yeah, for sure. Anyone I passed, unless they were the kind of person that had their headphones in or was head down, if they were wearing a large backpack—large enough to not be a day hiker and smelly enough not to be a day hiker—I would always make time to stop. That’s the culture of the trail and I didn’t want to miss that. It wouldn’t necessarily have been worth it to go for the record if I had made it this hyper-focused experience.

TT: How often did other thru-hikers start to recognize you by the end?

Stringbean: Huh, it was funny. I went a long way. It took me awhile, like two weeks, to hit the back-end of the bubble? Maybe by the time I got to the Whites, there was a guy that stopped me and was like, “Wait, you’re that Stringbean guy! You’re wearing the backpack I read in a blog!” and I was like, “Who’s writing a blog?” It was funny to have word travel like that and I’d say there were certainly some people that started to recognize me by the end, which was kind of cool. Kind of weird, but kind of cool.

TT: I would have recognized you.  I remember my mom was hiking with me at the time that you passed me, she was visiting, and I was like, he’s gonna pass us, it’s gonna be soon mom! And she was less interested than I was.

Stringbean: (Laughs) No, it was honestly kind of nice. One of the things I certainly feel like I missed out on  the trail was hiking with someone for three days and having them stay behind or go ahead and then two months later you bump into them on the trail or you find out that they finished. One of those classic thru-hiking friendships you make and as I was passing everybody, word doesn’t travel forward that fast. I met this guy named Red Dog. Or Redsox? He was at the front of the pack. I met him in Vermont. He ran with me for like eight miles or nine miles, which I thought was just really cool, especially in a thunderstorm in Vermont. But it was really cool to make those human connections, and having some kind of recognizability on the trail was a kind of cool added thing at the end.

 

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Day 12: Partnership Shelter (532.2) to Jenkins Shelter (578.5). 46.3 miles/13:50. How could a day with so much promise be so miserable. Had to do the resupply, which took some time, but the weather really got to me. Bad. It was 10 hours of rainstorms and I had to just take it. My feet lost a whole layer of skin! Also, my hip is still acting up so that is frustrating. At least the @mountainlaureldesigns poncho tarp is doing its thing!!! I am thankful for anything that goes right out here, spirits still high! . . #thestringbean #appalachiantrail #fastestknowntime #hikertrash #heartbreakhillrc #trailanimaltunningclub #everybodyrun Please note that all posts have been backdated to deter any assistance on the trail, as that would jeopardize the self supported rules

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TT: When did you realize you were going to set the record? Where were you when you were like, I’m gonna do it?

 Stringbean: I felt really confident halfway through. When I got to the halfway point I think I was a little over a day and a half in front of the record and I was like, “In what world am I going to fall apart so much I’m not going to break the record?” I was pretty confident for a good while, but once I hit the Whites, things just all went downhill. But even through the Whites and Southern Maine I still felt like I had it in me to get it. I think for a good half of the trail I felt pretty confident in what I was doing.

TT: I feel like the White Mountain wake-up call is a pretty common experience for thru-hikers.

Stringbean: Yeah, for every person that’s like, “Well, I did the Smokies. The Whites aren’t as big, everyone’s talking about them, and there are SOBOs who don’t know what they’re talking about,” and then you hit the Whites and you’re like, “Oh my God.”

TT: Did you do that thru-hiker thing where you spent a lot of your time thinking about the first thing you were going to eat when you got back?

Stringbean: I was actually kind of stoked on trail food. All my food was cold and I ate so much food that I had just so many calories that I was eating. When I started I was eating 8,000 calories and when I finished I was eating 11,000 to 12,000 calories per day and there were only certain snacks in my bag that got me really excited to eat. So I actually didn’t dream so much so of, “Oh my God, the perfect steak.” It was more like, “Oh my god, I’ve got a bag of Doritos or a really delicious salami that I’m saving for the right moment when shit hits the fan.” Or chocolate-covered almonds! I had chocolate covered almonds a few times and I just freaked out. Especially going into towns. I just saw the menu and ordered three things even though I knew I’d never be able to eat them all. I spent a lot of time thinking about food but it was more so, “I’m going to get into a trail town and eat something,” or “I’m saving this food for the right moment.”

TT: What do you think FKTs on the Appalachian Trail will look like in ten years?

Stringbean: Because it’s been broken for the past what, three years? Four years? I think someone could still go self-supported and break the supported record in the perfect of worlds, but I’m curious because it’s going to get to a point where in order to set an Appalachian Trail FKT you’re going to need to have significant understanding of what you’re getting into, which every type of professional athlete won’t really have the background to deal with what the Appalachian Trail will throw at you. Unless you’ve experienced it before, I think it will be really hard to beat the record.

That’ll be an interesting thing to watch: who are these people breaking the record? Are they former thru-hikers who are also very good athletes? Or is it professional athletes who’ve crashed and burned a few times and then come back and set the record? Even Karel Sabbe did so well on the AT is because he—and this is why I did so well on the AT as well—did the Pacific Crest Trail and you learn so much… and they’re both hard. (Ed. note: Stringbean and Sabbe set supported PCT FKTs in 2014 and 2016, respectively.)

Supported is challenging because it’s so logistical and you really have to be a humble, relaxed, and forgiving person. There are a lot of things that go wrong when you have a support crew. Being self-supported, you need an understanding of what you’re getting into with resupplies, training, running with a weighted pack. I think most professional athletes aren’t there for the more logistical side of things, and really understanding what they’re getting into and then thru-hikers may underestimate the difference in the physicality it requires to do the trail running.

TT: That’s a good answer. I think about that all the time.

Stringbean: I’m always kind of wondering that too. I feel somewhat confident that there will be a few more people who will become long trail FKT athletes, kind of like Joey Campanelli.

TT: Yeah, I think it’s growing in popularity, with more people attempting FKTs and more people watching. 

Stringbean: It’s certainly gaining notoriety and it’s starting to become a thing that’s recognized as a major feat. Having athletes like Meltzer and Jurek—huge names in the running and ultrarunning community—shows where the interest is going to lie for people going forward. I hope it doesn’t become commercialized, but you know it probably will in some capacity.

TT: Your parents saw you off at Springer and your girlfriend met you at the top of Katahdin—is that the extent of the emotional support you can expect during an unsupported attempt or did you do something similar to what I did when I was upset during my thru-hike, which was immediately call my mom?

Stringbean: I called (my fiancee) Katie quite a bit. Katie was certainly my rock, although she will express her frustrations about poor cell phone service and limited phone use—because it was always that constant battle of I want to call someone and talk to them but if I do that it’s going to drain my battery more or it’s going to kill my phone and I at the very least need my phone for basic Excel spreadsheets and other data, opening and closing times, addresses and things. The lower my phone battery is, the more time I have to spend in town recharging. Katie was great for doing what she could with the limited touch points.

TT: That must have been hard on her. I know I’d be talking to my parents, having a really hard time, and then cell service would cut out and they wouldn’t hear from me for two days.

Stringbean: Exactly. She dealt with a lot of probably unnecessary stress on my behalf, so even though it is self-supported, I had a lot of emotional support. And a lot of people in general were very supportive of what I was doing. I’d expected there would be a little backlash on somebody doing an FKT just because there always is, but almost everybody was very cordial and made it fun.

TT: I think you have a lot of fans in the thru-hiking community that aren’t always as invested, or maybe even kind of—grumpy is the wrong word but—disinterested in other FKT attempts. And when I was watching the documentary, I thought a lot of things you said were things that thru-hikers would say or that thru-hikers would really relate to. I know just from my experience and how often thru-hikers I ran into were talking about you, that at least the 2017 class really did connect with you. Why do you think that is when maybe it’s not true of every fastest known time attempter?

Stringbean: I think you have to get it, in some sense. The weirdest thing about doing a FKT is that it’s a very selfish thing to do. You’re a) saying hey, I consider myself potentially one of the fastest people that could ever do this trail and b) I’m taking two months out of my life to say, “Screw everything else that’s going on, including my friends, family, the people around me, and saying I want to go do this record and I’m doing it self-supported so don’t try and help even if you want to be supportive.” Then, at the same time, you’re going through in this really awesome, well-established thru-hiking community, trail angel community, and trail towns saying, “You guys do this one way, and everyone’s in it for the right reasons but I’m more important than you guys are, because I can do it faster than you.” When you come at it from that angle, it’s sad that people are going to see you as this kind of person. The Appalachian Trail is supposed to be the kind of thing that celebrates diversity and everyone doing a common goal, which is finishing the trail at their own pace.

If you don’t have that deeper understanding of where people are coming from and why they’re doing the trail, and you don’t admire and celebrate that, then you’re doing a disservice to the trail. If you wanted to, you could make it all about yourself. You can position yourself as this superhero, super-ultra-elite athlete that did this amazing thing on this hard trail and nobody else can do it better than you—I don’t think anybody really embodies that extreme, but it’s there. I really wanted to meet people and experience it in a way I wanted to experience it, which was being a part of the community, doing it as fast as I could and just seeing what was possible for myself and really connecting with people while doing it.

TT: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t want to talk too much about my own thoughts, but I thought the thru-hikers I met saw you as a fast thru-hiker and not necessarily a FKT attempter, you know?

Stringbean: It’s so cool to hear that, because they’re not mutually exclusive. Everyone’s going after the trail and doing it in their own way, and the biggest thing that could happen is people could come in and see this as, “Hey, these are FKT attempters stealing our trail,” and as an FKT attempter, “Oh, these are dumb thru-hikers who are doing this slow and don’t know what they’re talking about,” and then having hostilities come from that attitude. You can sort of see that happening, and it has happened historically if you look at PCT history. It’s less common on the Appalachian Trail, but definitely still present. You can get animosities that come up and a little ugliness, which is the ultimate shame because it should just be an opportunity to connect in unique ways and appreciate the outdoors and what’s been created for us.

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Comments 1

  • Anna Zimmerman : Mar 18th

    I loved reading this interview and watching the documentary he filmed. What an amazing accomplishment. Completing it in 5 and half months was hard enough for me. Hah

    Also, it was RedFox who he ran with! I remember RedFox telling me all about it the next day. He was so stoked that he ran with Stringbean!

    Reply

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