The Inside Story of an Unsupported Speed Record Attempt on the Appalachian Trail

Written by Finn Melanson and originally published by the Bangor Daily News. Finn is an ultra-marathoner living in Alta, Utah by way of Maine. 

“You know those moments when you feel something big is about to happen? Like when you are cresting the top of a rollercoaster or when you are finishing packing the car to move somewhere new? There is this eerie excitement in the air. Your heart beats and you can’t help but smile. You know this is going to be good.” — Joey Campanelli in the final hours before starting the Appalachian Trail

It was June 24th, 2014, when the progress of his unsupported speed record attempt on the Appalachian Trail reached their community. ‘The kid is running from gas station to gas station on OJ, V8 Juice, and Guts!’ exclaimed a post on Whiteblaze, an online chat room for thru-hikers and ultra-runners. The astonishment was warranted. In a field that had been surreptitiously colonized in recent years by various commercial interests, this attempt was different. There wasn’t a contrived storyline, financial backing from a major sponsor, or a support crew waiting at road crossings with a lawn chair, food, or drink. This guy was on his own. Everything he needed, he carried on his back. Everything he lacked, he was responsible for. He walked in and out of the nearest towns off trail to resupply on food. He discreetly bivouacked on the side of the trail when it got dark. He would grit his teeth to push through nagging injuries. And when was lonely, he recalled the spirit that inspired him to be there in the first place. Perhaps that’s why, to his followers, the physical courage and spartan nature of his attempt harkened back nostalgically to the departed frontier era, when self-reliance and rugged adventure were in vogue–a time when people were calloused by adversity and isolation, not deterred by them.

By the time the endurance world took notice, Joey Campanelli, fittingly known as ‘Flash’ on trail, was already 41 days and 1,600 miles into the record attempt. With just over 500 miles separating him from Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, he was on pace to shatter the mark of 58 days set in 2013 by Matt Kirk. Yet what transpired over the next two weeks, in some ways, unfurled like a modern-day Greek tragedy. While caught in hurricane-force rain and winds sweeping the trail in western Maine, Campanelli fell off a steep, slate covered descent and injured his foot with just over 250 miles left to go. The trauma from the incident cut his attempt short.

Campanelli is part of the vanguard of endurance athletes that have resuscitated interest in one of the truly promethean athletic feats that remain in the endurance world: unsupported, fastest known time (FKT) attempts on America’s national scenic trails. In the summer of 2017, he will return to the Appalachian Trail motivated by unfinished business, this time, determined to finish in under 50 days. It’s a journey that raises discussion about the advent and allure of fastest known time (FKT) attempts on the Appalachian Trail, and how this brand of conquest has been synchronized in contemporary American life.

“The ability to cope with nature directly – unshielded by the weakening wall of civilization – is one of the admitted needs of modern times.” — Benton Mackaye

There has always been discomfort with the socio-economic status quo in America. To some, it has felt like a dangerously artificial existence. The unrest dates back to the Puritan times, when scores of male settlers defected to the Native American tribes. So when Benton MacKaye first expressed his disturbance with the rapid pace and depraved elements of industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, he was following a longstanding tradition in suggesting a “new approach to the problem of living” with his vision for the Appalachian Trail. However quixotic, in his mind, the mountains could evolve the soul of the country.

Nearly one hundred years later, we aren’t much closer to the lifestyle that MacKaye prescribed. We still suffer spiritual anxiety from being so far removed from the episode of humanity that allowed for daily exploration and communion with nature. And yet for so many, breaking away from this paradigm is a terrifying prospect. It’s a level of stasis that primes us for Campanelli’s mantra: do what you love. He’s not afraid to follow his path, which finds him running in the mountains, pushing physical limits, losing it a little, and conquering his inner mind along the way. These standards create peace in his life.

“The reason I do this, is to go as far as I can, carrying as little as possible, stripped down to the natural human element that is freedom. Removing all these extra possessions simplifies and improves your world. You still have to work hard–just like anywhere in life–but stripping it all down just makes more sense to me. And remember, the limits we impose on ourselves are largely societal. I feel their weight, just like anyone else, but I know I can just ignore them and confidently follow my path”

Campanelli’s words resonate like the self-talk acknowledged only in our dreams. And maybe that’s why we invent these heroic outdoor feats–to sustain our imagination, as we are separated from our true natures, locked away in mind-numbing, soulless cubicles. In fact, maybe that’s how the concept of the “fastest known time” was conceived–revolting against the harrowing experiences of a life in perpetual state of conformity and security.

“To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort. That is the reward the mountains give to effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love the mountains and go back to them again and again. The mountains reserve their choice gifts for those who stand upon their summits.” — Sir Francis Younghusband

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,185 mile footpath running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Most thru-hikers complete the trail in 4 to 6 months, some manage 2 to 3 months, and an even smaller, elite class of hikers are capable of completing it in under 2 months. Something existential torments this last group, which constitutes the hikers that set out on “fastest known time” attempts. Many of them are refugees from the ultra-running community, spurning the race fees, contrived courses, and medals to look inward to for a test of their limits and to the wilderness seeking the roots of minimalistic adventure. Along the way, they capture the imagination of the endurance community, and sometimes, even the general public.

Notable athletes in the field like Jennifer Pharr-Davis, Karl Meltzer, and Scott Jurek pursued “supported” speed record attempts, meaning that their food, water, shelter, and emotional support were monitored and provided by a crew, often meeting them at strategic road crossings intersecting the trail. Jurek’s attempt, in particular, was heavily publicized and managed to trigger inspiration beyond the running and hiking communities. Despite starting his days at sunrise, he would often have local running clubs and fans at various trail crossings ready to share a few miles with him on the trail. It was like a scene straight out of Forrest Gump.

Athletes without the resources or the interest in using a crew make the unsupported attempt. Campanelli, Heather “Anish” Anderson, and Matt Kirk headline this group. A few important rules distinguish their field: they must carry all of their food and gear at all times, must walk in and out of resupply locations, must not get into a vehicle for any reason, and must not have anyone follow or provide support in a prearranged manner. In a small and obscure sport with little fanfare, their journey’s epitomize a forlorn struggle with virtually nonexistent glory. Their achievements might be known by a few hundred or thousand people–and appreciated by even fewer.

“100 miles is not that far.”Karl Meltzer

The daily mileage and hours on trail recorded in Campanelli’s AT blog are something to marvel at. In eastern Tennessee, he covered 42 miles to the Vandeventer Shelter while furiously massaging a painful knot in his adductor along the way. In southern Virginia, he put together a masterful stretch where he successively hiked 43, 47, 44, 38, and 53 miles each day–a total of 225 miles in an area that claimed some of the most rugged terrain the trail had to offer. He demonstrated that it wasn’t a fluke when he followed that effort up shortly after in central and northern Virginia with a stretch that covered 52, 47, 46, and 43 miles each day. And then when he was faced with oppressive heat and humidity in the mid-atlantic region, there were days like the walk into Boiling Springs, PA when he covered 48 miles in 12 hours. Fast forward to the 100 Mile Wilderness in Northern Maine. Even with the record no longer at stake, he covered that in 2 days.

You have to search beyond the numbers, though, to appreciate the resilience, the figurative tightrope he was on, the repeated toll placed on his mind and body, and ultimately, the fallibility of his athleticism. When he endured repeated episodes of torrential rain and blown out trail conditions in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Maine, which led to a worsening case of trench foot, he used an old zen-like, Marshall Ulrich trick and convinced himself that it wasn’t his foot. When he botched resupplies in North Carolina and Vermont, he literally raced against time, breaking into a jog at 4 mph pace to reach a market or post office before closing, covered in sweat, still in the stupor of the runner’s high. And when he was distracted in Massachusetts and New Hampshire by a supportive family that wasn’t aware of the rules, he polished off pints of Cherry Garcia as he walked out of towns to cope the emotional stress.

In reflecting on the daily hurdles of covering this kind of mileage, Campanelli refers to the lethargy you hit in the dead of summer around the 3pm-30 mile mark. Roasted by the full brunt of the sun, exhausted by the thick humidity, he would wonder how he was going to cover those last 15 miles needed to stay on track. There’s no way, he would think. But when the sun started to set and the afternoon breeze rolled in to hit his skin for just enough renewal–that’s when he found the energy to finish each day..

It’s this kind of joyful appreciation for the minutiae of life that makes the lessons from Campanelli’s journey widely applicable. Even if we can’t relate to a hiker dead set on relentless forward progress–hunchbacked, dripping sweat, swarmed by gnats and mosquitos, dragging his pride up the mountain, still famished after thousands of calories of food–we can focus our imaginations on the determination, the work ethic, and the catharsis from living out your dream. This was Joey Campanelli rectifying the original vision of the American experience.

“That’s what was great about him. He tried. Not many do.” — Jon Krakauer

Campanelli returned home to from the AT in mid July of 2014. When it was all said and done, he had pushed his mind and body farther than he thought possible–and then pushed it even further. So when the accumulated stress from hiking 56 consecutive 40 mile days abruptly came to a close–everything shut down on him. His endocrine system was toast, his thyroid overworked, he was suffering from lyme disease, his feet were shredded, he had lost his daily routine, and he was sinking into deep depression. There was a lot of pain to address and it was hard to grasp the end state, which was a radical departure from the raw emotion and naive enthusiasm that had kept the motor running for so long. The toll was made worse by the lack of planning for the whole thing. There was no strategy going in–he didn’t even determine or announce his pursuit of the record until he was about 10 days and 400 miles in. Problems with weather, wet feet, nutrition, resupplies, shelters, hostels, psychology, and family were all novelties that had been dealt with on the fly.

You can bet that these mistakes will be corrected for the next time. Because the genius of Campanelli is his dogged, relentless pursuit of goals. He brings a blue-collar work ethic to the realm of endurance sports, not to mention a deep appreciation for the esoteric science and logistical data not necessarily expected from the top athletes in his sport. In talking with him, you almost think he takes joy in these monumental errors, that the 2014 attempt was simply part of the trial and error cycle in a larger method. When the itch becomes a scratch, and the motivation to get back out there consumes his thinking, this guy flips a switch and works his ass off. He has an innate ability to eliminate all distractions and deeply focus on what he’s doing. When a 30 mile run with 10,000 feet of climbing through his home mountains in the Wasatch Range is complete, Campanelli can sit down at his desk for hours to pour over topographical maps and resupply guides to hone his craft as an endurance athlete. It’s like a scholar performing research or drafting a dissertation. Campanelli is as much a thinker as he is a doer in his craft. He is consumed by workouts, then info, then more workouts, then more info–until the process of improvement starts to rapidly compile. Few peers demonstrate such religious level of dedication. It’s a personality that makes his 2017 attempt inevitable.

“As an Exercise Physiologist, I love all the science talk. But honestly, I think you have to throw science out the door. When you’re dealing with 2,200 miles, you just have to go ape shit. So what if you crash and burn? You will never know how far you can go, until you’ve gone too far. I realized that with myself out here. I pushed myself then woke up the next day and did it again. In the process, I surpassed what I thought was possible. So I guess that would be my advice. Don’t hold back. Push yourself and see what you’ve got.” — Joey Campanelli

I am fascinated by Joey Campanelli because he is largely unknown by the endurance community, despite being a natural badass and one of the most talented and cerebral athletes the field. Just spend one day with him, trucking up a skinner during the winter backcountry ski season or trying to keep up with him on a downhill sprint during the summer trail running season, and you will believe too, trust me. But it’s also hard to relate to the stoicism of a guy like him. Why pursue more intensity, more pressure, and more stress? His interests and days revolve around monumental feats of endurance. Why pursue loneliness? He’s at the pinnacle of his craft, one of the best in the world, so naturally very few people can keep up with him, and among those who can, it’s a short list that even want to. And then there’s the question of priorities–why pursue this of all sports? It’s probably true that the only people who pay attention to FKT’s are the athletes themselves and the diehards in the sport. He might as well be in an echo chamber for reassurement.

Campanelli doesn’t have any sermons prepared, he’s not preparing to spread the gospel of the endurance life, but he is adamant about at least one piece of advice. “I want to be a leader for self-discovery. More people need to figure out what they love, and then they need to develop the courage to go after it like their lives depend on it, because it does!.” He also gets defensive about his intensity towards life, especially on trail. “Most people avoid pain and seek comfort, but the joy of life comes when you are at your greatest discomfort. In fact, being beaten down and worn out makes you appreciate the beauty of the trail that much more. More people are catching on that safety and security are unfulfilling. Neither are worth your life.” Beyond the daring adventure, the crucible in nature, and the example of relentless forward progress along the Appalachian Trail, that seems to be the universal message here: we can find happiness and inner peace by embracing all of the pain and suffering that comes with prioritizing the work that bring us joy in life.

“There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.” — Richard Dawkins

Campanelli is one of 375 people who call the tiny mountain town of Alta, UT, home. He’s been here since the winter of 2010 and has no plans to move. Being situated at 8,600 feet with access to training grounds right outside his front door is too enticing. If he gets the record this summer, it will be known in the community. But this doesn’t mean celebrity status.

Campanelli reminds me that it’s the quirky, weird endurance guys and gals–the one’s who run hundred milers–who will follow along. He won’t really encounter the bewildered general public because he is surrounded daily by his peers–and they push themselves pretty hard too. Neither does he see this attempt as a masterpiece. He’ll go out there, give it his best shot, return, rest, and regroup for the next adventure. That’s the mindset of someone who does what they love. It could be the best thing he ever does endurance-wise, but then again, he could also make the 2018 Winter Olympics for Ski Mountaineering, or set an unsupported record on the Pacific Crest Trail, or he could pursue the Nolans ‘14 FKT. Translated for the masses? Campanelli will continue to live his life in success or failure.

Tags: , ,