Hiking the PCT — at 55 miles per day

Video: Interview with McConaughy on the old Santiam Wagon Road

By Geoff Baker / The Seattle Times

Published Aug 1, 2014 at 12:01AM

SANTIAM PASS — Seattle native Joe McConaughy smiles as he bounds into a wooded clearing and spots the familiar green truck.

When you’ve speed-hiked 55 miles per day for six weeks over mountains, boulders and creeks, dodging the odd bear and rattlesnake, that dirt-covered Honda Pilot had better be there before the sun sets. On this late afternoon, McConaughy already 38 miles into his daily effort, the SUV’s presence means he is guaranteed a 20-minute respite for his battered feet and a coveted peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The vehicle, dubbed “carne asada,” contains his support crew of three close friends shadowing his attempt to cover the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail in a record-setting 59 days or fewer.

“I need my PB and J right now or I might pass out,’’ McConaughy, 23, says with a smile, collapsing into a folding chair set up for him in the grass alongside this part of the trail, about 20 miles from Sisters.

Missing such crucial checkpoints has posed the biggest threat to McConaughy’s record quest, which began June 18 in Campo, California, about 15 feet from the Mexican border. Now, some 2,155 miles later, he hopes to cross the Columbia River into Washington by this afternoon at least 15 pounds lighter, somewhat beaten up, but with the finish line in sight.

“You never want to say the worst is over with because you never know what can happen at any given moment,” says McConaughy, removing his shoes and socks to pick at his dirt-blackened, callused toes. “But I’m hoping that whatever happens from here on, it’s something I can manage.”

McConaughy expects to reach the trail’s end at the Canadian border near Manning Park, British Columbia, by Aug. 9 or 10, at a record-smashing completion time of 53 or 54 days. Records are unofficial and reported by those who hike this storied trail on somewhat of an honor system, though McConaughy is carrying a satellite phone that tracks time and progress.

The accepted record for an “assisted” attempt such as this is 59 days, 8 hours, 14 minutes, set last year by California hiker Josh Garrett. The women’s mark and “unassisted” or “throughhike” record was also set last year, by Heather Anderson, a Michigan native and Bellingham, Washington, resident who clocked in at 60 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes.

McConaughy can’t envision an unassisted attempt without his crew of close friends: Jordan Hamm, Michael Dillon and Jack Murphy, all 23-year-old Buffalo, New York, natives who attended Boston College, where McConaughy was a cross country and middle-distance runner. They were eager to help, especially when McConaughy told them he’d be raising money to support families of cancer patients and to honor his second cousin, Colin, who died of neuroblastoma in January 2012 at age 2.

“The way I look at it,’’ McConaughy says, “is like we’re all doing this as a team.”

Indeed, meet-ups during this “Run for Colin” take days of planning; a study of maps, clearings, nearby food stores and areas to pitch their four-man tent and cook McConaughy a hot meal with a portable stove. His friends wait for McConaughy at each prearranged checkpoint, restocking supplies, doing laundry and updating the Run For Colin website, which has raised more than $13,000 for Cancer Care.

McConaughy ran much shorter distances in college, but he did three weeks of harder training at up to 40 miles daily in the California desert before embarking on the Pacific Crest Trail. The first segment requires crossing the Mojave Desert in 105-degree heat, so he’d get up extra early, run until 11 a.m., then take afternoon naps before resuming about 4 or 5 p.m.

He tries to maintain a 4-mph pace, jogging on flat ground while never running uphill. When you’re going more than 50 miles per day, any time gained by running the entire way is usually negated by damage to legs.

So, he’ll part run, part hike, carrying some water bottles and as many energy bars as his small 8-liter backpack, dubbed “David,” can handle. McConaughy also has a 20-liter backpack he calls “Goliath,” which contains a sleeping bag for unassisted overnight stays on the trail.

One planned overnight was in the Sierra Nevada of California, on his 23rd birthday. He’d departed at his usual 6 a.m., planning to meet his crew by 8:30 p.m. at a prearranged food-drop spot halfway up 11,978-foot Glen Pass.

To get there, he initially had to scale 13,153-foot Forrester Pass — the trail’s highest point — and was exhausted upon reaching the meeting spot. But the crew also had to hike several miles with the food and was slowed by the terrain.

They missed each other by a half-hour.

McConaughy mistakenly thought he’d spotted their headlamps in the distance and continued on. Later, he realized he was on his own, with no headlamp or additional food, wearing a T-shirt and shorts in 40-degree temperatures and 38 miles over two more rugged mountain passes to go before the next possible meet-up.

“I was really kind of worried about the situation I was in,” he says.

He stumbled into a ranger station about 11 p.m., where he borrowed a tent. But with only a stick of salami, a bag of nuts and two Nature Valley bars, it was two more days before he saw his crew again.

“I probably lost about 10 pounds,” he says.

He had to “cowboy camp” in chilly temperatures in only the sleeping bag, ravaged by mosquitoes. At one point, he’d covered himself in leaves next to a tree and heard the hiss of a nearby rattlesnake. It eventually slithered away.

The next day, he spotted a black bear 30 feet ahead of him on the trail.

“Usually, once you make noise, they just go away,” he says. “But he just turns around, waits, looks forward and just keeps on trucking right on the trail. So, I just had to walk a quarter-mile with this bear right in front of me.”

He also accidentally plunged his foot into a creek, leading to a blister problem that caused him to step differently. That led to pain in his ankle tendons, which soon spread to his shin, a situation the group still monitors daily.

When McConaughy finally met up with his crew, he’d spent three days alone with only an afternoon’s supply of food.

“We’re now real careful about planning the checkpoints,” says his buddy, Mann, his cross country teammate in college. “Now we know what can happen if there’s even a small mistake.”

On this afternoon, his break over, McConaughy sets out on the remaining 4 miles of his day. He’s cutting it short at 42 miles, having started late while the crew spent 3½ hours servicing their vehicle in town.

Murphy jogs off to keep McConaughy company, while Mann and Dillon drive to their campsite. Dillon, a film-studies graduate producing a video of McConaughy’s run, pitches a four-man tent while Mann prepares the night’s meal of beef stew.

By 7:30 p.m., McConaughy arrives at the campground, collapses in a chair and puts an ice pack on his sore shin. He wants to avoid a stress fracture, something that could derail the record quest.

“A lot of this is just kind of getting through whatever gets thrown at me,” he says.

Later, Mann uses a wooden rolling pin to massage McConaughy’s calf and hamstring muscles. The group eats, trades campfire jokes, then grabs the usual five to seven hours of sleep before their 5 a.m. wake-up.

McConaughy, as usual, rises first, donning his seventh pair of shoes this trip and one of his five sets of shorts and T-shirts. Soon, he’s in the SUV’s front passenger seat eating a breakfast of oatmeal, blueberries, a banana and a bagel slathered in cream cheese.

He’s down to 150 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame and goes by the nickname “String Bean” with fellow trail hikers. Burning 8,000 calories daily means he isn’t concerned about how he replenishes them, so Oreo cookies, Pringles and goldfish crackers are snack staples.

With the trip’s end in sight, he says the trail miles seem to burn off as quickly as his food.

“As tough as it is, I just focus on getting from one point to the next,” he says, “and I think mentally it does go by quicker.”

By 6 a.m., he’s been driven back to the trailhead. It’s another 40 miles around Mount Jefferson before he’ll see his friends again by late afternoon.

“No matter how long it’s taken,” he says, before heading out, “I realize it’s still a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So, I’m trying to take it all in. I don’t want to miss any of it.”