Pulling up the final climb on US 19 and over Findley Ridge into Dahlonega, a beautiful burnt-orange harvest moon appeared in the northeast sky, just above the horizon. Passing the Shell service station on the ridge, with the moon as a backdrop, a line of several cars had backed up, each waiting to fill up with the only remaining fuel for miles around. Gasoline had suddenly become a scarce commodity as supplies in Georgia, and all over the South, dried up due to a leak in a major pipeline in Alabama. I took my place in line, worried I might not have enough to make it to the mountains and back that night. The pump moved slowly as I squeezed the last few drops from the tank and the station attendant ran outside and yelled “No more gas!” An auspicious start to what would be a very memorable night.
My girlfriend Psyche Wimberly and I had hopped in the car earlier that Saturday in Duluth (Atlanta suburb) on a quest to drive to the mountains, find Karl Meltzer at one of the Appalachian Trail crossings, and offer him and his crew support and encouragement. Karl was attempting to break his friend Scott Jurek’s record setting run on the AT last year when he finished in a time of 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes, breaking the previous record for the 2,189 mile trail held by Jenn Pharr Davis.
Psyche and I are both avid trail/ultrarunners, with a keen interest in this AT speed record attempt and I had eagerly followed the postings on Facebook and a Red Bull website (Red Bull sponsored the entire venture). We’ve both done multi-days and crewed variously for each other on different journey runs so are well aware what it takes to not only do such a run but handle all the logistics as well, although this was on a much grander scale.
A stop at a liquor store in Dawsonville for beer (Dankasaurus IPA) followed by Pizza Hut and gas, and we headed up GA-60 to Woody Gap. It was difficult to discern where Karl might be by looking at some outdated Facebook posts but I happened to see one by David Horton that indicated Karl was within 50 miles of Springer. Thus my plan was to hit Woody Gap first and swing around to Neels Gap if necessary.
As we reached the crowded parking area we spotted the crew van and a few people milling about. We walked over and introduced ourselves – waiting for Karl were Eric Belz (crew chief), Cheryl (Karl’s wife), and Jake (Red Bull representative coordinating the project). They were extremely welcoming and gladly accepted our offerings of beer and pizza. A huge red foldout chair was setup by the van, evidently as a joke. They indicated Scott was pacing Karl (and had been for most of the day) and they expected them to come down the trail shortly. Eric was busy cooking up a huge helping of link sausages and pierogies, while Cheryl readied other supplies in anticipation of their arrival and Jake made sure a replacement SPOT Tracker was available if needed. The crew carried several SPOT Trackers throughout the journey and switched them out with Karl to ensure he always had a “fresh” one.
Soon thereafter we saw 2 headlamps emerging from the woods as Karl and Scott moved to the south side of the Gap and the impromptu aid station. I have to admit I was a little star-struck when they trotted up. They were both in good spirits but Karl was all business – you could see the fire in his eyes….he was focused and driven, not only to finish strongly and beat Scott’s record, but to lay down a time under 46 hours. Unbelievable determination and drive. In the dim light of headlamps around the van you could literally see that drive in Karl’s eyes and rolled up in the taut sinew of his legs and arms. The trail had taken its toll but had clearly not broken him. Both runners quickly checked headlamps, loaded some food, and slipped back into the darkness. Woody Gap is exactly 20.1 miles from Springer and the next access point was Cooper Gap, another 8.3 miles downtrail. The crew graciously offered to let us tag along.
We joined the tail end of a small caravan headed toward Cooper Gap in a blur of winding paved roads that ended in a long/steep climb on a dirt section of Gaddistown Road. The Gap is a confluence of 5 roads and while the AT crosses there the path isn’t obvious – while Eric and I easily found the incoming trail on the Northbound side it took almost 15 minutes to find its counterpart on the Southbound side. We also spent several minutes trying to determine the correct road out of the Gap toward Springer – and settled on the one that “seemed” right according to the maps on our phones. Shortly after that another car pulled up with Karl’s sister Kris and her daughter Shannon. The runner’s ETA to Cooper was 12:45 am and just after midnight another car rolled up and out jumped David Horton, excited to join the guys for the final 11.8 mile stretch. At 12:18 they arrived, almost 30 minutes ahead of schedule. At this point Karl looked even more determined and quickly went about his business to steel himself for the final push. Less than 5 minutes later all 3 runners disappeared once again in the darkness.Our 4 car caravan had now grown to 6 as we hurtled up and down and around miles of Forest Service roads through the dark, kicking up so much dust and dirt it was difficult to see. After an eternity we arrived at the parking area below Springer, greeted by the bright glow of spotlights and cameras – the Red Bull crew was there, prepped and ready to go and began filming and interviewing Karl’s family and crew. Karl’s dad, Karl Sr., was there and told me how proud he was of Karl and what an honor to have been able to help crew for him. Now it was just a waiting game and slowly but surely the Red Bull team slipped up to the top of the mountain to take their place. Karl Sr., Kris, and Shannon followed a short time later. Psyche had by now fallen fast asleep in the back of my car so I decided to trek up to the top by myself. The time was now 2:00 am, with the runners expected to finish between 3:00 and 3:30 am.
The scene at the top was surreal, with perhaps 8 members of the Red Bull team positioned around the summit rocks, spotlights casting a bright glow through a thin blanket of fog blowing across the peak. I have visited Springer often in the past on trail runs, but exclusively from the Approach Trail out of Amicalola, and never at night. It was a slightly cool night but not uncomfortably so. I took a seat next to Karl’s family as we chatted a little and waited, while the Red Bull team ran through the motions of a practice run for the arrival of the runners. I understood that Eric and Cheryl were planning to accompany Karl on the final 1 mile climb to the top. There was some level of nervous excitement but it was dampened somewhat by the late hour.
At 3:38 am Karl strode confidently up the last few feet of trail, trailed closely by his wife and companions, threw his hands in the air, and exuberantly reached out to touch the Southern Terminus sign with both hands. He was done – on this 3rd attempt Karl had not only broken Scott’s previous FKT but had body-slammed it, finishing in a mind-boggling 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes! Soaking in the accomplishment he extended hugs for his amazing pacers, wife, crew, and other family members and at Horton’s suggestion signed the trail register. The atmosphere was celebratory but under control as the Red Bull crew recorded the end of this amazing journey. Although he was visibly fatigued he was patient enough to answer several questions, re: How many pairs of shoes did you go through? Shirts? Animal encounters? How tired are you? What are you going to do next?
As they continued celebrating and getting pictures I quietly slipped down the mountain and back to my car, feeling fortunate and thankful that I was able to be there and experience this incredible feat – and in a very small way contribute something to it. The drive back to Duluth with Psyche was uneventful, save for a wrong turn I made in that maze of Forest Service roads.
The license plate on my car reads “FARTHER” and I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor for life – Karl’s determination to do the near impossible and follow his dream is the true embodiment of that spirit and is an example of what anyone can ultimately accomplish if they try.
Many thanks to Karl’s family, crew, and the Red Bull team for allowing me to be a part of this.