Columbia Montrail: Joe McConaughy

Meet Columbia Montrail Athlete: Joe McConaughy.

True athleticism is captivating—not because we think we can do what those world-class humans can accomplish, but because we’re in awe that such accomplishments are even possible. Take Joe McConaughy, whether ultra-running or speed-hiking (there is a difference), McConaughy not only racks up 50 to 60 miles a day, but does so for dozens of days on end. The Seattle native made a name for himself while running cross-country at Boston College, but his real claim to fame came later, when he challenged speed records on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.

He challenged speed records on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.

In 2014, after finishing up at Boston College, McConaughy took on the Pacific Crest Trail. On that epic adventure, it took him just 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes to cover the trail’s rugged 2,663 miles. It was the FKT for an supported south-to-north trek; two years and three days later another man took the unofficial title, clocking in at just under 24 hours less time than McConaughy. But that certainly doesn’t erode this accomplishment.

It took him just 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes to cover the trail’s rugged 2,663 miles.

Not only was the epic achievement impressive, but it was also for a bigger cause than running. McConaughy had lost his two-year-old cousin to brain cancer, and decided that he wanted to do something to raise money to help in the fight against the disease. McConaughy and three friends completed the entire trail and raised $32,00 dollars.

Last year, McConaughy traversed the Appalachian Trail in 45 days, breaking the previous record by nine days. Like most through hikers, he shipped food and gear to established resupply spots along the 2,186-mile trail.

McConaughy traversed the Appalachian Trail in 45 days, breaking the previous record by nine days.

Not only did he break the fastest known time (FKT) for an unsupported through hike/run, he also broke the supported FKT. On his last push McConaughy ran 37 hours straight and ended up reaching the trail’s northern terminus just before dark, in 70-mile-an-hour winds.

McConaughy recently joined the Columbia Montrail family. We asked him a few questions about life on the trail.

How did you get into running?

I started running in the 4th grade. I joined a local running club in Seattle called “Rain City Flyers.” I was good enough to be one of the top 7 runners. There was very little competition for running in 4th grade, most kids are concerned with other sports, so we ended up being one of the top teams in the region. I was lucky enough to run at Junior Olympics in places like Rhode Island and New Mexico at a very young age when my team qualified!

What was your first “ultra” run?

My first ‘ultra’ run was the Pacific Crest Trail. I had done the best I could as a D-1 athlete to prepare for longer distances, although I’d never really covered much more than 20 miles in a run.
My first ‘ultra’ run was the Pacific Crest Trail.
Going into the PCT, I was in great shape and had a lot of discipline from track, however I really got lucky that my body was able to endure 50 miles a day on the PCT. A year and a half later, I ran my first ultra race in Boston at the 32 mile Winter Fells race. I fell 10 miles in, split open my knee really bad, kept running, and then barely made it 32 miles because I had subsequently fueled and hydrated terribly.

What do you think about when you run for 50-60 miles at a time?

Running is a fine balance between focus and stream of consciousness. I am hyper aware of my breathing, pace, food, hydration, and placement in a race, so there is always something to focus on. When you are racing an ultra, you can’t not take in the natural beauty and wonder of the place you are visiting, so it is easy to be in awe of your surroundings. In addition, I also focus on gratitude and the people who’ve gotten me to where I am. There is a lot to think about!

Do you have a “trail name”?

String bean! My family actually used to call me that as a kid. I have a very long frame, similar to a string bean. Most people who see me on the trail exclaim, “Ah! That makes so much sense.” Mildly offensive, but I like the name. It wasn’t until I did the PCT in 2014 where it was my trail name.

What junk food do you eat on the trail? 

On the trail, your life is reduced to food, distance, and sleep. In the food subsection, your general goal is to stuff yourself with anything and everything throughout the day. Each day was basically a food-eating competition, and the junk food always went down fastest. I ate everything, Pringles, Oreos, Poptarts, Doritos, Cheetos, Lays, and prepackaged muffins.

What is your fastest mile time?

4:12. My converted 1,500 meter time was 4:09.

Any embarrassing running memory?

The most embarrassing running memory I have was on the PCT. Prior to embarking on the trail, I leaned on the wisdom of Sam Fox. He had attempted the PCT record before me and had given me incredible insight. He told me, “There is one thing you can’t let get to your head. You are going to fall hundreds of times on the trail, and it can get really frustrating. You can’t let it get to your head.” I took this one to heart, and managed not to fall once in over 1,000 miles. I was so happy! I was at the 1018-mile mark, and I was unscathed.

Unfortunately, only a few miles after this celebration, hubris caught up with me. I fell on my face on a completely flat section of trail. Worst of all, it was right in front of my crew and they had the cameras rolling. They die of laughter as I dust myself off in shame. It became a main feature shot in the documentary “Run For Colin.” You can even watch it here:

What’s your Columbia Montrail go-to shoe?

My favorite is the Trans Alp FKT II. It is built like a mountain shoe, great for tougher terrain or rockier conditions, but it isn’t too heavy to soak up water when going through rain or a stream. On the other end, I still enjoy and use it as a road shoe.

Check out Joe’s latest FKT attempt, The Wicklow Round: