Some people feel the need to do big things, to do things others can’t or won’t, and to do them alone. These people go further, climb higher, dive deeper and move faster than the rest of us dare. No one sees their pained expressions, hears their cries of frustration or knows the moments of doubt that haunt their quiet thoughts. These adventurers are completely alone in the wilds– except for the inspiration they bring along with them.
For 23-year-old Seattle native and Shorecrest graduate, Joe McConaughy (a.k.a. String Bean), he brought a whole host of inspiration with him when he set the record for the fastest supported thru-hike (endurance run) of the 2,650 mile Pacific Coast Trail from the border of California and Mexico to the border of Washington and Canada this summer.
One person that was ever present with Joe on this epic journey was Colin; Colin is Joe’s cousin who died of pediatric brain cancer in 2012, a month after his second birthday. Joe dedicated the world record effort to celebrating Colin’s life and raising money and awareness for Cancer Care, an organization that helps families of cancer patients. Joe still gets choked up talking about his cousin, “He was my inspiration every day,” says Joe.
When I ran into Joe during a speaking engagement at the Seattle Mountaineers on September 8th, he explained that his trail pseudonym (String Bean) came from his long lanky stature– especially after losing so much weight on the run. Joe emphasized that besides the memory of Colin pushing him forward, his parents were also a big support, “They have always believed in me and helped me succeed. I can’t imagine where I’d be without the guidance of my parents, but I certainly wouldn’t be here.” In addition to his parents, Joe also had the support of his girlfriend, who flew from the east coast to surprise him on the trail.
But of all the supporters Joe took on the trail, it was his band of motley support crew (Jordan Hamm, Jack Murphy and Michael Dillon) that kept the machine running day-in and day-out… well pretty much.
Day 18 – 21: The Crux
The creed of the trail is hike your own hike, and this is what Joe planned to do with the help of his support crew. The idea was to average around 45 miles a day, linking-up with his 3-man crew in the evenings every one to two days. This plan allowed Joe to move fast, carrying just 4 pounds of gear with regular resupplies. And the plan worked pretty well until day 18– Joe’s birthday in the High Sierra.
“I spent 82 hours apart from my crew after we missed our link-up, 70 of those were unplanned. I lost 10 pounds or so and seriously considered coming off the trail. I had to borrow a sleeping bag from a Ranger at 11 PM and had nothing to eat. The next day, I had to go 38 miles on a stick of salami, three Nature Valley bars and a small bag of nuts while ascending two of the highest points on the PCT.”
Joe talks about trying to sleep in a dead-fall shelter wearing just shorts and a t-shirt and being so cold that he decided to continued his trek after a few hours of sleep. “That first night I was very unsure and scared,” said Joe, “there was a Ranger station 58 miles away, and I knew I had to make it there by tomorrow.”
This was a tipping-point for Joe, he was tired, hungry, angry and doubting himself and his crew; a combination of conditions that can lead to poor and dangerous decisions. As the sun came up on the 21st day, Joe was thinking about the future of the trek, about Colin, his family and his girlfriend. He was also thinking about what he would say to his support crew that had left him for over 80 hours, and if he would continue the trek. Joe recalls taking in the scenery around him and considering the experience he had just survived, “A few hours before I knew I was going to see them, everything changed. Suddenly I began to appreciate all they had done for me. These guys were hiking and driving huge distances because they genuinely cared about me. I wouldn’t have been able to do this trip without their help.”
There were still challenges ahead, but after enduring 82 hours alone on the trail moving long distances, Joe and his crew knew they could do the rest… and at record speed. Joe reached Canada in 53 days, 6 hours and 37 minutes after leaving the Mexican border. He averaged 55 miles a day with his longest day being a crushing 19 hour 58 mile gut check. Joe started the trail weighing 165 pounds and finished weighing 147. Weeks after the run, Joe’s feet were still numb.
The next challenge for Joe will be as a teaching assistant through the Austrian-American Fulbright Commission at a small school in Rankweil, Austria. He hopes to find time to continue endurance trekking eying the Alpine Walserung Trail (186 miles) or a portion of the E5 path from Lake Constance in Austria to Verona, Italy (approximately 400 miles).
Advice from the Record Holder
1. I would recommend safety first. Each section has its own real dangers, and I was in way over my head a few times. Even though my crew and I Skyped for a few hours every Monday for 4-5 months, poured over maps and were very meticulous each day, bad things still happened.
2. Ask for advice from the people that have done it for speed. There is a lot of camaraderie in these circles, and there are just too many little things for someone to figure out on their own.
3. Don’t wait for life to come to you! There were a million reasons why this trip could have not happened or failed. There will always be excuses to stop you from backpacking, traveling, scuba diving, hang gliding or skinny dipping, but there is no better time than the present.
4. Be thankful to those who have allowed you to be in the place you are.
5. Everyone’s journey is amazing, and there isn’t a “right” way to experience the trail.
I’m still trying to live the trail life while I still can.
The PCT goes Hollywood
In December, Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a best-selling memoir about Strayed’s journey on the PCT, will be released as a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Bob Woods, Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Trail Association, believes that the movie will raise awareness about the trail resulting in record breaking use in the next few years. Woods says the PCT is ready for the attention and emphasizes the association’s mission of protecting the trail experience for all users, “It is about the journey, not the destination,” says Woods.
Donations to Caner Care can be made @ community.cancercare.org/runforcolin
Read more about Joe’s run and see his route @ runforcolin.com
Find out more about the PCT or volunteer on the trail @ pcta.org
Seattle Mountaineers Upcoming Events
Catch these cool events at the Seattle Mountaineers this fall, for more information and tickets go to mountaineers.org/events.
- Oct 10 from 6 – 9 PM: Celebrate the release of the much-anticipated new book, The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby.
- Oct 16 from 6 – 9 PM: Pretty Faces “The Story of a Skier Girl” Film Tour.
- Oct 25 – 26 Puget Sound Mycological Society Wild Mushroom Show
- Nov 20 from 7 to 9 PM: Lecture: Reemergence of Plants in the Mt. St. Helens Blast Zone.