After waiting 23 years, there is a new Self-Supported Record on the Appalachian Trail.
Matt Kirk finished his journey from Katahdin to Springer Mountain on August 7th, at 7:20 PM. He traveled 2,185.9 miles in 58 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes, an astounding average of 37.4 miles per day. (Not only did Matt follow the guidelines of a self-supported record, but he also completed the entire journey without ever riding in a vehicle. Every single resupply point was accessed by foot.)
The most impressive part of the 2011 Supported Record on the Appalachian Trail, was the quality of support that I received on the trail. The most impressive part of the Self-Supported Record was Matt.
Matt was out there going through the mental and physical hardships of exploring the limits of endurance on his own. Only he knows how hard it really was, and only he knows where he found the strength and inspiration to continue down the trail. But, from my perspective, Matt was successful because he has both experience on the trail and respect for the trail. And because he is a talented athlete, who is smart, resourceful, and adaptable.
Athlete - One look at Matt and you know he is an athlete. Tall and slim, he is capable of both speed and endurance. As an active member of the Western North Carolina Trail Running Community, Matt posts impressive times of technical mountain trail runs. However, he also knows when to slow his pace. He is a gifted and accomplished hiker, having set the mark on the Benton MacKaye Trail, Mountains to Sea Trail, the SB6K, and several other routes (many of which he made up for fun).
Smart - Matt's Trail IQ is exceptionally high. He did not stumble into a record. Instead, he studied the trail and previous records. He researched the most efficient and proximal resupply points to the trail and then planned his itinerary so that he could arrive at these locations when the stores and post-offices were open.
Resourceful - Matt's base weight without food and water was under 10 pounds. The record, however, was not broken due to better technology and the increase in commercial lightweight equipment. Instead, Matt made almost all his gear before ever starting the trail with the same fabric and material that would have also been available to Ward Leonard in 1990. (As a side note, the trail is over 30 miles longer now than it was in 1990.)
Adaptable - As smart and resourceful as Matt is, he could not predict the unseasonably wet conditions on the trail this year. He was able to adapt his mileage and mindset to work with the weather and not against it. And when record-threatening injuries occurred - like a twisted knee in VA - he listened to his body and adjusted his schedule by hiking longer days at a slower pace.
Relationship with the Trail - Matt loves the A.T. and the Appalachian Mountains. He has hiked the A.T. twice before this summer. His wife is a thru-hiker. His dog is a thru-hiker. He cares deeply about these mountains and will spend the next year working to promote conservation in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains. His knowledge of and devotion to the footpath undoubtedly aided him during on this journey.
I am fortunate to know these things about Matt, because he is one of my heroes and one of my friends. I felt privileged to be at Springer to see him finish. Many would say that the finish of a long-distance trail is anti-climatic - especially at Springer. But watching Matt hike through the mist to touch the plaque at the southern terminus of the trail, was incredibly moving. That one moment, told a story much longer and more complex, than a single summit.
As he slumped over to put all his weight onto the rock marking the end of the trail, it was clear just how much he had given the endeavor. The relief on his face and the joy in his laughter suggested it had been incredibly hard - and indescribably worthwhile. It was not his first long distance hike, and I doubt it will be his last, but Matt has left his impact on the trail community. And more importantly the trail has made an impact on Matt.