As a trail runner known for traversing iconic trails in record time, Joe McConaughy hears one critique more than any other: “Why don’t you stop and smell the roses?”
To the uninitiated, trail running might seem antithetical to the enjoyment of the outdoors. If the scenery is whizzing by, how can you appreciate what you’re seeing? But Joe doesn’t see it that way.
“Going fast and light really isn’t that fast,” he says. “There is plenty of time to drink in all the beauty or stop and talk to another hiker along the way.”
That’s not to say his time on the trail is a walk in the (state or national) park. He’s still making good time — the fastest known time, in many cases.
“Going fast has allowed me to go on trips and routes that I’d otherwise never see in my lifetime,” he says.
For example, he never could’ve taken six months off to hike the Appalachian Trail. But he could ask for a two-month sabbatical.
In 2017, Joe hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (Georgia to Maine) in just 45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes. He traveled 48 miles a day on that trip and still holds the record for the fastest known time of a self-supported Appalachian Trail trek.
In some respects, Joe has come a long way from his time in Troop 338 of the Chief Seattle Council, where he became an Eagle Scout in 2008.
Back then, he says, he didn’t fully appreciate the joys of backpacking. There were some hikes when he’d daydream about hanging out with his friends playing videogames instead of walking through the wilderness.
But he also says he wouldn’t be the trail runner, backpacking coach and outdoors aficionado without his Scouting background.
“Scouts has taught me that if I really want something, I need to be prepared and take ownership for my own happiness and life trajectory,” he says. “I also will repeat the 12 points of the Scout Law to myself every once in a while. It’s a great moral compass.”
When Joe was a Scout, his mom would call him “Stringbean” — a reference to his tall and thin physique.
She didn’t realize at the time that the name would eventually become Joe’s trail name — an honor bestowed on hikers who attempt to complete one of the nation’s “long trails.”
Joe realized he had a knack for long-distance running in seventh grade and soon found success competing in high school in Washington state and collegiately at Boston College. But he says he didn’t truly discover his “passion for the process of running” until he was 23.
“In high school and college, I was wrapped up in competition,” he says. “I finally came to and realized that I wanted running to be a part of my life.”
In 2014, Joe began hiking his first long trail, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. That’s when “Stringbean” became more than a mom’s nickname for her son.
“The name just stuck when I was out on the trail,” he says. “I’m 6-foot-3 and thin, so a lot of people crack up when they hear my trail name. It just fits.”
Lessons from Scouting
It’s tempting to draw parallels between completing the trail to Eagle and finishing the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail.
But Joe says the two feats are “quite different pursuits, though they are both life-defining.”
“Completing the PCT and AT required discipline and focus in the face of physical discomfort and pain, day in and day out. It required 100% attention to the task at hand, which makes the finish that much more rewarding,” he says. “Completing your Eagle takes dedication over years. It requires a variety of skills and interests, but you grow so much as a teenager over that time as well. I think completing your Eagle is really beautiful, because it means you took something you were interested in when you were in middle school and pursued it over the next four, five, six or even seven years.”
Though the two “trails” may be different, Joe says he does use Scouting skills when trail running. For example:
- Curiosity: “As an adult, I know have an interest and curiosity in the outdoors that I wouldn’t have” if not for Scouting.
- Confidence: It takes a lot of confidence for someone to think they can average 45 miles per day for 60 days on the Pacific Crest Trail. “Boy Scouts made me feel confident in knowing that I had the outdoor skills to take on big expeditions,” Joe says.
- Trip planning: “I never appreciated how much work the adults put in to make regular backpacking trips happen,” Joe says. Working as a professional backpacking guide and trip planner, Joe now sees just how important all those logistics are.
- Leadership: As a Scout, Joe learned to work with young people from a variety of ages — from the 17-year-old who didn’t show up to many meetings to the 11-year-old who was still learning basic Scouting skills. “It required me to really hone my leadership skills,” he says.
- Thrifty: Joe says he’s “more motivated in my life to surround myself with awesome people and experiences rather than money.”
There’s a lot of time to think on a long trail. Joe spends time calculating where he’ll camp, when he’ll reach the next water source and how much food he’s eating (up to 12,000 calories per day on the second half on the Appalachian Trail).
But there’s also time for other thoughts — like gratitude.
“I’m always in awe of the opportunity to take so much time to myself in the backcountry,” he says. “Most people aren’t as lucky as I am to have spent so much time outside, and it is because of my family, my wife, my friends and my community.”
Thanks to Tom McCandless for introducing me to Joe.
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