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Ultrarunner Scott Jurek claims new speed record on 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail

Scott Jurek climbs to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, before completing the Appalachian Trail in what he claims is record time. (Luis Escobar/Brooks Running Company via AP)

When Scott Jurek reached the top of Mount Katahdin in central Maine, he collapsed against the weather-worn sign marking the summit. Eyes closed, he rested his face against the rough wood.

It had been a long way to the top. Not just since he began his ascent of Maine’s tallest mountain earlier that day. Jurek had been running almost without rest ever since he left Springer Mountain in Georgia on May 27. The path between the two peaks took him along the “granddaddy” of long hikes, the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail.

It only took him 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes to get there — besting the previous speed record for the trail by a slim 3 hour margin.

“I can’t believe I made it to this sign,” Jurek, 41, wearily told the 50 or so onlookers who’d come to cheer his achievement Sunday afternoon, according to Runners World.

As the magazine notes, he almost didn’t. Weeks ago, way back in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, knee pain and a muscle tear slowed him down and nearly forced Jurek off the trail.

But Jurek, a noted vegan ultra-marathoner who holds the U.S. record for most miles run in 24 hours (a casual 165.7, for those who are curious) and specializes in long-distance races over rugged terrain, powered through. Through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, which was in the midst of its wettest month on record. He sloshed through to New Hampshire, and then on to Maine.

But his doubts lingered, especially as the days to break the trail speed record ticked off so much faster than he could cover the distance to the top of Mount Katahdin.

Sitting in a support van with his wife as rain pounded the windshield, with just over a week to finish his run, Jurek began to doubt whether he would make it, he told Runners World. He made a phone call to his friend and fellow ultra-runner Topher Gaylord, leaving a brief, exhausted message on his answering machine.

“I need you out here, man,” he said.

Gaylord arrived on day 43 and quickly did the math: If Jurek kept running at least 50 miles a day, and slept for no more than 10 hours out of the next 96, he could still break the record, which had been set by thru-hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011.

“They asked me, do you want the record or do you want to sleep?” Jurek told Runners World.

Jurek chose the record, running through the dark over rough trails slick with roots and rain. The night before attempting Katahdin, he napped for only an hour, according to the Associated Press. But by the time he reached the mountain’s base Sunday, he knew he would make it. That was the sweetest moment, he told the crowd at the summit.

“To know down at the bottom that all I had to do was go for a hike with my friends. We shared memories the whole way up; that’s what it’s all about,” he said, according to Runners World.

Davis tweeted her congratulations:

Between 2,500 and 3,000 people attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail each year, only about a quarter of whom make it all the way from start to finish. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees the trail’s maintenance, recommends people take five to seven months to attempt the hike — much longer than Jurek’s month-and-half-long trek.

But most thru-hikers don’t have corporate sponsorships or the support team that helped Jurek by running alongside him, carrying food and supplies and working out the logistics of the journey. The record for a completely self-supported thru-hike, set by Matt Kirk in 2013, is 58 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes.

No organization tracks or verifies Appalachian Trail speed records — Javier Folgar, communications director for the AT Conservancy, said that the trail works on an honor system.

“Every individual hikes the Appalachian Trail for their own personal reason and their own personal goals. It goes along with the saying, ‘Hike your own hike,'” Folgar told the AP. “We’d like to congratulate Scott and all other thru-hikers and section hikers and other folks who attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail.”

For Jurek, breaking the record was to be his “masterpiece,” he told reporters at the outset of his trek. Now that it’s complete, he planned to lay off racing for a while — he and his wife are hoping to have children soon.

But first he had to get back down Mount Katahdin — a 5.2 mile descent that’s killer for already aching legs. Still, it had to be done. While a member of his crew read aloud a news alert about the new record, Jurek grabbed his hiking poles and started hiking.