Elevation and Elation: Thru-Runners with a Cause

Joe Mcconaughey broke the speed record the summer of 2014 when he ran the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. He did it to raise money for Cancercare, in honor of his cousin Colin, who died of Neuroblastoma at the age of two. Joe had the assistance of his three good friends, Jordan Hamm, Michael “Dills” Dillon, and the author of this piece, Jack Murphy. They put together a team called Run for Colin. The following is a journal re-count of their most challenging mishap and their final few days on the trail.
Suzanne Gerber Suzanne Gerber
September 20, 2016
by Jack Murphy

Day 52: White Chuck River, Washington

It’s 1:50am. The faded beam of my headlamp illuminates the narrow trail ahead. A river rages somewhere in the distance, like static from an unseen television. My legs are jelly. My back is soaked in sweat. The rhythmic crunch of two sets of feet behind me keeps my body pushing forward. The crew — Jordan, Dills, and I — have been hiking for six grueling hours, gaining 2,000 feet in elevation before winding around Lost Creek Ridge, and now sinking back to sea level as we near the river.

We were trying to convene with Joe, 51 days into his Pacific Crest Trail speed record attempt. The plan was to meet Joe at mile 2,522 of the PCT, but we vastly miscalculated the imposing eminence of the Cascade Mountains. We are now four hours past the scheduled meet up time, and still no closer to finding the PCT. The thought of Joe alone, freezing, hungry, without a tent, or a plan keeps our spirits trekking on long after our bodies beg for bed. 

How did we get into this mess?

Rewind to Day 8: Lake Arrowhead, California

One week into the PCT record attempt. Joe’s body has been holding out well — some shin splints, some blisters, some chafage, but nothing he can’t handle. The crew has fallen into a groove. We awake around four, before the sun has even had a midnight snack. Jordan makes breakfast- oatmeal, bagels, fruit- while Dills and I pack up camp. 

Joe is on trail by 5am. He wears a Camelbak loaded with two liters of water, about a thousand calories of food, maps, and a satellite phone. The crew drives to the next campground, highway crossing, Jeep road, or trailhead. There, we resupply Joe’s pack and give him some shade, company, and bad jokes. 

Right now, we’re posted up at the end of a long, straight desert road outside of Lake Arrowhead. The lake is a myth though. I am playing guitar, waiting for Joe’s bony frame to emerge through the sand and refracted heat waves. One thought I may never get used to — Joe has run 40+ miles every day for a week now, and has to keep doing this every single day for the next couple of months. How? Why? What makes a person want to do this?

Joe grew up in Seattle. As a boy scout, he went on many multi-day fifty milers on the PCT. In junior high, Joe discovered he was a runner. He starred on Boston College’s track and cross country teams. His senior year of college, Joe began conceiving a trip that could combine his passions for distance running and multi-day camping trips. He came up with the crazy notion to run the Pacific Crest Trail. 

In February of 2012, Joe got a phone call from his father. Devastating news. Colin McConaughy, Joe’s two year old cousin, passed away. Colin had been suffering headaches for months. He was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood brain cancer. Just nine days after his diagnosis, Colin passed. Joe vowed to honor and celebrate this short life by doing something incredible, and raising money for charity in Colin’s name. He created a website- runforcolin.com- and set his intentions to hike the PCT faster than anyone has before while raising money for a noble cause.

Joe recruited his college teammate, Jordan Hamm, who had hiked the Wonderland Trail around Rainier, to lead the crew. In the spring, Mike Dillon and I completed the four-man Run for Colin team. Before we could really understand what we got ourselves into, it was happening. 

• • •

Back on the PCT in Arrowhead, Joe collapses into his camp chair. He downs half a liter of Gatorade in one gulp. Jordan slaps a wet bandana on the runner’s head, and Joe sighs deeply, eyes closed. There are salty lines on his forehead and cheeks. His scruffy beard is coming in patches on his neck. Two sweat lines on his Gortex shirt match his Camelbak straps. Joe’s bare, veiny feet stick out like spotlights against his tan and filthy legs. 

When he arrives at a checkpoint, Joe is comatose. But after some water, food, and rest, he is back to his joyful, goofy self. The man is possessed by some kind of reckless optimism and tapped into a bountiful energy that never runs dry. The crew makes PBandJs, fills his pack with fresh water and snacks, and discusses the next checkpoint as Joe rests for a painfully brief time. Soon he is back on trail, always looking ahead, moving to the next mile, next meet-up, next town, next step. We are all consumed by this restless desire to be on the go. To move, move, move! And we inch up the country at a record setting pace.

The infinite deserts filled with cacti and Dr. Seuss looking trees soon give rise to the Sierra Mountains. These vast, pristine, austere beauties watch over us with ancient fortitude. We are trying to conquer them, they know this. They laugh. As fresh water sources become more frequent around Mt. Whitney, Joe travels alone for longer time periods. He has two back to back forty mile days in the Sierras. The crew keeps moving, too, constantly mapping, writing, filming, doing laundry, and eating… always eating. 

In Shasta, we post up at a cafe in the shadow of that cylindrical, magic mountain. Joe takes a bath in Odell Lake, Oregon, beneath dalmatian mountains and a Monet sky. The crew takes turns running shorter stretches with Joe, keeping track of our mileage to see which crew member logs the most. The PCT is a runner’s dream- two thousand miles of uncharted waters, new obstacles around every bend in the trail.

Joe’s body ebbs and flows with the milage. A couple times a day, Jordan rubs his legs out with a pie roller - the same kind your grandma uses to make apple pie. Joe pops ibuprofen every morning. He eats about 8,000 calories per day, yet weight drips off his lanky body like sweat. His spirit never wavers, and we all pray his body can keep up with his endless energy. 

Day 51: Lost Creek Ridge, Washington 

Joe sets out for a fifty five mile day from our placid campsite near Stevens Pass. With no checkpoints until tonight’s camp, the crew grabs a couple more hours of sleep. As we pack up the tent later that morning, Dills finds Joe’s yellow and black satellite phone hiding beneath a sleeping pad. This means Joe has no way of contacting us, and we have no way of contacting him. We try not to think much of it at the time, but it haunts us in the coming hours. 

Around five in the evening, Jordan, Dills, and I fill our packs with rations for Joe. He’s in the midst of one of the toughest sections of the PCT, and doing many long miles without support. The crew sets out for what we believe is a nine mile hike to the PCT crossing. It’s immediately uphill. I sweat through my t-shirt within thirty minutes. No one speaks a word until Jordan announces switchback number fifty. And this is only the beginning. 

After what feels like hours, Dills asks how much longer. “Do you really wanna know?” Jordan asks. Yes. “Six and a half miles… by crow.” 

This is the first sign something’s gone wrong. We bust out our headlamps as it gets dark, but still lose the trail twice in very quick succession. The path is littered with snowfields, and for unfathomable reasons, we keep crisscrossing back and forth over the mountain crest. The three of us continue long into the night, even though we know we’re lost, late, and exhausted. We simply cannot leave Joe out there. We have to try. 

For over an hour, our Halfmile GPS app puts us consistently one mile from the PCT. We go down switchback after switchback as the trail becomes less and less maintained. We scooch under fallen tree trunks, hop over more, our legs jelly, our feet destroyed. At one point, the trail simply stops. Dills drops his pack and scales a tree trunk, but in the midnight blackness, cannot see a clear path. Jordan is particularly quiet. He feels nauseous, clearly dehydrated. Even though we know it’s an awful plan, we have no choice but to make camp right where we’ve crashed, sleep a few hours, and wait until daylight to try again.

• • •

Joe is less than one mile away from us, but may as well be in another time zone. After a long day of running through the majestic, infinite Cascades, he reaches mile 2,552, where he expects his crew to be waiting with open arms. However, the mile marker is as lonely as the past fifty five. It’s 11:30pm, and without any means of communication, Joe has no idea where his crew is. 

He goes into survival mode. A true boy scout, Joe gathers huckleberry branches and constructs a makeshift blanket. He lays down on pine needles to stop his body heat from escaping into the ground. His dinner, usually 3,000+ calories, consists of a bag of nuts and lone Nature Valley bar. Joe drifts in and out of sleep for the next few torturous hours. He scribbles in his journal, ‘if hell froze over, it would still be hell.’ 

At 4:09am, unable to shiver in the freezing, frigid night any longer, he starts hiking. His half-baked plan is to go fifty eight miles to the nearest ranger station, in which he’d hopefully get a sleeping bag, warmth, and sustenance. How he going to walk almost sixty miles through impossible North Cascade wilderness with no food, on no sleep, is a total mystery. 

Joe spends a total of nineteen hours on trail. He makes it those excruciating fifty eight miles by bumming snacks off everyone he meets. No man is an island, not even in the mountains, and the generosity of strangers literally fueled Joe’s quest. The ranger gave him a sleeping bag and more food at the end of the day. Joe fell asleep only twenty miles from Rainy Pass, our next and final checkpoint of the PCT — where we finally meet up with him. 

Day 53 (last day on the trail): Rainy Pass, Washington

We send Joe off one last time into the infinite wilderness, that just isn’t infinite enough. Nestled among hazy, smoky mountains, we make Joe food for now and later as he changes and fills his pack. We are sixty miles from the Canadian border, and Joe is going to tackle the last stretch alone. No one wants to risk another Lost Creek Ridge mishap, so we load his night pack, AKA “goliath,” with all the essentials that’ll get him to Canada. 

Joe completes the Pacific Crest Trail in fifty three days, six hours, and thirty seven minutes. This is faster than anyone has ever completed the 2,660 mile road of dirt and rock. At the Canadian border, we alternate between laughter and tears, all of us drained and at a loss for words. Joe tacks a photo of Colin to the monuments, parting ways with the picture he carried every mile of the PCT. We cherish the last few moments of this journey, inhaling the fresh mountain air, and reluctantly hike back to Manning Park. It is the first time that all four of the Run for Colin team are hiking together as one. 

Jack Murphy is a writer & adventurer from Buffalo, NY. He currently lives in Spain, teaching English. Follow him on Instagram @jack_murphy_stadium.

This article originally appeared in our July/August 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.