Finn Melanson, a competitive trail runner, takes a demonstration run in Robinson Woods Trail in Cape Elizabeth after setting a new speed record on the 100 Mile Wilderness of the Appalachian Trail. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Four years ago, Finn Melanson moved to Utah from Maine to pursue a dream of being a competitive athlete at the highest level. He grew up playing football at Cape Elizabeth High and had never competed in running sports, but his quest was clear – to excel at ultramarathon trail races.

Now, having achieved success in some of the nation’s top races, his goals are even loftier. Melanson hopes to grow the competitive sport of ultramarathon trail racing to Olympic status, and one day establish a non-profit national training center, possibly in Maine.

With those goals in mind, Melanson went after his first hiking speed record this summer – on the grueling 100 Mile Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail in Maine. When many ultramarathon trail races were canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Melanson decided to gain more trail racing experience, and perhaps some distinction, by going after one of the biggest trail records in Maine listed on the website Fastestknowntime.com.

On Sept. 6, he started the 100 Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail in Monson. On Sept. 7 at Abol Bridge, just outside Baxter State Park, he emerged from the trail with a new speed record for the fabled stretch of trail (that is actually 96.5-miles long). He covered it in 29 hours, 18 minutes and 15 seconds to claim one of the three recognized speed records, the self-supported time.

The website fastestknowntime.com keeps records for supported hikes, where the hiker is helped by a crew; unsupported hikes, where they receive no outside help; and self-supported speed hikes, where the hiker gains support along the way, but not from a pre-arranged crew. But in order to get a self-supported record time on the Fastest Known Time website, a hiker must beat the unsupported record time, which Melanson did by an hour.

His category switched to self-supported when a hiker he happened upon fixed a finger he dislocated on the hike.

“I’d love to see ultramarathon races right square in Maine. These kinds of races are rare in New England, but they are a dime a dozen out West,” Melanson said. “Trail running could be huge here. It could contribute to local, rural economies. Ultimately, I’d like to make my mark on the sport by growing it. Part of my goal is to bring attention to how awesome the trails in Maine are.”

Melanson wears the same road-racing shoes worn by marathoners when he trail races – to stay light. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Melanson didn’t grow up doing much hiking. But after seeing a documentary about the Appalachian Trail in 2013, he was intrigued. After finishing his course work at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2014, he hopped a flight to Georgia to hike the trail, choosing to skip his college graduation.

By his own admission, he made every mistake possible on the thru-hike, but also fell in love with the 2,200-mile trail he completed in under four months. He next used his political science degree to work on the rank-choice-voting referendum in Maine – but for those two years, he thought only of the trail.

So in 2016, just days after Election Day, Melanson got on a flight to Utah to pursue a hiking lifestyle. He worked as a server at a remote lodge accessible only by an avalanche-prone road. And he hiked, ran trails and that year competed in his first ultramarathon.

Since then, Melanson has completed eight ultramarathons. In March, 2018, he finished fifth in the Georgia Death Race, a qualifier for the “Super Bowl of ultra trail races” – the 100-mile Western States race in California. Melanson narrowly missed finishing second, which would have automatically qualified him. But he still got into the California race through a lottery. At Western States he placed 53rd out of 360, not his best race, but he loved running against the highest level of competition in his sport.

Melanson trains for ultramarathon races in the mountains around Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo courtesy of Finn Melanson

This year, when COVID cancelled trail races, Melanson decided to go for the 100 Mile Wilderness record, on a section of trail paved with roots, rocks and 18,416 feet of vertical gain.

Witt Wisebram, who works for the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and once held the record, called the section of trail unforgiving. Wisebram has broken three other trail speed records.

“In one word, I would say it’s relentless,” said Wisebram, who just set the speed record for the 107-mile stretch of the AT through Shenandoah National Park. “It’s technical, it has a lot of roots and rocks. And it is extremely steep. At points you’re pulling yourself up by your hands with roots.”

The experience tested Melanson’s will and love of trail racing. He dislocated a finger, stumbled often, worried about coyotes he heard at night, and found after 40 miles he was “totally broken down physically.”

He carried only a trail-running vest, headlamp, cell phone, a wind breaker, and the clothes he wore – including road racing shoes worn by marathoners, to allow him to move swiftly. He also brought 7,000 calories of food by way of Clif Bars, Snickers, and pepperoni in order to eat 300 calories an hour. If needed, he ate antacid pills to settle his stomach while he ran onward. He drank from collapsible water bottles with filtration systems. But he also drank directly from cold streams to save time.

“It was very much a human-versus-wild experience,” Melanson said.

After 24 hours of running, he hit sleep deprivation on the last 18 miles. So he stopped, set his watch for a 10-minute break, and fell asleep to music on his cell phone. He woke to his alarm – and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The song renewed his zeal to break the record when he heard the lyrics: “Now cryin’ won’t help you; prayin’ won’t do you no good.”

Melanson had six hours to finish under the supported record – in addition to the unsupported record. He covered the distance in five. He was delighted with his effort – and thinks he can go even faster.

“I’d like to do it in under 24 hours. I think it can be done,” Melanson said.

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