The 5,000-foot elevation drop from Northern California's Marble Mountains to Seiad Valley is a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail where nature gave Joe McConaughy all it had.

The 5,000-foot elevation drop from Northern California's Marble Mountains to Seiad Valley is a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail where nature gave Joe McConaughy all it had.

Thunder, lightning and a steady downpour shrouded the 55 miles of trail and rendered it a slippery mess, yet McConaughy maintained his 4-mph pace and didn't turn an ankle before reaching the valley floor well after dark.

"I was running in water-logged shoes for 12 miles," says McConaughy, 23, of Seattle. "It was a pretty miserable ending to my run."

Six hours of sleep and 8,000 calories of fuel later, he was back on the trail and chugging toward Canada at a pace never seen on the PCT.

A 55-mile run is just another day at the office for McConaughy in his quest to set an unofficial speed record for traversing the 2,663-mile trail between Mexico and Canada.

He's on pace to reach the Canadian border in 53 days, six days faster than the record — which was set last year — and months ahead of most through-hikers, who typically spend a full summer knocking out the Western states' most iconic feat of endurance hiking.

McConaughy is a distance runner who is raising money for families battling cancer. He began his quest June 15 to honor his 2-year-old cousin Colin, who died from a rare neurological cancer in January 2012.

McConaughy covered California in a record 35 days on his "Colin's Run" trek. He's supported by two buddies who are following him, carrying his food and gear, setting up camp, cooking his food and rubbing the soreness out of his legs.

That, in part, has allowed him to maintain a 4-mph pace regardless of the day or the terrain.

So far he's earned his trail name of "String Bean" by losing 15 pounds on his already lanky 6-foot-4 frame, endured a week of tendonitis, sore shins and massive mosquito attacks. He has sidestepped countless rattlesnakes, run past two black bears and worn out six pairs of running shoes by Thursday morning, which is when he crossed Interstate 5 at the Mount Ashland summit.

"I've got a little tightness in my hamstrings, but so far I've been good," McConaughy says. "I'm really starting to get in a groove now, pick up my pace."

It's a pace that has astonished many within the PCT family, where speed hiking has been a trail staple since the 1990s, yet runners still make up only a sliver of those testing their mettle here.

"That's remarkable," says Jack Haskel, the trail information specialist for the Sacramento-based Pacific Crest Trail Association. "Just what he's done so far is an incredible feat of endurance. It boggles my mind."

Average through-hikers may knock out a 50-mile day hike, "but then they don't walk the next day, instead of doing it again," Haskel says.

For a guy who never ran a marathon, he now averages more than two marathons a day.

The PCTA does not keep official records of speed hikes, but association message boards credit the fastest trans-PCT trek to Josh Garrett in 59 days, 8 hours and 14 minutes. Garrett and other recent past unofficial record holders are all hikers, which shows how difficult it is on runners, Haskel says.

Haskel says setting a PCT record not only takes incredible endurance but a hefty dose of luck avoiding injury or illness.

"Every year there are numerous people setting out saying that they're going to break the record, but few have even gotten that far," Haskel says.

But McConaughy is no average Joe.

He grew up a runner and hiker and was introduced to portions of the PCT at an early age — with an eye on meshing the two passions.

"In high school, Joe just decided he wanted to do a crazy, long run," says friend Jack Murphy, who is joined by Jordan Hamm in the support van.

After Colin's death, the PCT run seemed about as crazy as possible.

Most PCT hikers start at the Mexican border in late April or early May to beat the desert heat and hope the Sierra's snow is mostly melted by the time they get there.

McConaughy had to wait until late June.

"Our pace is so fast, we didn't want there to be any snow in the Sierras when we got there," Murphy says.

A typical morning has McConaughy downing three bags of oatmeal, grabbing a sack full of energy bars and water, then heading up the trail. Murphy and friends break camp, leapfrogging ahead to intercept McConaughy and resupply him with bars and water every 12 to 15 miles.

He eats hourly, then packs on more feed after a day's run, slugging down three protein shakes, burritos, bagels, cookies and plenty of ibuprofen.

"At the end of the day, I'm eating everything in front of me for an hour or an hour and a half," McConaughy says. "I'm just playing the calorie game."

The threesome camp together most days, either at points where the PCT bisects a road or where Hamm and Murphy hike in to meet him.

"We expect him to come into camp exhausted, but he's always happy and joking around," Murphy says. "It's pretty incredible."

Hamm, a New Yorker who ran cross-country and track with McConaughy at Boston College, rubs McConaughy's legs with Tiger Balm almost nightly — anything to keep McConaughy on task.

"I definitely wouldn't be where I am right now without a lot of motivation, a lot of hard work and my support crew," McConaughy says.

By the time they get into Oregon, many through-hikers averaging 20-mile days often talk of how the PCT becomes more of a burden and the daily sections mere blurs. McConaughy says he needs to concentrate on each step to keep from turning an ankle, so he still has a sense of place along the PCT.

"I don't put my headphones on, I don't listen to music," he says. "But sometimes it takes a conscious effort to look up and see the beauty. So I occasionally look up, especially at dusk and think, 'Wow, how beautiful is the sunset out here.'

"And it feels great to do it for a cause, my family and Colin," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him on Twitter at