“I have an addictive personality. If I get into something, I really get into it.” – William Wells
WAYNESVILLE, North Carolina — William Wells had just traversed the 76-mile Foothills Trail in record time.
He’d stopped near the end to puke his guts out, then took a 10-minute nap — despite the darkness and the cold — to recharge his batteries. He woke up feeling refreshed, and crossed the finish at Table Rock State Park in 21 hours, 39 minutes and 17 seconds: an hour faster than the previous record holder.
Naturally, he was hungry — starving, even. But when he tried to drive out of the park, the gate was locked. In a stroke of good timing, a park ranger swung by 20 minutes later to open the park for the day.
It was 6 a.m.
“I said ‘Thanks, man,’ and took off to the closest McDonalds,” Wells said. “I ate so much.”
Wells, a 26-year old Birmingham, Alabama native and a University of Alabama graduate, has an affinity for fast food (his go to meal on the night prior to a big run is Arby’s) and sweets (in the past, he’s been known to eat Honey Buns on the trail).
His most substantial addiction, however, is — for lack of a better term — extreme running. He recently became the first person to complete the BRUTES challenge, a series of five envelope-pushing runs, each more than 55 miles in length.
Remarkably, Wells — who works at Mast General in Waynesville, and is in the process of moving from Canton to Waynesville — completed all of those runs straight through, save food breaks and the occasional cat nap. The other four runs in the series were SCAR (74 miles), Georgia Loop (56 miles), Pitchell (67 miles), and Massanutten (72 miles).
“I have an addictive personality,” he said. “If I get into something, I really get into it. More than anything, it’s probably just me being hard-headed and stubborn.”
Hard-headed, stubborn — call it what you’d like, but Wells certainly has a tendency to pursue extremes. And that propensity has led to both precarious situations and singular achievements.
Take, for instance, his first thru-hike attempt of the Pacific Crest Trail — a 2,650-mile journey that runs from the United States-Mexico border to British Columbia — in 2015.
Wells began the PCT at the suggested time — in the spring — but he moved so rapidly that he reached the Sierra Nevada in California a full month before it’s recommended to do so.
The snow buried him. It was waist-deep. He didn’t see anyone on the trail for nearly two weeks. Concerned for his safety, he called it quits.
“I was either going to die or have to call in search and rescue,” he said. “And I wasn’t going to put someone else in danger, so I ended up getting off.”
“I was in way over my head,” he added. “It humbled me a bit, which was awesome.”
Two years later, he completed the PCT with a group of friends. Wells’ sense of daring paid off on that attempt, as he and his buddies achieved a remarkable feat over the final month of the journey.
When they hit the California-Oregon border August 1, Wells made a bold proclamation: he wanted to finish by his birthday — August 29. That meant averaging more than 30 miles per day, with no time off to rest.
A tall order for anyone, but they did it, punctuating the achievement with a 48-mile final day.
“It was brutal. We got beat down,” he said. “But we made it.”
Prior to completing the PCT thru-hike, Wells had made a promise (admittedly after drinking a few beers) that he’d run the Pinhoti 100 — a popular 100-mile event in Alabama — after the PCT.
He stuck to his word, despite minimal long-distance running experience.
Wells entered the Pinhoti 100 “super undertrained,” as he put it, and the experience pushed him perhaps harder than he’d ever been pushed at that point. Yet he prevailed.
In many ways, that was the genesis of his love for extreme runs.
“I immediately fell in love with it,” he said.
The following year, the Alabama Daredevil — as perhaps he should be nicknamed — turned his sights to the Appalachian Trail, which he’d successfully thru-hiked in 2014.
The original plan was to trek with a friend from Georgia to Maine on the A.T., then thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail, for a total of more than 5,000 miles.
Doing so would have given Wells the rare Triple Crown of American hiking: the successful completion of the PCT, AT and CDT. l. As of November 2018, only 396 hikers were Triple Crown-certified by the American Long Distance Hiking Association. Wells wanted his name on that list.
The expedition began strong, as he and his buddy were on pace for a sub-80 day AT thru-hike, Wells said. For context, the average A.T. thru-hike is five to seven months.
But Wells’ shot at glory came to an abrupt end in Pennsylvania, thanks in part to his extremist tendencies.
For many miles, he’d failed to properly filter creek water before drinking it — “I was gambling, playing Russian roulette,” as he put it — and thus he contracted a microscopic parasite called cryptosporidium, which burrows into one’s intestinal walls and causes numerous issues, including dehydration, nausea and stomach cramping.
“That knocked me on my butt,” he said. “I lost 25 pounds in two weeks and didn’t eat solid food for 14 or 15 days. The doctor told me I could go on if I wanted to, but that I’d be in a lot of pain for a month as my body flushed out the bacteria.”
Wells ultimately decided to go home.
“I learned my lesson on that one,” he said.
He was bed-ridden for three weeks. But upon recovery, he began training for SCAR: the first of the BRUTES races.
As he prepared for the run, he had no idea BRUTES even existed. But once he discovered the run’s context — about how it was included in a five-part series — he knew he’d found his next challenge.
“With my personality, I was all over it,” he said. “There are no awards, no prizes [for completing BRUTES]. All you get is your name on a website. But it’s fun to push yourself. I always have the mindset of wanting to do the next thing.”
And the next thing for Wells, now that the previous next thing is over, is completing the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail (SALT).
It’s a 350-plus mile loop that starts and ends in Brevard, while passing through the Art Loeb Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Clingman’s Dome, the Appalachian Trail and numerous other routes.
The current SALT record is nine days and 18 hours, Wells said. He fully expects to best that mark, though he admits that it’s “low-hanging fruit,” as he put it, because the current record holder “basically just hiked it, to set the route.” Wells is expecting to average only four hours of sleep per night.
“We’ll see how it turns out,” he said.
Perhaps the broader question in all of this is why does he do it? Why does Wells feel the need to constantly put his body and psyche through the wringer?
For him, it’s simple: he experiences the same sense of peace in extreme runs that he felt during his thru-hikes of the AT and PCT: a feeling of utter baseness, a boiling away of the rat race that leaves nothing to worry about except putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
But he admits that it’s demanding to essentially disappear for five-to-six months at a time.
What extreme runs offer him, then, are the rewards of a 2,000-mile trek — a heightened appreciation of life’s oft-overlooked blessings, like food and shelter — in a manageable microcosm.
“They get me in that same kind of mindset,” he said. “You’re one with yourself, one with the moment. And that’s all you’re thinking about.”
This article originally appeared in The Mountaineer.