Monday Morning Motivation: Fastest Known Times

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If you’re not feeling the love for road races this summer, then how about trying to achieve some fastest known times? You don’t need to tackle a mountain or long-distance trail, you could just aim for your own Strava segment.

From humble grassroots beginnings in the 1990s, the activity (and obsession) of FKT has risen to become trail running’s hottest pursuit. “Origins of FKT” gives a glimpse into the scene, which has roots on the John Muir Trail in California and, now, has risen to the heights of Mount Everest. Archival footage from around the world and in-person interviews with FKT luminaries are included in this short documentary, filmed in Boulder, Colorado.

Fastest Known Times Transcript

Narrator: We run what we used to climb. Racing the clock on the planet’s toughest terrain. Redefining what’s possible in pursuit of records called Fastest Known Times.

“As long as there’s been trails, people have been seeing how fast they can do trails.”

“Human nature explores limits and FKTs are sort of about that.”

Narrator: Athletes are chasing FKTs on iconic routes like the Grand Canyon, the John Muir Trail and the Appalachian Trail.

News anchors: Experienced hikers usually need months to go from one end to the other. Jennifer Farr Davis did it in just seven weeks… Jurek did it in 46 days, John McConaughey just ran it in 45 days, the fastest ever!

Origins – John Muir Trail

The FKT movement took off in 2000 when two friends set out to run the John Muir Trail in record time.

Buzz Burrell: The John Muir Trail, I think, is probably that the finest long trail in the world, literally. It is 223 miles and it does not cross a road, so it was an obvious objective. The previous time was five days. We were going for under four.

Peter Bakwin: We didn’t really know how it was gonna go at all – that was part of the adventure of it.

Buzz Burrell: It went really well up until this major storm hit us on the last day and that pushed us off the trail big-time. Interestingly enough we were so far ahead at that point that we still got the FKT.

Buzz Burrell: I liked the idea of the 4-day JMT as setting the standard just like the four-minute mile did and since then the John Muir Trail has become iconic all over the world.

Anton Krupicka: At any time you’re an early pioneer in this stuff you’re having to creative, you’re having to take initiative you’re having to like see a different path. It’s much easier to be like “Oh yeah, the JMT can be done in this super quick minimal style because I’ve seen all these other athletes do it this way”.

Darcy Piceu-Africa

Darcy Piceu-Africa: All the, you know, JMT stories I heard prior to going out there myself they were all pretty brutal. Like, it was all about how hard it was. The distance was so intimidating. Initially, the thought of doing over 200 miles was very daunting.

Buzz Burrell: Darcy is an excellent runner. She’s very methodical, she’s very determined and she has great natural talent and endurance, so when she approached the John Muir Trail she had her plan.

“We have Darcy cruising through Rhea Lakes basin approaching mile 50. All systems go!”

Anton Krupicka: When I heard the result, like, I literally thought it was being misreported. I was like, “Damn! Really she went that fast?”

Darcy Piceu-Africa: 2017 I went out and I broke the woman’s record by over 12 hours.

Cat Bradley

Sponsored elite ultrarunning athletes are starting to make these FKT runs a centrepiece of their season. Even just a few years ago those types of folks might go after an FKT, but it’d be kind of a sidelight.

Anton Krupicka: That’s a big shift to like prioritise an FKT over say doing well in races. I mean Cat’s [Cat Bradley] a great example. She wins the Western States, the biggest race in North America in terms of ultra running, and then doesn’t really race again the entire summer because she wanted to like focus on going for the Grand Canyon double crossing FKT.

Cat Bradley: The Grand Canyon’s one of the seven wonders of the world. You know, how can it not be put up on a pedestal? Breathtaking is an understatement! You feel so small.

Now she looked at the Grand Canyon, said this is what I want to do. She got bitten by it. Now she was training for the Western States but really training for the rim to rim to rim.

Cat Bradley: Felt like kind of the pinnacle of my career so far.

The Appalachian Trail

The FKT might be trending now, but wanting to see how fast you can go from point A to point B is human nature and there’s no better example of that than the Appalachian Trail.

Maine to Georgia, the original long trail in the United States, possibly in the world –  it’s been around for a long time. Right from the get-go people are recording “Well, how fast can I hike the Appalachian Trail?” They’ve been doing it ever since. Then some of the best ultra runners in the United States have had a go at it.

News anchor: Well, the Appalachian Trail runs for 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia and experienced hikers usually need months to go from one end to the other. Jennifer Phar Davis did it in just seven weeks, the fastest time in history.

News anchor: Scott Jurek is one of the world’s most accomplished ultramarathoners. Jurek did it in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes…

News anchor: But Brooklyn resident Joe McConaughy just ran it in 45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes the fastest ever and he did it unsupported.

Moderating FKTs

Even though FKTs are in the spotlight they’re still ultimately unofficial records. It all hinges on the honesty of athletes and Peter and Buzz as the volunteer FKT moderators.

Buzz: Well, a course record or race is going to have some official certification to it and an FKT cannot. We will always be a community that relies upon trust and goodwill.

Jason Antin: With the advent of technology, there’s a higher standard for documenting those goals. I think technology has made tracking your progress much easier. 2009 Strava came on the scene and made FKT not only snowball and grow, but it provided this grassroots opportunity for everybody of all shapes and sizes to be part of this FKT movement.

Everybody can do an FKT. Whether it’s in your own backyard or whether it’s in Antarctica and we can find personal meaning and have a good time doing it.

Kilian Jornet

A hundred years ago it took days to climb what runners now summit in just hours. No-one has pushed the limits further than Spanish superstar Kilian Jornet.

Buzz: Kilian Jornet is certainly the best mountain ultra runner of his generation in the world. He won every ultra race that he cared to and he got into FKTs fairly early on. Killian’s best effort really is on the Matterhorn.

Buzz: It’s a mix of strong, strong mountain running ability and strong technical ability.

A lot of it’s huge exposure. A lot of its low fifth class, where if you were to fall, you’d fall thousands of feet and die.

Basically, Kilian dialled it in.

Buzz: That’s the cool thing about FKTs is knowledge of nature, knowledge of the route. You have to learn it.

Objectives will only get steeper, faster and more creative as elite runners shift focus from the confines of race courses to the limitless possibility of FKTs.

Have you ever pursued an FKT (or Strava segment)?

I'd love to hear your thoughts...

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