Fastest Known Times

Attempts at “Fastest Known Times” have become an ever larger part of trail and ultrarunning culture. This is certainly something that individuals have been doing for a long time now, but in the age of instant communication via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, I think the popularity of these individual time trials has blown up in the last few years. So much so, that a year ago UltraRunning magazine recognized an individual time trial as the Women’s Ultrarunning Performance of the Year. Beyond this, nearly every serious mountain running “fan” seems to know who has the R2R2R FKT, or the JMT, TRT, AT, PCT (just the fact that people know what these acronyms stand for is in large part due to this age of Internet communication).

As a runner there is an obvious draw to these kinds of outings. It’s essentially a way to “race” against previous individuals, and against a certain trail or terrain, without the logistical difficulties or the financial cost of a traditional race. Beyond this, the individual time trial also gives one the opportunity to “race” on trails which will forever be off limits to any kind of official event due to permitting and/or liability issues. I myself have run a small handful of routes (all in Alaska) with the primary purpose of seeing how fast I could do them in comparison to known previous attempts. There’s something very simple, pure, and energizing about doing so. If taken seriously these runs can have the intensity of a race with the solitude and simplicity of any long run by oneself out in the wilderness.

All of this said though, there has always been something that doesn’t quite sit right with me in regards to the fastest known time trend. Perhaps it’s because I spend a lot of time in Boulder where there seems to be a fastest known time for every possible route within 50 miles of town. For me this seems to have the effect of making the “wilderness” around here seem much less like true wilderness, and much more like a city park obstacle course, where everything has been “figured out” or “conquered.”  Beyond this, though, I also feel like the entire notion of “racing” against a certain trail or against people who have run a certain trail in the past is kind of odd.

Again, this is something that I have done a handful of times myself, but it has always felt a little bit bizarre to me to do so. I think this is because there is such a collective energy to racing that is brought out by sharing that experience with several other like-minded people on the same trail, at the same time. To me this collective energy is the biggest reason I have always liked racing. If you take away this collective energy I think it’s hard to recreate your own “race.” Individual time trials and fastest known time attempts are obviously different than races, but when you go out and run a trail as fast as you can, with knowledge of how fast others have run it in the past, and then you publicize the time in which you ran it so as to be compared to everyone else who has run it, is it really that much different than a race? Of course, there is no one else out there doing it at the same time as you, something that in my mind is the main defining characteristic of what racing is. In this sense you end up with this odd dynamic in which you are clearly racing, but you are racing against the recorded history of the past, or against a certain trail or mountain, rather than against other individuals who are out there at the same time testing themselves against you. In this sense an individual time trial is clearly not a race, and at the same time in cases with a prominent precedent it clearly is a race. So, which is it? At the end of the day it might not really matter one way or the other, but see how this can all start to feel like a somewhat odd and confusing thing?

For better or for worse, racing is a very contrived thing. There are times when this is what we want as runners, but there are also times when we want the extreme opposite of this. We want to go out and run free of competition, free of an agenda, and free of other people’s experiences. Obviously we can choose to do this on any trail at any time, but I do think that as more and more routes around the world become “races” (whether actual races or through well established FKT’s) it becomes a little bit harder to do this. It’s not just folks who are going out trying to run FKT’s that are influenced by the culture. There are certain trails that have come to be known in the trail running community by their individual time trial histories, and virtually any run on that trail is going to be compared to some degree with that history. Much the same way that each year that a race is run will be compared to the history of the previous editions of that race. Running the Grand Canyon is to some degree a different experience for nearly everyone who runs it than it otherwise would be without the well documented history of individual time trials on that trail. Obviously the effect it has on any one individual is up to that individual more than anyone else, but certainly some of the sense of adventure, some of the sense of solitude, and some of the sense of individuality has to be effected by the reality that you can go online and read this entire history of what is in essence a several decades old “race” from rim-to-rim-to-rim (as well as shorter and longer versions: R2R and R2R2R2R2R).

Certainly I understand that humans are inherently competitive with each other and with ourselves, and I am certainly not immune to this competitive nature. I recognize that there have been some incredible FKT’s set all over the world throughout human history, and am in awe of dozens of these. As stated above, I have made a few attempts at FKT’s myself, and certainly don’t have any issue with anyone who has ever done so, but I do believe that the FKT trend, and the growing desire to make one’s accomplishments public, which is so easily done in this age of communication, is making it harder and harder for trail runners to experience many of the world’s most appealing trails in a truly raw, organic, and perhaps sacred way. The real irony here is that so many of us who attempt these FKT’s do so because we feel that races are too contrived to be the outlet for all of our competitive vigor. The irony with this is that in promoting this FKT trend we are helping create a situation in which more and more routes essentially become quasi-races, and thus more contrived.

Here in Boulder I have seen the effect that this trend has on the people who run the trails, and the effect that it has on me when I run on the trails, and I think it has a definitive effect that can’t be ignored. Nearly every route has become a number and a story of someone else’s experience on that route. This can be an exciting thing, and often is, but it also has the effect I talked about above of making everything seem “conquered,” “figured out,” and contrived.

I’m not saying that I don’t think people should go out and run specific routes as fast as they can, and that they shouldn’t be proud of their accomplishments, but I do wonder if this is really a trend that we want to promote into a prominent sub-culture within the larger trail running community. In my mind when a route becomes an established race it becomes a little less mysterious, a little less raw, and a little more contrived. To a smaller degree I think the same thing happens when a route is labeled with a FKT. Perhaps what we need are a few more “Fastest Unknown Times” and a few less Fastest Known Times.

There are 117 comments

  1. Geoff

    history doesn't work this way. once things become a documented part of the past, and become part of a culture's identity (even if it's a small part of that identity, and even if the culture is a fairly obscure culture) you can't just pretend it doesn't exist. Sure, any individual can pretend it doesn't exist and have their own individual experience ignoring the past as they see fit, but i'm not talking about everyone as an individual here, i'm talking about the effect that FKT popularity has on the entire trail running culture. the competitive aspects which have grown out of this are really exciting and really inspiring in many ways, but i also think this is creating a mindset among the culture as a whole that leads ultimately to more and more routes being viewed as competitions or as something that we set out to conquer. I'm not saying this is definitely a bad thing, but rather something that i think is worth thinking about.

    1. art

      Geoff

      to try and speak to what I think your concerns are :

      I see the increased popularity in FKT as only good for people, both individually and collectively. the competition is going to be there, FKT or not. I see FKT as encouraging autonomy and selfsufficiency among many who are used to being spoon fed their adventures in catered races. I don't think FKT increases any sense of competition in the community, rather it helps redirect it to venues that require new and more independent skills.

      All good in my eyes.

      however, I do see FKT as potentially bad for the land if the upsurge in usage of trails and wilderness is not handled with respect and care.

  2. Geoff

    Rich, it seems like you are implying in your last paragraph that each of those ideas are contradictory to each other. I don't see it that way at all. I feel as strongly about any of them, despite any of the others. They're really not related to each other at all. I love big time races, and think there should be more in our sport (although there are several more now than when i first wrote about this); I love quirky races that don't fit the typical mold and think there should be a lot more in our sport; and i am concerned about the "turn every trail into a competition" mindset that to a small degree seems to come out of the the FKT trend. In my mind these three things have no significant relevance to each other.

    1. Logan

      Unfortunately Geoff, this article seems to just be falling on deaf ears. It is being taken as fact instead of your personal opinion. But so goes the world circa 2013.

      1. pdc

        Logan,

        Geoff wrote the article to stimulate discussion. He said that he was concerned about the trend. Many people agreed. Many people said it was nothing to be concerned about. We were all sharing our opinion just like Geoff.

        Anyway, I for one enjoyed this thread. Thanks Geoff!

        1. Anonymous

          Pdc
          Good note taking. I unfortunately just said the same thing yet you feel the need to post in the contrary in reply? Why I don't know. I enjoy the discussion but it does not take a rocket scientist to realize the majority of these replies have been taken out of Geoffs intentions in regards to context.

  3. Buzz

    Thank you AK for the call-out! It was great re-reading those thoughts, as it brought back that incredible feeling of being footloose and free in the wild places of the world, a feeling that cannot be replaced by any other experience we may have in our lifetime.

    I tried reading the Comments and then Geoff's essay, but … I couldn't get thru it … I couldn't figure out what people were talking about … like, is there a problem? Don't we all go out there and do what works for us? Isn't that good enough, as long as we are always honest, respectful of the environment and others, and commit to living our dreams?

  4. lstomsl

    Well said AK and Buzz. The more I think about it, however, the more it seems to be a bit silly. I mean it almost begins to be a bit like climbing. Who had the first ascent? Did they do it with enough style and class to be respected and accepted by their peers? (see compressor route on Cerro Torre) What are the rules anyway? Can I have my dog carry my food and water so I am unencumbered? Can I stash an aid bag? What if I change the route a bit, can I claim a FKT on that specific route? And in the end, isn't it all on the honor system anyhow? Do we just accept peoples word in a world where people in other sports spend millions of dollars for a bit of competitive edge? (See compressor route on Cerro Torre again)

    Just like there are climbers obsessed with getting a first ascent, there may be runners obsessed with an FKT. But there are many others who are just out there enjoying the mountains and simply trying to perform with style, and grace, and respect for their personal pleasure and who care not a whit if anybody knows about it or not.

    It all seems like a descent into obscurity and detail and controversy. Which is the opposite of what draws me to trail running. I'm sure I could claim many FKTs if I had bothered to record them simply because of unusual routes. Also there are many places I commonly run where I've never seen another person. Or I could claim an FKT on the Copper Canyon/Grand Canyon double simply because I've done them both in a week and I don't know anybody else who has even though there are many, many people capable of blowing my time out of the water.

    If you can't be fast, be obscure. Thats my new motto….

  5. PB

    Remarkable discussion. I've done many ultra races & many FKT style runs as well. I confess that I'm generally more drawn to the FKT stuff. Maybe I'm antisocial??? What I like about FKTs is that you get to do a route that resonates with you personally, and in many cases the planning aspect is much more involved (& important to success) than just showing up & running a race. When Buzz & I first did the JMT we really had to figure out how to do it – there were few accounts that we could find of anyone doing something similar on that route. I always wanted to try things that I didn't know I could complete. After running a couple 100 mile races I knew I could do that, an just getting a faster time didn't really float my boat. I've done FKT things that took 5 hours, others that took 5 days, and everything in between. I've done super-classics, and I've done some (in Boulder!) that some people might consider "illegitimate". I certainly don't agree that just because a route is short it can't be an FKT. Every place had its "test pieces" – let's see who can run up that hill the fastest. To me some of the most impressive FKTs are less than 3 hours – like the Grand & Longs Peak (less than 2 hours!) I think "bench to tree" obviously doesn't count, but the Mesa Trail (a mellow 7- mile route) definitely does – heck it's one of the most popular & important recreation trails in the country, of course it counts! Ok, that's a few random thoughts.

    1. Geoff

      Buzz and Peter,

      Great to get some FKT heavyweight's to weigh in on this. Thanks for taking the time. Enjoyed reading your thoughts. As I said in the article and in some of my responses to comments I think there is something very appealing about doing routes outside of racing, and trying to do them fast. I agree with the things you touched on Peter about why you are more drawn to FKT attemps than to races. it might sound odd considering this article, but I am also, at this point more drawn to FKT attempts than I am to races. the reason I felt compelled to write this piece though is that I think that the FKT culture (due to it's rapid growth) is taking on a very different personality and ethos than it once had. Not to say that this is a "problem" or something that anyone needs to try to do anything about, but I thought it a relevant topic to discuss. obviously i'm not the only one who has an opinion about this. Thanks again for sharing yours.

  6. Ryan Ghelfi

    Nothing in the world not to like about FKTs. It's like a totally free race, usually logical in relation to the given terrain. FKTs are going to blow up, and best part is no one will be around to see it happen.

  7. Once a ranger

    Great discussion. There are pros and cons with everything and I agree running shouldn't always be a race. But there is a certain mystic associated with some of these efforts–especially those that have a solid history behind them. In such cases FKTs are about celebrating those that pushed the limits before you and setting a benchmark for those that follow. Yet, at the same time, and with much of running, its still deeply personal.

    In 2004, Jock Glidden reflected on his 1973 Grand Teton speed record:

    "I took no shortcuts so the contest would be standard and the Park Service would have no grounds for complaint. Friends were at the trail head to witness my finish. My round trip time was 4 hours and 11 minutes. This bested Hawks and Holyoke by 1:11. I now believed them, but would others believe me?

    That fall I sent a short account of my speed record to the American Alpine Club journal. It was rejected as being irrelevant to the traditions of American alpinism. Perhaps the editor was right; what I did was neither mountaineering nor running. Yet it was both. Anyway, it is what a nordic racer might do in the summer time.

    My record stood for eight years but then a Ricks College student eclipsed it by 24 minutes and others lowered the time even more. Well, so what? Everyone should have a FOL [feat of a lifetime]. The more absurd the better.

    Now my FOL exists only in memory. From Dornan’s bar in Moose, Wyoming, I can still gaze out the picture window at the Grand and connect the intangible with the tangible I see. Such reflections make my beer taste better, they enhance the appointed years I have left."

  8. eric hodge

    the big hitters came in and made their points, so i sort of feel like not even making mine at all anymore… but then i realized, that is sort of my point.

    what i mean is: the idea that any piece of runnable terrain can have an FKT associated with it, YES, even the places I RUN, as a inexperienced and slow loper give me both the excitement of measuring myself against the stoutest of the stout and the disappointment of the same.

    there is something about my own personality that cannot let go of the fact that a particular segment (strava talk) or route has a "best time" associated with it. no matter how slow i try to run it, or how much i say i'm just going to enjoy myself and run my run… it always comes into mind. am i going to PR on this section? am i going to move up the list today, or am i going to be way off where i was last week (or whenever).

    so, while this comment isn't as valuable as the others, i've made it… because i cannot help myself… just to see my name on this list. did it hinder my enjoyment of this thread? hmmm….

  9. Sean

    Dakota likely has all of our Durango FKTs, or more appropriately, our FUTs, anyway. (Shh, don't let the others know about our far more trails and far fewer people.)

  10. Sean

    You're definitely really crazy, but that is an independent variable, as it has nothing to do with Geoff's article, Andy's FKTs, or the subjectivity of reality.

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