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.