FKTs: A Female Perspective

[Editor’s Note: This article was penned by Trail Sister Gina Lucrezi. Also, though our publishing of this article is by complete temporal coincidence, we should note that a huge new women’s FKT was set yesterday by Anna Frost and Missy Gosney. They became the first women to complete the Nolan’s 14 line in Colorado in the 60-hour time limit previously established for the effort.]

Fastest known time (FKT) efforts are one of the ‘genres’ included in the current definition of trail and ultrarunning. Owning an FKT means you have the known/reported fastest time on a certain route. This fairly simple and exciting concept is something that can be understood and accepted within any country or culture worldwide. Thanks to Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell, anyone interested in learning more about FKTs or planning an attempt can visit the Fastest Known Time website.

In the past few years, FKTs seem to be on the upswing. Take Kilian Jornet for example, after cleaning up with first-place finishes at challenging and competitive races around the world, he has shifted some of his focus to conquering FKTs. Jornet holds FKTs of various kinds on the Tahoe Rim Trail (report), Denali (interview), the Matterhorn (interview), and more.

In the U.S., there have been multiple attempts and records set on the Appalachian Trail, Wonderland Trail, Grand Canyon’s Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim route, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the list goes on.

What is it about FKTs that makes them so enticing? Sure, there are going to be some parallel subjects for any attempt, but I doubt there would be as much success if there wasn’t a unique element for each person on why they’ve chosen that particular trail and why they felt the need to challenge the pace.

About 15 years ago, pro adventure racer and four-time Pikes Peak Marathon winner Danelle Ballengee decided to take on Colorado’s 14ers speed record (the fastest time to get up and down all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks–she climbed 55 peaks). FKTs weren’t popular at this time, but Danelle had heard about the 14er record growing up and always held a passion for giving it a go as a personal challenge. Her women’s record of 14 days, 14 hours, and 49 minutes still stands.

Another popular trail for FKT attempts is the Pacific Crest Trail which stretches between the U.S.-Mexico border and the U.S.-Canada border. Overall (for both men and women) ‘thru-hiker-style’ FKT holder Heather Anderson completed the trail’s 2,663 miles in 60 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes (in-depth article). For Heather, it was all about her roots and, literally, walking home. “I had thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail once already and had hiked the entirety of [the PCT in] Washington and Oregon a second time prior to my FKT. It is a gorgeous backdrop for any experience. As a resident of Washington, it is in my backyard. Therefore, it was familiar to me. In addition, it provided me an opportunity to choose an endeavor that involved walking home, which was an empowering and meaningful aspect of the attempt.”

British fell-running phenom Nicky Spinks currently holds a number of women’s FKTs in England and Scotland. These FKTs are on fell-running ’rounds’ (routes) which are defined as a mix of mountain running and orienteering on steep and rugged mountain terrain. As an example, Nicky owns the women’s Ramsay Round FKT in 19 hours and 39 minutes, which includes 58 miles, 24 summits, and approximately 28,500 feet of climbing.

Nicky’s motivation to chase FKTs was very personal. She was diagnosed with breast cancer after a failed attempt to go sub-24 hours for the Paddy Buckley 61-peak circuit. Instead of letting the illness consume her, Nicky put all her energy and focus into cracking that 24-hour mark. It was hard, but she stayed busy by training and doing route recon during her recovery from cancer. She went on to break the 24-hour mark and set an FKT.

Another woman who is no stranger to the world of FKT attempts is Krissy Moehl. She was the previous holder of the women’s FKT for the 48-mile Zion Traverse across Zion National Park in Utah. (That FKT is now held by Bethany Lewis in 8 hours and 32 minutes.) Krissy also holds the women’s supported FKT with Darcy Piceu of the 95-mile Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainer in Washington. The pair set that record in 2013 in 22 hours, 22 minutes, and 45 seconds.

Krissy is drawn to these challenges because it is a way to experience different wild places. “I had run the Grand Canyon route three times before and had a connection to the area. R2R2R feels like a rite of passage for ultrarunners and I liked the idea of reviving the FKT efforts among women. Doing this in a race setting for 15 years has been an amazing introduction to the mountains and fantastic way to explore the world. I see FKTs as another channel to explore both the world and myself.”

Even with a specific reason driving the push for an FKT, a contender cannot rely on that element alone. As with most things people do in this world, practice makes perfect, and understanding your material can make you a master. That being said, I asked some FKT veterans about the importance of preparation.

Darcy is the previous women’s FKT holder of the Grand Canyon Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim route, which is 42 miles long (the current women’s FKT holder is Bethany Lewis in 8 hours, 15 minutes, and 51 seconds), and, as mentioned before, current co-women’s FKT holder with Krissy Moehl for the Wonderland Trail. She attained these two records through thorough planning and practice. “Preparing for an FKT is totally different than a race (for example) because you are in charge. You have to figure out where to put your aid stations and your crew, you get to decide even if you’re going to have crew. You can run supported or unsupported. You make the rules essentially. It requires A LOT more planning than a race, so it’s more work that way.”

Aligning views with Darcy, Heather adds, “All FKTs require considerable planning, preparation, and intrinsic drive. You must own all the logistics. In a self- or unsupported FKT effort, all the prep work of food, resupply packages, shipping, mapping, and etc. must be done by the participant. Without support, there is the risk that something unplanned is going to happen (like a resupply box not being accessible when you need it) or gear failures that have to be dealt with on the fly. In a race, the race director takes care of all of these things. In most races, you just have to show up and not really think about the logistics that are going on behind the scenes.”

Heather continues, “A supported attempt is also logistically complex, arranging for the support systems to be in place along the way prior to the start. Once en route, a supported FKT is more similar to a race than a self- or unsupported attempt. If the support systems have been properly established, the athlete only has to focus on the run or hike while others oversee the logistics. In all FKTs, the effort and focus that must be sustained throughout is much higher than in a race.”

Vermont’s Sue Johnston is one of the most decorated females in the world of fastest known times. In 2007, she held the overall (for both women and men) supported FKT on the 223-mile John Muir Trail which stretches to from the Whitney Portal on the flanks of Mount Whitney to the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, in California. Her overall record has since been beat a couple times by men, but her 3 days and 20 hours effort still stands as the women’s supported FKT for the route. Sue is also the former women’s FKT holder for New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot mountains in a time of 4 days, 20 hours, and 32 minutes. (This record is now held by Brianna Tidd in 4 days, 19 hours, and 40 minutes.)

Sue not only believes in proper preparation, but also touches on some trail ethics and manners, “You must–or SHOULD–prepare thoroughly instead of spending your time on social media talking up your FKT attempt. Know the trail and the history. Know the definition of the word ‘hubris.’ Sadly, there are too many FKT-ers who aren’t properly doing their homework and/or paying their respect to those who came before. It seems some people prefer to rely less on their own research and preparation and more on their crew and entourage to figure it out and get them to the ‘finish line.’ To me, it’s much more respectable to do all or most of the miles solo.”

As I did my research for this article, I was impressed with the recent number of women’s efforts. The Fastest Known Time forums are still dominated by male records and attempts, though there has been more female traction in the past five years. Being that this column is called Trail Sisters, and of course out of curiosity, I asked my contributors their thoughts regarding the difference in male and female participation rates.

“Perhaps women don’t realize their own power or they have never allowed themselves to develop it. Or they’re afraid of the dark? I do believe that women’s bodies are physiologically better suited for the really long stuff (like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail) because they hold onto their fat stores better and they tend to pace themselves better. Just my personal opinion partially based on observations during my own AT thru-hike of what the men looked like at the end versus women!” -Sue Johnston

Nicky Spinks suggests that since women have not always been allowed to race, they are just catching up, “I think in a few years women will be more forthcoming in attempting FKTs. I would like to see more women taking on the challenge as I think we are suited to the organization needed. It’s not all just about running fast!”

Darcy Piceu sees FKTs as a fun way to really push one another, that it gives a reason to just get out there and go for it. “Set a goal for yourself and make it happen! If more women get out there, more will follow.”

I tend to agree with all three of these comments. We women are ‘late bloomers’ in running, based on the historical lack of opportunity (think before Title IX era).

FKTs, racing, hiking, or just a leisure stroll on the trails, regardless of what you’re interested in, all that matters is that you keep at it. By challenging yourself every day, you will find less limitations… on the trail and in life. No one sets an FKT, or any goal in that matter, without having passion, conviction, and plain old self-belief.

Before I can ‘sign off,’ I want to say thanks to Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell for their support and knowledge. These two fellas’ and their Fastest Known Times website made researching this topic much easier along with helping to inspire me to take the plunge on an adventure I’ve been scheming in 2016… Thanks, guys!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Ladies, have you attempted an FKT or a non-speed-based adventure run (not race)? If so, how has it differed for you from the racing environment?
  • What, if anything, do you see as a barrier that prevents more women from participating in the FKT ‘fun?’

There is one comment

  1. Buzz

    Thank you for an excellent review – the guys have been getting attention all along, while trail monsters like Sue Johnston and Heather Anderson many people might not have heard of – until now.

Post Your Thoughts