Fastest Known Times vs Races

Wide Angle LensThere are many changes occurring in ultrarunning racing right now, and some of these changes are making the pursuit of Fastest Known Times (FKTs) on various trails more attractive than traditional races.

Race Fields
The ongoing problem of small fields is not improving for the vast majority of races. A related issue is the lack of a distinct competitive field in many popular races. Small fields picked by lottery end up disappointing runners of all levels. The advantages of FKT’s on this topic are obvious, there is no lottery, and if you are hurt on “race day” you can postpone your race for as long or short as needed. You may not have as many people to run with, but running a FKT with a group is also an option. A perfect example of this is a large group Gary Gellin has brought together to go after the Tahoe Rim Trail FKT this summer.

Race Logistics
Ultra races used to be relatively simple adventures. A prime example of the recent changes in logistics is The North Face Bear Mountain 50 mile race. For the first couple of years, you could drive up to the start/finish area, drop bags were found quickly, and the course was a single path of orange ribbon. Now, that it has turned into a 2-day festival of races for which you have to park at a remote lot to catch a shuttle by 4:20 am. It may take them quite a while to find drop bags, and the last few miles of the course are marked by five different colors of ribbon. 50-mile runners also have to deal with passing runners from other race distances. Many will try to race you despite the fact that you are running 1-2 minutes per mile faster. In contrast, for a similar FKT, I can start in the daylight, run a course that is easier to navigate, not have to depend on shuttles to get to and from my car, and deal with much less traffic on the trail. Another relevant advantage to FKT’s is picking a day with good weather. I think many people underestimate the effects of weather on performance, and sometimes health. Despite what seemed to become a race between Dakota Jones and Max King at the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago, they were about 40 minutes slower than Dakota’s solo FKT that was run in cooler temperatures. Maybe they were tired, but if you need a better example look at Boston 2011 vs. 2012.

Race Fees
The increase in race fees cannot be justified for many runners. There are many examples of races that are more expensive simply because the race organization has been outsourced to a management company. Whether the race costs $20 or $100, the only thing I am getting from the race is Coke and Gatorade, and maybe some food after. While some races donate funds to local charities, I’d prefer the option of doing that, rather than having it be an integral part of the race fee. Most of my FKT attempts are inexpensive, with the exception of the somewhat large speeding ticket I won on the way to one trail. I was anxious to get going.

Trails
No matter where you live, many of the best trails in the US will never become races. This is definitely true in the Northeast. After running routes like the Great Range Traverse, Pemi Loop, Presidential Traverse, and the Devil’s Path, it is hard to get excited for multi-loop ultras on inferior trails. There are times in some races when I realize that I would never choose to run on the race course if I lived in that area. When you add in the logistical expense issues, FKT’s are hard to beat.

This topic is relevant to the recent discussions about the difficultly of European races compared to US races. While some have pointed out that there are plenty of smaller US races that have very challenging terrain, this may not be obvious to runners who have only done a few ultras and/or choose to run on easier terrain. Since most of us don’t race that often and spend most of our miles training, FKT’s are an additional source of challenging terrain. Many of the FKT’s in the Northeast have similar climb per mile rates as the European races, and the footing is actually worse. I will admit that running down a couloir in the Alps that had a cable bolted on one side for safety was a bit scary, but not as bad as climbing up the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington. If anyone wants to work on their downhill running, trying to run down Huntington would be a good challenge. If you do it, definitely get some video.

Some of my own challenges in continuing to justify races are due to the facts that I have a time consuming job and my desire to spend time with my family. These are likely to be common issues for many readers of iRunFar. Yes, my wife and son enjoy watching me race, but the constraints imposed by the logistics of many races make this difficult. I’ve had several races where I signed up weeks or months before that I’ve been unable to attend due to changing schedules. For the same cost as running a 50 mile, I could get a room at a nice hotel in VT or NH for a weekend of hiking. Maybe I’d do a FKT attempt, or maybe I’d do it some other weekend. Interestingly, many of the challenges of ultra trail racing are not present with shorter distance trail racing. Maybe I’ll just do short trail races and stick to FKT’s for my longer trail runs, I mean races.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you ever tried to set an FKT? If so, why?
  • Do you follow others’ attempts at FKTs?
  • What aspects of today’s trail races do you find most troubling?
  • Do you find yourself turning toward alternates to racing? If so, to what?
Ben Nephew

is an 11 time winner and course record holder at the Escarpment Trail Race. He has PR's of 3:10 for 50k and 5:47 for 50 miles and holds the fastest known times for the Adirondack Great Range Traverse, the Devil's Path in the Catskills, and the Pemigewasset Loop in the White Mountains. He has been running in INOV-8's since 2004, and is also sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.