Off The Clock

In February of 2017, I gave one of my first public talks on the Tour de 14ers at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival in Canada. The Tour de 14ers was a self-powered and self-supported link-up of all the Colorado Fourteeners by bike and on foot starting and finishing from my home in Gold Hill, Colorado that I undertook in the summer of 2016.

The second slide of my presentation showed a map of Colorado with a bolded outline of the route I took. The purpose of this slide was to give some visual context to the scale of the trip, as well as provide some statistics on the overall mileage, vertical gain, number of peaks climbed, and more. While I did give some general geographic pointers, I omitted to outline any of the data I had initially intended to list. This wasn’t a conscious exclusion, but details can easily be forgotten particularly when standing on a stage in front of over 500 people with a spotlight in your face. Reflecting upon this in retrospect, though, I wonder if this oversight had in fact a deeper, underlying significance, where I had subconsciously minimized the importance of quantifying the journey in favor of the substance found within those metrics.

Perhaps, this was a reaction to one of the aspects that I struggled with the most after finishing the fourteeners. The mainstream media had a tendency of appropriating my story by changing the narrative from a deeply personal and introspective journey of self-transformation into a record-setting heroic conquering of mountains.

While this latter style of sensationalized reporting may generate more clicks, it bothered me, for it felt so far removed from the actual reality of the experience.

One could argue that as a sponsored athlete, the purpose of taking on such an endeavour is primarily commercial with the sole objective of linking a performance with selling more stuff. This would also explain why many media outlets, who are entirely dependent on advertising, would perpetuate that kind of narrative. I find that perspective to be overly simplistic as it excludes any discussion around intrinsic motivation with regard to adventure.

I am not naïve in stating that commercial interests aren’t at play, rather I’m simply pointing out that the quantification of adventure (i.e. “How fast did you go?”) does not necessarily need to be the dominant arc of the story.       

To me, one of the most compelling aspects behind the concept of fastest known times (FKTs) is the freedom to set our own rules, to decide which route inspires us most and get away from the constraints of an organized event. We can challenge ourselves in the context that we choose, establishing our own parameters to play the game as we wish.

Racing, on the other hand, provides a more linear context with established rules and regulations to abide by and is by definition performance driven. That isn’t to say that racing cannot yield a rich experience, but it remains nevertheless constrained by the structure of the event. Moving away from that structure is an opportunity to be more creative, and to challenge ourselves in new ways.

Part of the problem with creating a culture that is solely focused on performance is that it leads to cheating in various forms. This is due to the end goal being centered on a number rather than the quality of the experience. Whether it’s doping, course cutting, or hiding in toilets, people will shortcut their way to recognition, fame, and sponsorships. It’s more difficult to cheat an experience. Why, then, have we taken the restrictions of a solely performance-based approach in racing and imposed them on this freeform outlet we refer to as FKTs?

Recently, I was chatting about this with my good friend, Roch Horton, and I mentioned to him that in France, they use the term “off” to refer to an adventure that isn’t part of an organized event. Our most literal equivalent here in the U.S. is probably a “fatass,” though an “off” would also encompass FKTs. The major difference, though, with an “off” is the lack of specific focus on time. Roch suggested that this might be an interesting way to rethink our terminology in referring to these non-event-based endeavours as “off the clock.” This isn’t to say that time is of no significance, but rather it’s a shift in the narrative from a single data point being the central focus of the storyline to taking into account the substance of what is encapsulated in those minutes, hours, and days that bookend our adventures.   

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about Joe’s question, “Why, then, have we taken the restrictions of a solely performance-based approach in racing and imposed them on this freeform outlet we refer to as FKTs?”
  • What do you think of the terms “off” or “off the clock,” which are suggested in this article, for non-racing endeavors where clock time is of lesser importance than the experience as a whole?
  • Do you think it’s important, going forward in our sport and as suggested by Joe, to intentionally treat our non-racing/adventure-focused endeavors differently from our racing endeavors? If so, how specifically?

Off the Clock 1

Off the Clock 2

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 12 comments

  1. 18342772

    I don’t think anyone has artificially imposed a performance-based paradigm on FKT’s… it’s a fastest known time… concern with performance and quantifying it is literally inexorable from the concept. It’s an analytic truth, really: “My father’s brother is my uncle” is true because the meaning of the words in the sentence insist that it is; a fastest known time is concerned with speed and performance, because “fastest” and “time” have meaning.

    I’m being pedantic, I know, and I do enjoy the sentiment expressed here; Joe’s a great writer/photographer and expresses well an ideal many (most? all?) of us aspire to. I love the notion of “off” events, whether that’s a planned, epic route, or just a daily run. Inspiration and meaning is where you find it–and also, where it finds you. That is, sometimes you impose things on your run; sometimes your running imposes things on you. The structure goes both ways, and it all matters. But I’m being a bit incoherent. You did some really cool mountain stuff, Joe. Keep it up, and keep asking questions.

  2. Erik Schulte

    Time is ultimately a quantifiable means to justify to others within the community, and out, that what we are doing in the mountains is a meaningful endeavor. It is much harder to show that these activities are also causing physiological, mental, and or spiritual changes within one’s self and that these are also meaningful aspects to life and a reason to undertake these adventures. As a community of runners, we come from a long history of judging performance upon an intelligible equation of distance over time, and will inevitably allow this to pervade other aspects of our sport. The beauty of this, though, lies in the fact that whatever the focus of our chosen endeavors, as long as the process is not compromised, the physical and spiritual changes take place whether we acknowledge them or not. So, just keep on keepin’ on.

    Cheers Joe, well written.

  3. Rob

    Great piece. One aspect of running and racing that has always bothered me is the focus on external vs. internal reward, racing vs. running just for the sake of running.

    How many runners would undertake a particular endeavor if they could never tell anyone about it?

    How much of what runners do, esp. in regards to racing, is driven by a desire for validation from our peers?

    I’ve always felt that a private and personal undertaking is more “worthy” than one driven by a desire to be faster/tougher than others and have that publicly known and externally validated. But is this the right way to view racing (or any other competitive undertaking)? I personally love reading about the running/racing experiences of others (I’m commenting on this site) but am very loath to share about my own experiences.

    1. Paul

      “How many runners would undertake a particular endeavor if they could never tell anyone about it?”

      I suspect there is a silent majority of runners/adventurers doing exactly that (well they could tell people but they don’t). Of course they tell their loved ones (they would need to explain being away), but that’s probably about it.

      Go to the Sierras, Rockys, etc any summer weekend and you’ll see plenty of folks out their having an adventure for the sake of having an adventure. Doing it to do it.

  4. John Vanderpot

    As an essentially noncompetitive runner who can’t really aspire to fast, I find the experience to pretty much be everything, and personally the enjoyment is nearly endless most days, this isn’t always an easy thing to talk about when, for the most part, the name of the game is your finish time, so it’s nice to read this here and coming from you, an accomplished and competitive runner…


  5. Richard Senelly

    Thank you Joe Grant! Got me thinking… about how I started “adventure running” on Oahu in the 1970’s (my time available for a planned mountain walk turned out to be too short), and why I agreed to first pace a runner at the WS100, and then to do it myself. Both were about just doing it… a “here and now” personal adventure… among other folks similarly motivated. For a brief time I caught the competitive bug, trained, and ran some races. I won a few, and chased some PR’s, but my true joy was in the wild. So, when I was solo running on some wonderful Colorado trails and heard that a new 100 called Hardrock was going to happen in that wild neighborhood, I jumped in. I became the all-time slowest finisher (counter-clockwise direction) and learned that even in a so-called race, adventure could prevail. As friends told me, “timewise, you sure got your money’s worth’…

  6. Greg Ventoux

    Great thoughts Joe. Those words keep me thinking that I am right to plan an “Off” in Vaucluse next month, A “traversée” across Provence trails with more than 200 kilometers and no FKT in my mind…if people want to beat this “performance”, they can. I don’t care. I just want to have a wonderful journey and probably I will talk about it with my friends and family and share few photos. I don’t need a bib or a FKt to run happy.

  7. GES

    Joe, you might consider getting your presentation submitted to the Telluride Mountain Film Festival, which takes place every year at the end of May.

  8. Bridgette Braig

    Timely observation post-Olympics, which obviously celebrates faster, stronger, better. But what I remember most and value most out of the Olympics are the “Olympic moments” — when you see and empathize (and maybe project a little) an athlete being fully in the moment without regard to faster, stronger, better. Human achievement will always have a measured component to it. As humans we understand everything on relative terms, so it’s pretty natural to look at metrics (speed, strength). But what we take away from our human achievements will always be the experience behind whatever the number was. Those experiences are also what we share and what we relate to in others. With so many external forces seeking to quantify, calibrate, judge, and rate, am grateful for pieces like this that remind and truly glorify the experiences that allow us to connect as humans. Thank you!

  9. Josh

    So good, Joe. I’m plugged into the local ultra-running community, but I’ve felt pretty boxed in by an unspoken pressure to run, run certain distances, and do so with respectable quickness relative to my peers. If I don’t do these things, I lose touch with people I care about because those things are what the tribe does. Personally, I’m motivated to get outside in natural places, with friends or alone, going short or long distances, slowly or quickly or standing still in a beautiful spot, on foot, SUP, canoe, bicycle… and think the specific metrics based values you mention above are holding my tribe back.

  10. Buzz

    Right. One of the lovely aspects of running is that one can find one’s personal meaning within what millions of other people are also doing. A compelling aspect of FKT’s is that finding that meaning is inherent in the undertaking.

  11. andy mcbreen

    Joe, I absolutely agree with You and love Your thoughts on this concept of a linear outcome. Scott Jurek once said, ” a clock is out there with You when Your in an organized race or F.K.T., But It’s not the dominant motivating factor of Why We chose to complete these Ultras and Solo Non supported or supported adventures. I have discovered so much soul searching and God’s beauty in nature as I know You have. Great writing Joe!!

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