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This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
The Fastest Known Time (FKT) leaderboard came to be in the year 2000 as the brainchild of endurance runners and adventurers Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell, who developed a way for runners, hikers and mountaineers to share their best times on particular routes in a non-race setting.
The two Boulder, Colorado-based trail runners wanted a way to start recording times for iconic routes around the world, giving a sense of competition to athletes who were more drawn to adventures than races.
"They created a leader board of iconic routes, where people could add their times," says Allison Mercer, the Georgia-based social media coordinator for the Fastest Known Time website. "It got popular quickly, and they had to hire a web developer to update the site. They also had to create a protocol for people to have their attempts verified."
Competing for FKTs exploded in popularity during 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic put a temporary end to racing. During that summer and fall, amateur and professional athletes alike were battling it out one at a time on routes worldwide.
Several athletes, who have achieved FKTs spoke to what it takes to push themselves while competing alone.
FKTs are broken down into three main categories: supported, unsupported, and self-supported. In a supported undertaking, athletes can receive assistance in the form of crew and pacers. They do not need to carry their own gear and can have supplies provided as they travel. In an unsupported attempt, the athletes need to carry all of the gear, food and supplies they plan on using during the event. They cannot have outside support, including someone cheering or filming. With self-supported events, an athlete can hide caches or send gear to points along the course.
"Routes like the John Muir Trail can be any of the three categories," says Ashly Winchester, a professional guide and trail runner from Klamath Falls, Oregon, who holds more than 50 FKTs. "It is short enough to carry all of your own belongings but can also be run faster with support. For something like PCT, there would be no way to do it unsupported; you would either need to have a crew or send supplies to yourself."
Winchester explains that more remote routes might not have an option for supply drops, especially those on mountains or deep in the canyons. In those situations, it is important to ensure all gear can be carried or that water sources are plentiful.
While longer routes are best done as supported or self-supported, there are numerous shorter routes where athletes can push themselves, says Kaitlyn Yonke, a Colorado-based ultrarunner and coach for Run Infinite.
"Shorter FKTs are just like a short race. You have to learn how to sustain a speed without burning yourself out, but you also have the opportunity to practice the route in full," Yonke says. "When I took on the Indian Creek FKT, I could prepare myself for the route and what things would look like during the attempt."
Records are further broken down into genders and teams. Each route has top rankings for a male, female, non-binary, and mixed classification. It is important to note all athletes present in the attempt and whether they are considered a participant or support. For example, a woman who runs with a male pacer or support person could get the supported fastest known time, or they could compete together for the fastest unsupported time as a mixed team.
Documentation is a significant piece of keeping transparency and promoting honesty in FKTs, Mercer explains.
"When sending in a new route, make sure the route is truly not already listed on the site," she says. "It has to be unique, and that more than one person will be interested in doing it, so you have to give a reasonable explanation as to why it exists."
Depending on the length of the route, an athlete might want a tracking device like a Garmin InReach for safety and accountability, Mercer says. With premier or competitive routes, the FKT administrators have requested athletes to notify them ahead of time. Not only does this help other athletes hoping to go for the FKT see when others are attempting, but it also allows fans to track progress.
It is also crucial that an athlete document the attempt to the best of their abilities. Not only does the GPX route of the attempt need to be recorded and presented, but proof of the start/finish time and any supplemental photos are also beneficial in promoting honesty and integrity.
"Some pro athletes will get compensation from sponsors for FKTs like a race," Mercer says. Seconds can matter; ensure times are validated, and things are done correctly so competition is fair. We have the community as moderators, and people have taken photos of someone receiving support or cheating.
There are no shortage of FKT fans and followers who do their best to make sure that attempts are legitimate and athletes are being transparent.
Planning Your Attempt
Choosing a Route
There are a few techniques to finding a route. While some athletes like to go for attempts that speak to their soul, others prefer the approachability of taking down one in their backyard. Andy Wacker, a Boulder-based professional trail runner for Solomon and founder of the non-profit The Trail Team, has set 44 FKTs since 2016 and says he often uses the FKT site to find inspiration in a new place.
"I did one while on vacation with my wife's family in Portugal," he says. "I was looking at the site for inspiration and found one a 20-minute drive away. I ended up getting to run a really beautiful trail I would not have found otherwise."
On the other hand, Wacker also studies routes he considers long-term goals.
"Some of my FKTs are routes I have dreamed about for years, and that really motivates me to keep going," he says
The inspiration is clear in Winchester's attempts as she has spent countless hours, through days and nights, pushing through fatigue and still finds beauty in the desolate trails.
However a route is selected, an athlete must do their due diligence in research and preparation. While organized races take some research on the part of the participant, for the most part, the logistics are orchestrated by the race director. In an FKT, the athlete is responsible for navigation, fuel/hydration logistics, and ensuring their safety.
"Practice the route; make sure you have the right gear." Mercer recommends, "Familiarize yourself so you don't get lost. You can change things to fit the weather. It is on your schedule and your time. Go on the site and look at who has done it. You can use their beta or even reach out to them for guidance.
Not only is it essential to research the course, it is also beneficial to figure out the climate and yearly weather patterns, says Sabrina Stanely, an Adidas-Terrex professional runner based in Silverton, Colorado, who twice set the women's supported FKT for Nolan's 14 for covering a line of 14 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks.
"For my Nolans attempt, I had to plan the moon phase, storm season, as well as what the snow would be like and before the willows got too dense," Stanley says. "There were only specific dates that would work for it."
Stanley harnesses her deep connection to the earth to make herself a powerhouse in both the world of FKTs as well as in ultrarunning. Her understanding of nature, slopes, and her own abilities ensures she is running her best while staying humble to nature.
Just like an organized race, strategy is involved, but the added element of route finding and being solo adds to the difficulty.
"It is like 3D chess compared to regular chess," Stanley says. "There are more elements to account for, but you still need to remember what works for you. For something like Nolans, where you design your course, figure out when is the best time for you to do specific climbs or when you will need the most energy. The start time is also your own, you can listen to your body, connect with the land, and do what makes the most sense to you."
Knowing the trail, seasonality, and what other attempts looked like can set a runner up for success and mitigate potential injury or getting lost. Unlike a race, there is no official or sweep who will be looking for an athlete who has become injured or stumbled off the course, so being aware of surroundings and potential risks is not only helpful in a faster time, but also for survival.
Find the Right Day
One of the biggest benefits to pushing oneself on a FKT, rather than a race, is that there is no set date or start time, leaving freedom to the runner to do what works best for them.
"You can go whenever you want and at your own time," says Wacker. "It does not have to be a particular day; you can plan a day but change it if needed. You go when you are ready, not on a (starting) gun time."
While Wacker admits that he does enjoy finding his limits in bad weather on a race day, having the control to have the perfect day is a huge benefit to running FKTs.
Maintaining motivation and staying consistent can become small or large obstacles, depending on the distance and the classification of the FKT attempt. "I try to find a gear--like a bike or a car, you have to go into a gear--and stick with it." Says Yonke, "Be like a metronome and stay in that consistent effort."
Yonke goes on to encourage other athletes to remember their "why" during their attempt to keep their output and spirits high.
Yonke says she runs in support of her father, who has lost his ability to walk after a diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. She frequently uses her FKT attempts to raise awareness and money for research to find a cure. Yonke became tearful when speaking about her motivation, explaining that she never takes her ability to run for granted and that she finds gratitude in the painful challenges.
Dealing with the Unknown
The longer the attempt, the more room for unknown challenges to arise. FKT attempts that go overnight or into several nights also provide more profound challenges for the athletes.
"Being out there solo, especially as you go into the night, is something humans are interstitially scared of" Winchester says. "There is something primal about humans wanting to hide from the night as the sun sets. Going into an area that feels like it could be unsafe or have predators takes a mentality of pushing through the fear. Usually, my desire to meet my goal is greater than my fear, but I assess the risk before I move forward."
A large draw for completing an FKT is for an athlete to find their limits and test their physical and mental abilities. Understanding existing fears or limits can help assess risk in the moment. Winchester has spent countless nights running and hiking alone in remote areas. Not only are predators a risk, but sleep deprivation can cause an athlete to become disoriented or lose the trail. Before engaging in events that require running through the night alone, practice training during the late hours, and learn how the body responds to diminished rest.
Nutrition and Hydration
The lack of set aid stations can serve as both an stumbling block, as well as an advantage. While the athlete will need to plan what they will carry, or if they will have a crew meet them with supplies; there is more freedom to plan for support where it will be the most beneficial.
"In a FKT you have to plan everything," says Yonke. "With the White Rim 100, I was being supported and aid stations were set up by my crew according to where we had decided on ahead of time."
Yonke says that unlike a standard race, there is more control over how to establish support and plan nutrition. However, that takes more time in dialing logistics and ensuring that a crew is aware of the plan so time is not lost. In an unsupported event, it will be important to find nutrition that is both efficient and calorie-dense to ensure consistent energy.
Rest and Sleep
When FKTs stretch into the night or multiple days, it becomes more likely that an athlete will need to rest. While a supported athlete might have the benefit of the crew setting up a quick camp, a self-supported or unsupported athlete will need to accommodate for extra gear. No matter the classification of the attempt, it is helpful for the athlete to figure out what method of sleep and rest works for them.
"On my John Muir Trail [unsupported] attempt, the plan was to get at least four hours of solid sleep a night with 20 hours of solid movement," Winchester says. "But I just could not sleep for that long. So I started taking 'dirt naps' whenever I got tired, usually lasting 10-20 minutes. Often I'll push through sleep deprivation and just take naps when I absolutely have to."
She says it's often the draw of completing her goal that motivates her to move through the night. She says that finding "hacks" for staying awake; such as music, caffeine, or certain foods are important when pushing herself.
Expect to Do it More Than Once
Just like setting a personal record in a race, it is not always feasible to hit a goal on the first attempt. Many of the athletes mentioned said they do not go into the first attempt assuming that they will set the record. Or, they have the understanding that their record will get broken.
"You have to get to know the route, and some days just don't workout." Stanley says. "Having the self-forgiveness to not always feel motivated and to go in with the mindset of adventure helps ensure that I will have a good day."
Unlike a standard race, an FKT can be attempted several times throughout a season, or vollied back and forth between two competing athletes.
Whether an athlete is ready to start ticking off the fastest known times or just wants some inspiration to run a set course alone, exploring fastestknowntime.com can be a great place to start a next adventure or immerse into an entire new style of trail running.
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