What you can learn from a really long walk
With no official governing body, it’s up to athletes to prove their fastest-known-time claims. But as the stakes increase, substantiating these feats has become more complex than ever. For those who still intend to pursue an FKT, though, these guidelines will help.
Each year, dozens of hikers and runners announce their intention to set an FKT on trails around the world. This is not a new thing. In 11th-century Scotland, kings would challenge locals to race ambitious routes on rocky highlands. The winner, it’s said, earned a gig as royal messenger.
Here in the United States, FKT attempts began with Earl “The Original Crazy One” Shaffer, who in 1948 became the first person to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He returned in 1965 to see how much time he could shave off his first attempt and set a record of 99 days. Since then, at least 16 people have set FKTs on that trail alone, including current record holder Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy, who last year cut Shaffer’s record in half with a stunning time of 45 days and change.
But as the popularity of these FKT attempts has increased, so too has the difficulty in proving them. Historically, FKTs were set by an elite group of individuals who mostly flew under the radar. They stuck to a clear moral code and kept abreast of one another’s accomplishments. And that, says trail running legend Buzz Burrell, made accepting new claims easy. “There was nothing to be gained from cheating and everything to be lost without the respect of your peers,” says Burrell, who currently holds 11 FKTs in places as far-flung as Chile’s Tierra Del Fuego.
Burrell is also widely credited with creating the basic rules for FKTs. About 15 years ago, he established what he calls the three “commonsense guidelines” for any attempt:
Announce your intentions in advance.
Be an open book and invite people to observe your attempt.
Record your attempt in detail.
For years, those simple rules were sufficient when it came to validating an FKT. “It was about community,” Burrell says. “People knew each other and could count on the support of their peers.”
Much changed after recent high-profile attempts by celebrity athletes like Scott Jurek and Karl Meltzer, who brought serious media attention to those attempting FKTs on big trails like the AT. Today, an FKT may well include promise of corporate sponsorship or a lucrative book contract. This attention has undeniably changed the burden of proof, and as FKTs have become more popular, they’ve also inspired some dubious claims. In 2016, Kaiha Bertollini said she set a speed record on the AT, and Dan Binde said the same thing the following year. Both were practically unknown athletes, and critics later pointed out gaps and inconsistencies in their documentation. Attempts like these have fueled a movement to create stricter verification guidelines. But since there’s no governing FKT body, it’s still up to athletes to honestly document and prove their times.
So what’s the best way to set and prove an FKT today? We asked five experts for some advice. Here’s what they told us.
Establish Your Cred Beforehand
Without a hiking or ultrarunning résumé, anyone looking to set an FKT is facing an uphill battle, says David Horton, one of the first individuals to set FKTs on both the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Horton is a professor of health sciences at Liberty University and has more than 160 ultramarathons under his belt. He has also advised multiple FKT grabbers, including Jurek. “This is about ultra-long-distance performance,” Horton says. “You have to indicate you can do something fantastic.” Before you go for an FKT, Horton recommends completing at least a few high-profile races, like the Leadville 100 or Hardrock.
Ditch the Ego
The pursuit of an FKT has always been about homage and paying respect to those who came before. Traditionally, the person attempting the FKT would contact the record holder personally, and that individual would support the new attempt by coming out to the trail. Today, a lot of these declarations happen digitally on sites like FastestKnownTime.com, the clearinghouse for FKTs, but they’re no less crucial—nor are the details they include.
A good FKT declaration should begin by naming whose record you’re going after and the particulars of how that person set it. Then follow up with your own plan. What direction will you be heading? What kind of assistance will you accept? Will you be hiking or hitching a lift to gear drops? “It’s about locating yourself within the tradition of FKTs and the people who have completed them,” McConaughy says. “FKTs don’t come from the trails themselves. They’re about the history of people who have gone out and done them.”
Pick Your Route Carefully
Sure, the AT and PCT get a lot of attention, but an FKT can be set just about anywhere. Historically, most FKTs were set in local communities on trails few people had ever heard of. In a lot of ways, that’s still true today. FastestKnownTime.com lists 650 different routes, ranging from state and local trails to Morocco’s Tubkal Peak to loops around Easter Island. They range in time from minutes to weeks and offer a huge spectrum of difficulty and skill sets. That’s crucial to keep in mind, says Heather “Anish” Anderson, who has set FKTs on both the AT and PCT, as well as shorter, lesser-known routes, like the 43-mile Devil’s Dome loop in her home state of Washington. “You’ve got to choose a route and style that cater to your strengths,” Anderson says. “A lot can go wrong out there, and you’ll want as much of an advantage as you can.”
Document, Document, Document
Carrying a satellite tracker has become pretty much mandatory for major FKT attempts. Even shorter ones should absolutely be documented using an app like Strava or a smartwatch with GPS. But that’s far from enough, says Peter Bakwin, who maintains FastestKnownTime.com and is widely considered the adjudicator of all things FKT. Cheating can still happen with a satellite tracking device, Bakwin says, though the more common problem athletes encounter is spotty data due bad reception from environmental factors like heavy canopy cover. Taking a long series of time-stamped photos for multiday FKT attempts can help, and gathering witnesses along the way is also a good idea. But the gold standard still remains the prompt publication of a detailed log of your journey, Bakwin says. “Traditionally, the trip report helped other people understand how you did the FKT. It makes the attempt personally believable and resonant with those who read it.”
More than that, he says, trip reports create a narrative that lets readers connect with the hiker and their experience, and that in turn builds community. “It’s the personal stories that helped most of us learn about FKTs in the first place,” Bakwin says. “It’d be a real shame if that’s lost.”
When Jennifer Pharr Davis twice broke the AT speed record, she did it with military precision: Her alarm went off every morning at 4:45, and she never went more than 90 minutes without some serious calorie intake. Pharr Davis would often use a daily mantra to get through the miles and made sure she had regular emotional support from friends and loved ones. “Making it as routine as possible is helpful for both your body and your mind,” she says. “Consistency, not speed, always wins at the end of the day.”
Earlier this month, Pharr Davis published The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience, and her take-home message again and again is about the importance of a positive routine. That goes for documenting time on the trail as well: Whether its an hourly update to a trip log or remembering to push out location stamps whenever you have a clear view of the sky, routines are crucial.
“Regardless of the route you choose, you’re going to have a lot of emotional peaks and valleys,” Pharr Davis says. “Sticking to a game plan will help see you through.”