Chasing fastest known times (FKTs) affords us the ability to race where we want, when we want. In the last few years the FKT scene has exploded due in large part to social media (Facebook, Strava, Instagram) and GPS technologies. However, non-consensus of proper safety precautions and the arrival of recently inspired but inexperienced athletes to the FKT scene sets the longevity of trail running in jeopardy. It’s vital trail runners develop a thorough understanding of the fundamental differences between racing and FKT type expeditions* lest we endanger the good name of our sport.
A race is any organized event where participants cover either a set distance or set time. Typically races, especially ultras, have other racers, permits, aid stations, medical staff and much more.
FKT’s (or FKT type excursions) vary immensely in distance and range from popular trails like the Grand Canyon to remote regions like the Antarctic. Usually FKT’s are individual attempts or at most done in groups of 2-4 people.
Race entry fee ($25-$1,000+ USD). FKT – Possible permit, often free.
A race is a lot like a coloring book. What you can see and do is confined within the lines of what you are coloring in. When signing up you commit to the distance, the date, the rules and the route (which depending on the race and race director can be nearly impossible, think Barkley for instance).
FKT’s, meanwhile, range from coloring books to blank canvases. For instance, something like the Grand Canyon Rim-Rim-Rim record, which has been rewritten several times in the past decade, is something more akin to the coloring book. It’s got a set distance, a set record and a myriad of people (prior to Rob Krar setting the bar at “impossible”) chomping at the bit to vie for the record. On the other hand, FKT’s like Ryan Sandes’ Drakensburg Traverse or my Santa Rosa Ridge Traverse were unprecedented. No-one had ever done them before, and due to their remoteness, it’s likely very few people ever will. These FKT’s were blank canvases.
A well-organized race, especially ultras, will have many rules, very obvious ones: No littering, no pacers before mile 60, no cutting switchbacks, must carry required gear and so on. And one of the most important; must have prior experience in…
An FKT, however, is the honor system at its finest. Rules for FKT’s aren’t printed in bold in a pre-race packet. Rather as individuals it is our duty to uphold a fair, safe and environmentally ethical practice in pursuing FKT’s. Most of these ethics can be translated directly from pre-race packets: Respect other trail users, don’t cut switchbacks, practice leave no trace ethics and so on. However, no-one is checking for experience in FKT type expeditions. You can go from couch potato to canyon and this ability, though beautifully accessible, puts the safety of trail running at risk.
The publicity and accolades from finishing first at a race like Western States or Hardrock will take care of themselves. Sponsors line up, podcasts go wild and online publications will bid left, right and centre for your race report.
Until very recently FKT’s could not have been more opposite. For centuries, word of these obscure records passed back and forth among small, often local athletes from the region (look at the history of the UK fell running records). However, modern day social media has turned this notion completely on its head. A well-publicized FKT can now garnish the same (if not more) fame than winning a competitive ultra. Look no further than Scott Jurek’s recent Appalachian Trail FKT for evidence. However, it is in this new limelight that we are seeing an influx inexperienced individuals coming to the FKT scene. The ease of remote trail accessibility is not without great risk to the individual and the sport.
Between the race packet, pre-race meeting and trip reports, there is an immense amount of information for the individual to divulge. Most of this research (aid stations, climbs and descents) will already be laid out for the runner. This process (unless you are racing Barkley) should take only a few days at most.
From a logistical standpoint FKT’s are a nightmare. Depending on their size, these carefully planned projects can take literally years to study the terrain, find water sources and obtain foreign permits. For instance, in planning for my 100 in 100 project this December (where I plan to run all 100 of San Diego’s peaks in roughly 100 hours) required countless hours poring over maps, reading trip reports and conducting scouting trips to find the optimal routes. It’s been very time consuming. As mentioned in the Freedom comparison section, FKT’s represent a spectrum of projects and can mean planning for something as immense as my 100 in 100 project or something simpler like the Rim-Rim-Rim. Whatever the size of the project, it is fundamental that the individual and their success involve meticulous planning and research prior to their endeavor.
Certainly there are inherent risks when racing ultras. From dehydration, hyponatremia, bad falls, kidney failure or sudden cardiac arrest; running ultras is a risky sport. However, participants have a safety net of volunteers, aid stations and medical staff to fall back on if their race goes awry.
There are even greater risks in FKT’s. The runner is often entirely self-supported and alone. If the runner wants to quit or they’ve ran out of water then they are thrust into a real life survival scenario. This risk is real and eminent. Say for instance, another runner wanted to go for my record on the Santa Rosa Traverse (a remote, seldom visited wilderness) and they neglected to do their proper planning and research on water and weather patterns. At best they’d be lucky to escape with severe dehydration and at worst they’d die. There are no safety nets.
Despite what insurance companies offer coverage for, there is no such thing as an accident proof race. However, races offer more than adequate preventative measures and are well equipped to handle medical emergencies.
According to the Seattle Times last year the Grand Canyon spent over half a million dollars on 324 rescues; the most it’s had since 2001. The popularization of the Rim-Rim-Rim route amongst other FKT inspired expeditions has led to an increased number of individuals following these routes without taking the proper precautions and safety measures. These carelessly planned attempts endanger not only their own health but also the longevity and good name of our trail running.
As we athletes continue to expand over new terrains and establish new FKT’s it is fundamental that we place a much higher emphasis on safety. It is the responsibility of the experienced athletes to demonstrate and execute proper safety precautions in their efforts. Careless attempts will only lead to the proliferation of an unsafe and an unsustainable practice that our parks and general public will be more than happy to take away from us.
In closing, I want to mention what I am personally striving towards in doing my best to represent the environmentally ethical and safe practice of FKT’s. I currently volunteer weekly at Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary in San Diego where I work with the owner on fire clearance and non-native species removal. If anything it’s helped me immensely in learning the endangered native species of San Diego and made me more aware of these sensitive areas as I travel throughout the county on my runs. The two remaining projects of the year for me are Backdoor to Badwater where Charlie Engle, myself and Dean Karnazes are planning to run from Badwater to Mt. Whitney entirely off-road. During this project and the 100 in 100 I plan on demonstrating and documenting our planning, preparation and safety measures in order to demonstrate that trail runners can be good stewards of the land.
* I chose to refer to FKT type expeditions instead of just FKT’s to include the wider population of individuals that aren’t going for the record but are seeking longer, self-driven expeditions, for example the hundreds of Rim-Rim-Rim runners each year.