Jacquie Mannhard had long heard her fellow trail runners talk of fastest-known times. The prospect of tackling a gnarly route relatively unsupported had tickled the Boulder-based distance runner’s fancy for years, but she’d never gotten around to looking into it further.
Then the pandemic struck.
It was April when she got the first notice: “Given the uncertainty and severity of the situation,” the Silver Rush 50 Run in Leadville was off. Then “due to COVID-19” the Golden Gate Dirty 30 near Black Hawk followed suit. It was clear her racing season was going down the toilet, but that itch to test herself against fellow athletes remained.
“I realized the races were all being canceled, so I checked out the FKTs more seriously,” Mannhard said.” I thought it would be fun to do some summer objectives, and FKTs are the most reasonable way to compete virtually.”
FKTs, fastest known times, are just that: the fastest run or hike time recorded by anybody — ultrarunner or casual jogger — for a specific stretch of trail. Tackle a route but come up one second behind another runner? Well done, but don’t bother posting. “There are no second- or third-fastest listings; only the fastest [times], posted chronologically as they were completed,” reads fastestknowntime.com, a database tracking the speediest traverses of 2,328 routes worldwide.
Pre-COVID, FKTs were popular primarily among elite athletes “bored with running,” said Colorado trail running legend Buzz Burrell, who co-founded the FKT website. “Now it’s Tom, Dick and Sue. It’s just everybody.”
Runners from Canada to Croatia are lacing up their shoes, queuing up their GPS watches and hitting the trail. Worldwide, runners have snagged more than four times as many FKTs this year as last for the March 1 to July 16 time frame. In June and July alone, Burrell’s team logged 450 worldwide records, accounting for nearly 20% of all the FKTs the site has tallied since 2017.
Indeed, given that FKTs are typically solo attempts often on local trails, they present an ideal competitive outlet in the era of COVID-19, when everyone is encouraged to stay away from others and remain close to home.
“Races are essentially illegal right now,” Burrell said. “With a FKT, you can be out there and be socially distanced. It’s totally legal and totally safe to throw down and put your mark up.”
Colorado routes and runners posting at a record pace
Clearly, Mannhard isn’t the only one using FKTs to save her running season. Looking at the Colorado stats for the March 1 to July 16 time period, athletes have posted 106 new FKTs and 24 new FKT routes this year — that’s nearly six times as many records and eight times as many routes as they did in 2019.
But this isn’t just a local trend. Take Durango-based athlete Kyle Curtin, who recently nabbed the unsupported FKT for the Tahoe Rim Trail in California after blazing the 171-mile course in 41 hours and 9 minutes. Curtin noted that the route had been on his radar, but like Mannhard, he had “no intention to do it until all the races got canceled this spring.”
The running FKT trend is akin to the Everesting trend — in which a runner or rider picks one hill and runs or rides a stretch repeatedly until achieving 8,848 meters of vertical gain, the height of Mount Everest. Everesting, which has no time limit, has taken off among cyclists, especially during the pandemic.
In order to claim an FKT, an athlete must either post documentation of their fastest ever time on a previously established route or create a new route themselves that’s “notable and distinct enough so that others will be interested in repeating it,” the FKT website explains. Athletes must submit a GPX file of the proposed route, which is then approved (or rejected) by Burrell himself.
“This isn’t Strava, which includes every dumbass thing some guy can think of between two mailboxes,” Burrell said. “This is a worldwide bucket list of routes.”
Many of the FKT routes wind through national parks or wander through protected wilderness areas, opening the door to competition in places that could never sustain a commercial race.
“You can’t race up Mount Rainier or the Grand Canyon, but you can do an FKT there,” Burrell said.
Colorado’s list of FKTs includes 114 routes, some offering multiple variations of records, like ascent-only and descent-only or supported and unsupported. The list of climbs and traverses range from Boulder’s beloved Mount Sanitas, a brief-but-brutal lung-buster that climbs 1,300 feet over just 1.4 miles, to the state’s highest peak, the 14,440-foot Mount Elbert.
Seth DeMoor, the Buena Vista-born athlete who at the end of June claimed two FKTs on Mount Elbert (1 hour, 6 minutes, 42 seconds on the ascent; 1 hour, 42 minutes, 55 seconds round-trip, although that record was busted by 3 seconds the next day) appreciates how racing the clock for the fastest-ever time facilitates the ability “to be competitive in a non-race environment, racing against runners from other years and eras.”
So far this year DeMoor has claimed nine records on six routes, something he never would have considered doing in a typical race year. The physical toll is just too much to take on while also hammering in official races.
Durango’s Tahoe-looping Curtin feels the same way.
“I don’t know how many 170-mile runs I have in my body,” he said. “It’s just a once or twice a year type of thing, not something I can do every weekend. Not having races definitely leaves the door open to try FKTs.”
Does that mean the popularity of FKTs will diminish when a vaccine is found and racers return to the starting line?
Burrell notes that interest in FKTs had been on the rise even before the pandemic struck. In fact, according to him, some elite athletes — he calls out ultramarathoner Kílian Jornet as an example — appreciate the rugged solitude of an FKT over the groomed experience of a traditional race.
Others point out that FKTs and organized races are just two different beasts.
“For a very select group of people, races are about competition,” said Caleb Efta, founder of the High Lonesome 100, a century-long trail race that traverses the southern end of the Sawatch Range. “But for most people, races are about community. Anybody can go out and run 100 miles. You can still go run the High Lonesome course on your own, but it’s not the High Lonesome.”
Cliff Bosley, race director for the Bolder Boulder, agrees, pointing to the tradition, ceremony and celebration surrounding the Memorial Day 10K, which also was canceled this year. “We’re a lot more than just a road race,” he said.
FKTs attract a crowd of athletes who prefer a gritty, adventure experience, what Mannhard lovingly calls a “pure solo sufferfest.” FKTers must pore over trail maps, plan logistics and then plot out the best time of year and perfect day to execute their project. In addition to needing to carry their own water and nutrition, there’s an added mental element since the route isn’t clearly marked with bold arrows, water hand-outs and snack stations.
“With an FKT, you’re pretty engaged with knowing where you are and knowing what to look for on your next turn. It’s a very different mindset from a race,” Curtin said. “There are a lot more things you have to focus on.”
Whatever happens with the more traditional running-race scene, athletes like Mannhard are thankful for a new way to compete.
“We have all these Front Range peaks and there’s never going to be a race on these mountains,” Mannhard said. “If you want to go out and race on these dear friends, on these beloved mountains, it’s FKT style.”