This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
When cycling pro Lachlan Morton clipped into the pedals of his pack-saddled Cannondale on Aug. 29 at the starting line of the Tour Divide in Banff, Canada, he was on a mission.
Twelve days, 12 hours and 21 minutes later he rolled into Antelope Wells, New Mexico, with the fastest time ever for the 2,670-mile Tour Divide route that climbs 192,000 vertical feet across the spine of the Rockies.
Morton completed the route nearly a day and a half faster than the record set in 2016, but his journey will not be recorded as the fastest known time, or FKT. That’s because Morton was chased by a film crew, which was making a movie of his blistering traverse of the Continental Divide. Those camera operators are a violation of the Tour Divide’s self-sufficiency ethic, even though they did not assist in any way.
Morton knew that when he started. His mission was bigger than glory and accolades.
“Look, I’ve won bike races before and it’s a great feeling but it’s pretty fleeting,” said the 31-year-old cycling champion who has turned his prowess in road biking toward long-distance endurance pedaling. “The only benefit of not having the film crew was a record for me personally. I’m not going to say I don’t care about that at all, but I don’t care about it more than sharing my story with more people. The role of a professional athlete is to inspire people to participate and get involved. That should be every athlete’s goal when they are considering a challenge or trying to win something.”
The fastest known time phenomenon exploded during the pandemic as countless athletes quietly converted just about every trail, climb and hike in the mountains into race routes. Morton’s disregard for the hallowed FKT mirrors the recent effort by Boulder adventurer Erin Ton. In July, the 25-year-old Ton climbed 57 of Colorado’s highest peaks in an extraordinarily hasty 14 days, 10 hours, claiming a solo, self-supported speed record that will be officially logged as a DNF because she skipped a privately owned peak due to “considerable moral issues” with the owners of the Cielo Vista Ranch.
Could record-setting athletic feats by athletes like Morton, an Aussie who lives in Boulder, and Ton diminish the FKT trend, which was born more than two decades ago as a way to herald often-overlooked athleticism?
Nope, said Buzz Burrell, the legendary endurance athlete who, alongside adventure running partner Peter Bakwin, forged the realm of fastest known times in the late 1990s and launched a website as an online trophy shelf for speedy runners and mountaineers.
Taking races into the wild challenges verification of times
Running a race on a track is black-and-white with an obvious winner. Move that race into wild lands and countless options can influence the results, Burrell said.
“We established guidelines so there would be a level and equal playing field and everyone can know where they stand,” Burrell said. “And because Mother Nature is complex and ever-changing, there will be nuances within that framework. That’s the way it goes. So if someone breaks the rules, 99% of the time there is no asterisk. There is just no FKT. The problem is social media, which announces something before verification can take place, so it seems like a done deal.”
Burrell sold his fastestknowntime.com website to Outside Inc. last year, with 5,738 routes across the world for runners and mountain climbers to log their speediest times. The website includes 202 routes in Colorado where athletes can race far from pavement or spectators.
In 2019, renowned cyclist Lael Wilcox vied to become the first woman to win the Tour Divide. The acclaimed endurance athlete — she set the women’s record for the route in 2015 and was the first woman to finish in 2023 after riding 3,000 miles from her home in Arizona to the start in Banff — enlisted a film crew in her 2019 effort. Even though she dropped from the race, that film crew sparked ire from some racers who argued that media teams violated the race’s requirement that all competitors remain self-supported.
Tour Divide veteran Jay Petervary took the position that the film crews “can inject undue moral hazard into the equation” serving as “a security blanket for a rider on the edge and thus poses artificial psychological uplift.”
By the 2022 race, the rules included a note that “while not yet published” the race director had decided that individual film crews are not allowed to follow athletes. The rules also prohibit racers from visiting with family and friends who travel to the route.
Morton set out from Banff with a plan to break the speed record. He also wanted to prove a new strategy for peak speed. Eschewing seemingly mandatory drowsiness on the route, Morton planned to sleep 12 hours for every 48 hours on the trail, or around six hours a night.
“I think one of the big barriers to attempting fast ultra-type events is people not wanting to deal with sleep deprivation and they think they cannot be competitive without enduring that,” Morton said. “I wanted to show that you can do these events safely and competitively with sleep.”
Morton has no animosity toward race organizers who will keep late endurance cyclist Mike Hall at the top of the Tour Divide record list for his 2016 race time of 13 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes.
He doesn’t think his speedy time will remain unchallenged for long.
“I think having set a time that was quite a bit quicker, I think next year you will see people go quicker,” Morton said. “That’s my small contribution.”
Aside from speed and proving his sleep strategy, Morton said his Tour Divide race was a highlight of his life in the saddle.
There were long stretches between towns where he could resupply with food. A couple times, he said, he wanted to quit “but sometimes the easiest thing to do is keep moving.”
“It definitely tested me a number of times,” he said. “But you get in a pretty special head space when you are focused for that period of time. Your needs become pretty simple: Pedal as much as you can. Get food. Get sleep. And repeat. It’s as simple as life can get even though it’s about as difficult an experience one can have.”
Morton said he’d like to pedal the route again. But slower. Much slower.
“To really experience the route you probably need five, six weeks,” he said. “There are so many wonderful little towns. So many really supportive, warm people on the route.”