I’ve spent the last year learning about, chatting about, and finally doing, Fastest Known Times. At this point, the concept has gone from a relatively underground sort of pursuit to nearly mainstream in the ultrarunning world. This has been helped along significantly by the novel coronavirus’s impact on the 2020 race landscape. With no races, many more people are looking for other ways to test themselves, and attempts at FKTs have multiplied quickly.
I feel like this makes it a good time to express my position on FKTs. Specifically, why the hell would someone who was a solid mid-packer at his absolute youthful well-trained peak have any business posting times that could be referred to in any context as “fastest?” This is a question I have seen many other people ask themselves publicly. It usually goes like this: “wonder what ol Stringbean was eating for those 5 days when he utterly destroyed that Long Trail FKT? Not that I could do an FKT. I’m slow.”
Here’s the thing I want to shout every time I see someone say something similar (and it happens a whole bunch). The phrase is Fastest Known Time. It was carefully picked by its creators to mean something different than Fastest Time, or Record Time, or World Record. It means just what it says: it’s the fastest anyone knows of someone doing that particular route. “Fastest Known” is not an absolute, and it actually doesn’t even necessarily imply “fast.”
To illustrate, let’s think about hamburgers. I live in a city that has a bunch of good options for burgers. Some might even argue that the best hamburger of all could be found here. If I set out to find the best hamburger of all, maybe I start with Burger King and McDonalds. After having both, I might conclude that one is the Better Hamburger (BK’s obviously). This doesn’t mean the BK burger is good in some general sense, just better. If my next stop is Au Cheval, maybe I find a new Better Burger there. And so on.
The best burger hunt illustrates the two reasons why I think even slow as mud people like me ought to take an interest in, and potentially participate in, FKTs. Here are two reasons. First, and probably most importantly, if you engage the burger hunt, you may discover a burger joint that nobody else knows about. If they make an insanely good burger, your hunt suddenly becomes very useful to other burger lovers. If you know of an incredible trail or route that few others do, by adding it to the FKT database you’re sharing that with others. The first FKT Allison and I did wasn’t one listed in the FKT database, but since it was one of our favorite loops to run so we submitted it. Ironically, literally while writing this I learned that someone had bested our time on the route yesterday. So I can relate the new experience of having someone do your route (faster than you!) firsthand: it’s deeply gratifying.
Second, the style in which you do a route makes an enormous difference. Many of the established routes are done in what might be called the “ultrarunning style” which is supported. If the route is 100 miles long, I enlist a crew of friends to meet me every time the trail crosses the road with water, food, a chair to sit in etc, basically staging my own ultra complete with aid stations. A less popular option, though, is doing the 100 miles unsupported. You load up everything you need to travel those miles in your pack and go do it. This presents a completely new set of logistical issues to deal with. Navigation, food selection, self-sufficiency, ability to source water, etc. are all skills that are key to doing a route in that style effectively. In this style, raw speed is not sufficient to set or break the FKT, and it actually might not even be necessary. Neither style is inherently better, but they do emphasise different abilities and skills.