So what, exactly, is an FKT? The acronym stands for Fastest Known Time, an unofficial course record of sorts. Technically, a speed record can be established for any trail or course that an individual wishes to designate. FKTs can be as varied and original as the people who attempt them, although they are typically run start-to-finish on an entire established trail, on established or otherwise “classic” routes, or on mountaineering routes such as summit ascents. Some of the most widely known FKTs are the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, Vermont’s Long Trail, and the Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. Not all of them are epic, multi-day affairs, however. Take Neil Gorman’s 20-mile circumnavigation of the Rivanna Trail in Charlottesville, Virginia, or his 7-mile Old Rag Loop. Both are reasonable distances that can be undertaken with minimal planning and logistics.
One of the good – and bad – things about an FKT attempt is that you get to make your own rules. In essence, you are your own race director, choosing the location, the distance, the date and time of your adventure. If the day comes and you’re just not feeling it, or the weather is a washout, no worries – try again tomorrow, or next week. On the other hand, this lack of accountability can make it awfully tempting to bail when the going gets rough. Whereas most runners will go to great lengths to avoid a DNF in a traditional race, once you take away the entry fee and the spectators, it becomes much easier to succumb to the urge to quit. Matt Kirk (who holds a variety of speed records across the Southeast, including the Bartram Trail and the Benton-MacKaye Trail, as well as the unsupported Appalachian Trail record) says that he has entertained thoughts of stopping at least once in every speed record he has attempted. “It’s a good opportunity to assess things,” he says, asking himself “how bad is it really?” While most of the time the pain and discomfort are temporary and can be pushed through, there have been times that he has opted to abort his attempt. After all, he says, “we do this for pleasure…and sometimes it isn’t really pleasurable.”
If you feel ready to go out and attempt an FKT of your own, where do you begin?
Peter Bakwin, who along with fellow Coloradan Buzz Burrell (featured photo, taken in Chile), was one of the pioneers of the FKT movement in the 1990’s, has established the go-to website for all things FKT. Here you can find listings of FKTs around the country and the globe, along with guidelines for establishing a speed record and general discussions about the topic.
Burrell has proposed three basic guidelines for establishing an FKT:
How do you establish a speed record?
Buzz Burrell has proposed 3 common sense guidelines:
- [*]Announce your intentions in advance. Like a true gentleman, pay your respects to those who came before you, and tell them what you intend to attempt and when.
- [*]Be an open book. Invite anyone to come and watch or, better yet, participate. This makes your effort more fun and any result more believable.
- [*]Record your event. Write down everything immediately upon completion. Memory doesn’t count.
These three rules do not “prove” you have done anything. They just make it easier for a good person to believe you.
Supported, self-supported, unsupported? What does it mean?
[*] Supported means you have a dedicated support team that meets you along the way to supply whatever you need. This generally allows for the fastest, lightest trips, and for an element of camaraderie and safety, since someone knows about where you are at all times.
[*] Self-supported means that you don’t carry everything you need from the start, but you don’t have dedicated, pre-arranged people helping you. This is commonly done a couple different ways: You might put out stashes of supplies for yourself prior to the trip, or you might just use what’s out there, such as stores, begging from other trail users, etc. Long distance backpackers are typically self-supported, since they resupply by mail drop or in stores.
[*] Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. Typically, this means that you must carry all your supplies right from the start, except any water that can be obtained along the way from natural sources. This approach has also been termed “alpine style”. The longest trip I’m aware of using this style is Coup’s 20-day thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. For most people, carrying enough food for more than a few days to one week will be prohibitive.
Unsupported also means unaccompanied! (i.e., no pacers)
Further note: Some people get really crazy about what does or does not fit into “unsupported”. I’ve had long conversations about this especially with Jeff List, who very thoroughly documented the opinions I expressed here.
Thoughts on Verification:
You put in a huge effort and trashed your body for the next 6 months. You want people to believe what you say you did, right?
[*]Follow Buzz’s guidelines above.
[*]If other people are involved in your trip, make sure they are involved in the telling the story as well.
[*]Photos & video really help.
[*]Independent verifiers are key. Consider passing out cards to people you meet along the way with information about your trip & asking the person to email you to confirm when and where they saw you.
[*]For shorter trips where it is practical, GPS tracks (.gpx files) are great.
[*]SPOT and Delorme satellite trackers just might be the ultimate verification tool, and they provide a measure of safety as well. Also, it’s a lot of fun for your friends to be able to watch your progress online in real time. These are becoming standard for longer trips. Use them!