Last month, ultrarunner and mountaineer Kilian Jornet scaled Everest in a record time of 26 hours. He completed the journey from base camp to the summit without the use of fixed ropes or supplemental oxygen. The achievement marks the culmination of Jornet’s Summits of My Life project, which has already seen him set speed records for going up and down Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The Spaniard’s “light and fast” expeditions are the most eye-catching examples of an increasingly popular endurance challenge. Now, more than ever, top trail and ultrarunners are forgoing races in favour of attempting fastest known times, or “FKTs”. It is a trend that in recent months has seen the United States crossed in 42 days and Ireland in just over three.
The idea is simple: a runner sets out to cover a given route or journey faster than the previous known best. For elites, this usually means tackling an iconic trail or point-to-point run, many of which have well-established FKTs. In America, where the trend is most marked, one acronym has given rise to many more: to set a fastest known time for the JMT (John Muir Trail) or the R2R (the “rim-to-rim” width of the Grand Canyon) would carry all the prestige of winning a major trophy. Beating Jornet’s time on the 165-mile TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail), which he set at an astonishing 38 hours 32 minutes, would grant entrance into ultra-running’s hall of fame.
Of course, individual time trials are nothing new. The classic 66-mile Bob Graham Round was an idea conceived in the 1930s, and Billy Bland’s 13-hour record, set in 1982, predates the FKT label. But a challenge that once relied on trust has been transformed by technology; records that used to spread by word of mouth are now shared instantly and widely on social media; and what in the 1980s would have earned runners a pat on the back might today lead to television appearances, sponsorship money and awards.
Viewing habits are changing and, at the same time, records on the track are increasingly being met with skepticism. As a result, solo challenges are fast becoming a spectator sport. Part of a new wave of running films, Made to be Broken follows the story of veteran ultrarunner Karl Meltzer, who last year covered the 2,190-mile Appalachian trail in just 45 days and 22 hours. The film does a brilliant job of capturing the immediate drama of crossing 14 states on foot, averaging 50 miles a day on brutal terrain. But it is its emphasis on Meltzer’s background and his relationship to those on periphery of the challenge – friends, family, fellow runners – that makes Made to be Broken memorable.
The same can be said of Run Forever, a life-affirming documentary about cancer survivor Nicky Spinks’ completion of the Double Bob Graham Round. The 49-year-old farmer and fell runner became only the second person to have completed the 132-mile course, which includes over 16,000 metres of ascent. Her mark of 45 hours 35 minutes remains the fastest known time. It appears superhuman, but the film makes it clear that Spinks is anything but: it is a portrait of a human being who, 10 years after being reminded of her own mortality, embarked on a challenge that she saw as a celebration of life.
These quiet, reflective documentaries may not have the immediacy of the televised race, but they’re certainly getting the viewers: Run Forever has been watched almost 100,000 times. Running brands have realised the value of story, and this has opened up opportunities for athletes who are no longer, or never were, competing at the top level. This shift in focus has to be a good thing: putting a spotlight on people of different ages and backgrounds – on people like you and me – will surely inspire participation as much as it will drive sales. But as companies begin to invest in a new type of running star, a level of scrutiny is required that sits uncomfortably with a challenge that is, by definition, unofficial: fastest known time.
In 2014, Robert Young’s decision to run a marathon every day for a year caught the attention of broadcasters, brands and book publishers. Two years later, shortly after the release of his autobiography, the sportswear company Skins lent their support to his next challenge: an attempt at the decades-old FKT for the 3,100-mile crossing of America. Suspicions arose when a member of the public decided to keep Young company one night in rural Kansas. He tracked down the GPS signal and the slow-moving race vehicle, but the runner was nowhere to be seen. A post on the LetsRun forum began a troubling episode of crowd-sourced surveillance and online abuse. Skins’ response was admirable: the company commissioned an independent report into the accusations, which found that Young’s cheating was beyond reasonable doubt. They dropped him as an athlete but defended him as a human being, pointing (quite rightly) to his harrowing backstory.
A volunteer-run FKT website acts as both a record book and an unofficial governing body. Its founders, Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell, make clear that if a runner wants their FKT “recognised”, they need to build a case – and this means using a satellite tracker, employing witnesses and providing photographic evidence. These are all things that Pete Kostelnick did when he set the Trans America record a few months after Young’s withdrawal, averaging 70 miles a day for 42 days.
Runners might be wise to remain suspicious of achievements that seem impossible, but that doesn’t mean that the fastest known time has to go the way of the world record. In the same month as Kilian Jornet ascended Everest, an unknown race-walker set off on a supported trip around the M25. The 158-mile circuit took him just under 44 hours and, as the first non-stop circumnavigation on foot, it was an FKT by default. Such unglamorous, eccentric, DIY challenges embrace the original spirit of the FKT, and so should we. After all, anyone can plot a route and lay down a marker – we just shouldn’t expect a medal at the end.