Forever running: the rise and rise of the fastest known time

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.