Wednesday, September 21, 2011

FKT Ruminations

I was recently walking down Green Mountain and thinking (vaguely, haphazardly, as on-the-trail thought processes are wont to be) about the concept of Fastest Known Times (FKTs).  Here in Boulder, they seem very natural, as much a part of the local mountain running culture and lore as La Sportivas and energy gels (how fast can you run up the front side of Green Mt?  Bear Peak from Cragmoor TH? SoBo Peak from South Mesa TH?).   Indeed, the as-far-as-anyone-can-tell pioneers--Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell--of the now codified term have been Boulder residents for way way way longer than I've even been alive and have been doing highly impressive things in the mountains for at least as long.  I'll leave the Googling up to you.

The master sprinting up Flattie3.
Upon examination, though, the FKT concept is a uniquely Boulderian manifestation.  First, although blessed with abundant open space and highly accessible local peaks and trails, the rules and regs here strictly forbid any kind of organized, competitive event on these lands.  I am not here to offer an opinion on these rules, but merely suggest that the inherent lack of races has, over time, instead led to an obsession with individuals communally tracking their best running/climbing times on obvious routes and lines.

Second, Boulder is a supremely active and outdoorsy place.  A lot of people here get excited about mountain sports (the Reel Rock Tour Premiere at the Boulder Theater last week yielded a line of people that stretched entirely around the block--hard to imagine that happening in any other city of this size in the country. Or maybe any other US city, period).  And when that happens, the alpha males (and females?) of this crowd inevitably start challenging each other and themselves to be better (faster, longer, stronger?) than they were yesterday.  Mix these two ingredients with the invention and proliferation of the Internet and you've created a whole 'nother method of quantifying a culture.

The do-it-yourself and vaguely subversive, underground nature of FKTs is the primary attraction for me.  FKTs tend to exist on routes where races aren't allowed (or the organization of one would be far too involved), but the line is so pure and obvious and hews to a certain geographical or mountain aesthetic (summit link-ups, circumnavigations in general and range traverses all come to mind) that it simply begs to be cleaned in a single, concerted push.  The satisfaction that comes from pushing oneself all-out to explore a personal limit is still there but the hoopla and expense of a race isn't, even if one prepares with as focused of a training regimen as he or she would for a race.  It's a very primal and largely unfettered way of being in the mountains and testing oneself.

Fell runners of the UK seem to have latched on to this concept decades ago with the establishment of the Bob Graham Round--a link-up of 42 peaks in less than 24 hours in the English Lake District.  Legendary fell runner Joss Naylor built on this concept by eventually stringing together 72 peaks (and 105mi/38,000' of vert!) in 23:20 in 1975.  The Round has never become a formal race but records are kept for the route and as with any FKT-style effort, the spirit of moving quickly on inspiring, gnarly terrain is at the core of these feats' appeal.

Joss Naylor
In the world of climbing, they're simply called speed records, not FKTs, and, beyond first ascents, they're the primary way that the sport has continued to push the boundaries of inspired movement in the mountains while mostly avoiding the forced and artificial atmosphere of, say, a bouldering comp on plastic holds.  Legendary speed records like that of (currently) Dean Potter and Sean Leary's team effort on El Capitan's Nose route or Dani Arnold (2:28) and Ueli Steck's (2:47) Eiger North Face times (Arnold used aid in some spots while Steck completely free-climbed his ascent) are both outstanding examples of individuals racing up two of the most historic and aesthetic lines in the world.

Arnold running up the Eiger.
For me, personally, I know a deeper connection is formed between myself and a place if I am closer to my zenith of physical effort.  This is a huge part of the appeal of an FKT---it offers a reason to go to some of the most beautiful places in the world, seek a compelling route and have a personally meaningful experience in the context of that landscape.

In a way, though, the ambiguity and individual nature of an FKT is a self-protecting part of the concept that keeps it from, hopefully, becoming too fraught with the egos and hype that can surround racing.  The term itself--fastest known time--is a way of hedging one's bets; we think this is the current best possible performance on this route, but of course, we don't really know as everyone sort of does their own thing, maybe there has been a faster unknown performance, etc., etc.  Placing one's athletic worth on the foundation of an FKT is inadvisable at best, most likely silly, and delusional at worst.  Such ambiguity should be a healthy reminder to focus on the experience and process of simply moving quickly and efficiently in nature--embodying that most primal of activities--and not worrying unduly about the end-goal result.

A quick example of when FKTs don't make sense:  Here in Boulder where there are no races allowed, FKTs exist almost organically, but in my original mountain running home-base of Colorado Springs, the notion of keeping track of such things becomes almost instantly comical, because races are allowed there.  The Barr Trail up Pikes Peak is maybe the most obvious line up and down almost any mountain in the country, but there is no need for an FKT on the mountain because Matt Carpenter has already laid down a ridiculously stout course record in the sanctioned race.  However, on the entirely aesthetic Mt. Rosa just to the south an equally obvious and pure line exists up its east face that climbs 5mi and 4000' to it's 11,500' summit cone.  If that peak existed in  Boulder it would be the most valued FKT in the area.

Mt. Rosa
Instead, being in COS, there are two things that make establishing an FKT for Rosa seem kinda pointless:
1) We could just organize a race up that peak!
2) It is (still!) hard to think of anyone in the area other than Matt who could/would hold such a record. (And by quite a large margin...this is a self-admittedly unfocused 47-year old who a month ago essentially jogged a 2:19 Pikes Peak Ascent--"I never wanted to feel my legs on the climb"--en route to winning the Pikes Peak Marathon yet again.)  Basically, when such an outlier of a giant in a sport exists in an area there's hardly any reason to keep records on such things--everyone already knows who the King Bee is.

Matt running to an excellent 2:11/3:36 on Pikes Peak, 2008. Photo: Buzz Burrell.
Nevertheless, in the future, I look forward to hopefully applying my mountain running abilities to a growing list of iconic lines and more personal projects, as to me, it feels like the most authentic mode of exploring my limits in the mountains.


Rob Timko said...
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Rob Timko said...

The other appeal to FKT is you can make up the course and have it be YOUR favorite trail. It makes it more personal than a race route established by someone else. Granted, FKTs seem to usually be done on some already established and popular routes.

Rob 'FKT holder of the 5.08mi Doudy Draw-Spring-Brook lollipop' Timko

Jeff Edmonds said...

Thanks for this, Anton. I just put up an interview with Andy Anderson, who ran the FKT for ascent/descent of Long's Peak. You readers might enjoy it. I pasted the link below.


Neal Gorman said...

Very funny to read this post. The better part of the past week I've been thinking pretty much the same thing. A recent conversation with a friend left a lasting impression on me: "what kind of runner do I want to be?” At first, it seems like a simple, silly question. But if you think about it, deeply, it is a very profound query, loaded with all sorts of possibilities. Since thinking a lot about this question over the past week FKTs and personal travel adventures, centered on wild open space, mountain and/or otherwise running, have been on the forefront of my mind.

Good luck with your continued recovery.

paul reynolds said...

Wierd seeing UK runners on your blog. Joss Naylor, legend and can still be seen running around the lakes, even though his 70 odd! Have you ever thought about doing any UK races? Snowdon, Nevis, lakeland 100 etc, etc.

Andy said...
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Andy said...

I just checked it out on the map and Mt. Rosa is now on my list of must do runs this fall. Thanks!

Roger said...

That's kind of what Kilian is doing with his Quests (Kilimanjaro, Pyrenees traverse, GR-92, ...) isn't it? that's perfect, as you can choose exactly where and what to run, you just need someone taking care of the bills...

mtnrunner2 said...

Like the thoughts. Amazing stuff, that picture of Buzz is great and I've seen Uli videos. Incredible.

Personally I'm not coordinated/skilled enough, and I'd rather live to run tomorrow.

As long as there's no official racing in Mountain Parks (or wherever), the FKTs are fun. Everybody's really upbeat, cool and sportsmanlike about them.

Jeff Valliere said...

Very well put, great post. I enjoy this sort of FKT/PR thing way way way more than racing (as you well know). I like that it is on my own terms, without the hype, nerves, pomp, expectations, prognosticating, posturing, expense, etc... I just find it to be way more enjoyable and rewarding (not to mention I almost always perform better, but that goes back to it being on my own terms and picking the right day). I have Bill Wright to thank for all of this, discovering his website back in 2002 opened up a can of worms.

Rob Timko said...

JV - Boulder's official PR/FKT pacer! Having trouble hitting a time on a route...JV!..need to PR a trail? JV! ;)

Anton said...

Rob - exactly, the personal aspect of it is key. DIY.

Jeff - Excellent interview and even better overall website. The Longs Peak FKT is just classic. Huge congrats to Andy and nice reminder that I need to call up his brother to go for a run some time.

Neal - def not a simple question. Obviously, I've been having many of the same thoughts.

Paul - Snowdon and Nevis are a little too short to best suit my strengths, but I've had my interest piqued by the Three Peaks race this year, and the BGR.

Andy - Link up Rosa with a trip over Almagre and you def have a worthy outing.

Roger - yep, def inspiring stuff that Kilian is doing.

JV - I thought about linking to Bill's site, but it's so convoluted and confusing I decided not to...def good stuff in there, though.

Jim P. said...

Shared FKTs also provide inspiration and comparison value to others.

I like knowing what other runners are doing up/over a certain route, or what the FKT is. Those times give me energy. They give me perspective. They give me something to chase, no matter how close or far I am from them. And, they make good conversation fodder, when served with beer.

I wonder if we can get Bawkin to start collecting masters' FKTs...

Rob Timko said...

For me it's also super fun playing rabbit on FKT routes. Since I'm a slower guy, it's awesome to get a head-start up a route with faster guys chasing me hoping they don't catch me until the very end. Pushes me to push it, and makes it fun for the chasers.

Unknown said...

"For me, personally, I know a deeper connection is formed between myself and a place if I am closer to my zenith of physical effort. "

That is THE perfect description of "why" we do this. I love it. I'm gonna use it myself the next time I get asked why I have to RUN through the woods instead of just strolling.

Michael Cipriano said...

AK style FKT. Did some scouting this summer, hope to nail this one next summer.

GZ said...

Oh most excellent post.

Thanks for bringing up that 2008 picture from the marathon. That was the "nice" day fwiw.

We should discuss the minions sometime (more of that on Bill's site). Those guys are truly nuts. That "old man" that is in the running for the UROY holds some redonkolous records on the trash can at the Ranger Cottage to the top of the third Flatiron and back route (sub 40?).

Buzz said...

As this subject is very dear to my heart, I thought I'd have a lot to say, but turns out I don't. Because you said it all. You're a real student of the sport, and your insights and comments were remarkably spot on.

But I can't resist adding:

The FKT is based on personal honor and the respect of your peers. It thus is all about relationships: with a sliver of our natural world that you must get to know and understand better than anyone else; with yourself as you have to find your own motivation, your own technique, and your own way; and with your community, as there is no better reward than respect from people you respect.

Buzz said...

As this subject is very dear to my heart, I thought I'd have a lot to say, but turns out I don't. Because you said it all. You're a real student of the sport, and your insights and comments were remarkably spot on.

But I would like to add:

The FKT is based on personal honor and the respect of your peers. It thus is all about relationships: with a small slice of our natural world that you must get to know and understand better than anyone else; with yourself as you have to find your own motivation, your own technique, and your own way; and with your community, as there is no better reward than respect from people you respect.

paul reynolds said...

3 peaks involve driving but the BGR, now your talking - that is suited to yor strengths. Some suggest 10,000 ft of climbing a week in preperation, do you think you could manage that when fit!!!
Seriously though, from the thin air of colorado to the UK fells.....should be bread and butter for you.

Jonathan G said...

Paul - Anton would have no problem with the BGR. 10,000ft of climbing a week in preparation is nothing. Check out some of his previous training posts. It's not uncommon for him to do 30,000ft+ a week of vertical on a regular basis.

paul reynolds said...

Thanks for the clarification but im well aware of Antons love of vert! I think you missed the sarcasm in the comment:)

Roger Taylor said...

I saw Joss on the Lakeland 100 this year, what a legend! He talked about his bizarre training. He ran 3 times a week. Something like 30miles to the pub and back after sheering 2000 sheep up those Lakeland peaks! Sounds like he was either climbing or wrestling live stock. He said most of the time he'd run with a mars bar in his back pocket.

paul reynolds said...

All whilst wearing hobnail boots !

Buzz said...

Please note Peter Bakwin has the best FKT site anywhere:

(Trivia note: Joss Naylor did Pikes Peak I think in 1975. He created quite the stir upon arrival, as it was announced he would be a contender. I think he finished 7th, which we thought was darn good. He was a good guy, and I think the first euro to give it a go.)

Morgan said...

Anton, I've been exchanging emails with Nick Clark about the Bob Graham. If you need any help on any score, email me at morgan.williams(at)

Further information at

Still no US member tho' Nick Kaiser made an attempt earlier this year.

Be good to see you back in action soon.



paul reynolds said...

Google - A hurried Peek At Pikes

Andy said...
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The Suffer Seeker said...

Anyone have any thoughts/links/lists of FKT descents? Off the top of my head, all I can think of are AJW's Cal St TT and leg 1 of HtC.

GZ said...

In regards to descents ... Carpenter recently tweaked the results db for the PPM to allow folks to get back a list of the fastest downs there.

Select sort by down, and do not include blanks.

Interesting note is that Carpenter's record run on the marathon is where the fastest down ever occurred. You see a lot of the same players over and over again over the next top ten or twenty (Meija, King for example). Matt does not appear back on the down list until number 62.

Anton said...

GZ - Ah yes, the Minions, they do some very cool stuff, indeed.

Buzz - Thanks for the kind words. As ever, your insight about relationships is right on and I really appreciate the contribution. Nothing we do is done in a vacuum and it's a mistake to forget that.

Morgan - thanks for the contact and the offer. Unfortunately, I have less occasion than Clarkie to ever make it over to the UK on a regular basis, but you never know. I'll definitely keep it in mind.

james said...

There are rumours about Salomon getting Killian to have a go at the Bob Graham, surely you could get New Balance to sort you out with a crack at it Anton. I think I am right in saying the current record was set in the '80s!

Bipolar Boy said...

Anton, Whenever your sponsor and race commitments allow you in the next decade i guarantee you would get a wonderful ,warm reception from practically every fell runner in the U.K. and as Morgan said himself and the BG 24 hour club would be a great help and font of knowledge. The record for the BGR is 13 Hours 53 minutes for the 42 peaks. I think you would stand a chance. I really hope to see you here sometime in the future. Best of luck and good health.


Bill said...

Dont bother with the 3peaks not enough vertical.
Wasdale 21m/9000ft or Ennerdale 23m/7500ft would be better.

If you ever do try the BG just enjoy it at least the first attempt, no one has got within an hour of it since it was done in 1982

Jason Schlarb said...

Anton et all,

I randomly fell into the world of fell running this summer in Iraq when a UK english language teacher gave me the book:
"Feet In The Clouds, A tale of Fell-Running and Obsession" (Richard Askwith).
The book covers a good bit of Fell running history and perspective.
If you haven't read the book, I highly recomend it Anton!
The story on Joss Naylor and Bill Teasdale, was great, but I really enjoyed the story of Billy Bland (success at imposible odds) and Kenny Stuart (unbelievable Fell runner who had a strange end to his career after switched to running marathons...2:11style).
The bigest reason I enjoyed the book and believe you would as well, is learing about the long and rich history of mountain ultra trail running in the UK.

I'll be back in Boulder before Christmas if you would like to borrow the book Anton.

sasha whitehawk havlikova said...

wild and inspiring..thankyou :)

Bill Wright said...

Hi Anton,

Nice piece. I'd like to add my two cents.

First, I was the originator of the FKT term. This came about due to John "Homie" Prater questioning the validity of my speed records site. I was the first person to actively record the local speed efforts on the trails, rock climbs, cycling routes, etc. This was motivated by Hans Florine's site which kept speed records for the climbs in Yosemite.

Homie claimed that the times listed on my site weren't really records since I didn't know everyone in town and every effort every done on these routes. Back then I didn't even know Bill Briggs (private keeper of many records around Boulder) and Buzz Burrell. In fact my site was an effort to popularize the records so that everyone would speak up and we'd find out what the records really were. This did reveal that while people frequently did the obvious routes they had slightly different starting locations.

Anyway, after some thought I came up with the term Fastest Known Time and even defined it further, at least for my site, as the Fastest Known Time by me! Here's the original web page that defined this term:

Secondly, I don't think this is unique to Boulder. This is common the world over, where obvious objectives and athletes coexist, there will be FKT's and there are. I'd be shocked if the local runners in Colorad Springs don't know their best time up Mt. Rosa. If I lived in Colorado Springs I'd know my fastest time up Pikes on the race course, from the Barr Trail Trailhead staying strictly to the trail, and cutting the switchbacks above treeline. ...Actually, I know all of those and I live in Superior! Note: the only time I've cut the switchbacks was in winter.

Bill Wright

Bill Wright said...

Oh yeah, and my site is indeed a mess. I think I'm going to work on updating it, starting this weekend. The renewed interest here and on has me motivated.

I think the deterioration of my site led Peter Bakwin to start his site, and poach the FKT name...


Max said...

The Ramsey Round in Scotland is generally considered to be harder than the Bob Graham round. It's 56 miles long with 28,000 feet of ascent. Only 69 people are known to have finished it and the record is 18 hours 23 minutes.

Anton said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for commenting; I apologize that it's taken me a week to respond. I have spent much time on your website and certainly appreciate the meticulous and (for Boulder) precedent-setting record-keeping. Especially for the really obscure stuff.

I agree that it would seem that any place there are athletes and objectives this kind of interest would exist, but it really pretty much doesn't in Colorado Springs despite the AMPLE objectives and many athletes. I think in the cycling community there there is some knowledge as to who has the fastest time up Cheyenne Canon and most people know their best times up the Incline, Hydro to No Name Creek and Barr Camp on Barr Trail, PPA, PPM, etc. But beyond that, the culture simply isn't the same down there.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen interesting and worthy objectives for establishing FKTs in the COS area: Waldo Canyon Loop, Section 16 Loop, Longs Ranch Road climb, Rampart Range Road climb to the Overlook, Mt. Rosa from Gold Camp Rd, Almagre from Gold Camp Rd, Rosa-Almagre-Pikes Traverse, Cameron's Cone climb, Cheyenne Mt from the Broadmoor, High Drive climb, speed climbs of all of the most prominent rocks in Garden of the Gods, etc., etc., etc.

If I ever move back to Manitou, maybe I'll start a site...


wowwowgold said...

The other appeal to FKT is you can make up the course and have it be YOUR favorite trail. It makes it more personal than a race route established by someone else. Granted, FKTs seem to usually be done on some already established and popular routes.

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