Essays

I Set FKTs on Long Trails Across the US. Was I Missing the Point?

A writer with a few FKTs under her belt ponders whether or not speed enhances or detracts from the experience.

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When I finally removed my socks, my feet were a waxy grey-white in my headlamp light. My skin was grotesquely wrinkled and alarmingly loose at the heels. I ran my thumb across my sole and felt a jolting, ticklish sensation I later learned meant I had nerve damage.

It was 12:30 in the morning in the middle of June, 2021. I was at Rolston Rest shelter, 160 miles into an attempt at an unsupported FKT, or Fastest Known Time, on the Long Trail in Vermont. I had trench foot.

The cause of the trench foot was obvious: I had been running for the past 20 hours in the rain. Obsessing over miles, I hadn’t allowed myself breaks to dry out.

But as I sat in the shelter, fog swirling outside, I wasn’t thinking of obvious causes. I was wondering why I was on the trail at all. Why on earth was I trying to do a 273-mile trail in six days? What had possessed me to try for a speed record, and, now that my feet were wrecked, was it OK for me to quit?

FKTs come in three varieties: supported, self-supported, and unsupported. An athlete attempting a supported FKT can have all the help they can imagine, short of being carried down a trail. At the opposite end of the spectrum, athletes pursuing  unsupported FKTs can’t accept any help at all, and carry all the food and supplies they’ll need from start to finish. Self-supported FKT athletes can’t pre-arrange support, but are allowed to accept spontaneous aid and may mail or cache supplies. The shortest route recorded on fastestknowntime.com, the website where verified FKTs are recorded, is less than one mile; the longest routes include the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. 

FKTs have exploded in popularity since pandemic race cancelations left runners scrambling for new challenges. More than three times as many FKTs — 4,625 — were submitted in 2020 than in 2019 (1,043). 

RELATED: Use Threshold Training to Run Faster, Longer

Not everybody is thrilled about that increase. When the club that maintains Vermont’s Long Trail made an Instagram post about my FKT, somebody commented, “Can we please stop celebrating these things? It’s not in the spirit of the Long Trail to turn in (sic) into a race track or an ego filled competition. It sickens and saddens me.” 

It’s a familiar critique. Every FKT athlete I know, especially those who focus on multi-day routes, has been accused at some point in their career of failing to stop and smell the roses, or bringing ego and vanity where they don’t belong. 

My gut reaction to such criticism is righteous anger: Hike your own hike, dude! But honestly, a public attempt to be one of the fastest people in the world to travel a particular trail does involve ego. If it weren’t for vanity, I never would have ended up on the Long Trail.

FKTs have exploded in popularity since pandemic race cancelations left runners scrambling for new challenges. More than three times as many FKTs — 4,625 — were submitted in 2020 than in 2019 (1,043). 

The 273-mile LT was not my first FKT. In 2020, I broke the women’s self-supported FKT on the Colorado Trail. The previous record holder had established one when none existed, and readily admitted her 14-day time was beatable. I announced I was trying for 13 days and secretly thought I might be able to do 12. I surpassed every limit I set for myself: I faced my fear of traveling alone at night and survived on half as much sleep as I thought I needed. I finished in ten and a half days. 

When I talk too fondly about the CT, my partner reminds me that every day around dusk, like clockwork, I called him sobbing. But in my memory the experience was magical. I was stronger and braver than I’d ever dared to imagine. I felt I could do anything. 

Photo Credit: Pete Osler

I chased that feeling onto the Long Trail. I told people I was making the attempt because I was from Vermont and wanted to reconnect to my home and because I was interested in the challenge of an unsupported FKT. But as I sat at Rolston Rest, poking at my soggy, throbbing feet, only one motivation felt true: my Colorado Trail FKT had gotten a surprising amount of attention, and I’d wanted more.

I started having a bad time on the Long Trail long before I got trench foot. I’d underestimated my food needs by about a thousand calories per day, and the deficit was becoming unbearable. I was moving slower than I’d hoped and spent my days trapped in a spiral of negative self-talk. The forecast said rain for the next three days, and I had two or three days of trail left. But I’d expected these challenges, and I’d be ashamed to quit over them. Trench foot, though–that seemed an acceptable reason to bail. I could post pictures of the ghostly wrinkles and the quarter-sized raw spots on the sides of my heels and everybody would believe I’d given my best effort. I could quit with my vanity intact. I went to sleep planning to do exactly that.

I awoke at dawn urgently needing to use the privy. I slammed into my shoes and socks and dashed out of the shelter. I was halfway there before I realized I was walking. 

Oh no, I thought. I couldn’t leave the trail while still able to walk.

Photo Credit: Troy Allen

If the FKT was solely ego and vanity, I would have posted the pictures of my feet, massaged the truth about how bad they hurt and made a beeline for a hot shower and pizza. Instead, I kept going.

So what,  if not ego, motivates an FKT? Is going for a record really missing the point of the trail? 

Ben Feinson, who recently broke the Long Trail’s supported FKT, rephrased that question: “Is it possible to connect to the rhythms of nature and the flow of the trail while simultaneously struggling physically and pushing yourself to the limit?” 

The answer seems to be yes. Talk to someone long enough about their FKT and they’ll tell you about a transcendent experience in nature. Feinson remembers sobbing as he ran across Mount Mansfield, the highest peak on the LT. When I interviewed RJ Thompson, who started an unsupported LT attempt 24 hours ahead of me, he talked about hiking an exposed ridge at sunset, shadows playing tricks on his eyes. Joe McCounaghy, who’s set some of the most formidable FKTs in the history of the sport–including a sub-five-day Long Trail record–told me about standing on a peak at midnight in 40-mile-per-hour wind. Nika Meyers, whose unsupported record I broke on the Long Trail and who broke my Colorado Trail record a few weeks later, talks about connecting with the smallest details of the trail.

“I think less about huge views and vistas than tiny trickles across the trail, these micro-landscapes,” she says. “I feel so small on an FKT. I’m part of this big picture and I can relate to so many things. I can see the connection between this root and this rock.”

RELATED: 4 Adventure Runs For the Aspiring FKT-er

Anyone who’s run or crewed an ultra knows that physical exertion and sleep deprivation produce bizarre mental experiences. Multi-day FKTs are no exception. You could argue that an altered mental state inhibits your ability to smell the proverbial roses, but in my experience the opposite is true. My last day on the Long Trail I was nearly brought to tears by a snake slowly swallowing a paralyzed frog. My FKTs left me utterly vulnerable to the beauty and wonder of my surroundings. 

“I think the trail and its surroundings become more beautiful and more meaningful when you’re in those states of deprivation, because you’re so depleted that any glimmer of hope or beauty is exacerbated,” says Thompson. “It lifts you up and gives you more strength.”

When I hear someone say FKTs miss the point of the trail, I can’t help but wonder if they believe we consider fast efforts superior to other ways of being outdoors. Nothing could be further from the truth, for me or for many of the athletes I talked to.

“Everyone is allowed to have the experience that is meaningful to them,” says Feinson. “In life, and especially on a trail as sacred as the Long Trail.” 

FKTs require training, and the countless days of running, hiking and camping necessary to prepare for a record attempt look pretty similar to the ways most other people use the trail. My FKTs were more meaningful to me because I had already connected with those landscapes. I completed most of the Colorado Trail in 2018 during a Continental Divide Trail thru hike, and my record attempt two years later allowed me to reconnect with my former self. 

Recovering with pizza. Photo Credit: Troy Allen

My connection to the Long Trail is as old as I am: I grew up at the base of Bolton Mountain, whose ridgeline the LT traverses. During my record attempt, I ran along the horizon of my childhood world. Yes, vanity got me onto the trail, but it’s equally true that the LT enticed me because I wanted to access that ineffable mental state that comes with extreme physical exertion while immersed in a landscape that meant so much to me. 

The morning before I got trench foot, I reached an outcropping and looked out across the Green Mountains. Wisps of fog were rising from the valley between rainshowers. The sky was a flat mass of clouds except one perfect, tiny circle of sun. The glacier-carved ridges, the lush green forest, the schist under my feet worn smooth by generations of hikers: the view elicited something deep within me, a profound recognition and comfort. I was home.

At Rolston Rest, sleep deprived and starving, my feet a mess, I thought of that view. I thought of how much I had left to learn about my body and mind, how much the Long Trail still had to teach me. And like anyone else who goes outdoors, I made the choice that was meaningful to me at the time. I kept running.