Culture

FKT: The Pandemic-Proof Challenge

Fastest Known Times, the original virtual races, are booming in the time of COVID-19.

Amidst the paralysis of the pandemic, on the edge of mainstream racing, competition has continued unabated in the Fastest Known Time (FKT) arena. Usually accomplished solo — even in normal times — and often in remote locations, FKTs seem immune to the ravages of COVID-19 shut-downs and quarantines.

As the name implies, a Fastest Known Time is the fastest time posted and verified by GPX file over a publicly-accessible route. A runner can search the FKT website for an existing route and try to better it, or create a new route. Route data can be submitted to FKT’s admins either before the attempt is made or after it’s accomplished. The date of the attempt, the logistics, navigation, and style—supported, unsupported, or self-supported—are all up to the runner.

FKTs have been providing a virtual racing milieu informally for the last ten years, and a more formal platform since 2018. It didn’t take long for runners, all trained up with nowhere to go, to find their way to FKTs.

FKT Map
Photo: fastestknowntime.com

Exploding Routes and Records

Globally, over the two years between 2018 and February 2020, the FKT website accrued 649 routes. From March to July that number jumped to 1583 routes. Sweden alone, where attempting FKTs has always been popular, had 52 routes pre-pandemic, and added 33 new ones in the last five months. Since March, people around the world have set 815 new FKTs.

“It’s grown [since the pandemic shutdown] by about three-and-a-half times. We’ve been crushed, absolutely buried by the data processing,” said Buzz Burrell, one of three volunteers who manages the FKT website.

Chasing FKTs has traditionally been popular with experienced ultrarunners who wanted to use their mountain and route-finding skills to create something personal and unique, Burrell said, but in the razed landscape of the pandemic, runners who typically left the route-finding and logistics to a race director saw the possibilities of safely competing via FKT.

Not Waiting

Heather Horth was one of those newbies swelling the ranks. She was fit and ready to rock this spring when her goal race, a 50-miler scheduled for May, was postponed to July 18th. She didn’t want to wait three months for a race that, if held, would likely be a sweat fest.

“I was aware of FKT but it wasn’t really on my radar for me until this year’s events started being restricted or cancelled,” said Horth, 37. “It was simple — I didn’t have to register or travel or worry about social distancing. I could sleep in my own bed. It was basically going for another long run. I was trained up and wanted to do something so I thought, why not?”

 

Heather Korth
Heather Korth in the 2019 Cayuga Trails 50 miler. Photo: Ron Heerkens Jr

Using a 42-½ mile route a friend had already posted in the winter — and that started two miles from her home in the Finger Lakes region of NY — Horth chose April 4th as her race day. Aiming for under 10 hours, she covered the route in 9 hours 35 minutes, an unsupported FKT on her first attempt.

“I like the solo, self-reliant aspect,” she said. “I love competing with other people but ultimately competition is with yourself. When everything was shut down at first, a lot of people were laid off. I was laid off for a little while [she’s the manager of a running specialty store]. It was a nice escape, to spend hours in the woods on trails processing things. I could focus on it [the FKT] but there was no stress around it.”

As much as she enjoyed her FKT experience, she misses the community of in-person races. “I know races will resume eventually but in the meantime, it’s really cool to watch people challenge themselves [with FKTs] and do things they wouldn’t otherwise.”

Labor of Love

Burrell and fellow FKT manager Peter Bakwin are both retired. The third FKT team member, Jeff Schuler, still has a job, but reviewing and posting runners’ data from all over the world is a labor of love, a “managed crowd-sourced website” as Burrell described it. “We ask for donations,” Burrell said. “What we do is crazy! We do the same thing as virtual races for free.”

Jason Hardrath, the world’s most prolific FKTer (69 and counting) cringes at the “free” part. “They only ask for a $10 donation regardless of the distance, which is a steal of a deal compared to race fees. It comes back to supporting people and organizations you believe in,” Hardrath said by phone. “I think FKTs motivate a lot of people to get outdoors and fit, to explore new places—that’s worth supporting.”

He puts his money where his mouth is with a monthly donation, plus an additional kick of cash every time he sets a FKT.

Frequent FKTer

“I have this side goal to be the first person to do 100 of them,” Hardrath said. He’s 31, an elementary school PE teacher in Klamath Falls, Oregon, maybe not surprisingly, given his strong sense of ethics and responsibility. “True, it’s a silly arbitrary number, but that would mean I’ve done 100 amazing, beautiful classic routes, maybe even in other countries. I love living for those moments when I’m making decisions in the fray of it, the creative problem solving [of FKTs]. No disrespect to organized races—they take everything off the table so you can focus only on your fitness. But after you’ve done that for a while, you think, what’s next?”

Jason Hardrath on an FKT attempt
Photo: Luke Webster

While it appears his campaign has been unaffected by the pandemic — he’s set 21 FKTs since the beginning of April — that’s not the reality. A grant to pursue a whole continent of possible routes in South America was cancelled.

“Now I have the privilege of doing beautiful stuff in my backyard, but even closer to home, the number of things you have to check makes it a lot more hectic,” Hardrath said. “Even if it was in the middle of nowhere and the risk of contact was low, if the land was closed, I did the ethical thing—I didn’t go. I had to check on the status of public lands and trailheads, weather, CDC stats for that area. I packed my own food and dialed in my disinfecting routine. Still, FKTs are flexible—lots of times I made the decision in the final weekend—and being solo, they’re one of the safer things you can do as far as spreading virus.”

Flavor of the Month Now, But Still Tofu

Though he’s usually alone on FKT attempts, Hardrath has definitely noticed the swelling ranks of the FKT community. “It’s gotten more competitive,” he said. “There are more fast people doing it, and more people doing more than one. In the past, people did one, two, maybe three attempts a year. Now, they’re doing five or six in a summer. The turnover is a lot quicker, and sometimes that’s frustrating.”

Part of that frustration comes from the new runners not knowing the unwritten rules. “There’s an honor code with FKT. For example, people will tell me about a route they’re going to try,” Hardrath said. “I give them a year, and if they’re still just talking about it, then it’s fair game. But there’s been an influx of people [to the FKT community] who don’t understand that honor code, and that’s frustrating.”

But Hardrath doesn’t get bent out of shape about the nouveau-FKT; he figures it will sort itself out. While some of the newbies will find they really like the whole one-person-show challenge of FKTs, he predicts many will flock back to in-person racing once it resumes.

Burrell agreed. Asked whether he thought FKTs were the future of racing, Burrell explained with an allegory: “FKT is like tofu. Tofu is not a meat substitute, it’s a terrific food in its own right. Tofu will probably stay in the minority compared to meat, but it’s an excellent option.”