“So many emotions were playing with my head … fear, excitement, hesitation and intimidation,” Rob Krar says before trailing off into his memories. Krar, a 36-year-old pharmacist from Flagstaff, Ariz., wasn’t talking about the Leona Divide 50, the Moab 50K+, or any of the other ultra-distance trail races he’s won over the years. It was his record-breaking run across the Grand Canyon and back last May 10 that created so much excitement, and that left such a lasting effect on him.
On his solo journey, which saw him cover roughly 42 miles in 6 hours, 21 minutes, there were no spectators, no aid stations, no finishers’ medals, and, as with most record-setting attempts, no one else racing. That’s part of what makes the quest for a Fastest Known Time—aka an “FKT”—so special. Essentially course records for a given distance on a trail, they’re becoming more popular as mountaineering and fastpacking smack up against the fastest ultrarunners ever. Rob Krar’s effort is the new gold standard for the Grand Canyon speed expedition known as the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. (Krar posted video proof of his efforts on his YouTube channel.)
FKTs are falling in amazing fashion. Spanish superstar Kilian Jornet broke Bryce Thatcher’s 29-year-old record for running up and down Wyoming’s 13,770-foot Grand Teton in 2013 by 12 minutes, only to have local Andy Anderson, a visiting Rocky Mountain National Park ranger, break slice another minute off the FKT 10 days later.
Meanwhile, the TransZion FKT, a 48-mile route across the Zion National Park in Utah, has been broken in each of the last five years, including three times in the month of May. And it’s not just men or single-day records. Jennifer Pharr-Davis completed the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail in a massive 46-day push.
FKTs are capturing the imagination of trail and ultrarunners, and for good reason. The records typically come on trails in places where a race couldn’t occur, such as on national park land at the Grand Canyon or the Grand Teton, or on trails that are too long for a race, like the Colorado Trail or the John Muir Trail. Those trails hold more meaning than most race courses. They’re of more significance than a haphazard two-loop race route, Krar says.
“Ultimately I wanted to see what my body could do on a tough and iconic route,” Krar says. It didn’t hurt that such an iconic route just happened to be, almost, in his backyard. He’d actually run in the Grand Canyon more than 30 times prior to completing the full double-crossing.
Veteran adventurer and trail runner Peter Bakwin of Boulder, Colo., started and maintains the website FastestKnownTime as an unofficial record keeper for FKTs and attempts. The site includes recommendations for establishing an FKT, namely to announce your intentions, keep records for accountability and be an open book to inquiries. While Bakwin’s site is effective in its bare bones format, a multitude of new phone apps, including Strava, have begun to provide a high-tech platform for GPS uploads on quasi-established routes.
This technology makes record-keeping easier than ever before. Even Bakwin, who previously held the John Muir Trail record in California, calls this a “game-changer,” as it “really encourages FKT type activity.” But Bakwin was quick to limit his complete endorsement. “I think [Strava] may encourage FKTs on fairly random routes. In my opinion, if a person sets an FKT on some route it is incumbent upon him to tell us why that route deserves to have an FKT.”
Despite these technologies and against runners’ best intentions, controversy can sometimes overshadow FKT efforts. Krar took video of his start, turnaround and at the finish of his run. While his FKT was recognized immediately, Brett Maune’s 2009 effort on the John Muir Trail received heavy skepticism, mostly because the Californian was almost completely unknown at the time. When he became the 10th ever finisher at the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee two years later, any lingering doubts about his FKT were dropped as finishing the nearly impossible Barkley race was deemed more difficult than his super-fast trip on the JMT. At that point, Bakwin had actually already verified Maune’s record. While GPS and SPOT technology are encouraged for such long trails, Bakwin noted that with time-stamped photos, “Maune did an excellent job of verification without.”
Perhaps a more relevant controversy — maybe even an actual criticism of FKTs is that they add a competitive element to what otherwise would be a relaxed, although difficult, run and hike. There’s a reason races aren’t allowed on National Park lands, and increasing popularity on other routes can potentially turn a public trail into a race course.
Although acknowledging both arguments, Bakwin is quick to discount any chance of sudden trail overuse from FKTs.
“I know for sure that there were known FKTs set on the JMT in the 1940s,” he says. “The idea of seeing who’s fastest to the top of “X hill” is something that’s been done since the beginning of time-keeping. I think what’s different now is that anyone in the world can easily find out who has been fastest on many of these routes, since it’s all posted on the internet.”
These controversies, whether real or just perceived, do little to cloud what’s typically an overly positive experience for the runners, and those who celebrate their achievements. It wasn’t the record that most excited Krar after his Grand Canyon run, but rather the mental exercise that the trail delivered. “Psychologically, Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim was a whole new level greater than anything I’d experienced before,” he says.
When it comes to ultrarunning, indeed, his FKT is on a whole new level.