FK-FAIL: When Attempting a Fastest Known Time is NOT for You
Today in the year 2020, almost everyone at least remotely in touch with the long-trail and endurance community are familiar with the phenomenon known as Fastest Known Times (FKTs). For those who feel left out, here’s the rundown on all things FKT.
FKT attempts often provoke two different kinds of reactions from spectators. For some, running or hiking continuously with the goal of getting from point A to point B as fast as possible is counterproductive to the purpose of the trail, which many consider as a platform to “slow down” and escape from their daily life. In other words, they’ll encourage the fast-packer to “Stop and smell the roses” from time to time. The other reaction generally is that of awe and wonder of human capabilities, and a kindling of creative possibilities that are out there for each one of us.
My reaction to the growing trend of FKTs aligned more with the latter: I wanted to discover my potential.
In the fall 2018, I read The Pursuit of Endurance by Jennifer Pharr Davis and North by Scott Jurek. Both books built up a level of anticipation that was hard to shake. I decided I wanted my own trek of epic proportions. Most importantly, I wanted to know what it was like to get to the end of a journey and have nothing left.
The Florida Trail: An attempt that was meant to be?
After completing the Pacific Crest Trail in August 2018, I decided that I wanted more. Born and raised in Florida until I was 18 years old, the Florida National Scenic Trail seemed like the perfect fit. It was the story of a boy that had grown up locally, went off to college and saw the world (or hiked the PCT in this case), and came back home to accomplish something great.
It was the story that we had all heard and loved, and I wanted to be featured in the next edition of it.
Each time that I had been exposed to the trail l was left enthralled at the possibility of big-mileage days and a four-mile-per-hour pace. It was a fantasy I kept eating up.
Ready to turn my fantasy into reality, I proclaimed my intention to go after the Florida Trail (FT) FKT loud and proud. I bought the guidebook, and I trained as well as I could while juggling my status as a full-time student. I even ran my first ultramarathon at the 50-Mile Mountain Masochist Trail Run two months prior to the attempt, and was able to put together three weeks of consistent, high-mileage training leading up to the day of my start. My physical preparation went exactly as I had scripted it, and I was ready for the long journey ahead.
On an early, overcast morning on January 3, I arrived at the swampy corridor that signifies the Southern Terminus of the Florida Trail in Big Cypress Preserve. I nervously took pictures and kissed my fiancé goodbye before I departed at 7:24 a.m., realizing that this was the last time I would see her for almost four weeks.
The first steps and miles were exhilarating and filled with conflicting emotions. I did my best to just remain present and make good time through the preserve so that I could make the 30.6 miles out of the swamp to the I-75 South rest area before sunset.
From time to time I would try to remind myself of the reasons I decided to go after this record. The whole day my mind attempted to balance these thoughts of positive reinforcements while also fighting back anxiety due to the fact that it looked like I had failed to properly set up my SPOT tracker, and I was most likely pushing the whole day with no legitimate proof of creditable progress.
In an attempt that would require nothing less than resolve, perseverance, and certainty, my mind was filled with everything but those things.
I neared the I-75 South gate (30.3 miles) well ahead of the current record holder’s pace for the first day, and was overjoyed that I had conquered the Big Cypress section in 10 hours, despite the fact that the last seven miles were clogged with extremely deep mud that kept my pace at no faster than two miles per hour. Still, as I walked the last couple miles of the swamp into the sunset, I found myself looking up at the sky asking, “What’s the point?” This wasn’t low morale—simply put, my gritty fervor of having something to prove had evaporated.
Perhaps I had put too much stock in the achievement that it was to simply make it through Big Cypress alive due to fearmongering from family and friends and I was just relieved, frankly. But I don’t think so. Nonetheless, at complete peace with where my mind was, and realizing the troubling status of my SPOT dilemma, I decided to pull the plug before day one was officially over, and wait three and a half hours for my godsend of a fiancée to pick me up at the I-75 rest area.
What went wrong?
I write these words exactly a year after my Florida Trail FKT attempt. As someone with a competitive spirit always looking for the next challenge (or FKT attempt?), time has allowed me to meditate on what went wrong with my preparation leading up to the trail.
Simply put, attempting an FKT is HARD, and putting in the time to be physically and mentally prepared leading up to it may be just as hard. That being said, attempting an FKT is not for everyone, and I believe that there were some crucial determining factors that I did not evaluate properly at the time of the attempt to have given myself a more legitimate shot at the record. Rather than a cliché, “How to succeed at (fill in the blank)” spiel, here are four questions I believe everyone should consider asking themselves to know whether attempting a Fastest Known Time is or is not for you.
1) What is your personal WHY?
The answer to this question is potentially the foundation upon which your entire FKT attempt will succeed or crumble. Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy, current self-supported record holder on the Appalachian Trail, acknowledged that those without an intensely personal reason for being out on the trail will likely not make it to the end. Multiply those chances by the seemingly insurmountable odds one could face attempting to complete a trail in record time, and the likelihood of success decreases exponentially.
A valuable question I constantly ask myself as I consider future record attempts is, “If nobody knew about it, would I still do it?”
In other words, if you have thousands of Instagram followers, and receiving praise from them alone is instrumental in nudging you into attempting something big, then chances are you will fail. Announcing my intentions in the months leading up to my attempt was monumental because they made it real and kept me committed. But as time passed by my reasons for wanting to go after the FKT began to slip through my fingers. In all honesty, the thought of the notoriety that came with getting the record was one of the few things that even enabled me to line up at the starting line. I was physically there, but mentally in shambles.
Lastly, make sure the attempt is something you want to endure, not simply complete. I was guilty of being so accomplishment driven that the thing that mattered most to me was acquiring bragging rights at the end, without mentally accepting missing important life events, being away from loved ones, and experiencing isolation for almost a month.
So, if your reasons for going after a certain record won’t be able to withstand the long and arduous test of the trail, then attempting that FKT may not be for you.
2) Why did you choose your route?
Deciding that I wanted to attempt an FKT on the Florida Trail was directly related to my desire to discover my potential. However, choosing the Florida Trail as the platform for my personal challenge was a less natural choice. I felt compelled to test my limits on the FT because of my roots and the potential that the route had for a fast time, but interest in the trail itself was something that I had to gradually talk myself into.
While on the PCT my experience was much different. I almost always felt excited to see what was up ahead or over the next ridge. A trail that provides these external sources of motivation will likely be advantageous in keeping you going when you are mentally down in the dumps.
For me, choosing a trail merely to use as a platform to test my abilities instead of choosing a trail I was more genuinely interested in was a mistake. If you are thinking about attempting a route because the record appears in reach, but that you are having to twist your arm a bit to commit to hiking on that brain-dead boring route for the next week, then that FKT attempt is most likely not for you.
3) Why the timing?
My timing for choosing the FKT attempt was not ideal, but it was something I ignored in the months leading up to January. My fiancée was overwhelmed planning our upcoming wedding, and it pained me to not be a part of it.
I consistently pinned myself into a fraudulent mindset that insisted, “If I don’t do it now, when will I? I may never have this opportunity again.” The truth is, only a year removed from my attempt and periods of time have come up where I could have attempted another FKT.
I also often fight this fear that despite the fact that I’m only 22, my time is running out, and as I continue to get older, my odds of being able to set an FKT diminish as well. History says that this is simply not the case, though (see David Horton, Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer, Jonathan Basham).
Rather than naively viewing my growing age as a death sentence, I’ve begun to view the present as a time to continue to build my physical base, and to continue to train for more bucket list ultramarathon races. If the time is right and another FKT attempt catches my eye, then just maybe I’ll go for it. If the timing is not right, then I will decide that attempt is not for me.
4) Why the style? (Supported, Self-Supported, Unsupported)
Last, but not least, choose to attempt an FKT under the conditions that you think would enable you to best succeed. The reality that I refused to accept at the time of my attempt was that I no longer had the love for solo hiking that I did two years prior, and I was not at the same place in my relationship where I felt comfortable picking up and leaving for an extended period of time with little contact. For those reasons, I attempted an FKT that was probably never meant to succeed from the get-go, and I’ve learned from that.
I think it is also worth thinking of an FKT attempt as more than an athletic feat, but an experience that you’ll remember forever. Understanding that, some may prefer the introspective perks of going solo and facing their demons, while others would much prefer a tight-knit crew effort (for proof of a supported attempt with a lot of social advantages on display, see here). At the end of the day, pick a style that promotes success and personal gratification, and run with it.
I wrote this piece for the individual that has just begun to dabble in the world of FKTs and is maybe considering taking one on. I do not claim to be an expert in evaluating each person’s life situation and knowing if a specific FKT attempt is fit for them or not. These are my opinions based on my own experiences and what I have derived from the research I have done profiling those who have attempted major FKTs.
At the end of the day, only you can know if attempting an FKT is meant to be. Determine your own keys to success, and get out onto the trails to explore your potential.
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