Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: FKT and Publicity Etiquette

Welcome to Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis, where we take hikers’ questions and pass them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis. JPD’s newest book, The Pursuit of Endurance is available now, and you can find upcoming book tour events here.

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Harvey Lewis is currently trying to break the FKT on the Appalachian Trail in a highly publicized effort. What do you think of all the publicity surrounding some of the most recent record attempts? – Carly Moree, PCT 2015

Harvey Lewis seems like the nicest guy ever. He is a high school teacher, which officially certifies him as a saint. Plus he actively supports the Sierra Club, one of the foremost leaders of conservation in America. I don’t know Harvey, but we have several mutual friends and they all say the same thing: “Harvey is a great guy.” So yes, I want to hangout with Harvey. But no, I am not cheering for him to break the AT record.

Is that because I have a competitive spirit and trash-talk my friends when we play board games? Perhaps. But the catch is that when Joe McConaughey, whose trail name is Stringbean, set the record in 2017 I found myself rooting for his success in the same manner that I cheer for Tar Heel basketball, which is to say there was clapping, screaming and lots of jumping up and down when he did well… and a few fingernail nubs when he laid down those low mileage days in the Whites. From the time I started following Joe’s journey, I was 100% team Stringbean. Since I set my record in 2011, Joe is the only person who I wanted to surpass my mark and take the overall title.

Scott Jurek, who took my record in 2015, might be one of the few humans to outshine Harvey Lewis as an all-around great guy, advocate for healthy living and ambassador for conservation. Scott is one of the most gracious individuals that I have ever met, as illustrated by the fact that he was willing to pace and crew his competition Karl Meltzer in an effort to surpass his own record. I have also met Karl and I have mad respect that he came back to the Appalachian Trail three times—over an eight-year span—in order to claim the record. But, despite the fact that I had never met Joe and knew very little about him, I cheered for him because of how he set the record.

Setting the Record Self-Supported

When Joe set the record on the Appalachian Trail he revolutionized the thought process and strategy behind Fastest Known Times. For the first time since 1970, when Branley Owen set the AT record in 73 days, the overall record holder was someone who was self-supported and resupplied himself along the route as opposed to having a crew, pacers, or vehicle support.

Not only are Scott, Karl, and Harvey incredible athletes; they had incredible support. Support matters. When I set the record in 2011, I am confident that I never could have finished the trail in 46 days without the encouragement and dedication of my husband, along with the friends and family who came to help me down the trail… and bring me milkshakes.

Without a car and support team meeting him at road crossings, Joe did not have the unlimited calories available to supported FKT athletes, he did not have a pacer to help keep his morale high and his legs moving during his lowest moments, and he did not have an extra pair of eyes or a local trail expert helping him navigate in the dark, early morning hours or during late nights when he was stumbling down the trail after already putting in 50 plus miles. Plus he lost time on the logistics and errands of resupplying himself in towns and off-trail.

“In my opinion, McConaughey’s mark on the Appalachian Trail might be the most impressive record on any trail to date.”

In setting the FKT, McConaughey not only broke the overall record by more than ten hours, he lowered the self-supported record on the Appalachian Trail by nine days. In my opinion, McConaughey’s mark on the Appalachian Trail might be the most impressive record on any trail to date. He was willing to take an unthinkable approach and by doing so, he accomplished the unimaginable.

FKT Etiquette, Integrity, and Respect for Tradition

Joe not only shattered the record, he did it in a manner that stayed true to the tradition of previous record setters and the culture of the trail. Although most thru-hikers and supported record setters will jump in and out of cars to reach town or a motel, Joe followed the examples set by Heather Anderson and Matt Kirk who had both set self-supported records on the Appalachian Trail without ever setting foot in a car. Fastest Known Times are an undertaking with no official rules or governing body. No one said that Joe had to follow that rule to set the record, but he chose to do so out of respect for Heather, Matt, and the established etiquette of self-supported records.

Another example of his unrelenting moral standard was this: with 150 miles to go before reaching the finish, Joe lost 12 hours because he chose to wait and take the Appalachian Trail Conservancy canoe ferry across the Kennebec River. Traditionally, record setters either took the official ferry or forded the waterway. When Joe arrived at the banks of the river early in the evening, he tried to ford but decided the water was too high and the current was too strong to safely make it across, so he waited until the next morning to take the official ferry.

Both Scott and Karl arranged personal ferries outside of the traditional hours. If Joe had done the same, then chances are he would have lowered the overall record by more than a day and become the first person to bring the mark under 45 days. He gave up his lead and risked losing the record in order to honor tradition.

Limited Media, Sponsorship, and Publicity

I loved following Joe’s journey on the Appalachian Trail because it felt like I was watching a person rather than a feature at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. When Joe set the record he looked and acted like other trail users and didn’t focus on maximizing the publicity of his journey. Subsequently, I found the quality of Joe’s grainy, self-managed, and sporadic Instagram to be more genuine and compelling than the picturesque high-res shots offered from other attempts.

Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy and FKT etiquette

Image via

Without knowing it, the partners and sponsors of previous record holders have broken land management policies by bringing their corporate messages onto the AT and by using professional production crews on the trail.

In some ways I give the athletes a hall pass because they are incredible individuals who have inspired both wellness and conservation and because I know their main focus was making their miles. It was the companies and the publicists they were affiliated with that often—and most always unintentionally—went against policy and trail culture. But at some point the athletes need to step in and make sure that those entities are working with land management and conservation groups.

Several years ago, I went on an extended family vacation to Europe. Yes, that is both a total luxury and a major tangent in this article. But stay with me. I had just enjoyed lunch with my relatives in a lovely café in Amsterdam where the waiter was kind enough to address us in our native language throughout the meal. When it came time to pay the bill, an older relative grabbed the ticket and handed the waiter American currency. I cringed. The waiter politely shook his head. My family member was baffled and slightly offended that his US dollars hadn’t been accepted. Here’s the point: I am a trail runner, and I love the scene and community at ultra races. I am also a long-distance thru-hiker and an FKT record setter. Each endeavor and community has a different feel and culture. And one is not better than another. The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that is there for anyone who wishes to respectfully use it, whether that person be a birder, fisherman, photographer, painter, forager, day hiker, trail runner or backpacker. But if you are a trail runner or FKT athlete coming to the Appalachian Trail, then at least try to speak the language and use the proper currency.

A little homework will go a long way. Here are a few things to know before you go.

1) If you are making a commercial documentary or taking professional photographs, then you should obtain a commercial-use media permit from every land management agency the trail passes through.

The reality of this is extremely difficult, considering how many different state parks, national parks, and national forests the Appalachian Trail passes through. So the best way to share and capture the journey is through amateur and organic media. The goal should be to maintain the integrity of the experience for other recreationalists and not make them feel like they rounded a turn and stumbled into a Hollywood photo shoot. “Publicity pollution” degrades the backcountry experience and negatively impacts the primitive corridor that is preserved on the Appalachian Trail.

2) There is a NO-drone-use policy on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t do it! Individuals head to the Appalachian Trail to hear insects and songbirds, not video cameras buzzing overhead.

3) Be authentic and self-aware when it comes to product placement. A few weeks ago on Harvey’s record one of his sponsors brought out a massage table to the road crossing so Harvey could get a quick rub down before continuing with his miles. My inner FKT athlete drools at the idea of having a quick massage in the middle of a 50-mile day; the thru-hiker in me dry heaves at the thought of seeing a sponsored athlete having body work done by a masseuse at a trailhead. It’s slightly worse than someone eating a porterhouse steak in front on an emaciated long-distance hiker who is hiking the trail in six months on a $1,000 budget. Granted, I don’t know all the details here. If Harvey Lewis is sharing massages with anyone who pops out at the trailhead, then it feels far less offensive—and potentially genius.

4) Do some research. If you plan to have a high-profile experience on the AT, contact the Appalachian Trail Conservancy well before your departure date. It is important to work with the conservation organization overseeing the trail to prevent misuse and limit potential conflicts or negative press. And while you’re at it, MAKE A DONATION. It is common practice to pay an entry fee to ultra marathons, and FKT athletes should both recognize and financially support the conservation efforts of the trail where they are attempting a record.

5) Be transparent and don’t spin your story. There are countless examples of individuals who stated specific FKT goals, fell short and then they or their sponsors and partners spun their results to make it still sound like they accomplished everything that they initially set out to do, and more.

– When you go for a record and get injured midway through, don’t reinvent your intentions or boast about a halfway FKT.

– Don’t claim to have bested a record in a different category without clarifying the distinctions.

– If you have to skip or alter a section of trail the official trail due to a closure, reroutes, or personal reasons, fully disclose that information.

Finally, props where props are due. It is awesome, and a testament to his character, that Harvey is forthright in mentioning that he and his crew are going after a record that was set without support.

To be clear, I don’t have any problem with a sponsored athlete hiking or running the Appalachian Trail. I love it when athletes, like artists, have benefactors who allow them to create, explore, and push the limits of performance. I was sponsored by Salomon when I set my FKT. It was a low-key, low-budget sponsorship, and they never sent anyone to the trail to meet me. I appreciate their support. Still, I regret some of the spins and permissions their publicists put on my efforts. My problem, and my regret, is that when athletes bring affiliate parties with them to the trail it can muddy the transparency of their attempt and compromise the AT experience for other recreationalists.

The actions of other FKT athletes reflect on record setters as a whole and impact the larger trail community. I want to cheer for Harvey. And honestly, I am cheering for Harvey… and for Scott… and for Karl, as individuals and trail runners. I will always admire the individual brazen enough to dedicate hundreds of training hours and 45 days to a pursuit in which they know they will suffer and probably fail. But when these men attempted their AT records, it was their partners paired with a different understanding of FKT ethics or trail culture that prevented my full backing.

Maybe it is as simple as cheering for your team? Maybe you form alliances and allegiances with other record-setters based on similar approaches. Perhaps I feel a stronger connection to Joe because he had more of a long trail resume and spoke the language of a thru hiker or a backpacker more that the trail runners who have come from an ultra-racing background.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that despite different resumes and approaches, and regardless of whether we want to set an FKT, thru hike, section hike, or picnic on the AT we are all on the same team, or at least in the same conference. We all need to work together to share healthy dialogue and respectful debate so that we can have a better understanding of one another, trail culture, and conservation policies.

My hope here is not to degrade anyone but to honestly and openly talk about what is best for the future or FKTs and the trail. And, I will be the first to admit, that I wish I could tweak some of my previous actions or decisions. But moving forward, I believe that low-media, low-impact trail records, which adhere to conservation regulations set forth by land management and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy are best for the trail, the AT community, and the FKT athletes.

As aways, I welcome comments, feedback, and differing opinions.

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Comments 2

  • Rob : Jul 7th

    I did wonder about Karl Metzler and his film documenting his attempt. Did he get permission for his commercial endeavor? Contribute to the people who maintain the trail?

    Reply
  • Donna Brigley : Jul 9th

    I nodded my head the entire time that I read your piece on FKT and Publicity Etiquette. It was as if you put my thoughts into words. I have been a trail maintainer for 25 years. I’m no athlete, but I do have a love for the outdoors and especially for the bit of the AT that I tend.

    I have nothing but admiration for those who show respect for the Trail, whether they are a dayhiker or an elite athlete such as yourself. It doesn’t take much for record-setters (and record-attempters) to show appreciation for conservation organizations that oversee the trail. I applaud your call for FKT athletes to recognize and support the conservation efforts of those who do the work of keeping the trail open, blazed, and free from erosion. Thanks for remembering the efforts of the volunteers who tend the trails one weekend at a time, with friends or alone, to protect the beautiful resource that is the Appalachian Trail.

    Donna Brigley
    AT Trail Maintainer on the New Hampshire stretch known as Webster Cliff Trail

    Reply

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