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This summer, Sabrina Stanley was supposed to toe the line at two high-profile ultramarathons: the Hardrock 100 and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Then the coronavirus pandemic wiped those races—and virtually all others—off the calendar.
Stanley set her sights on a new goal: becoming the fastest woman to climb fourteen 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. The grueling challenge, dubbed Nolan’s 14, requires roughly 90 miles of running during which runners climb 40,000 feet.
Days before the Silverton, Colorado–based professional ultrarunner and coach started her run last month, she found out she’d have to go faster than expected: another runner had just knocked a couple hours off the record. Stanley, who ran with pacers and a support crew, wasn’t daunted.
“When I told people my goals, I got a lot of smirks or side-eyes, and people saying it wasn’t possible. She validated that if she can do it, I can do it too,” Stanley said.
She got the record, finishing in 2 days, 3 hours and 15 minutes. It lasted less than a month.
Races may be on hiatus, but runners’ competitive instincts aren’t. Unofficial speed records, known as FKTs or fastest known times, have been dropping unusually quickly this summer.
The number of FKTs submitted to FastestKnownTime.com—run by a group of volunteers who track and verify records on more than 2,600 routes—has doubled since early this spring, said co-founder Buzz Burrell.
There are no medals or crowds of spectators, and all a runner needs is a trail and GPS tracker. They can run solo or with a small support crew, which means FKTs can be a relatively pandemic-friendly challenge. When some high-profile trails and parks closed, many runners stuck to routes in their home region, Burrell said.
Racing More Than Just the Clock
When Alyssa Godesky and Sarah Keyes realized they were both planning an attempt to establish a women’s record on the Adirondack 46 High Peaks, they decided to go head-to-head.
The route requires summiting the 46 highest peaks in New York’s Adirondacks. Keyes and Godesky took different paths but started the same day. Godesky, a Charlottesville, Virginia–based ultrarunner, triathlete, and coach, said she felt the same nerves and excitement she would on a traditional starting line.
“[Keyes] was clearly very excited, and I think that was contagious for me. I was missing racing, too,” she said.
Godesky’s time of 3 days, 16 hours, and 16 minutes still stands.
FKTs Fall Fast on High-Profile Routes
Some records have fallen multiple times within days or weeks. The record for women running without a support crew on the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in California was reset three times in two weeks, most recently by Candice Burt, in 2 days, 12 hours, and 47 minutes.
And by the time Lindsey Ulrich set a new women’s FKT for the 453-mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail passing through Oregon last month, Emily Halnon was already en route to breaking her record. She finished in 7 days, 19 hours and 23 minutes—the fastest time recorded for men or women.
Halnon, who works in communications at the University of Oregon, began planning her FKT attempt even before the pandemic canceled races. Her mother died of a rare uterine cancer in January, and Halnon wanted to take on a big challenge to celebrate her life. But after her fifth 100-mile race, Halnon realized those finish lines left her feeling “kind of flat.”
“Doing 100 miles is hard no matter how many times you’ve done it,” she said. “But I recognized that’s what was missing. When I toed the line I wasn’t uncertain about whether I could finish. It had been a little bit since I felt that.”
A stormy sixth day kept her on the trail until 4 a.m., but it wasn’t all long nights. Halnon designated her fourth day a “recharge” day, stopping for the night at an alpine lake to have dinner with friends.
“That’s obviously a night I could have covered more miles, but I think I got a ton out of having that rally of support,” said Halnon, who raised $33,000 for the Brave Like Gabe Foundation during her attempt.
The Colorado Trail, a roughly 500-mile route from Durango to Denver, was also hotly contested in August.
Mikaela Osler lopped 4.5 days off the previous record for women running without a support crew, covering the Collegiate East version of the route in 10 days, 12 hours, and 36 minutes.
Almost simultaneously, Marilyne Marchard-Gouin ran an alternate version of the route in 14 days, 13 hours, and 58 minutes, the first recorded women’s time for that variation. Ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter also attempted the route, but difficulty breathing, later diagnosed as bronchitis, forced her to cut her run short.
Osler, a graduate student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and thru-hiker who started racing ultramarathons after completing the Appalachian Trail, never doubted she would finish. Still, the FKT forced her to confront a fear of hiking through the night. It was also her first time tackling a long route entirely solo.
She finished a day and a half ahead of her stated goal while battling everything from sleep deprivation to nosebleeds to infected blisters, but thinks women can go faster, especially on long routes like the Colorado Trail.
“I feel quite strongly that I would like the women’s record to be competitive with the men’s,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s something about sex or gender that slowed me down.”
Going Long: A Record Attempt on the Appalachian Trail
Still, for sheer distance, one summer FKT stands out: Liz “Mercury” Anjos’ run on the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, stretching from Georgia to Maine.
Anjos, a Portland, Oregon–based running coach and co-founder of Rose City Track Club, initially hoped to complete the trail faster than any person, male or female. She was inspired by Jennifer Pharr Davis, who previously held the overall record.
All sections of the Appalachian Trail re-opened to hikers by July, when Anjos and Warren Doyle, who served as her support crew throughout, planned to set out. Doyle, who has thru-hiked the trail nine times, connected with Anjos after she attended one of his workshops to help aspiring Appalachian Trail hikers prepare.
A route-finding error put the overall record out of reach early on, but Anjos still hoped to top Pharr Davis’ women’s speed record, even as shin splints forced her to walk 18 or more hours a day to stay on her 50-miles-per-day pace.
But a little less than three weeks in, Anjos hit her breaking point: She knew she couldn’t keep the long, painful days up all the way to Maine.
“I felt like a failure, like I was letting everyone down,” said Anjos.
Still, Anjos had dreamed of completing the trail years before she started dreaming about how fast she could do it. Not making it to the trail’s end at the summit of Mount Katahdin sounded devastating.
“As long as my body and my legs allowed me to keep moving forward, I wanted to try,” she said.
Anjos and Doyle mapped out a new plan, with a range of goals to help Anjos keep pushing forward. After 51 days, 16 hours, and 30 minutes, she became the fastest woman to complete the trail traveling south to north. The overall women’s record is about five days faster.
Anjos had worried people would stop caring about her attempt if she fell short. Instead, she got messages from parents and coaches thanking her for setting an example by persevering.
“It helps me realize some unhealthy perceptions that I’ve had toward myself… that your only worth is what you produce or what you achieve, which isn’t true,” she said.
She also learned it’s OK to ask for help. Anjos initially planned to tackle the Appalachian Trail as a solo hike because she was reluctant to ask someone to spend more than a month as her support crew, until Doyle essentially volunteered for the role.
“People really want to help and love to help and it doesn’t mean that I’m weak or that it’s because I need it,” she said. “This whole journey felt like such a community effort that people wanted to be a part of.”
“Find Something You’re Passionate About”
Runners don’t have to commit to epic, multi-day adventures to join the FKT chase.
“Find something you’re passionate about. It doesn’t have to be big and scary or competitive,” said Kaytlyn Gerbin, an ultrarunner and bioengineer from Issaquah, Washington. Especially during the pandemic, when many are avoiding travel, “just finding that backyard project can be fun and motivating.”
It helps if your backyard includes routes like the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop around Washington’s Mount Rainier. Gerbin, who has set multiple FKTs in her home state, knocked about three and a half hours off the fastest women’s supported time last month, finishing just under 18 hours and 42 minutes.
Still, there are routes across the country. Unlike Strava, which lets anyone create a segment, the FKT website says a route must be “notable and distinct enough so that others will be interested in repeating it” to warrant inclusion.
There are separate records for athletes traveling solo or with a support crew, and there is no minimum distance, though virtually all routes cover at least five miles or climb at least 500 feet. Some cover established trails; others are based on landmarks, like a record for the most loops around New York City’s Central Park during the park’s opening hours, or the fastest run from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the summit of Arizona’s highest peak.
No woman had recorded a time on that route, dubbed Hole to Hump, until Meghan Slavin, a physical therapist from Phoenix, finished in 21 hours, 9 minutes, and 12 seconds in June.
She had been running better than ever when her 100-mile goal race was canceled, and she wanted an alternative challenge.
Many of the runners who have been tackling FKTs this summer said they’re hoping to return to traditional races this fall.
Still, Godesky said she hopes some runners who have given FKTs a try during the racing hiatus will stick with them.
“As a coach, I’ve seen that it’s easy to get just laser-focused on the race and the accolades that come with it. I’ve been very encouraged at how athletes are turning more toward intrinsic motivation in these times and tapping into what makes them stay fit and have a little competition and stay outside.”