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Marta Fisher bent to kiss the ram’s head painted onto a grubby block of mining debris.
It was three a.m., and the gravel street in front of Silverton Middle High School was empty, but for Fisher, her crew, and the infamous white rock that marks the finish line of the Hardrock 100. Fisher jumped in the air, yelled “I’m a Hardrocker!!” and promptly fell asleep in a folding camp chair. She had been awake for almost 48 hours.
Fisher, 47 from Portland, Oregon, was exhausted. After a tough race, she felt vindicated, newly confident and inspired by her interactions with fellow female Hardrockers along the course.
“I felt like I was pulling a little bit for all the other women in the race and I wanted all of us to get to the finish,” says Fisher.
So much of Fisher’s life had been oriented around training for Hardrock, she felt a bit unmoored after finally catching up to her ultra horizons. After returning home to Portland Fisher started paging through the routes and records listed on fastestknowntime.com, a rolling record for all things FKT. Focusing on the routes near her home in the Pacific Northwest, she noticed a startling discrepancy.
“I found a ton of unique and interesting routes, most of which didn’t have women’s times. Running one or two of them didn’t seem like enough, and setting times on all of them would have been way too much. One day I just had the thought ‘What if it’s not just me? What if I get a bunch of women together to set first times on these routes?’ Things escalated from there.”
What’s In an FKT
FKTs have long been popular among a niche group of runners who feel more at home exploring multi-day or even multi-sport routes than competing in increasingly crowded and expensive trail running events and races. The objective is to set an unofficial record for running a route in the shortest time possible. No bibs, no swag bag, no spectators, no medals.
For a new FKT to be accepted by fastestknowntime.com, a route must be “notable and distinct enough so that others will be interested in repeating it.” The run itself must be verified with a GPS file—like the kind generated by most modern GPS watches— and be classified as either a supported, unsupported, or self-supported attempt. Unsupported runners can’t receive help or aid of any kind and must carry everything they need with them from the start line, while self-supported runners are allowed to buy snacks from convenience stores en route, or bum water off other trail users. Supported runners can essentially have all the pacers and crew they want, but even the presence of a photographer renders an effort supported.
When the COVID pandemic brought races and other large events to a halt, many trail runners turned to FKTs to scratch their competitive itch. Fastestknowntime.com saw a nearly four-fold increase in the number of FKTs set in June 2020 over the preceding year. That interest has waned only slightly as races reopened. Some runners turn FKTs into road trips and destination events, while others, like Fisher, aim to nab the records in their own states or even neighborhoods.
Every U.S. state, every Canadian province, and 63 countries have FKT routes. Chances are, there’s one near you. They can be in the middle of cities, like the 50K Manhattan Loop, traverse deserts geologies like the Grand Canyon Crossings (once, twice, or even five times consecutively). go up mountains like Everest’s infamous Mailrun or cross meandering midwestern trails like Michigan’s Manistee River Trail Loop.
Some of the world’s most epic trails will never host a race, but do boast notable FKTs. As of January 1, 2022, there were 3,358 FKT routes around the world; the longest is the 7,944-mile Triple Crown of Thru-Hiking, which includes the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trail (FKT as of press time: 251 days, 20 hours, 10 minutes), and the shortest is the 0.4-mile Beehive Ascent in Maine’s Acadia National Park (FKT as of press time: 26 minutes, 6 seconds). As of April 1, 2022, the outright FKTs on both of those routes were held by women.
Women Who FKT
Teri Smith is no stranger to male-dominated spaces.
Smith, 50, has been a trail race photographer for over a decade. Her work behind the camera gave her a unique glimpse into how women are portrayed in the sport.
“I’ll see how other photographers, men, capture women and I’ll think well gee, that’s not how I want to be photographed,” says Smith. “Sometimes, you need a woman to go in and photograph athletes as they are, powerful, no matter how fast they’re running.”
Much of her worldview and her work are shaped by the idea that if you see someone doing something that you don’t like, you step in and do it yourself. Smith started her own race photography company, trying to mentor other female trail photographers along the way. She started volunteering and operating HAM radio at races. Smith met Fisher through Stacey Lee, a mutual friend. Initially, Smith was skeptical of the FKT project, having never set an FKT herself. But, the allure of Fisher’s vision and the chance to run and work with more women eventually convinced Smith she should get involved.
“I just turned 50 and I kind of was thinking that like my running was maybe behind me. I think the last few years were really tough as I went to like perimenopause and stuff and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m falling apart. I’m never going be able to do this again’,” says Smith. Then, I got involved with this project. And it’s given me a new excitement and enthusiasm for getting involved and pushing myself.”
For Women Who FKT, the adventure and chance to inspire is more important than the actual time. They’re not in it for the accolades. “You have to be careful to avoid slipping into a colonial mindset,” says Teri Smith, a member and organizer with Women Who FKT. “We want to avoid saying things like, ‘oh, you’ve got to go conquer this’ or ‘you’ve got to be the fastest for it to count.’’ For Smith and her comrades, FKTs are an important part of the trail running conversation, and they want to start leading it, with a mindset toward inclusion and collectivity, rather than superlative rugged individualism.
While long routes, like the Grand Canyon R2R2R or Nolan’s 14, tend to garner the most attention, folks are setting FKTs of every distance and difficulty to varying degrees of fanfare. FKTs’ approachability has made them the competitive outlet of choice for many trail runners, and that has made them an exciting challenge for female runners particularly. In 2019, 30 percent of FKTs were set by women. But last year, over 38 percent of global FKTs went to women, with an almost 50-50 split for FKTs set in the U.S.
However, in founder Marta Fisher’s corner of the world in the Pacific Northwest, less than a third of total FKTs were set by women. Just eight novel routes were established by women, and of 353 recorded FKT variations, only 41 percent had a woman’s time recorded at all.
Flipping the Statistics
When she returned from Hardrock, Fisher mentioned her interest in pursuing some FKTs to her coach, Danielle Synder. Snyder herself has set four FKTs, including the Rogue River Trail and the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. The two teamed up with Teri Smith, Dana Katz and Stacey Lee to create Women Who FKT. Equal parts online community, run club, library of resources, and networking system, Women Who FKT leaned into the idea of inverting the proportion of FKTs set by women and men.
“It is a true grassroots. How can we get more women out in the woods feeling more confident doing these, trying these hard things and supporting each other to make it happen?” says Smith. “And it snowballed from there.”
“Lots of women are interested in setting FKTs but want more education when it comes to the more technical, long, and involved routes. And knowing your stuff builds the confidence you need to get out there and do it.”
Barriers to Entry
Growing up in the Bay Area, Stacey Lee, felt pressure to be the perfect kid. Her propensity for dirty fingernails and scraped knees felt at odds with the image of belonging to the “model minority” that often casts Asian American women as quiet and demure academic overachievers. Lee felt most at home outside, backpacking and hiking among the basalt peaks of the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, hiking turned to trail running. For the most part, Lee felt safe and comfortable on her own outdoors, meandering through alpine trails. But as she found herself looking for running and adventure partners, it was clear this experience wasn’t universal.
“There’s a lot of women who feel that the trail isn’t safe, or they have fears about going on big trail runs by themselves,” says Lee now 45 and based in Portland. “Getting past that initial hurdle of going out there by yourself can be scary.”
Lee was eager to learn more about barriers that kept women from pursuing trail adventures like FKTs, and she joined Fisher and Smith in their quest to identify and eliminate those hurdles. Especially for women like herself, who were straining against the labels and stereotypes of an outdoor culture defined by a very male, very old-school definition of excellence and competition, getting out on the trail doesn’t always feel so welcoming.
The obstacles that make it tough for athletes to train for and set FKTs are complex; a mix of concrete logistical barriers and less tangible, societal expectations.
Although the gender gap is narrowing in many ways, women still perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid labor, such as childcare, on top of their regular jobs. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, women were 40 percent more likely than men to report negative consequences of childcare duties on their careers. Women are eight times more likely than their male partners to look after sick children or spend time managing their kids’ schedules, which takes time away from a lot of things, among them training and setting FKTs.
“Work and family commitments definitely weigh in my decisions around any longer mountain adventure. Sometimes finding the time and managing the scheduling alone can feel almost impossible,” says Steph Imig, a member of Women Who FKT. “On the flip side, the support I have has also allowed me to overcome some of those same barriers. I am surrounded by a community of incredible women who have established FKTs and who are excited to join the adventure, so I am not alone.”
Women Who FKT connects women who are willing to exchange or share childcare duties. While one athlete gets out and trains, another will watch their kids. Then, they’ll swap.
“We have women working together to care for each other’s kids,” says Smith. “We’ll connect women who need a sitter, with someone who’s able to watch the kids that day.”
Lee, who works in tech, lends her professional experience to Women Who FKT, setting up their Slack channel and social media accounts and helping plan and host webinars. Her background, as both a self-professed “tech geek” and long-distance hiker, comes in handy as she teaches webinars for women on how to plan and track their FKTs, a requirement for officially establishing a time on the FKT website.
“I love to geek out about GPS stuff, and tracking. And get really deep on logistics,” says Lee. “That’s stuff that isn’t everyone’s strong suit, and I like to help women get a little more confident when it comes to planning, setting everything up, and tracking their FKTs.”
Education & Safety
Another gap Women Who FKT seek to fill is providing accessible information. The group hosts webinars and panels on everything from first aid to helping recruit friends and family to be part of members’ FKTs.
“Finding a balance between not letting fear run your life and also being educated, aware, and cautious is important when embarking on an FKT journey,” says Snyder.
In April of 2022, the group hosted a panel with Alex Bond, a regional editor tasked with confirming new routes in the Pacific Northwest, to give women a glimpse into the inner workings of Fastestknowntime.com, as well as athletes Ashley Nordell, Becky Grebosky, Emily Hanlon, and Bethany Garretson, all of whom hold prominent local and national FKTs. Other webinars have included topics on, trail safety, essential gear, permitting, and recording your FKT.
“We’re really interested in helping women build the specific skills they need to be successful,” says Smith. “Lots of women are interested in setting FKTs but want more education when it comes to the more technical, long, and involved routes. And knowing your stuff builds the confidence you need to get out there and do it.”
In talking with participants, Women Who FKT identified fear of running alone, particularly in the dark or on remote trails, as being a primary barrier keeping women from training to their potential. The group’s monthly newsletter includes call-outs for women looking for crew support, and their Slack channel connects members to exchange gear, tips, and carpools.
The Confidence Gap
One of the biggest and least tangible barriers for many members of the group was confidence. It’s reminiscent of the “Confidence Gap” identified in a landmark internal study of Hewlett-Packard personnel that revealed that women only applied for a promotion when they met 100 percent of the qualifications for the job. Men were happy to apply when they met about 60 percent of the requirements. Various follow-ups at HP and beyond have revealed what many women feel day to day: women feel confident when they are perfect, or near perfect. The worry that they aren’t the best or fastest will hold athletes back from even attempting an FKT.
“The biggest barrier that I see preventing more women from pursuing FKTs is our doubt in our own abilities,” says Jasmine McGill, who has been running for over a decade and worked with the group to set her own FKTs. “It’s the same initial, knee-jerk reaction that I had when I first learned of the Women Who FKT project that says, ‘I can’t’ or ‘Not me’. So many of us think this way; we cut ourselves down at the knee, convinced that we aren’t good enough before we even try.”
“We have a lot of women who initially worried they aren’t fast enough to set an FKT. The high profile routes, like the Wonderland around Mt. Rainier, have fast FKTs because people have spent years running progressively faster times,” says Fisher. “For the less well-known and recently established routes, that history needs to start somewhere, and it can absolutely start with a slower runner. Some women may have to choose a more obscure route or establish a new one, but there are still opportunities for runners who are not that fast.”
To combat this, Fisher compiled a list of over 100 FKTs that didn’t have a time yet, meaning whoever was the first to run the route and report the time would automatically have the FKT, or the “Only Known Time.”
The group’s monthly newsletter highlights FKTs set by the group, and includes a tracking dashboard that shows their progress in setting more female FKTs.
In Fisher and her teammates’ thinking, encouraging more women to set first known times will lead to more women having the confidence to pursue harder and higher profile routes. In a culture that implicitly communicates that women need to overperform to matter, setting aside space with the intention of encouraging women to simply be beginners is revolutionary.
“We too often sell ourselves short. As important as it is to approach this project with humility, sometimes women are too good at being humble,” says Imig. “It is also important for women to dare to be audacious; to go after big scary ideas, and not retreat before we have even gotten started. We don’t have to go after these things alone.”
By highlighting that it’s okay to pursue a first time on a new route, the group lowers the barrier to entry, thus incentivizing more women to simply get involved. Too often, the world of trail running and FKTs is dominated by a “if you’re not first, you’re last,” mentality, which disincentivizes competition.
One tactic the group is considering for a potential FKT this summer is to set up a group run that would allow multiple women to break the FKT in the same day, with slower athletes going first and progressively faster athletes following. That way, multiple women would get the opportunity to break a record, then to support their peers in that same endeavor.
Fear of Failure
Study after study confirms women’s greater bent than men’s towards perfectionism. Young girls won’t raise their hands to answer a question unless they’re sure they’re correct, and female athletes might not toe the line of a race unless they’re confident they’re fitter and faster than is required. Where men tend to take more risks, professionally and personally, women often hold back until they’re sure they’re qualified. Ironically, that fixation on perfection prevents women from even getting to the start line.
Fisher and Women Who FKT have tried to combat this with radical transparency, talking through their failures and mishaps publicly, in the hopes that it would demonstrate that it’s okay to come up short. In social media posts and webinars, the group constantly tries to address how a fear of failure, of not setting the FKT, prevents many women from trying.
“You know what? It’s OK to go and try to do things, and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you will fail,” says Lee. “Failure is a part of growing as a person is a part of learning. I try to set the example that says, we can do hard things. And part of that is not always getting it right.” It’s a dynamic Lee is all too familiar with. As a former high school robotics coach, Lee has seen how the fear of failure holds her female students back, while male students are rewarded for their competitive drive and risk-taking.
Lee is planning some FKTs of her own in the High Sierra this summer, failure be damned. Equally important to seeing women succeed is seeing women fail, pick themselves back up, dust themselves off, and keep running.
“We all have our challenges. We all have our days where things feel impossible,” says Smith. But I think when we get real with each other, then that’s when we can actually support each other the best.”
Collaboration as Competition
Over the weekend of June 4th and 5th, Women Who FKT is encouraging women everywhere to go out and set as many FKTs as possible, as “an appetizer for some of the higher elevation or longer stuff later in the season,” according to their website. The group also hopes to expand into other regions, and inspire women all over the US in the future.
After the June 4th weekend warm up, the group is encouraging women to set a date for their own big FKT projects: sometime between July 15th and August 31st.
“Our message isn’t to discourage competition, and instead to consider competition as collaboration, as a way to elevate all women,” says Snyder.
“I want trail and ultra running to encourage diverse people to challenge themselves in the outdoors. I want this project to mentor and learn from a diverse set of women, who can then smooth the entry for others in the future. Our project differs from a traditional FKT project in that it’s collaborative, rather than one or two people,” says Fisher.
A dynamic that makes this discussion so tricky is that simply telling women to have more confidence does nothing to address or identify the cultural scaffolding that produces a gendered confidence gap.
“Women are not encouraged or taught to expand their comfort zones or think they are capable. It is not uncommon that I am stopped when I am alone on a trail and asking if I am safe, why I am alone, and if I need help,” says Snyder. “This type of message often creates fear and impacts women’s desire to attempt pushing their comfort zone! By creating a group that supports these attempts, and connects those who want to be connected and answers questions, allows for inclusivity and support.”
Women Who FKT wants to flip the script on traditional competition, especially between women. Instead of a hierarchical narrative of man vs. man vs. nature, it tries to be the rising tide that lifts more boats. Instead of pitting women against one another in pursuit of individual glory, it brings them together in pursuit of a singular, group goal: to get more women outside and running trails, and eventually setting FKTs, then supporting and celebrating those who succeed and supporting and celebrating those who don’t.
“What it really comes down to is women helping women. Women supporting women. Women pushing other women to do their best,” says Lee. “When you do that, you’re elevating everybody, not just a few people.”
And for each woman that does that, a ripple effect of others might follow. Confidence, when coupled with education and the support of a team, might be catalyzed to action. And that action might be the spark that lights the fire for others.
“As I’ve been planning my own FKT efforts I’ve started thinking more about how I can bring other women along. Any effort I do this year isn’t just about me setting an FKT, it’s also about showing someone else a path for them to take on their own challenge,” says Fisher.