Drama on Mount Everest is a given at the height of climbing season every May. This year, all eyes were on 29-year-old ultra runner Kilian Jornet, who raced up the world's tallest mountain without oxygen tanks or fixed ropes – not once but twice in one week.
What drove the young Spaniard? Establishing the fastest known time, or "FKT," on the famed mountain.
By default, Jornet set the FKT because the routes he selected were previously untried by other runners.
His 26- and 28-hour runs were astounding nonetheless. And they were just two of hundreds of FKT attempts being made each year on some of the toughest mountains in the world.
In 2017 alone, runners have established records at popular locations such as Denali, New Hampshire's Presidential Traverse and several of Colorado's "14ers" – mountains with elevation of at least 14,000 feet.
Most people credit Buzz Burrell, 65, with coining the term "FKT" in 2000 after he and a friend, Peter Bakwin, ran California's 223-mile John Muir Trail in four days, 14 hours and 39 minutes. Burrell says that for many runners, FKTs represent a natural progression after participating in the racing scene for a while.
"In a race, you show up on a given date and run a given distance with a crowd of people," says Burrell, who is based in Boulder, Colorado. "An FKT is a way for people to run a distance or course that has personal meaning to them."
That's what attracted 33-year-old Leor Pantilat to the FKT arena. An ultradistance trail runner who had won several big events, Pantilat left the racing scene in 2013.
"The races all started to feel the same," says the San Francisco-based corporate lawyer. "I'm inspired by remote, wild spots, and I was sacrificing those in order to train for the races."
Since stepping away to a more-solo approach to his running, Pantilat has established FKTs on the 200-mile Sierra High Route in California, the John Muir Trail (three days, seven hours and 39 minutes) and a few others in Washington state. He appreciates the variety of nature he finds when running now. "There's such diversity in FKT attempts," he says. "Each has its own ethos."
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When a runner sets off to nab a FKT, the attempt can be supported, which means that someone else helps provide food, water and other needs, or unsupported, which means the runner has to drop supplies ahead of time or carry everything.
Burrell, who established several FKTs that have since been surpassed, says that the effort tends to attract a certain personality type. "An FKT is going to be far less social than a race, and there's no medal waiting at the end," he says. "More men attempt them than women, who make up about 5 percent of the athletes who try."
FKT attempts come with a certain amount of danger, too. "In a road race, you've got a safety net [of the race organization] if you get into trouble," Burrell says. "But with an FKT, you're largely on your own. You can't be a dope," or you could get in trouble.
When Burrell and Bakin set the Muir FKT, there was no easy way to research who else had made the run. "It got us thinking about how many FKTs were out there without any recording," he says.
Burrell eventually found information on several attempts on the Muir trail before his, but no one had paid them much attention. In 2009, Burrell and Bakwin set up a basic website to track and substantiate FKTs.
They also established some rules for runners to follow:
Recently, Burrell has added a requirement that runners use a real-time tracker – a GPS watch to capture the data, which runners can later upload to public platforms for verification. "We used to survive on the honor system, but those days are behind us," he says.
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Today's FKT attempts do have a different look than their predecessors had. With social media documenting and spreading the word about the ambitious undertakings, more runners are joining the ranks. Those who succeed are constantly raising the bar and drawing the attention of a wider public as well as sponsors. Fans avidly follow the attempts, slicing and dicing the efforts on running forums and blogs.
Darcy Piceu, a 42-year-old ultra runner – someone who runs distances longer than the 26.2-mile marathon – just set an FKT of less than 30 hours for the Cordillera Huyhuash Circuit in Peru, an isolated, mountainous route of 85 miles. "It's definitely a changing world," she says, referring to the growing popularity of trying FKTs. "The Grand Canyon is a good example, as running rim to rim to rim" – known as R2R2R – "grows in popularity."
Indeed, as more professional runners go for FKTs, increasing numbers of amateurs also take to the trails. This may result in more runners requiring emergency assistance, plus more congestion on popular routes. The park service at the Grand Canyon uses trail counters to monitor the number of people making extended day hikes, which includes the 42-mile R2R2R run. Right now that number stands at about 700 on the weekends.
Individuals running R2R2R do not need permits, but organized groups – and these exist for running the 42-mile route – do. In November 2016, the park service issued a statement about the potentially concerning environmental impact of increased numbers on the trails. "These include conflicts between user groups, litter on the trails, stress to park facilities and noise," says Rachel Bennett, environmental protection specialist at Grand Canyon.
More elite runners are making FKT attempts, lured by incentive packages offered by sponsors. "There are athletes who make a fair amount doing this," Piceu says. "These attempts often involve film crews, photographers and sometimes crowds."
This past year, Burrell and Bakwin established the FKT of the Year Awards. Judges who selected the winners could not consider any sanctioned race; the routes had to require longer than an hour to accomplish; the route had to have a degree of technical difficulty, but ropes could be employed for only 5 percent of the elapsed time or less.
The judges based their choices on several criteria:
Burrell says he hopes the awards teach people about the world and also inspire. "Traveling quickly and efficiently through our beautiful world is a wonderful gift we have been given," he says, "so let's take delight in honoring and appreciating our opportunities."