Chasing Fastest Known Times with Ashly Winchester

PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)

Ashly Winchester knows a thing or two about Fastest Known Times (FKTs). In fact, she currently holds 36 different FKTs around the US. We asked Ashly to tell us about her journey towards FKTs, the logistics around an attempt, and more.

Ashly-Blog
PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)

My journey into running was borne out of necessity; I needed a way to escape, and going for long, solo runs in the backcountry was the only way I found my solace.

I grew up in the wild spaces of Northern California. At a very young age, I would be sent outside along with my siblings with instructions to “go play.” We’d find a stream and follow it as far as we could, or go fish in the pond, or see who could climb the furthest up into the canopy of oak trees. I’d snack on wild blackberries, miner’s lettuce, and sheep sorrel as I trod on bare little feet through the grassy hills and valleys of my home. I’d pick wildflowers and dig up soaproot, cautiously aware of how much I took because Mom said to always leave enough for the plants to propagate. I’d bring these items back as gifts for her, although the blackberries rarely made it home.

Because of this childhood, being alone in the backcountry has never felt scary to me, on the contrary; it feels like home. The wilderness is my safe space, always there to wrap me up in solitude, free of judgement. It’s the only place where I truly feel like myself.

So when my adult life began to crumble within the grasp of domestic violence, I turned to the only thing that I knew would comfort me and bring me peace: I went home to the wilderness.

Completely lost in thought, I would disappear into the backcountry for hours and the miles would fly by. There’s something trance-like and meditative about running long distances, and it was the only way I could process what was going on. My anxiety and depression would lift and I could think clearly and logically again. It was on a particularly long run that I decided I needed to find a way out of the situation I was in. I’m not sure I would have made this decision if it weren’t for the thoughtfulness that comes with a good, long run. This simple act of putting one foot in front of the other saved me.

PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)
PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)

My Journey Into FKTs

Running became a fundamental part of my life. It felt natural to try my hand at ultra-distance racing, but races always lacked something for me. Or perhaps it’s that racing offered more than I needed. As much as I enjoy the camaraderie that comes along with trail races, I crave the solitude of the wilderness. The crowds and noise and aid stations and colorful flags are too much for me.

That’s when I discovered Fastest Known Times, often called FKTs.

FKTs embody everything I love: big, solo, unsupported days in the wilderness with all the planning, prep, and logistics done on my own. The high mileage days in the wilderness coupled with the obsessive planning is exactly what feeds my soul. All of the noise and fanfare are removed. It’s just me and the wilderness and my goal. Nothing more.

FKTs have been gaining traction over the last few years, but there’s been a huge boom in popularity this year. The Covid epidemic has canceled races and key events for a lot of athletes, so it seems natural that some athletes have turned to FKTs. It’s been a manner in which runners can use their fitness from all the dedicated race training, and still accomplish a goal.
What is an FKT?

FKT stands for Fastest Known Time, and is essentially a speed record on an established trail, ridgeline, or mountain route. Common FKTs that many people are aware of include the John Muir Trail (Nuumu Poyo), Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Colorado Trail, and the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) of the Grand Canyon. These all happen to be longer trails, but FKTs can be short too, and encompass a wide range of terrain and technical aspects.

What most people don’t know is that there are hundreds of established trails and routes that have existing FKTs, or are just waiting for an FKT to be established. Fastest Known Times are accessible to anyone and you do not need to be an elite or professional athlete to take one on.

There are three main styles of FKTs:

  • Unsupported – You receive no outside help. You have no partners, pacers, or resupply. You are not allowed to leave caches for yourself, or accept help from “trail angels” (those nice strangers who offer help). You carry everything you need from start to finish. However, it is okay to collect water from natural sources.
  • Self-supported – You can set up pre-planned caches or resupplies for yourself, but receive no pre-planned help from anyone else. You may purchase items along the way, and you may also accept food or water from “trail angels.” Pacers and partners are not allowed.
  • Supported – You receive pre-planned help from someone, have pacers or partners, aid-stations, etc. This might mean that you have a crew helping you the entire time, or that one person hands you a bottle of water once. Any amount of assistance can make an effort classified as ‘supported,’ even if that assistance was not planned.

Keep in mind that what I’ve shared here are just guidelines, and that each FKT may have a different ethic surrounding it, meaning that rules for some FKTs may differ from others. It’s important to do the research and plan, plan, plan.

PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)
PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)

How I Plan An FKT

One of the beautiful things about FKTs is that there’s a lot of room to plan and schedule your FKT attempt on your own terms. You can choose to attempt an FKT in any of the style formats listed above, during whatever time of year you choose, and starting at any time of day that suits you.

This freedom is one of the many reasons I love FKTs, but it also means that planning and prepping is immensely important. One of the things you’re paying for when you enter a race is the race director’s time and energy to plan and prep. You don’t have to carry all of your water and food because there are aid stations and drop bags and there are emergency personnel on standby should you become injured or ill. The route is marked and you (usually) don’t have to worry about all the logistics. Races are planned for you, so all you have to do is train.

So, if you want to try your hand at a Fastest Known Time record, where do you start?

First of all, when you find a route you want to attempt an FKT on, you need to study it. Seriously. REALLY study it. Knowing your route will help you plan your water and food, create an emergency plan, and set you up for success.

Here are some questions to ask yourself going into an FKT:

  • Am I capable of traveling the distance?
  • Am I comfortable with the terrain?
  • Are there technical aspects like class 3, 4, or 5 scrambling? Can I make those moves?
  • Is there off-trail travel and route-finding? Can I manage that?
  • Are there places to refill water? Is the water flowing? What is the quality of the water? Do I need to filter or treat it?
  • How much food do I need to bring?
  • What will the weather be like?
  • Do you need to prepare to be out there overnight?
  • Do I need wilderness permits?

These are just a few of the questions that I ask myself as I prep. You can also visit the Fastest Known Time website to research and find information on existing FKT routes. You’ll often find trip reports, photos, GPX files, and other information that will help you prepare.

As most endurance athletes know; it’s good to push yourself outside your comfort zone, but when taking on a solo or unsupported FKT you want to use caution so that you don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation that you can not handle on your own. Be as safe as possible, and take risks within reason.

Planning, training, and prep may take a matter of hours, days, or even months depending on your chosen adventure.

PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)
PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)

Providing Proof

There’s no official governing body for FKTs, just passionate athletes who volunteer their time to verify records as best they can, so FKTs aren’t official records. But there are still some strict requirements that are necessary to prove that you completed a route.

The most important part of the verification process is providing GPS verification. You need GPS data that shows that you were where you were, when you say you were, and that you traveled at the speeds you claim. When submitting a new Fastest Known Time record on the website, you must submit a gpx file from your FKT attempt. More competitive routes may as that you also use live tracking tools, such as a SPOT tracker or Garmin InReach.

So what stops someone from cheating? The answer is: photos and trip reports. This is how you prove that you were the one who actually completed the FKT. Taking a selfie in key areas such as trail intersections and summits, or on any recognizable section of the route, will provide time-stamped photo evidence. Writing a detailed trip report adds an extra personalized touch on the whole experience.

The FKT admins take all of this information and make a decision on whether or not the FKT is legitimate.

Have Fun With It

There’s always competitiveness surrounding speed records, but the most important part to remember about chasing FKTs is that you enjoy it. There’s no medal and there’s no finisher’s purse for completing them.

My proudest FKT moments have been achieved completely alone in the middle of the night. Celebrating a completed FKT might involve making ramen soup in my Jetboil, cracking open an Athletic Brewing beer, and then falling asleep in the back of my car. For most FKTers, these are very personal endeavors.

Running Fastest Known Times has inspired me to find and run new-to-me trails and routes, and has given me the impetus I need to get out there, move my body, and learn new skills. And while most FKTs are done solo, there is a whole community of fellow FKTers who are cheering you on. Once you step foot in the FKT world, you’re part of the community. We all want to see one another succeed. We share beta and stories, and lift each other up… even if things don’t go as planned.

Some of the most interesting and memorable stories come from failed FKT attempts; those times where you truly push yourself, hit your limit, and learn the most. The pursuit of FKTs can give you the most formative experiences you’ve ever had. It’s not always about going fast.

PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)
PC: Nicole Kandra (@n_kandra)

Find more information at FastestKnownTime.com

Ashly Winchester is a runner, writer, and mountain guide based in Northern California. She is also the host of the podcast, Womxn Of The Wild. At the time of this writing, Ashly has collected 35 FKTs and is ranked as the number 1 female, and 3rd overall on the board at FastestKnownTime.com.

Ashly on Instagram: @ashly.winchester
Womxn Of The Wild on Instagram: @womxnofthewild