I am a regional editor for FastestKnownTime.com for the southeast U.S. and the Balkans. The following is my own opinion and does not reflect the stance of the website or any of the other volunteers.
In February, I ran the “Old Rag Loop,” a popular and extremely technical running route in Shenandoah National Park. A couple feet of snow, followed by an intense melt freeze cycle, had essentially paved the ridgeline scramble for which the route is so popular. Running over the technical terrain while covered in snow was rather effortless and it struck me how easy it would be to set an FKT in the current conditions. Last year, I saw new attention to efforts over snow on routes that had previously been raced in dry conditions. While this phenomenon is far from new, athletes have been using snow to eliminate the technicality of mountain running efforts and setting new records for years. This year marked a first for snow attempts on high profile and competitive routes.
Largely this is to be expected, as records on popular routes get more competitive and closer to the limits of human exertion, athletes will innovate and stretch the rules. In March, Massachusetts-based athlete Ben Thompson nearly set an FKT on the Presidential Traverse, one of the ten routes designated “Premier” by fastestknowntime.com. His effort was flagged because he omitted one of the summits on the ridgeline and strayed from an official trail. Had he stuck to the official route, he easily would be the new overall record holder on one of the most competitive routes on the East Coast (albeit northbound versus the more competitive southbound). In Thompson’s defense, what he did was entirely within the flawed and incomplete set of route rules posted to the Presidential Traverse route page on fastestknowntime.com. Based on Thompson’s effort, it’s entirely conceivable that records will be set on all major mountain efforts in the Northeast in the next couple of winters. Competition will be limited to those who can camp on routes for the duration of the winter and wait for a perfect day or worse, to those athletes that can rally a team to go out with snowshoes and pack down sections of unconsolidated snow.
Running on the snow, in the proper conditions, is faster. There is no debate here. Bring up Strava, select virtually any downhill mountain running segment in the White Mountains, and the top times will inevitably have been set during winter months. Admittedly, the uphills may be slightly slower, but that is dependent on the conditions and nature of the individual trail. If you took any of the top five men or women on the Presidential Traverse leaderboard, lined them up at the start with a couple feet of snow hardened by a healthy melt freeze cycle and had them run the route, there’s a high probability they would break the current records. But just because it’s technically faster and technically within the current rules, doesn’t mean we should do it.
In my opinion, setting an FKT is a celebration of commitment to learning the route, practicing the technicality and mastering your body, equipment, nutrition and personal fitness. On many routes in the Northeast, technicality is half of that equation. For example, the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks is 22 miles, has 9,000 feet of gain, and with recorded competition going back to 2009, the five-hour mark has not been broken. If you want buffed trails and don’t want technicality, there are literally thousands of races and routes that exist. Storied efforts like the Great Range Traverse, the Devil’s Path and the Pemigewasset Loop span wilderness areas and races will never happen on them, but speed efforts can happen any time of the year. The only competition over this terrain is through FKTs, and these routes would go much faster in the snow.
Are all efforts over snow problematic? Absolutely not. Some routes are in areas where dry efforts would be contrived and extremely difficult. Mount Hood, Mount Shasta and Mount Adams (Washington), to name just a few, would be nearly impossible in dry conditions. Personally, I would never run in the snow to break an effort set in dry conditions. That’s not because I don’t own a pair of microspikes, but fundamentally out of respect for the athletes that have raced before me.
Many athletes who compete in FKTs come from a trail or road racing background, but the decentralized, disaggregated nature of FKTs lends the competition closer to the ethics of climbing more so than running. Often, the ultimate aesthetic in climbing is to climb in the style of first ascent. Climbing in the style of those who came before levels the playing field and gives real weight to claiming a successful summit. A similar logic can be applied to FKTs. We should all look to race in a similar style to those who have posted previous times. By style I don’t mean unsupported vs. supported — there are separate distinctions and records that exist for those. At this time, efforts over snow are placed in the same category by both fastestknowntime.com and the greater public, and no distinction exists.
Some would argue, while maybe it’s not aesthetically preferable in the truest meaning of the phrase, running the fastest time on an effort would mean running it over snow. I disagree. While technically viewed from a satellite or a mapping program, one is covering the same route but not the same terrain. The technicality of the route has been eliminated and the character of the effort has been removed. Further, the danger is largely absent. While running rarely treads into territory of real danger, setting a dry FKT on one of the aforementioned routes would merit at least an R rating. Thinking about Newell bombing down the slabs at Gothics, Fields pounding down the boulders on the descent from Galehead, or Merlis dropping into Pecoy Notch off of Twin at race pace makes my stomach churn. In my mind, claiming an FKT over snow is tantamount to claiming an ascent of the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c R/X) after sewing it up with bolts. Personally, I have no interest in racing such an effort. On this, Ben Thompson and I agree entirely. In Episode 133 of the Fastest Known Podcast, which addressed Ben’s recent speed effort on the Presidential Traverse, Thompson stated, “If we wanted to just get a pure test of physical fitness, we’d put everyone on a treadmill.”
Like it or not, by maintaining records for FKTs, fastestknowntime.com has effectively become the final arbiter of rules on unorganized speed efforts. In March, they made it clear they had no intention to break out winter efforts on the site. Thompson technically ran his effort in the spring, and a distinction based on seasonality alone would not be sufficient. Hypothetically, a route would have to be broken out as being “winter conditions,” a category that could be fairly subjective. Just how much snow coverage is needed on a route to give it a “winter conditions” label? What about a route like the Presidential Traverse that starts at 2,000 feet and rises above 6,000 feet? Snow could conceivably be multiple feet deep on top of the mountains while the lower trails are entirely bare. A “winter conditions” distinction could be based on whether traction devices were used to travel over the snow. Anything from the La Sportiva Blizzard, with steel studs, to microspikes to crampons would not be allowed unless a route permitted racing in the snow. This way, racing over a short stretch of snow on a route like the Presidential Traverse, which often holds small amounts of snow well into June, would be permitted. Unless stated otherwise, all running efforts would have to be completed on terrain free of snow. If someone wants to lie about how much snow was on the route, it’s conceivable they could be getting aid on an unsupported effort or passing their GPS device off to another athlete. So much of our sport is already based on trust and integrity. More legwork would be needed at fastestknowntime.com to break out exactly what efforts could happen over snow, but it doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Whatever is decided, the implications would be significant (as significant as implications can get for informal mountain running), as it would apply to any temperate area.
In my mind, the decision is personal. If you want to measure up to the athletes of the past, battle the terrain and test yourself against the standard, run it dry. Just wait until the snow melts. While innovation and experimentation are central to our sport, racing shouldn’t be a game to stretch the vague rules on fastestknowntime.com and cheat the athletes that came before you. But, to some extent, I don’t think it matters what the site decides, as it’s up to us as a community to police and enforce the rules of FKTs.
We shouldn’t look to fastestknowntime.com to maintain the ethics of our sport. Just because a record is posted to the site, that doesn’t make it authentic or beyond reproach, it only means it’s passed an initial review by a volunteer that is potentially thousands of miles away from the effort in question. As a regional editor, I am deeply reliant on the hyper local community, the individuals that intimately know the people and places of the efforts featured on the site, to speak up when something is inconsistent or unfair, and this is a piece that I feel is increasingly absent. Peter, Buzz and the rest of the fastestknowntime.com team are not race directors (I’d say we are similar to employees at UltraSignup). The real ethics and rules of each route are determined by the community and the athletes that run them. Those of us at fastestknowntime.com do not have the resources to break out the exact rules and ethics for every single route. Although the site has attempted it, routes, cultures and athletes are too diverse for a single set of rules and parameters, beyond the most basic, to apply globally. If you have a question about what might be appropriate during an effort, I encourage you to reach out to individuals who set FKTs on the route in the past, not fastestknowntime.com. Further, once a record is set, athletes need to take ownership. They need to be clear on the style and route they took, down to where exactly they started and stopped their watch, and be available to respond to questions from future athletes.
Beyond just individual records, as athletes we need to take ownership of our sport. To this end, I’ve met athletes in the Northeast who are frustrated with winter efforts and other moves fastestknowntime.com has made, but haven’t done anything about it. Instead, they’ve begrudgingly accepted the rules listed on the website. If you have a problem with a route, an individual record or the overall direction of the site or community, it’s important that you raise your concerns. The idea of FKTs is in its infancy, and it’s up to us to build the culture and ethics now to preserve competition for future generations.