This article was produced in partnership with Athletic Brewing, which encourages you to adventure without compromise.
This spring, pro obstacle course racer Ryan Kempson reached the summit of Killington Peak in the dark, completely exhausted. He and Aaron Newell, a friend and fellow OCR racer, had summitted all five of Vermont’s four-thousand-foot peaks, traveling by bike to get between them, in 14 hours and 48 minutes. They had achieved the fastest known time on the route, beating the previous record by over an hour.
“It’s an adventure,” Kempson told Men’s Journal, reflecting on the journey. “There is emotion wrapped into it and there is a huge sense of accomplishment.”
In recent years, more and more people have gone looking for that sense of accomplishment. FKT attempts (and successes) have been steadily growing in popularity, says Buzz Burrell. He would know—in the early 2000s, he helped popularize the term, and he and a small team of volunteers run fastestknowntime.com, the main clearinghouse for FKT records. With Covid-19 cancelling races everywhere, this year has seen an explosion of submissions to the site.
“It’s been growing all along and it jumped up strong in April,” Burrell says. “We’re up basically five times year over year.”
But why so much interest in FKTs? Competition is a big part of it. With countless races canceled this year, athletes are looking for a way to see how they stack up, Kempson says.
“That’s why we race,” he explains. “We haven’t had that all year. We literally go crazy not having it.”
FKTs certainly provide competition, but they’re also a very different kind of challenge than an organized race. Longer routes require planning for food and lodging (either bringing supplies with you or getting support along the way), and they often involve stringing together multiple trails, so good navigation skills are essential. For Kempson, that’s all part of the appeal.
“The competitive side is there,” he says, “but it also allows you to prepare and put a lot of effort and focus into one single task.”
FKTs also offer plenty of variety. For a route to be accepted on fastestknowntime.com, Burrell and his team have a basic ground rule—it must be at least five miles long or have 500 feet of elevation change. That leaves the door open for all kinds of routes, from traversing Japan’s Niseko mountain range to running between the major airports of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, and athletes can pick one that matches their strengths.
“We get this range from really remote far out there stuff,” says Burrell, “to real classic road runs.”
And we’re talking about setting records in truly iconic places. Routes like the Appalachian Trail and the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada attract top competitors, and also put them in some of America’s most rugged and picturesque terrain.
“They’re just beautiful, some of these big aesthetic routes,” says Kempson. “That side of it is super rewarding.”
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I did it y’all! 29 days 8 hours and 48 minutes to complete the 1,175 mile Mountains to Sea Trail on foot. I began at Clingmans Dome in the mountains of NC and ended at Jockeys Ridge at the Outer Banks of NC. There’s a lot to be said but all I want to do now is eat, sleep, hang out with my support crew and CELEBRATE! I am now a Mountains to Sea Thru Hiker and the record holder for the Fastest known time on the MST on foot!! #mountainstosea #mst #mountainstoseafkt #fkt #fastestknowntime #localtrails #nctrails #womenthathike #sheisnotlost #mountainstoseatrail #thruhike #thruhiker
Before this year, Kempson knew very little about FKTs. While running with a friend on the Blue Hills Skyline trail near Boston this spring, his friend mentioned the fastest time for the route was about two and a half hours.
“It just blew my mind away. It became this motivating factor,” he says. “I always wanted to go out there and beat that some day.”
In late March, he did. In addition to the Vermont 4000ers, Kempson has nabbed six other FKTs this year. Next, he wants to take on the Presidential Traverse, a brutal 18-mile route through the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. After that, he wants to try the Pemi Loop, 27-mile jaunt through the White Mountains, also in New Hampshire. It’s fair to say he’s hooked.
Burrell has heard stories like this before, and he sees no sign that FKTs will fade away. That’s because ultimately, they offer something that organized races don’t. It’s not about beating the person next to you or crossing the finish line of a carefully planned course. Instead, FKTs get at a more basic human drive: digging deep, going on an adventure, and seeing what you’re capable of.
“I think FKTs got their start in prehistory,” says Burrell. “I think it’s a part of human nature.”