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Did a Belgian Dentist Just Break the PCT Speed Record? Karel Sabbe (right) with friend and support Joren Biebuyck at the PCT's northern terminus. Courtesy Karel Sabbe

Did a Belgian Dentist Just Break the PCT Speed Record?

Karel Sabbe shaved 22 hours from the previous FKT, but it's unclear whether a fire-altered course is valid

Paul Cuno-Booth August 18th, 2016

Around mid-afternoon last Saturday, August 13, a 27-year-old Belgian dentist named Karel Sabbe reached the northern end of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, 52 days 8 hours 25 minutes after starting.

His result is a new fastest known time for the route—if the trail community decides to accept it.

As fastest known times, or FKTs, have become increasingly popular among elite trail runners, discussions continue over what an acceptable standard of proof should be for a pursuit that is largely solitary and still rooted in the honor system.

“The athlete is more expected than ever to document what they did, and standards must apply, be enforced and be fair,” says Buzz Burrell, a pioneering trail runner and outdoor adventurer with various FKTs to his name.

Sabbe ticked most of the boxes that FKT observers typically look for in a valid, documented attempt. He announced his intention of setting a record ahead of time. He carried two forms of GPS—a tracker and a smartphone app—which uploaded his location to a live-tracking site throughout the endeavor. And his friend and crewperson, Joren Biebuyck, posted regular photos, updates and vlogs to Sabbe’s Facebook page.

But at several junctures, trail closures forced Sabbe onto alternate trail or road routes. One detour necessitated a two-hour drive.

Those reroutes—though recommended by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), the nonprofit dedicated to promoting the trail—are now giving some people pause, and may turn into an asterisk that clings to Sabbe’s record.

At the heart of the matter is a deceptively thorny question: How true to an established route do you have to stay to claim its FKT? The status of Sabbe’s record seems poised to remain in limbo until the trail community reaches a consensus.

 

An Ultrarunning Dentist

Sabbe estimates he had “a few thousand miles of hikes” under his belt, including some long treks in New Zealand, before the PCT. He also spent a few summers in the American West with a nonprofit, the American Conservation Experience, doing trail work in national parklands.

It was those experiences, as well as hiking the Sierra High Route—a roughly 200-mile traverse that parallels a section of the PCT—last summer, that sparked the idea of attempting the entire trail.

A typical thru-hike of the PCT takes around five months. Sabbe thought he could get it done in under 53 days 6 hours 37 minutes—the standing FKT, set in 2014 by Joe McConaughy, then 23, of Seattle.

Over the past couple of years, Sabbe has participated in multi-sport endurance events and trail races, and recently took up ultrarunning. Last October, he ran his first 100K and finished the Amsterdam Marathon in 2:58:30. In December, he ran his first 100-miler, as part of a charity event. This April, he completed Marathon des Sables, the brutal six-day stage race in Morocco, as preparation for the PCT’s stretches of desert.

 

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A section of the PCT in Washington. Photo by Flickr user Samantha Levang/Creative Commons 2.0

 

Out of Nowhere?

On Monday, when Sabbe emailed various members of the outdoor media, including me, to announce his new record, it seemed to come out of nowhere. None of the U.S. trail runners I emailed this week—all past or present holders of FKTs who are highly informed on the subject—had heard of Sabbe or his attempt, either.

Though the U.S. trail community was largely unaware that Sabbe was attempting the FKT, he did get the word out in Belgium trail-running circles.

“Most people here followed Karel both via the GPS tracker as well as via the Facebook updates,” says Tim De Vriendt, a Belgian runner and co-founder of Legends Trails, which organizes trail ultras (and provided Sabbe with the GPS tracker he used on the PCT).

I sent Sabbe’s GPS data, which can be viewed here, to David Horton. Horton’s 2005 FKT—66 days 7 hours 16 minutes—has been recognized as the first completion of the PCT in fully supported “ultrarunner style,” the same method Sabbe followed.

“This documentation is pretty good,” Horton wrote me. “I think he did what he said.”

In other words, Sabbe covered an average of around 50 miles a day, for 52 days, across deserts and mountain ranges, finishing 22 hours faster than McConaughy had—an impressive feat.

 

Closures and Reroutes

Whether that feat constitutes a new FKT, though, hinges on the issue of trail closures.

Sabbe began at the PCT’s southern terminus, on the U.S.-Mexico border, around 6:02 a.m. on June 22. His first detour came a little over a mile later. The 7,600-acre Border Fire was raging to the west, and 24 miles of trail were closed. So Sabbe kicked off his thru-hike with a 10-mile road run before rejoining the trail.

A few days later, Sabbe trekked around 18 miles into the San Gorgonio Wilderness, west of San Bernardino, before hitting the trail-closure order he knew would be there. He backtracked those 18 miles and met Biebuyck, his crewperson, at a road crossing. They drove a roundabout two hours to the next open trailhead.

Sabbe wasn’t concocting these detours on his own. He says he was careful to take the PCTA’s recommended alternate routes at every closure. (David Bock, who works on the PCTA’s trail information staff, confirmed that the PCTA had recommended reroutes for the Border Fire and San Gorgonio reroutes, including the driving portion.)

Some closed sections of trail, like the one beginning in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, were not threatened by active fires. While he perhaps could have ignored some closure orders to stick to the “true” PCT, Sabbe says he didn’t want to do anything illegal—in part, he adds, because he thought crossing into a closed area might jeopardize the legitimacy of his FKT.

Ironically, it is Sabbe’s respect for those closures that has led to the current disagreement over whether his record should count.

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Screenshots from Sabbe’s GPS tracking site showing two of the reroutes he took. The PCT is in red; Sabbe’s GPS readings are the blue dots connected by yellow. On day 1 (top), the Border Fire forced Sabbe to replace about 24 miles of trail with about 10 miles of road. On day 5 (bottom), Sabbe had to backtrack about 18 miles from the trail-closure sign, then take a circuitous drive.

“I think your headline is going to have to be Wildfire Reroutes Negate PCT FKT Attempt,” says “UltraPedestrian” Ras Jason Vaughan, a Washington-based ultrarunner with deep roots in the thru-hiking community. “I can’t imagine anyone accepting this as a new FKT if he didn’t touch every foot of the official Pacific Crest Trail.”

According to Vaughan, when McConaughy set his FKT in 2014, “He stayed on the official PCT the entire way.” (McConaughy, who is out of the country, has not responded to emailed questions as of this writing.)

Vaughan adds that, in 2014, he and his wife, Kathy, thru-hiked the Arizona National Scenic Trail with the intention of establishing a women’s FKT for Kathy. A section of the trail was closed for logging, but they “outlawed” it—i.e., crossed it anyway, after dark to avoid active logging operations—“for the very sake of touching every foot of the official route so her FKT would be valid and unassailable.”

“My feeling is that if he took fire detours, it’s not really the PCT,” says Peter Bakwin, who tracks trail records on the Fastest Known Time website and is arguably the trail-running world’s de-facto authority on the subject.

“One thing that concerns me about taking the ‘alts’ is that a person could wait for a big fire year then do a bunch of ‘official,’ presumably shorter, road running,” Bakwin adds. “I’d rather they wait for a low fire year with insignificant reroutes. It’s part of the game.”

The PCT, unlike some FKT and peak-bagging objectives, cuts a clearly defined route. But that route is particularly susceptible to yearly alterations.

It begins in the tinderbox terrain of southern California and ends in northern Washington, where, Horton says, flooding can wash out sections of trail. Bock, the PCTA staff member, estimates that this year was in fact average or slightly lower than average in terms of PCT fires and closures.

And a long trail is a massive undertaking, requiring intensive prep, training and crew logistics, to say nothing of the months-long effort on the trail itself. While a full-time adventurer may have the flexibility to wait out high fire years, few prospective thru-hikers will have that luxury.

One reason Sabbe, who splits his time between two dental practices in Gent, Belgium, chose to tackle the PCT as an ultrarunner rather than a backpacker was that he simply couldn’t get the five months of vacation that the latter would have required.

In light of such considerations, Horton and Burrell, a longtime friend of Bakwin’s, take a softer stance, allowing that some rerouting will be inevitable and shouldn’t automatically disqualify a record.

“Big trails like the PCT and AT may evolve,” says Burrell. “If he did the official reroutes, that means he did the official trail. [We] can’t blow the whole thing off until next year because the perfect trail may never come back.”

Still, he adds a qualifier: “If it appears [the reroutes] saved a chunk of time, well, sorry, that just wouldn’t be fair. But if it’s a wash”—as it seems to have been in Sabbe’s case, based on an initial scan of his GPS track—“well, OK.”

And, he says, the FKT should come “with an asterisk and a footnote” so “people can make up their own minds what that means.”

So where does that leave Sabbe and his claim of an FKT? It remains to be seen.

“Officially,” says Bakwin, “I’d say that everyone just needs to be clear about exactly what they did”—a standard that Sabbe has met. “Ultimately, it is the community who decides what the record is, not me.”

 

We’ll continue to follow this story as the discussion around it evolves. If you have strong opinions on the issue—or personal experiences with trail closures during a thru-hike or FKT attempt—I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me via email at pcunobooth@bigstonepub.com, or on Twitter @paulcunobooth.

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