Wait, what?! Summer is right around the corner?
Isn’t it still late March?
Right about now, a lot of us would be gearing up for a local trail race or perhaps deep in training for a summertime ultra. But not this year.
Most of us had our 2020 racing dreams dashed in March or April, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. And while some races are starting to get the go-ahead in seemingly random places like Utah, Florida and the Czech Republic, most of us, for better or for worse, probably won’t find ourselves on a starting line anytime soon.
While the coronavirus shut-down left a lot of us reeling and in search of motivation, it is no longer an excuse to not train with purpose and run hard with optimal performance in mind. It’s actually the perfect time to tune up your training and chase PFKTs — Personal Fastest Known Times.
While the coronavirus shut-down left a lot of us reeling and in search of motivation, it is no longer an excuse to not train with purpose and run hard with optimal performance in mind. It’s actually the perfect time to tune up your training and chase PFKTs—Personal Fastest Known Times.
The FKT phenomenon of the past decade has been an amazing thing for trail running, but really only if you’re a top-tier runner capable of running faster than anyone ever has on a trail. (Or perhaps are willing to travel to an obscure location or less popular to tackle what you might consider a slightly weaker FKT.) However, the rest of us can still shoot for personal best targets on nearby trails, eliminating the need to travel.
Although I was just about to sign up for the Leadville Trail Marathon in mid-March, I actually didn’t have any races on my schedule when Covid-19 concerns wiped everything out. I’ve run almost every day since then, but it took me a lot longer to shed my winter hibernation weight because I lacked motivation, inspiration and intensity in my training. With summer just around the corner, I’m finally fired up about running fast on the trails.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a coach at the moment, so I checked in with local Nike Trail pro Andy Wacker, who has dominated the Strava segment leaderboards for dozens of Boulder trails and has a few local FKTs to his credit—including the current 1:28:52 on Mesa Trail.
Unfortunately, Strava recently changed its enrollment program and if you don’t pay $5 per month, you can’t see local leaderboards for specific trails. But you can still shoot for your own goals for free if you don’t care about where you rank.
He’s kind of become a serial racer in recent years, so he’s as stir crazy as anyone I know and has set his sights on the Mt. Sanitas Loop, Skyline Traverse and perhaps a Beak Peak ascent on his motivational dashboard.
“Challenge your strengths,” Wacker says. “If you are good at hills, find the mother of all hills in your town. If you like downhills, run downhill. Fast and flat, or looooooong? Run it until you perfect it. Race it. Beat your own time.”
Need more motivation? Bring others into the mix, Wacker says. “Challenge a friend. Make it competitive,” he says. “Can you beat Chad, from the water cooler at lunch, on the local park loop?”
A Personal Approach
What will my targets be? The two most frequent trails I’ve run in my transplanted home of Boulder are Mt. Sanitas and Mesa Trail, but it’s been a few years since I’ve run either one with fervor. My personal FKT for the steep, 1.3-mile route up the Mt. Sanitas ridge trail is 18:10, while my best 13.5-mile out-and-back run from Chautauqua Park-Eldorado Springs-Chautauqa Park on the Mesa Trail is 1:50:30.
Can I approach the times I ran years ago? Time, age and a lack of specific training would seem to be working against me, but I’d like to think I have experience, wisdom and better shoes on my side. Within the past week, I clocked 19:48 and 1:54:30 on test runs, so it’s clear I have a long way to go. But now that I have a goal, I’m excited to see how I can progress.
If you do decide to start chasing your personal bests or PFKTs on the trails, be sure to social-distancing best practices, be aware of others out on the trails and pass people with courtesy. Consider attempting your all-out efforts at non-peak times so there’s less of a chance of encountering other humans, and understand that casual hikers can get freaked out by having a speedy runner dash by them.
Time, age and a lack of specific training would seem to be working against me, but I’d like to think I have experience, wisdom and better shoes on my side.
The great part about going after a PFKT as opposed to a race on a specific date is that you can go when you’re ready and when the weather and conditions are ideal.
“Practice the course in training and like a true race day, don’t try anything new or unproven,” another local trail runner Jeff Valliere reminds me. “Pick a day where you feel fit and ready. I perform best on my own terms and without the race-day jitters.”
What trails will you tackle? Pick a route that you like and love to run, says Rea Kolbl, a professional obstacle course racer who in early May set a women’s Skyline Traverse FKT in Boulder, only to have Sara Kadlec shave an impressive 18 minutes off it two days later.
“Find a route that excites you, something you can’t fall asleep in the evening because you’re so excited about the adventure in the morning,” Kolbl says. “Go have fun. Time is important obviously, but for FKTs even more than for races, loving the process is what matters. Try hard, of course, but if things don’t go according to plan enjoy the journey instead.”
Quick-Hit PFKT Tips
If you’re out to set a new personal best time on a trail, consider these tips from Michael Wardian, a serial racer from Arlington, Virginia, who owns numerous FKTs to his credit.
1) Decide if you want to tackle it “supported” or “unsupported.” There’s often a vast difference. If unsupported, know how and where you will re-fuel and refill water. If you’re doing it supported, try to keep your group and your overall footprint small. Pack out everything you carry in.
2) Know Your Why. Why do you want to run that route? Why do you want to run it fast?
3) Know the route inside and out. What do you need to do to run the route fast? Study every map and trail description you can find. Ask others who have run it. Be honest about how achievable you goal is.
4) Be prepared. What gear and apparel will you need? What kind of fuel should you carry? What are the best-case and worst-case scenarios for weather?
5) What is your out? Don’t leave yourself hanging in an unsafe situation if you get halfway through your goal and have to bail because of weather, an injury or any other reason.
6) How will you document your attempt? If you’re planning to tackle an official Fastest Known Time, make sure you follow proper verification protocol.
7) Make sure you stay in control. Maybe don’t red-line yourself and go all the way to edge to avoid winding up hurt or taxing first responders.
Brian Metzler is a Contributing Editor for Trail Runner.