FKT, “fastest known times,” may be the oldest running idea that no one has ever heard of.
The challenge of being faster than someone, or preferably everyone, else has surely been around for long, and if it wasn’t in head-to-head competition, it was in how long it took someone to cover the distance from one point to another.
Having moved online, info-wise, the notion got new feet.
Peter Bakwin started his list of FKTs a decade ago; FKTs were discussed years ago; and with Kilian Jornet’s “Summits of My Life” and other people’s mountain speed ascents – not to mention the various thru-hike records – they have come further into the spotlight.
As much as one can talk of a spotlight when it comes to an activity, FKT, that is a small part of an overarching activity, thru-hiking or ultra-distance running, that is not exactly receiving the most attention. (How many hikers, outside of Cheryl Strayed or her movie-adaptation version, let alone ultramarathoners, can the average person name?)
Still, the idea is simple enough: pick a trail or a mountain ascent (and descent) and try to finish it in a record time.
So far, so good – but in a sports practice that is, at heart, a very individual and intimate pursuit – (mountain) trail running – this idea leads things to unfortunate, if logical, conclusions:
When everything is always just about extremes, you always need more extreme feats. And you need simple measures by which to present them, or it wouldn’t all fit into a single tweet or a share-able headline.
So, if you want to get back to a certain individuality in your pursuit, and therefore away from ultramarathon races (or if you have won only too many of them…), this is a way to do so while still achieving something that can be easily measured and pointed to, and is an easily visible and shareable feat.
If you are a runner who is as much at the top of his game as Kilian Jornet (and he’s so at the top, he makes it all look like a game), this goes to such an extreme that it makes for the “FKT-up” headline I am riffing on; Christopher McDougall used this phrase in Outside Magazine/Online to point out just how crazy some of it all was… and Jornet is aiming to even speed-ascend (and descend, for good measure) Mount Everest.
It is all very much in the spirit of extremization.
It is all about doing things and saying things in such a way as to bring them to extremes which make for messages that quickly and easily appeal to emotions. Hence, they can be shared in headlines and tweets and will be liked and shared a lot, making for visibility and popularity.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Kilian isn’t very much (which is to say: not at all) motivated to do this for the “likes” – and even if you should be, it may not be the worst thing to happen by far, if it is motivation to learn and grow.
Like a Broken Record
“Extremized” activities like that, however, do often make for superficiality.
The way one hears about them and the people that perform them, it is only that one feat that counts, not the path that led there.
The extraordinary person is held up as hero-like, but is at a level which hardly anyone could achieve, which seems mainly based on innate talent, and which is, therefore, not necessarily all that motivating.
The time counts, and only the fastest time, everything else is just preparation that doesn’t matter – except it’s in the preparation, in the moving and the discovery that goes with it, that the most valuable of experiences lie.
When the speed, the time, is presented as the important thing – or maybe even just, as some would claim, not as the important thing, truly, but just the thing to do the marketing with – we are giving in to the extremization. We feed a machine of shallow attention that demands instant gratification and betray what we go out onto trails to discover.
Trails of Learning
The simple pleasure of motion, and motion that leads to discovery.
A pursuit that is certainly harder than simply lounging in front of the TV and waiting for great views to be brought to one’s eyes, but that is all the more worthwhile for it.
A preparation for better fitness that is also a pleasurable pastime.
A foundation for everyday heroism.
And a way of learning about a place.
This last bit, in particular, is the one I want to call for.
There is so much to learn about and discover wherever you are, and in combining physical pursuits – to range across an area – and psychological ones – to discover and learn – we are doing what humans (like many, if not most animals) have always done: Go out and “learn our place,” from the lay of the land to the resources available, from dangerous spots to beautiful sights.
Sure, the internet world will not praise you the highest for the ordinary things you’ll see and learn. But in seeing and learning, you can make yourself at home in the places you live, make yourself more fit, knowledgeable, and useful, and get to really living there, intimately, fully knowing the terrain, wherever it is that you are.
And that is where life really lies and is lived.