Fastest Known Time (FKT)

This morning, I went for a little ruck on our neighborhood trail, the Clark Trail, and listened to the latest Fastest Known Podcast episode (#86) featuring Connecticut native Sarah Connor. It was fantastic to hear a Connecticut runner interviewed on a podcast that is produced in Boulder, CO. I think there is a west coast bias when it comes to trail running and outdoor adventure, and I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder regarding the west vs. east debate, but this is sport, and it’s all in good fun. CO may not be on the coast, but it’s part of the mountain west that gets much attention relative to our part of the country here in New England.

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Sarah made FKT news for her surge of activity in April. In recent years, she discovered the FKT concept and community. At the moment, the FKT leaderboard lists her with 17.  All of them were at least partially in Connecticut. Her interview with podcast host Buzz Burrell focused on Connecticut as a hotbed for FKT’s. He was quite surprised that our little state had so much activity.

She explained her background and perspective on why there has been more interest. With the pandemic and race cancellations, many runners, like Sarah, have come into the season raring to go but with nowhere to run. The FKT phenomenon has taken off here in Southern New England, but is not foreign to many of us in the region. Many of us have been adventuring for years, but without formally documenting the efforts or capturing the details as the guidelines set forth. There has to be many folks who don’t even care to document their adventures, but for those of us interested in a little competition, FKT’s serve a purpose. The FKT leaderboard is currently topped by Ben Nephew, from nearby Massachusetts, who has traveled a similar trajectory as Debbie. He started running short and mid-distance races (including many in the New England Grand Tree Trail Running Series), continued with mountain running, delved into ultras, and is now focusing on FKT’s. Even Ben has done quite a bit of running in Connecticut over the years.

I figured a blog post would be a good companion to Sarah’s podcast interview and would shed more light on why Connecticut is a perfect place for FKT activity to thrive. Debbie and I have been running the trails of Connecticut for more than 20 years. One important reason why FKT’s are growing in our state is simply because the trails exist. Another is because the recent attention and social media are spurring others to discover the FKT format.

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Many of Sarah’s FKT’s were on Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails that were established and are maintained by the dedicated volunteers of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association. I have been on CFPA’s Board of Directors since 2008. This is my 12th and final year, as I have served the maximum three full terms. I’m recruiting others to take my place so that they can help move our wonderful organization forward even more. CFPA describes itself this way:

The Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA) is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting people to the land in order to protect forests, parks, walking trails, and open spaces in Connecticut for future generations.

With a Staff of experienced conservation professionals and a Board of Directors who strongly support CFPA’s mission and values, CFPA delivers programs on Blue-Blazed Hiking TrailsEnvironmental EducationLand Conservation, and Public Policy.

CFPA is on the cusp of launching our next three to five year strategic plan. What is remarkable is the organization was founded in 1895 and was the first private, nonprofit, conservation organization to be established in Connecticut. CFPA is one of the oldest and most respected conservation organizations in the country and has inspired the land trust movement in Connecticut and beyond. It is important to note that CFPA is a creation of the descendants of Connecticut’s settlers 17th century settlers, but the Native Americans were exploring the landscape long before Europeans arrived. It is fitting that many of our trails are named after Native American tribe names and other words.

In October 1929, CFPA established a Trails Committee and then in December of that year, established the first four sections of the Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails. The 19.2 mile Quinnipiac Trail extending from Prospect to Hamden was the first official trail. There are more than 40 main trails and many subsidiary and spur trails that make up the full 825 mile system. Debbie grew up in Prospect and her first true introduction to trail running was on the Quinnipiac. She would frequently run it to Sleeping Giant State Park, and sometimes run it there and back.

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One thing I’m proud of during my time on the board is that CFPA has embraced the trail running community, and the trail running community has embraced CFPA. The BBHT’s are one of the best and most extensive systems of “close-to-home” trails anywhere in the country. It’s no surprise that Connecticut leads the nation in National Trails Day events. Every year, I write about Trails Day and the impact it has had on our state. Last year, Connecticut had more than 200 official events. That’s a lot for a small state, but many of the same reasons for this high level of activity are what also drive the growth of FKT’s.

I could delve deeper into the history of CFPA and the BBHT’s, but two references do a fantastic job of this. Check out George McLean Milne’s Connecticut Woodlands: A Century’s Story of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association and the Connecticut Walk Book: The Complete Guide to Connecticut’s Blue-Blazed Hiking TrailsI’ve consulted these books many times over the last 20 years. Milne’s book is from 1995, and out of print, but you can find copies online. The “Walk Book” was first published in 1937 and the 20th edition was published in 2017.

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The 825 miles of trails in the system, and all of the spur trails, park trails, town trails, land trust, and other trails make Connecticut a state with more trails per-capita than any other state in the nation. I don’t have the specific facts to back this assertion, but I have heard this stated several times, and it is likely true. There are 3.5 million residents and 5,567 square miles. We are the third smallest state (land area) behind Rhode Island and Delaware. There are a lot of trails, and they are literally right out our front doors. Furthermore, these are not federal trails, but rather state and local trails. They are on rugged, rooted, and rocky terrain, and all at low elevations. They were designed for walking and hiking, but these factors make them perfect for running too.

As members of the New England and Connecticut trail running community, Debbie and I have witnessed the amazing growth of trail running, ultra running, and now FKT’s. Admittedly, we hadn’t paid much attention to the formal FKT process. We knew that there was an active message board community that emerged during the early Internet era, but we didn’t officially pay attention until Debbie uploaded one to the modern website after her 2018 Mohawk/AT Loop adventure. We’ve been doing FKT style runs since the early 2000’s. Others were doing them long before us. Many of ours came during the years that we were focused on climbing the 67 New England 4,000 footers.

Most were before GPS technology and we don’t have good records of our times, but we frequently pushed it on these routes. In 2008, along with our friend Matt Schomburg, we were the first to do the entire Grafton Notch Loop in Maine. When my blog post of the trip inspired Ryan Welts and Adam Wilcox to run it in 2014, they mentioned us as inspiration, which is pretty cool. That was likely the first time I heard the abbreviation FKT. We have subsequently done other epic routes in White Mountains of New Hampshire/Maine, and Green Mountains of Vermont. Our White Mountain Hut Traverses in 2011 and 2013 were notable adventures. This route dates back long before the Internet and was established by Hut Croos from the Appalachian Mountain Club. Speed hiking was a thing decades ago as these Croos developed massive strength during their time spent in the Huts. They very well may have been early pioneers of the trail running, mountain running, and FKT movements.

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In the podcast, Sarah mentioned the CT Trail Mixers running club. By historical standards, they are a relatively new group. The longest standing trail running club in Connecticut is the Shenipsit Striders, founded in 1975. There is a lot of history on my blog about the Striders. Debbie joined the club in 1999, was the president for many years, and after 15 years, in 2019 she retired as the Race Director of the Soapstone Mountain Trail Races. Our club promotes the two oldest trail races in New England, the NipMuck Trail Marathon (36 years), and the aforementioned Soapstone (35 years).

Both are part of the Connecticut Blue-Blazed Trail Running Series, which has 12 events in any given year. These stats demonstrate the growth and popularity of this series. In 2019, a cumulative ~20,000 miles were run during the series, with 780 individual men runners and 511 individual women runners. The most finishers by race were the HMF Events (Hartford Marathon Foundation) Summer Solstice 5 Miler with 195, the Shenipsit Striders Events Nipmuck South with 153, the Shenipsit Striders Events Soapstone Mountain Trail Race 14 Miler with 123, and the Connecticut Traprock 17K & 50K Ultramarathon Traprock 17k with 120. Overall, the Solstice 5K/5M combo had 295 finishers, the Soapstone 6K/14M combo had 226, and the Traprok 17K/50K combo had 200. These are big numbers for a small state. 

So, with all of 2020’s races canceled for now, there is a huge void. Many people are filling that void with FKT’s. Over the last 90 years, many people have hiked all or many of the BBHT’s, but now folks are running them too, and in droves. Now, this may sound like the trails are crowded, but that’s not the case. Sarah pointed out how she can run for hours without seeing anyone. Some popular trails are busy but many of these trails are little known and quiet. That factor has also contributed to the surge in FKT activity as runners seek new places to go. Connecticut is a tiny state, but there are trails everywhere.

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We have the dedicated trail maintainers led by CFPA’s Trails Committee to thank for making sure we have access to these trails and assuring that these trails are open to all residents. CFPA itself is an under-recognized nonprofit organization that deserves more respect and increased membership. Though the Connecticut DEEP has a long history, we can no longer count on the government to maintain our parks and trails. With a staff of about 10 that is augmented by hundreds of volunteers, the nonprofit CFPA is based in Rockfall, and works tirelessly to protect the landscape of Connecticut. That landscape includes our own 825 miles of trails (crossing private and public lands) and many state parks.

I’m biased, but Connecticut has the best trails in the world. Debbie and I have hiked and run all over the world and our trail network and trail community are the best. I’m torn because I want to shout this from the hilltops while also keeping this secret to ourselves. From time to time, a journalist or trail advocate will pick up on the fact that Connecticut’s trails are extraordinary, but then people soon forget. The glossy running magazines spend little time featuring New England trails. Whenever you see a “best of” or “top 10” list, there is frequently a token New England trail or trail town thrown in for good measure. It isn’t new for me to point this out. In 2013, Meghan Hicks wrote a story for Trailer Runner magazine. Somehow she reached Debbie and me and we nominated Manchester, Connecticut as a top trail town. It was great to be chosen and we touted many of the great facts described throughout this blog post. Typically when east coast or northeast trails are cited for excellence, they are in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Other accolades are given to trails in Maine or Vermont, where you can get above treeline. However, some of the best trails are those closest to home. So, during a pandemic, when you have to stay home or at least close to home, the local trails are the best trails.

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In addition to CFPA, the Appalachian Mountain Club has a strong presence in Connecticut. I am also on AMC’s Board of Directors. I’m at the start of my third two-year term so my love of AMC is strong. AMC is much larger than CFPA, has a regional mission, and is also a pioneering nonprofit. We were founded in 1876. AMC’s website describes our mission well:

Founded in 1876, the Appalachian Mountain Club promotes the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the mountains, forests, waters, and trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. We believe these resources have intrinsic worth and also provide recreational opportunities, spiritual renewal, and ecological and economic health for the region. Because successful conservation depends on active engagement with the outdoors, we encourage people to experience, learn about, and appreciate the natural world.

Like CFPA, it’s younger sibling, AMC does substantial work advocating for and maintaining trails throughout New England. In addition to managing the White Mountain Huts, AMC was instrumental in the creation of the  Appalachian Trail Conservancy, another key nonprofit in the trails movement. The ATC oversees the entire Appalachian Trail. The AT goes through 14 states including 51 miles in Connecticut.  That’s important to note. The AT is iconic, and even though it is a short stretch, it highlights Connecticut’s status as a state with awesome trail resources and an even better trail culture.

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So, all of this info and history supports what Sarah described during her interview. She may not have known all of this background, but she can read it here and will likely be even more proud of her heritage as a Connecticut trail runner. Debbie and I have been inspired by so many legendary New England trail runners over the last 20+ years. Each of us have done hundreds of races.  We had a full slate of ultras planned for this spring and summer including Tammany 10, Traprock 50K, Run Ragged, and the Bighorn Trail Run. We were going to use many shorter races in our training. With all of our events cancelled, we have also turned to FKT’s for fun and adventure. We have uploaded a few past routes where we were able to scrape together the necessary documentation, and we have done a few new ones. One example is our Nipmuck Trail End-to-End Run.

With all of the event cancellations, I haven’t had as many stories to write about on this blog. I’ve been flat out at work trying to keep things going there and not writing as much, but sharing this post makes we quite happy. Chances are we will try another FKT tomorrow.

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