In July, a dusty, dreadlocked thru-hiker named Dan Binde completed the Appalachian Trail, 53 days and 23 hours after he’d begun. It was a record-setting unsupported time, eight hours faster than Heather Anderson, the previous record holder. Thru-hikers who had seen him on the trail quickly backed him up on Facebook and in online forums: He had seemed to be on pace for an FKT when they crossed paths with him on trail. The 25-year-old with PCT, AT, and CDT thru-hikes under his belt and a marathon pace of 7:45 per mile cuts the right figure for an efficient long-distance hiker. He submitted data from his SPOT GPS, a detailed trip log, and photos from his journey to the unofficial arbiters of FKTs, and crossed to the other coast to start a PCT attempt.
However, in the month after Binde completed his hike, doubts surfaced. He didn’t have GPS data for a large section of his hike, which could be due to the thick canopy over much of the trail. His phone, which Binde explained had become waterlogged in a storm, didn’t have time-stamped and geotagged photos to make up for the missing data. At certain points, his GPS placed him in a different location—further south—than his trip log claimed.
An online community spearheaded by Peter Bakwin, an FKT enthusiast with a few records under his belt, is the closest thing to a set of rules or approval-by-jury that would-be FKT holders have. Bakwin includes a set of guidelines for those looking to claim FKTs in the information page of the rudimentary forum-style site:
- Announce your intentions in advance. Like a true gentleman, pay your respects to those who came before you, and tell them what you intend to attempt and when.
- Be an open book. Invite anyone to come and watch or, better yet, participate. This makes your effort more fun and any result more believable.
- Record your event. Write down everything immediately upon completion. Memory doesn’t count.
Due to recent controversy, Bakwin’s added another rule: data from a SPOT or DeLorme GPS is required to verify your attempt.
Unlike, say, first place in an ultra-marathon, FKTs aren’t awarded by a governing body or a race organization. Unlike claiming and proving a first ascent, documenting an FKT isn’t cut-and-dry—images of the summit, witness testimony, and good faith tend to be enough in the mountains. There aren’t many ways to cheat your way to the top of a mountain, or up a route with your partner or team looking on. On trail, there are plenty of opportunities to hitch a ride without anyone being the wiser. You’ll still end up atop Katahdin.
Last year, a thru-hiker named Kaiha Bertollini also laid claim to a speed record on the AT—an unsupported time of 45 days, 6 hours, and 28 minutes. That time would place her not only at a solid ten days faster than any previous unsupported attempt, but would have her holding the speed record for supported as well, one-upping the record set earlier by professional ultra-runner Karl Meltzer by 16 hours. Scott Jurek, well-known professional ultra-runner, had run himself to the record a year before Meltzer, completing the trail in 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes. Both athletes ran themselves to a state of emaciation, with tons of support along the way, carrying little but the day’s food and water on their backs. It was an unlikely claim, and evidence against Bertollini quickly surfaced. She was healthily sturdy atop Katahdin, nothing like the sinewy previous record holders. Hikers had seen her taking zero days, drinking, and smoking throughout her hike. A video of her hitching a ride surfaced. She never retracted her claim, but she also never provided evidence to back it up to Bakwin and the online community that serves as unofficial jury. The past records stayed in place.
Unlike Bertollini, Binde followed the rules. He carried a SPOT, he announced his intentions, he kept a detailed log. He has yet to release evidence explaining the small inconsistencies in his account—a few discrepancies between his GPS and trail log, including a trail log entry in Vermont when the SPOT looked like it was in Connecticut, a post on an online forum that says he was considering hitching a ride, at least one account that he gave other hikers his credit card and asked them to bring supplies back from town. The online community, having faced seemingly obvious false claims in the past, remains skeptical.
FKTs aren’t all bad. If breaking a record inspires someone to go on an adventure and test their limits, awesome. But because there’s no real system in place to track these accomplishments, there’s ample opportunity to futz with the data, and the community concerned with FKTs is by nature skeptical, the whole idea of setting speed records on hikes like the AT feels contrary to the spirit of thru-hiking.
Take Binde, an normal outdoorsperson with no sponsors to fund his endeavor and no career incentive to set a record. He figures he has a shot at breaking the record, checks out the available resources about making a legitimate FKT attempt, and sets out. He averages 40 miles a day, dropping into the alternate reality of life on trail, exhausting himself and pushing forward anyway. Things that wouldn’t normally concern a thru-hiker—a busted phone, for instance—probably don’t concern him much either. He’s doing everything he can to keep up his pace, document his progress, and stay hydrated, well-fed, and alive. When he finishes his hike, his sister announces that he’s broken the record on Facebook. Binde stays quiet for ten days, and finally posted his finishing time on the Fastest Known Time forum. He’s met with congratulations, then criticism, despite the fact that he followed the guidelines for making an FKT attempt.
On one hand, there’s the possibility that he futzed with his data, disrespecting the hardworking hikers who came before him for nothing but a claim to fame within a niche community. On the other, there’s the possibility that said niche community is blowing off someone who just accomplished an incredible feat on the trail they all love, and was too busy hiking and now getting back into the swing of his day-to-day life to combat every internet naysayer. (This has happened before—Peter Maune, a newcomer to speed-hiking, was called a liar when he broke the speed record on the Muir Trail in 2009. He released evidence confirming his claim, but the controversy didn’t quiet down until he won the Barkley marathons two years later.) Neither option looks all that great for the folks involved: the claim-maker or the community that judges him. It turns what ought to be a celebration of athleticism, skill, and dedication into a public trial.
You could argue that, if you’re trying to set an FKT, you just need to ensure your data is airtight, and present it in full to the public quickly. But for an unsupported hiker with a broken GPS or an unsponsored trail runner who needs to get back to their day job, that’s not always possible. Hikers currently making FKT attempts have devised elaborate systems to ensure their accomplishment can’t be questioned, one has his SPOT data going directly to Bakwin in real time. The father of FKTs himself, Bakwin has been trying to devise a system that will remove him from the judge’s bench, telling Outside that no one should be in the position of adjudicating claims. It’s an impossible job, one that’s both political—does this person look the part? do they have the respect of this community already?—and painstaking.
There’s also the question of purpose. Trails like the AT and the PCT change all the time. When weather and trail conditions variate dramatically year-to-year, what does a difference of a handful of hours, even a day, really mean? Each hiker comes to the trail from a dramatically different set of circumstances, and no hiker travels the same trail as the one that came before them. So, sure, Meltzer setting the speed record on the AT is a big accomplishment. But in terms of physical fitness, navigational capabilities, and persistence in the face of adverse circumstances, can we really line his and Jurek’s times up side-by-side? When the difference in a speed record is multiple days it’s a bit more clear cut, but high-profile FKTs on the AT in recent years have all been matters of hours. I’m not convinced that these small differences in time mean much at all on a trail like the Appalachian.
Then there’s the intangible. Maybe I’m an idealist, but FKTs funded by RedBull and executed grimly to the point of visible physical deterioration don’t seem to fit in with the broader philosophy of thru-hiking. FKTs shrouded in controversy because of passed-along credit cards and busted cellphones, picked apart by a faceless and skeptical online community don’t either. Of course, thru hiking—and the outdoors in general—mean different things to different people, and for some, record-setting is a major part of the excitement and enjoyment of thru-hiking. For others, of course, it’s the solitude, long periods of time in wild places, mornings in camp, freedom from the breakneck pace of modern American culture. Maybe first-place finishes and world records ought to remain in the realm of organized competition, where accomplishments are clearer-cut and calling out cheaters is the job of an organized and dedicated association.
Photo by Jeffrey Stylos