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The Extreme Running Craze You Need To Know About
By Mens Health Staff | May 1, 2021
As the aerial shot pans across the snow-covered mountains, a man with skis on his back can be seen running across a perilous ridge, arms pumping, death-defying, on each side a precipitous drop. He is moving fast, bewilderingly fast, seemingly impervious to the present danger, hell-bent on beating the elements. It’s the kind of snapshot that bears all the hallmarks of a James Bond trailer, but it’s not Daniel Craig in the picture. It is Kilian Jornet: ultra-marathon runner, ski mountaineer and all-round endurance athlete.
The footage is from Summits of My Life, a film that follows the 28-year-old Spaniard as he embarks on a series of groundbreaking, highly dangerous challenges. The project he has set himself is extreme because, well, he’s already done just about everything else. Having won almost every global major trail and mountain race going – including the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (three times), the Western States 100 and the Skyrunner World Series (six times) – Jornet has turned his attention to FKTs.
FKT stands for Fastest Known Time. Its origins are hazy, as are the rules and the records. What is known is that Peter Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time website in 2005. A scene quickly grew up around it in the US with people setting records for completing iconic trails, such as the 359-kilometre John Muir Trail through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range (three days, seven hours and 36 minutes) and the epic 3500km Appalachian Trail (46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes). Runners are expected to document their trips to prove they’ve broken a record, but the unofficial nature of the exercise is inferred by the name: Fastest Known Time. Someone may have done it faster without evidence.
Until Jornet turned up, FKTs represented a little-known subculture within the endurance-running community. But with his status as an ultra icon, with a film crew recording his every move and social media hot on his heels, FKTs have become the hottest topic of conversation among those who like to go further and faster. Evidently, they are unlike regular races. You don’t have to turn up on a certain day, start when the gun goes off and run with hundreds of other people. You can set off when you are ready, alone, and in some of the most beautiful locations on Earth. “The subversive, DIY nature of FKTs is the primary attraction for me,” says top US ultra-runner Anton Krupicka. “It’s a very primal way of testing yourself.”
At first those tests were epic. In 2013, for instance, British runner Jez Bragg became the fastest known person to run from one end of New Zealand to the other. (53 days and nine hours, should you fancy it.) Then they got bigger. Jornet’s aim for the past few years has been to break the FKTs up and down seven of the world’s most iconic mountains, from Mont Blanc to Mount Everest. The highest mountain in the world claims the lives of experienced climbers every year and is becoming no less dangerous, as last year’s Nepalese earthquake made plain. Yet later this year, after seeing his 2015 attempt thwarted by the devastating ’quake and instead helping with the relief effort, Jornet is planning to race to the summit, and down again, with minimal kit.
If that sounds almost beyond credulity, you’ll be interested to learn that he’s already halfway through fulfilling his goal. Mont Blanc has been surmounted – he made the top and back in four hours, 57 minutes. The Matterhorn he completed in an incredible two hours, 52 minutes. Some of these records had stood for over 20 years, only to be ticked off, one by one, by a young Catalan with serious wanderlust and a phenomenal engine. (His VO2 max is thought to be around 90ml/kg/min – yours is probably closer to the 45 mark.) To many he is the greatest athlete on the planet. To others he’s a reckless attention-seeker. To a select few, he’s little more than a fast-moving target.
When Jornet burst onto the scene, his FKTs looked unassailable. But in August 2014 an unknown Ecuadorian called Karl Egloff changed all that, when he beat Jornet’s four-year record over Kilimanjaro by 32 minutes, ascending and descending in six hours, 42 minutes. This is a route most people take seven days to complete. Then, early last year, he trounced Jornet’s time for Argentina’s Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere’s highest peak, just two months after it had been set. This time he shaved off an hour.
“People say I’m following Kilian,” Egloff tells me in a Skype call from his home in Quito, Ecuador. “But when I ran up Kilimanjaro, I’d never even heard of him. I wasn’t even a runner.”
This much is true: Egloff was a mountain-bike rider and mountain guide who happened to be taking a few tour groups up Kilimanjaro as part of his job when he decided to see how fast he could make it up and down on his own. “Afterwards,” he says nonchalantly, “everyone was telling me I’d broken Kilian’s record. So I googled him and I was like, wow!”
Egloff may be a novice runner but he has one key advantage over Jornet. Being a mountain guide from Ecuador means he has spent much of his life at extremely high altitudes. “I’ve been over 5000 metres over 5000 times,” he says. So when his boss, mindful of the publicity generated after the Kilimanjaro FKT, suggested Aconcagua next, Egloff jumped at the chance. While he was there he was also guiding, but this, he says, worked to his advantage. “When you climb a mountain slowly, your body adapts better,” he reasons. “If you go too fast, your body gets confused, and the first reaction is to get dizzy, a headache, and you feel really awful.”
Over the two weeks before his FKT, Egloff climbed the summit three times. His relationship with the terrain verges on the spiritual at times. “I wanted to really connect with the mountain,” he tells me. “It sounds crazy, but I’m that type of person who has to get the permission of the mountain. I wanted to sleep there, drink its water. You can also learn a lot from fast attempts,” he says. “Like, the first time we raced up Aconcagua, we didn’t bring enough clothes and I was too cold.”
The second time he got up there, just three days later, he found a dead body at the peak. “This makes you think twice. You think: what the hell am I doing? So one of the first things I promised my team when we saw that was, whatever happens, I will not go past my limit. I always tell people who want to try what I do: first go slowly, spend some time up there. Because if you think mountains are like parks, you are wrong. For me, if the mountain says no, I don’t challenge it. We are ants against the mountain.”
Jornet is similarly pragmatic about the threats posed. “It’s dangerous, of course, it’s really dangerous,” he says. “But it’s a choice. Everybody needs to know their capabilities.” Still, in spite of the respect these men clearly have for their environment, the risks involved in their speed attempts have provoked much criticism. During one of his early summits, Jornet’s close friend, the famous French mountaineer Stéphane Brosse, fell and died. A few months later Jornet needed to be rescued after racing up another peak with his girlfriend, mountain runner Emelie Forsberg. The Alpine rescue boss was less than impressed, telling French media: “I’m angry when I see the continued rise of sneakers despite our requests [to use proper climbing gear].”
PREPARED TO PERFORM
To Chris Kempster, editor of Trek & Mountain magazine, the problem is not with athletes boasting the experience and talent of Jornet and Egloff. It is with those they inspire. He says he was on Aconcagua recently when a female runner came through Base Camp on an attempt to run up the mountain, “but she fell ill at Camp Two and had to be evacuated out by helicopter. The difference between her and Jornet was that he had spent time acclimatising and familiarising himself with the route before attempting his record. This runner just attempted it without any sensible preparation.”
Indeed, despite the obvious risks, more and more people around the world are ditching their hiking boots, lacing up their trainers and taking to the mountains. Once a three-hour marathon becomes a walk in the park, this can be the next, illogical step.
To find out more about FKT chasers, I jogged out with a few ultra runners for their usual Saturday run along the South Downs in the UK. Fresh from a half-marathon personal best of 77 minutes and in training for the London Marathon (goal time: 2:45), I was confident I’d be able to keep up and chat along the way.
Leading the group was international ultra runner Robbie Britton, at the time preparing to run from one end of Iceland to the other – and become the first person to do so – in an attempt to bag his first FKT. (A feat he achieved in October last year.)
“It’s the easy way to get an FKT, I suppose,” he jokes. “But here’s the thing. Over in the US they have loads of trails so there are lots of FKTs to shoot for. Most of them are fairly new and fairly doable. However, we’ve been doing this for decades, just without the hashtag. We don’t necessarily call them FKTs, but they’re bloody hard to beat.”
How hard? Well, the most formidable of all is probably Billy Bland’s record for the Bob Graham Round in the Lake District, the home of British mountain running. It was back in 1932 that hotelier Bob Graham first attempted to run up and down as many peaks as possible in 24 hours, setting a challenge still seen as the Holy Grail of British fell running. He managed to scale 42 of the highest peaks in the Lake District, covering a distance of 106km. In 1982, the running legend Billy Bland ran the same route – setting an FKT that still stands today – in 13 hours and 53 minutes. Thousands have since tried to break the record; few have come remotely close. “If you look at some of Billy Bland’s decent times,” says Robbie, “I couldn’t fall off a mountain that fast.”
Meanwhile, I’m beginning to struggle up some of these hills that roll across the East Sussex Downs. As we hit our third big hill, around 22km in, I start drifting towards the back of the group. My legs feel wobbly and the stony ground is a pain, every rock jarring my feet and ankles. We still have another 17km to run. Each hill is a grind.
Robbie keeps telling me to eat, but as exhaustion sets in, the effort of chewing becomes almost as trying as the running. Someone offers me a handful of jelly babies, but I have to discard them half-eaten because I don’t have the jaw energy to finish them off. At the top of each hill the group stops to wait for me, standing around chatting as though at a drinks party. “In a marathon or a half, if you bonk, that’s it, race over,” says Robbie. “But in an ultra you can bonk five times and still do well. Getting some food down you does wonders.” And then they’re off again, tumbling down the hills, leaving me to nurse my pride.
While Bland’s record has stood untouched for over 30 years, another of the great FKTs has just been broken. In 1987, another fell-running legend, Joss Naylor, ran up and down all 214 peaks detailed in Alfred Wainwright’s seven-volume Pictorial Guide To The Lakeland Fells. He completed it in seven days, one hour and 25 minutes. In 2014, Stephen Birkinshaw did it 12 hours quicker, finishing in six days and 13 hours. To give such a phenomenal feat some perspective, that means running up and down a fell every 37 minutes, for the best part of a week, on just four hours’ sleep a night.
“Well, some of them are quite close together,” says the unassuming Birkinshaw as we sit in his farmhouse kitchen, the snow-capped peak of the 868m Blencathra looming outside the window. A glutton for punishment, I’ve come to the Lakes for another trip out, this time with one of the world’s toughest mountain runners. Luckily for me, six months later, he’s still only just recovering from his FKT.
These extreme challenges can knock even the best runners off their stride. Birkinshaw’s challenge was so huge, he says, he had to go into it prepared to risk injuring himself long term. “I had terrible tendonitis, but I knew the only way I was going to break the record was to keep going whatever happened.” Eggloff, too, says it takes about a month to feel strong again after an FKT attempt. But these men don’t recover by sitting around eating ice-cream. Egloff gets back to fitness with short runs and mountain biking, while Jornet’s team says he is usually out running again the next day. “But this is something that very few can do,” says his agent. “Kilian’s body is used to this kind of exercise because he trains eight hours a day. He recovers faster than other runners.”
Birkinshaw may not have quite the same powers of recovery, but he is almost 20 years older than Jornet. Age has some benefits, he says, and he doesn’t think he could have contemplated something like the Wainwright challenge in his twenties. Not only was he more concerned about injuries back then, with his running career still ahead of him, but he believes age gives you a mental toughness, which is key to success, especially on the longer FKTs. “You’ve been through stuff before,” he says. “And you know how hard it can hurt. But crucially, you know you can carry on.”
As we step out into the grey morning, he points up at Blencathra, the highest peak around these parts. “I thought we’d run up that one,” he says. I nod, nervously. “It’s just about runnable,” he says, and sets off. I dig in, following his footsteps, but each time I look up he’s further ahead. He seems light and loose on his feet, like he’s dancing up the mountain. I try to copy his style and it seems to help, little bouncy steps, arms dangling loose.
By the top of the mountain, my thighs are burning. Birkinshaw comes bounding back along the trail to find me. We run on through the clouds, crunching on the snow. It’s amazing how the environment has transformed in such a short time. Although I have my head down, every time I lift it up, the scenery catches me by surprise; the drama of the steep drops and craggy peaks. I’m reminded of my conversations with Egloff and I realise that I, too, feel somehow connected to the mountain, however fanciful that might sound. “When I go up a mountain light and quickly I feel free,” says Egloff. “I feel as though I’m flying like a condor.” It’s this freedom, I realise, to be travelling light, racing through the mountains like a wild animal rather than a packhorse, that motivates FKT chasers.
Whether it will be quite so serene when he and Jornet make this year’s attempt on Everest is another question altogether. To break the FKT they’re going to have to burn some rubber, without ropes and without oxygen. The record from base camp to the summit is held by Nepalese guide Pemba Dorje Sherpa, who scaled the mountain in just eight hours, 10 minutes. Breaking this record will require intense preparation and immense physical effort. Most of all, it will involve great risk and require more guts. Both believe they have what it takes. Do you?
Prepare for ups and downs
Nail the basics and the times will follow, says Finn
Take baby steps
Running up and down steep hills takes practice, no matter how fit you think you are. Take little steps on the way up, but try to keep your rhythm bouncy and loose. Don’t be afraid to walk if it’s too steep; even the top runners walk sometimes.
Play fast and loose
Keep your upper body relaxed, especially on the way down. The footing will be uneven and falls are par for the course, but if you’re tense you’re more likely to hurt yourself if and when you do trip over.
Know your enemy
When Egloff and co talk about respecting the mountain, they’re talking about preparation. Acclimatise well, and slowly if it’s high altitude. Walk the course before you run it – knowing the route will boost your time, and save your life if the weather turns suddenly.
Don’t rush it
If you fancy trying for an FKT, do it on your own terms. It may never be the perfect moment, but if a storm’s a-brewing, you’ve got a cold, or your mum can’t make it to see you finish, put it off until you’re ready. This isn’t a stroll in the park – you need to be fully prepared.
Looking for something a bit easier than this to get you back in the running game? Sign up to a fun run in your local city:
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