Getting out for a walk in the woods was once achievement enough for most backpackers. Then they got wild about thru-hiking a trail from beginning to end. But setting the fastest known time (commonly known by the acronymn FKT) on a trail is the new goal for long-distance trekkers, a phenomenon that has now found its way to Minnesota.
Two hikers have just claimed FKTs for the current 310-mile length of the Superior Hiking Trail on the North Shore.
In early September, Mike Ward of Duluth set an FKT for the Superior trail of eight days, seven hours and 59 minutes as an “unsupported” hiker. That designation means he carried all his own gear and food from beginning to end. Two weeks later, Jeremy Platson of Hudson, Wis., completed the same route in eight days, two hours and 35 minutes as a “self-supported” backpacker — he hauled most of his supplies but replenished from two caches he had stashed along the trail.
Familiar with the FKT trend? Most likely it’s because of a third related category: fully supported.
In fully supported FKTs, participants have a dedicated team supplying whatever is needed along the way (no humping packs), including sleeping quarters. This class of adventurer has sparked the interest in FKT nationally because fully supported is what many of the rock stars of endurance running do — including Scott Jurek, a Coloradan with Minnesota roots who set an FKT on the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail in 2015, and Utah’s Karl Meltzer, who broke Jurek’s AT mark in September.
With financial sponsorship from adventure-related brands, those top athletes have the resources to put together the kind of organization necessary to complete trails that run thousands of miles.
Sponsors provide the support because they see FKT attempts “as good as, or possibly preferable to, racing,” said Peter Bakwin, a Colorado athlete who runs a website (fastestknowntime.proboards.com) that tracks FKT efforts. “It’s one reason that in the last few years, sponsored athletes have started making FKTs a centerpiece of their season.”
“Sponsors benefit as people follow along with the athlete’s trip, such as Meltzer’s daily updates from the AT on the Red Bull site,” Bakwin said. “Meltzer said Red Bull put six figures into his AT record, and clearly they hope to get a good return on that investment.”
While Ward, 27, and Platson, 42, are both experienced distance runners, they are not sponsored. They also said, even if they had wanted, they could not have realistically taken on the sort of logistics required for a fully supported hike.
“Fully supported would be great,” Platson said. “But it didn’t make sense for my wife or someone else to take a week off when self-supported was a reasonable option.”
Added Ward: “From a coordination standpoint, unsupported is so much easier. You don’t have to plan, or get people on board to follow you, or cook for you, or set up sleeping quarters. I was able to say, ‘My gear and food is on my back. Let’s start hiking.’ ”
Also, he said, “unsupported is just kind of badass.”
Covering a lot of ground
Ward started with a 25-pound pack with a 10-pound base weight (pack, shelter and sleeping gear); Platson carried a 19-pound pack with an eight-pound base. As a result, they didn’t run the trail like the fully supported athletes generally do — they hiked it, at about 3 miles per hour. Their treks were about pounding out long distances, not speed, each day. Both averaged well over 30 miles a day, with Platson recording two 40-plus mile days. That required him to be on the trail from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a half-hour break for lunch.
“Those 40-mile days were killers,” Platson said.
Ward’s final day was his longest, covering 46.5 miles as he hiked from exactly 3:35 a.m. to 4:38 p.m.
“You have to be really regimented to cover that kind of ground,” Ward said. “When I started each morning, I knew exactly where I was going, when I was going to eat, where I would have breaks. I needed those benchmarks.”
Even so, both Ward and Platson said their adventures were grueling.
“It’s mentally taxing,” Platson said. “Every hour needs to be three miles, and every minute I wasn’t moving I felt like I was losing part of a mile. It was stressful, like there was this train behind me, constantly blowing its whistle.”
“Every single day I wanted to quit,” he said. “I’d think, ‘This is stupid, why are you doing this, just go home.’ But people were watching, they were expecting me to do it, and my wife had made a lot of sacrifices to allow me to try this. I didn’t want to let them down.”
“Quitting was a constant thought from the first step,” Ward said. “ ‘Wow, 310 miles, I can’t do it.’ But I did. Maybe it’s just a matter of mental toughness.”
Ward said his toughness was tested after he fractured a finger slipping on a wet boardwalk (he applied a splint) and when a rainstorm flooded him out of a campsite on his next-to-last night. With water running over his sleeping gear, instead of trying to sleep, he got up and hiked 9 miles between midnight and 3 a.m., zonked out for a few hours and then walked another 24 miles.
‘Lack of a fixed route’
While Ward and Platson are not the first to claim FKTs on the Superior trail (which they both backpack recreationally, too), they’re the first to do so at its current — and close to final — distance of 310 miles. The first claimed FKT on the trail was in 2009, when it was 205 miles long, and another two FKTs (2013, 2015) were recorded when it was 296 miles.
The relative lack of activity on the Superior trail is because its length has steadily increased, Bakwin said.
“The lack of a fixed route has likely been a hindrance to the trail getting as much attention as it probably will now that the route is more stable,” he said. “Most people aren’t going to make the effort required to get an FKT if their time will be basically nullified in short order by route changes.”
While the trail is near its permanent length, there will be minor modifications in the next year or so, said Gayle Coyer, executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association. “The total length isn’t finalized quite yet.”
So when all is said and done, will Ward or Platson be back out there to keep their names in the record book?
“I never want to do that again,” Platson said.
Ward didn’t rule it out, but he said, “When I think about starting over from square one, it makes me want to cry.”
Jeff Moravec is a writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.