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Over the past decade, I’ve enjoyed challenging myself with various trails and mountain summits across Oregon. Whether I’m motivated to explore a new trail or return to one I love, trail running has been my favorite way to explore the state. That hasn’t changed during COVID-19.
In fact, trail running has been more popular than ever in the wake of Oregon’s stay-at-home orders and the cancellation of organized races. It’s generally a solo effort that allows you to keep physical distance and recreate safely in the fresh air. Some of the most ambitious runners have chosen to set their sights on FKTs, or fastest-known times.
The concept of the FKT has been around for about 20 years but has seen a surge recently. Inspired by the achievements of their peers, Oregon runners added a whopping 29 new FKTs in 2020, including the Steens Range Traverse (75 miles), the Crater Rim Trail (20.73 miles) and the Crown-Zellerbach Trail (23 miles). During a three-week span in summer 2020 alone, women bested the existing times for unsupported circumnavigation of the 40-mile Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood.
It may sound intimidating, but you don’t need to be an elite athlete to try for an FKT. You can add your own route (as long as you follow the guidelines), try for a less popular route or just go for the pure fun of it. If you’re inspired to give it a shot, here’s some advice and encouragement from three Oregon-based endurance athletes who set FKTs in Oregon in 2020.
Inspired by Oregon’s Beauty
Alex Borsuk is no stranger to epic endurance feats. The 32-year-old Portlander has been pretty well-known for conjuring absurd human-powered adventures since long before COVID-19 was a word in our vocabulary. She once rallied a friend to join her for a little DIY suffer-fest she called the “Portland Tri” — a ride from her house in Portland to Cascade Locks, a run along the PCT to Timberline Lodge and then a summit of Mt. Hood.
She also shares the women’s FKT for the Rainier Infinity Loop in Washington state, a truly insane circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier involving two summits and a revolution around the mountain on the Wonderland Trail. She also nabbed the women’s unsupported FKT of the Wonderland Trail in September 2020.
In 2020 she added two Oregon FKTs to her belt: In June the 9.9-mile out-and-back on Mt. Thielsen in Southern Oregon (2 hours, 56 minutes and 10 seconds), a short but steep ascent that requires minimal technical mountaineering skills; and the Kings Mountain-Elk Mountain Loop (2:32:6), a 10.8-mile loop in the Tillamook Forest. She loves the steep and technical terrain of Kings and Elk mountains. “The Coast Range is a very underrated area of Northwest Oregon,” she says.
The routes and locations are a bigger draw than the competitive aspect for Borsuk. “If you’re motivated by a certain route and just want to go explore it, that’s great,” she says. “Or if you’re truly competitive and want to see if you can beat the current holder’s record, then see what you can do.”
In the long term, Borsuk has an ambitious goal to run competitive times for all of the Pacific Northwest’s volcanoes, hence her Thielsen summit. “Anyone who has their mind set on a route can train for it and do it,” she says. “Finding a course or an area that you’re really excited about is enough motivation to train and get out there to have a good, fun time.”
Running to Give Back
Mario Mendoza took advantage of a weather-window gift after the September wildfires and an early-season snow storm in October 2020 to try for the South Sister round-trip FKT, topping out at 11.17 miles with 4,849 feet of elevation gain. The 34-year-old from Bend shaved exactly three minutes off the previous runner’s time, setting a new course record of 2:7:13. He chose South Sister as his goal purely for his love of the trail. “The mountain is really meaningful to me,” he says. “I don’t think anyone has run that mountain as much as I have. I know every corner and bump on it.”
To train specifically for the FKT, Mendoza drew out a plan to tackle each section of the mountain. He had climbed South Sister half a dozen times in the months leading up to his attempt, and broke up the different sections into his training. Unlike with races, he says, trail runners don’t have to wait an entire year for the event to happen again. “You can target a range and dedicate several months to setting goals in that specific area,” he says.
Mendoza encourages those considering an FKT to think about what really motivates them and will get them out the door to train. Twice in 2020, he set two world treadmill records, for the 50K and 100K, fueled by raising funds for the Central Oregon Youth Running Camp, a Madras-based organization he co-founded.
What he loves most about pursuing FKTs is that it’s not just about getting the top time; it’s that they’re for everyone, not just the elite athletes. “It’s more about challenging yourself against the terrain,” he says. “There’s just something awesome about achieving your body’s limit on a mountain.”
Family Ties That Bind
Inspired to take on a huge challenge after her mother died from an aggressive uterine cancer in January 2020, 36-year-old Emily Halnon set her sights on the 453-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Halnon’s mother began running after gallbladder surgery, seeking a lifestyle change. She ran her first marathon at 50, competed in her first triathlon at 60 and remained active throughout chemotherapy, including a 40-mile bike ride just months before she died. “Watching her make that progression through something seemingly impossible drew me to running in the first place,” says Halnon, who lives in Eugene. “Could I do this hard thing?”
Prior to running the PCT, Halnon’s longest run was 100 miles, and so she wondered what hard thing she could do next. She decided to go big. “The FKT attempt ended up giving me a reason to get out the door every day,” she says. “Running was the tie that kept us together and helped me grieve and move through that process with her.”
Halnon does not consider herself an elite athlete, and emphasizes that grit and tenacity matter more than athleticism alone for many endurance pursuits. For her PCT record, she started her journey at the California border on Aug. 1, 2020, and finished in Cascade Locks at the Bridge of the Gods seven days, 19 hours and 23 minutes later, crushing the previous women’s supported record by just under two full days.
She was able to do this thanks to the help of her partner, Ian, who prepared their van for eating and sleeping as soon as she finished for the day (she averaged about 60 miles per day). Her crew set up food buffets, chairs and a change of clothes or shoes, if necessary. She recruited friends to run with her along parts of the trail and relied on whole foods like avocado wraps, ramen and instant mashed potatoes, alongside sugary and salty snacks like chips and candy.
“It just seemed like an incredible way to travel across the state,” Halnon says. “Since moving here, Oregon’s trails and mountains have really changed my life. The idea of being able to power my way across the state on this one slice of trail really appealed to me.”
Ready for an FKT? Tips to Consider
Skilled and confident endurance athletes generally follow similar practices when it comes to planning for a challenge like an FKT. Here’s what tips Borsuk, Mendoza and Halnon have to offer for anyone considering an FKT.
- Do your homework. Talk to people who have run FKTs or who have run the same course (Instagram, local running groups and Facebook groups are great places to find people). Get out and run as much of the course beforehand as you can, if possible. Halnon used Instagram to reach out to the previous record holder and talked to through-hiking friends for tips.
- Pick a course that motivates you. If you don’t have one, you’ll never get out the door to train. “If you like really technical routes with a lot of vertical or shorter, faster runs, then look for routes that fit those passions,” says Borsuk.
- Anticipate your needs. “Prepare for the little details,” stresses Mendoza. “Know which shoes to wear, how much hydration and food you’ll need, if you’ll need a jacket in high elevation — even if the temperature is in the 70s at the start.”
- Develop and learn the proper safety skills. In addition to map- and weather-reading skills, Halnon also relies on her problem-solving abilities. “It’s pretty certain that something will go wrong, and having the skills to manage and troubleshoot and work your way through the problem is really critical.”
- Set up an emergency contact and plan. Running in remote areas means no cellphone service. It’s a good idea to bring along a satellite receiver, and always designate an emergency contact beforehand who knows your exact route plan.
- Stay within your skill set. Runners looking to tackle an FKT have to be comfortable with scrambling and running on varied terrain. It’s OK to challenge yourself some, and Mendoza suggests bringing a friend along on a super-technical route.