New Fastest Known Times (FKT’s) were recently set on both the John Muir Trail (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT record has been especially big news within and beyond the hiking community.
On the JMT, ultra runners Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe covered the 224-mile distance in 3 days, 12 hours, and 41 minutes, lowering Brett Maune’s time from 2009 by a mere 92 minutes.
On the PCT, Heather Anderson set a new time of 60 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes on August 7, a day before Josh Garrett arrived at the Canadian border 32 hours and 13 minutes faster, for a cumulative time of 59 days, 8 hours, 59 minutes. The old record of 64+ days was set by Scott Williamson in 2011.
Maune and Anderson may no longer own the overall FKT, but they still lay claim to some sub-records. Specifically, Maune’s effort was unsupported, whereby he carried all the gear and supplies he needed from start to finish; and Anderson’s effort was self-supported, whereby she resupplied along the way, thru-hiker style, without planned support. Her time also destroyed the previous women’s record. In contrast, Koerner/Wolfe and Garrett utilized the support of a crew or crews who allowed them to focus entirely on moving forward.
For all the FKT minutia, go to Peter Bakwin’s FKT website. But I want to share a few thoughts on these new records:
1. Each was an impressive effort. I appreciate seeing individuals challenge themselves mentally and physically, and I can only imagine the highs and lows that were experienced along the way. Some may not agree with or understand the “racing” of a long-distance trail, but fortunately it’s not their opinion that determines the “right” way to hike.
2. Anderson’s time is hands-down the most impressive of the three, as it’s a notable improvement over Scott’s time and a game-changer in the women’s category. Despite having support crews that could do anything short of towing them down the trail — including but not limited to restocking their food and water, swapping out their clothing and equipment, feeding them, sheltering them, and providing medical assistance — Koerner/Wolfe and Garrett lowered the FKT’s only marginally, by 1.8 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, over times that didn’t rely on such help. It would seem that the time-savings of a supported effort should be much more substantial than this and that there is still room for significant improvement here.
3. What’s the handicap worth? At the core, these efforts boil down to a simple formula: Distance = Rate * Time. Thus, there are only two ways to go faster: (1) hike lighter, by reducing extra weight on your body and in your pack; and (2) hike more, by minimizing time not spent making forward progress.
On the JMT, the handicap between the supported and unsupported records is roughly equal to the effect on Rate of carrying extra gear and food — about 15 pounds at the start, dwindling to about 3 by the end. Consider how much time you would lose just on the climb up Whitney and over Forester Pass if you had to wear a 15-lb weight vest, never mind the remaining 215 miles. 92 minutes? Probably.
The handicap on the PCT is much more complicated. A thru-hiker’s Rate will be slower simply because they must carry more gear and supplies than a day-hiker, e.g. shelter, sleeping bag, stove, larger backpack, plus several days of food at a time. More importantly, a thru-hiker suffers huge Time penalties when they have to resupply, which may entail hitchhiking and/or waiting on a closed Post Office. If we assume that Anderson resupplied every 4 days on average and was able to get in and out in 3 hours on average, we can say that she lost about 45 hours of possible hiking time, or almost 2 days, which would have given her the record.