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Colorado is known for athletes who attempt impressive, sometimes dangerous, feats in the mountains. There are ski-mountaineers who descend from the summits of fourteeners. Stair-steppers who race down the Manitou Incline. And all manner of trail runners and hikers who attempt Fastest Known Times (FKTs) on routes crisscrossing the Centennial State.
Last month, the niche world of FKTs caught the media spotlight when a 25-year-old endurance athlete from Boulder, Erin Ton, claimed to have completed an unassisted FKT of Colorado’s highest peaks. The only problem? It turned out that the La Sportiva–sponsored athlete had skipped Culebra Peak, one of Colorado’s 58 mountains over 14,000 feet, which sits on private property and whose owners require hikers to obtain a $150 paid permit and reservation to access.
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Even without Culebra, there was little debate that Ton’s athletic feat—completing 57 fourteeners in just over two weeks—was impressive. The logistics alone of covering so much ground, unsupported in a friend’s borrowed Jeep Wrangler, were astounding. But the controversy surrounding Ton’s Instagram post on August 1, in which she claimed an FKT of Colorado’s fourteeners but failed to mention omitting Culebra, overshadowed her accomplishment on the 57 other peaks. It didn’t help Ton’s case that she reportedly deleted comments on Instagram and blocked users before coming clean that she had, in fact, not climbed the 14,053-foot peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
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This isn’t the first time social media has caused a problem in the FKT world. According to Buzz Burrell, one of the founding fathers of the Fastest Known Times movement, the instantaneousness of uploading to social media and the speed at which online content spreads can cause problems when official verification of FKTs takes longer than simply posting to your Instagram feed.
Burrell—who, like Ton, is based in Boulder—and his adventure buddy Peter Bakwin helped popularize FKTs when they set out to complete one on California’s John Muir Trail in 2000. At the time, the two runners had difficulty finding existing records of completed speed attempts on the route, so Bakwin later created an online forum on a free web platform called ProBoards to keep track of runners’ attempts on various routes and maintained it for more than 10 years. Then, in 2018, Burrell and Bakwin launched fastestknowntime.com, which has become the go-to, official FKT database, complete with its own detailed instructions for verification.
Burrell has seen a lot of change around FKTs since he and Bakwin started conquering trails together. In 2022, Outside Inc. acquired fastestknowntime.com, and Burrell is no longer involved in its day-to-day operation. But the legendary trail runner and pioneer of FKTs is still invested in the movement he helped inspire, and at the age of 71 is still an active athlete. 5280 recently caught up with Burrell, just after he had finished an uphill race in Portugal and was waiting to be called to the awards podium, to chat about social media, corporate sponsorships in adventure sports, and the Erin Ton controversy.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Let’s start at the beginning. Why were FKTs appealing to you when you first started speed attempts?
Burrell: I’ve always done what we call “projects,” which is borrowed from climbing terminology. And I used to project—it can also be used as a verb—routes. So, when the concept of fastest known times came up after Peter Bakwin’s and my John Muir Trail FKT, it was a natural fit…and part of it is human nature. Some may say why [do FKTs]? We say why not? This is what we do. And so, in this sense, I like to equate FKTs in some ways with races. You want to see who’s the fastest. FKTs are the same that way, except you’re not locked into doing it at a certain time, a certain place, a certain course, with someone handing you water every three kilometers like they do today.
When you and Bakwin created the first web forum in the early 2000s and people started logging these FKT attempts, that was still pre-social media. At that point, did corporate sponsorships already play a role in FKTs, or was it really just about having personal challenges as athletes?
For quite some time, it was just people who liked the concept. Almost immediately, Kilian Jornet was our first submittal. He just jumped on it because this was his thing. He felt done with races and wanted to do FKTs because he’s a smart guy. He’s a mountain guy. The skillset that is required [for FKTs] appealed to him…and at the beginning we just had three rules: Be honest, tell someone what you were going to do before you did it, and then tell them immediately after you did it. You couldn’t say, “Well, I did that 10 years ago” and then offer no proof. But people started doing that. So, then we started saying that you had to submit a GPX file [from a GPS tracking device].
When did corporate sponsorships start playing a role in FKTs?
What I noticed early on was that it was the Europeans who were more upfront about it than Americans. They would announce an FKT attempt and would blow up one of those inflatable banners, have spectators and have people cheering [the end of the FKT attempt].
How did you feel about that, because it seems like a paradigm shift from the individual challenge that could be done at any time, and now you had European companies turning athletes’ FKT attempts into public spectator events.
We were totally fine with it. We welcomed it. And Peter and I were actually happy to see pro athletes get contracts that included FKTs on them, contracts saying you’ve got to do four pro races or FKTs per year. Because if you compare [the financial model] to professional cycling, where they’re on a team, they get a salary. And if you’re a track or a road runner, you can get prize money at races—like winning the World Marathon Majors is $100,000. But whatever you win at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is practically nothing. [In ultrarunning] it’s the sponsorships that matter financially—so it’s a very different model. And then social media sort of arose at the same time.
And what effect did social media have on the sponsorship model?
Well, the sponsors now are just paying for impressions. When I was a director at La Sportiva, [prospective athletes] would write in and say, “What does it take to get sponsored? I’ve already got this result and that result.” And I would be like, Dude, we pay for impressions. I don’t care what races you finished third at. I care how many people see you. And I know that’s just terrible, but that’s the way it is right now.
Have you heard any cynicism about that? Are there any athletes who will submit GPS files for FKTs, but refuse to have a social media presence?
There’s Jack Kuenzle, a hardcore FKTer who doesn’t spray—another climbing term we use, meaning “Weeee, look at me.” But mostly social media is an accepted part of it. And people try to work it their own way. You have people like Anton Krupicka, a totally sincere guy who uses Strava as his main social media, with long posts and descriptions. And then he’ll just do what he’s required to do on Instagram because the sponsor brands will write into contracts: Each time we do a product release, you have to say, “Hey, look at this cool thing.” That’s the athlete’s fucking job, and again, it all rolls back into the sponsorship model.
Has social media made FKT verifications easier, or more difficult?
There are both good and bad aspects. An interesting positive aspect is that on some of the most popular routes, like the Appalachian Trial, if someone is doing live GPS tracking—which they should do for such premier routes—and they step off the route for like two feet, people watch for that and jump all over it. Someone’s going to point it out if you made a mistake. And, so, if someone’s stupid enough to actually try to cheat, which is very uncommon, you may have someone say, “Wait, I saw them hitchhiking into Delaware Gap!” So, in that sense, verification is crowdsourced, which is good. Because we are in charge [at fastestknowntime.com] of creating a level playing field. That’s all we do. We don’t put up routes. You submit routes, and we look at them.
What about the bad? I imagine there was a period when fastestknowntime.com was where people would first find out about these new claims, and maybe it had already been verified by editors on the website. But with social media, any athlete can post immediately.
You’re totally right. And you identified something that’s very annoying, and it’s happened before Erin Ton. Since Outside Inc. bought fastestknowntime.com, they have [an editor] there who is a total Trojan but who is overworked and paid by the hour to do the whole thing. And they really need someone who’s ahead of the game, who’s following attempts and riding the crest of that wave. The website is still in the old-school, Peter-and-Buzz method of waiting until an FKT attempt is completed, and waiting until someone submits the form, before verifying it.
But with social media, it’s all happening right now. It’s in the moment. So that’s an awkward aspect that’s very well demonstrated by Erin Ton—who’s a good person, by the way. She’s a really good athlete, too. But she skipped Culebra. And you can’t skip Culebra. I’m sorry. And while she’s not a bad person or a liar, she would be unfair to previous people who had done fourteener FKTs—if that was given to her—because they all had to jump through the hoops [of submitting on fastestknowntime.com]. So that’s another aspect of the social media problem with FKTs, is sometimes the website has to be the bad guy that rolls things back. Because then we’re taking heat when there are already 5,000 people on social media saying to the athlete, “Hey, you’re the best, we love you!” and then there’s one FKT.com person rolling it back. That’s not a fun job to have.
What would be your suggestions for athletes tackling FKTs on popular routes in the future?
There’s nothing wrong with posting to social media, but an FKT is not done until it’s verified. And it’s not a popularity contest. It’s not a democracy here; just because you’re really popular doesn’t mean you have the FKT. FKTs are an objective determination, so please allow [the editors] at FKT.com to do their work, because they work really hard. And if you are going to post on social media, saying something like Hey, I just completed this, and now I’m going to submit for verification would be the cool way to do things. Not to say that I expect that, but that would be lovely. And again, please respect the work of the FKT editors. They are good people, and they are creating a level playing field for everyone.