Getting into the Fastest Known Time (FKT) craze, Damian Hall aims to set a record for running 70-plus miles around the Isle of Wight
I try not to knowingly copy people, but I did have a mohawk in homage to Travis Buckle from Taxi Driver. And before that, the classic Madchester curtains look that I’m still trying to destroy all photos of. Otherwise I’ve largely avoided crazes and fads. However, the more I heard about the rise of FKTs, the more intrigued I grew.
The concept is simple: it’s just the Fastest Known Time set on any route.. It could be across North America, Land’s End to John o’Groats, or around your back garden. It’s a fresh way to have a DIY running adventure. Our own Jez Bragg set an FKT on New Zealand’s 1,897-mile Te Araroa trail in 2013 (53 days, 9 hours, 1 minute). While Scot Jurek recorded a FKT (46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes) on the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail last year. But we’ve been doing them here in the UK for a while. The two most outstanding FKTs being Billy Bland’s 1982 Bob Graham Round (13 hours and 53 minutes) and Mike Hartley’s on the 268-mile Pennine Way (2 days, 17 hours and 20 minutes) from 1989.
Fast forward to now and it seems everyone seemed to be doing FKTs and for once I felt an irresistible urge to copy. The novelty of racing a watch appealed, but more so the idea of a challenge on my own terms, and an excuse to explore somewhere new. The only downsides would be the lack of aid stations and no medal at the end.
But where? It needed to be testing – my back garden’s only about 20x10m – but also realistically achievable. I pondered the big ones: Land’s End to John o’Groats? (Too long for now.) The 630-mile South West Coast Path? (More on that in a future issue.) And settled on, er, the Isle of Wight Coast Path. At just over 60 miles (if you don’t research it properly…), it seemed achievable. Equally appealingly the path seemed to have no FKT. I searched online, emailed the Ryde Harriers running club and checked out the records for the two foot races on the island. It was an FKT open goal.
To both trick my wife into thinking we were going on a family holiday and to act as a mobile aid station, I got hold of one of those ridiculously comfy and spacious motorhomes. As well as the mobile kitchen, toilet and a chance of a hot cuppa, it meant I could get a decent night’s sleep before and after.
The FKT attempt begins
Parked in a campsite west of St Helens on the island’s east, my alarm goes off at 5am and I’m at the Coast Path just before 6am. I trigger both a Garmin Fenix and a Suunto Ambit2 watch and officially start my Isle of Wight FKT attempt at 5.50am. Whatever time I run will be a (supported) FKT of sorts, but I want it to be respectable, something that might last. My fear is that without people to race, motivation will rapidly dwindle when the going gets tough.
I should say now that I didn’t treat this FKT attempt with the respect it deserves. Firstly I wasn’t sure of the exact distance, which does on reflection seem kind of important. The mileage was different everywhere I looked – anywhere from 60 to 70 miles. I of course fixate on the lower number and casually assume I can probably do six miles per hour and be back in under 12 hours. Error number two.
It’s lovely to be out running at this time of day. It’s so quiet and calm, it feels like the day is entirely mine. The sun soon rises from the ocean, bleeding pink then orange across the sky. But I lose the path temporarily in Nettlestone, so I have to double back, frustrated.
Eventually I set a decent pace, around seven-minute miles. I’m enjoying it. Today’s only task: run (keeping the sea on my right). Within two hours I’m in Ryde and it’s odd to see people starting their days.
I get slightly frustrated again in Cowes, having to wait for the chain-operated water taxi. Dashing off the ferry ahead of everyone else, I’m confused by a sign (which has likely been moved by drunken pranksters last night) and go the wrong way. The ferry intermission has brought this hour down to five miles and I’m behind schedule.
At around 20 miles, leg soreness and stiff hips kick in. It’s nice to be out in the country though. The path goes inland, zigzagging around Newtown Nature Reserve, a tranquil wetlands with water channels and clumps of woodlands.
At around 11am I arrive in Yarmouth, at the western end of the north coast. I’m unable to stop myself walking straight into the first shop I see and emerging with four different types of drink, plus salty nuts, a quiche and chocolate. Which slows me again.
Getting ahead of the clock
Then I’m back on a road for a while. I’d usually resent Tarmac, but it’s faster going. I crest a hill to a wonderful view of the Needles, the island’s Stonehenge, and hordes of tourists. A long hill ridge has views down both sides and miles of sea and the white chalky cliffs. But with 30 miles in my legs I’m sore, and slowing. I enjoy the long run along the cliff tops.
At a campsite a man offers me water. I must look like I need it. At another snack van I top up on flapjack and a muffin.
My naive optimism has served me well down the years. I wouldn’t have signed up for the races I have, if I’d poured over the details. Details can give reason not to do things. But this same naive optimism has often got me into trouble. My wife knows that if I say “It takes about five minutes” – and we have timed this to check – that usually means 20 minutes. That naive optimism has come back to bite me again now.
The end nears…
After 11 hours of running, I thought I’d be finishing soon. I count the kilometre squares left on the map. It turns I won’t. The route is at least 70 miles, not 60-ish. About a two hour difference. I realise I’m not going to see my kids again today. Motivation nosedives. I don’t have the feedback I usually have: occasional supporters, knowing I’m in a good position, friendly aid station staff. I’m sore and stiff and every injury I’ve ever had seems to be niggling away. A local jogger ghosts past me and I look at my watch to see I’m doing just nine and a half minute miles. My mood has gone up and down like the coast. But as the day wears on it’s increasingly down.
I stick on my iPod Shuffle, which throws up songs that motivate and some that don’t. I neglect my nutrition and start to bonk in some woods. I knock back my last gel. It’s hard work. All this running. I’m tired. The golden light of the evening lifts my mood a little and I look back along Whitecliff Bay, knowing I’m nearly done. Most of my mini self-imposed cutoffs haven’t really worked as motivational tools. But a little sprint finish gets me back to my start point at 7.59pm.
There’s no one here. No one to applaud my heroic/idiotic achievement. It’s taken me 13 hours and 49 minutes to run the Isle of Wight Coast Path, which my Garmin claims has been 73 miles. It’s a stunningly average and beatable FKT time. But it’s my FKT, for now at least.
Over the next few days I’ll look back on my solo DIY adventure and it’ll get better with every flashback. It’s been a good day, really. I missed my kids, but life doesn’t get much better than when it’s just running. It seems sometimes it is worth copying other people.