I am a little over a week out from embarking on what may be the hardest endurance endeavor of my life to date: I want to run the 817-mile Arizona Trail in record time.
From 5k road races to trail marathons and ultra marathons: a subset of humanity has an odd propensity towards covering unnecessarily long distances on foot. Runners race against the clock, against other runners, and against themselves in the attempt to cover those distances as fast as possible. Some, myself included, take it a step further: instead of “merely” participating in sanctioned races, we draw up our own ludicrous adventures. We come up with arbitrary routes that require big miles, often in a remote setting that’s difficult to access. We may work for weeks and months on figuring out how to best tackle these artificially constructed, self-imposed challenges. We wreck our brains on how to rally the resources required to shave a few minutes or even mere seconds off established records, chasing a meaningless crown in the grand theater of life: a route’s elusive Fastest Known Time (FKT).
And why? I’m not sure I have an answer, so I asked ChatGPT to tell me what makes someone attempt an FKT. Here is the response I got: “FKT attempts allure with the thrill of personal challenge, pushing physical and mental boundaries. Set against breathtaking landscapes, they offer a unique blend of adventure and self-discovery. The sense of community and recognition amplifies the appeal, making these pursuits a compelling avenue for those seeking extraordinary feats in nature.”
Hats off, ChatGPT! That’s some pretty fancy sounding fluff. That said, here’s my own take on FKTs: I think they’re dumb.
Mind you… I have set about two dozen FKTs, putting me into the 99th percentile of FKT holders. And yet: I think speed records are silly. Why? Because it’s not about the records. It’s never about the records - or at least it shouldn’t be, in my opinion. Just like nobody cares or should care if you are the fastest person ever to walk backwards down your driveway, nobody in the grand scheme of things cares or should care if you are the fastest person to complete the Continental Divide Trail. OK, yes, there may be a small group of people who do care - but you know what I mean: in the grand scheme of things, setting a Fastest Known Time on a route - even a competitive, marquee route like the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim or the Appalachian Trail - is entirely irrelevant. ChatGPT agrees: “Records, while tangible benchmarks of achievement, often don't encapsulate the richness of personal growth, diverse experiences, and the intrinsic value of pursuits. In the grand tapestry of life, the essence lies in the journey, connections made, and lessons learned—dimensions that mere numerical records often fail to encompass.”
So why chase Fastest Known Times? Maybe ChatGPT and its original comment is on to something: there’s a ring of truth to the “blend of adventure and self-discovery”. Because what matters is never the speed record itself. It’s the adventure, the preparation, the voluntary struggle and embrace of uncertainty that comes with attempting something that is outside of our realm of predictability. I firmly believe that a record in and of itself has no meaning; what matters is everything BUT the record.
Once again, I turn to ChatGPT for validation, and am amazed by the astuteness of its extrapolations: “Records hold importance for various reasons. They serve as benchmarks of human achievement, pushing boundaries and inspiring others to surpass established limits. Records can symbolize progress, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of excellence, fostering healthy competition and driving advancements in various fields, from sports to science. Additionally, records contribute to a sense of history, preserving and celebrating exceptional accomplishments that shape our collective narrative and inspire future generations.”
So there you have it. That’s why I am planning to spend this year’s Thanksgiving and then some being smelly, tired, sore and sleep deprived while attempting to break the speed record on the 817 mile Arizona Trail, covering 50+ miles a day for weeks on end: because the pursuit of excellence, to me, is a catalyst for personal growth and inspiration - first and foremost for myself, and possibly, indirectly and with humility, for others. And for that, I am thankful: because that voluntary, arbitrary struggle is my ultimate manifestation of privilege.
Photo credit: Sunny Stroeer