My (Failed) FKT

View of Bear Butte (4,426 ft) and Bear Butte Lake from the Centennial Trail.

View of Bear Butte (4,426 ft) and Bear Butte Lake from the Centennial Trail.

The Catalyst

“Have you ever thought about trying an FKT?”

Numbers and I were slowly plodding our way across the Jarosa Mesa. Although I had heard his question clearly, I was too stunned by the surrounding beauty to speak immediately. Assuming I hadn’t understood him, he cleared his throat and proceeded to ask again.

“Hey Doc, have you ever considered trying to go for an FKT on a trail?”, this time ensuring to project his voice over the wind howling in our ears. I was ahead of him a bit and slowed down to close the distance before replying, “Yeah, it’s crossed my mind a time or two, but I’m not really an endurance athlete so I’m not sure if I’m built for those kind of miles.”

Contrary to my reply, I had been thinking about that very subject daily for the past few weeks. Staring out over the vast expanse in front of us, I knew then and there I was going to see how far my body would take me.

Beautiful Jarosa Mesa

An FKT, or Fastest Known Time, is when an individual runs, walks or hikes a trail/route quicker than previously recorded. FKT’s official website states “The route must be notable and distinct enough so that others will be interested in repeating it.”, followed by a lengthy list of qualifications for submitting new routes. Trying to claim your record can be quite the process as well with requirements like expensive GPS tracking devices, trip reports, and photo submissions, all making the effort itself only part of the equation. Going fast and efficient was always how I had hiked, but FKT fast?? Would my mind and body be willing to cooperate for what my heart desired?

On October 10th, 2021, exactly three months after that day with Numbers, I was standing at the bottom of towering Bear Butte to answer those questions for myself.

The Centennial Trail

Prayer flags thrashed violently as the relentless wind seemed to mock my every step. Bear Butte, the northern terminus of South Dakota’s 125-mile Centennial Trail, was ominous in the dawn light.

My heart pounded in my head as I sprinted up the hillside. I was here. This was it. 

I approached the summit with wind ripping through the trees and was greeted with my first view of the task at hand. On a whim, with a rag-tag gear list and no “real” training, I had decided to run 125 miles in less than 48 hours. I was completely unprepared, but I was going to be in South Dakota for a few weeks visiting my sister, so why the hell not? The current record stood at 1D 23HRS 35MIN held by Lance Smith of Sioux Falls, SD.

A few days earlier, when I came across Lance’s information on FKT's website, I gave him a call to chat about strategy and beta. We talked for a few hours about the challenges I would no doubt face, water sources, and nutrition, which left me feeling extremely encouraged and excited. He asked me if I’d update him regularly on my progress to which I replied I would, then wished me luck on my attempt. Before hanging up, his last words to me were “This is going to change your life man. I still think about my time out there every single day.”

Climbing up Bear Butte

Climbing up Bear Butte

It Begins.

I stepped on to the wooden deck lined with plaques informing on the local wildlife and geology. Looking out to the horizon Bear Butte Lake’s blue waters shimmered in the distance, a lighthouse, guiding my eyes across the ocean of plains before me. Bitter cold stung my cheeks as I looked at my watch and took a quick video. After taking another moment to soak it all in, I started jogging the first steps of my impulsive odyssey.

It felt as though I was breathing pure ecstasy in that crisp morning air.

The pain ahead was inevitable. One does not simply travel over one hundred miles on foot in two days without pain becoming a dear friend. But in that moment pain didn’t matter. All that mattered was the pitter patter of my feet and the methodical rhythm of my lungs. Adrenaline carried me five miles to Bear Butte Lake where I slowed up a bit and settled into a solid pace that I could sustain.

The first 20 miles flew past with only minor and expected difficulties. Within the first ten I noticed some chaffing beginning to flare, but that was easily managed with Body Glide. A flashback to a time when I was wobbling through Bend State Park, and Chapstick was my only available relief, made me chuckle while tending to my wounds. An hour and a half later, realizing I hadn’t been snacking as much as I had planned, I dug out a delicious PB+J sandwich for fuel.

The general consensus among runners is that you'll burn approximately 100 calories per mile, and a steady intake of around 200 calories an hour is needed to maintain with constant exertion. Calorie deficit was unavoidable while out there no matter my nutrition. To counter-act this the best I could, I carb loaded the previous days and made a vow to watch my intake closely. I knew the high metabolism which some see as a blessing would turn into an obstacle, but I figured two days wasn’t enough time to start feeling TOO shitty. 

Bison skulls guide the way on the Centennial Trail

Troubling Signs

“You haven’t taken a single break in 36 miles??” Rabbit wasn’t trying to hide the concern in her voice. “You need to take a break; breaks help you keep going.” the concerned tone now giving way to one more stern and direct.

“I know, I’m just scared to stop because I know that’s when it’ll start hurting.”

Before heading out my friend had offered to be “on-call” if I needed encouragement or advice. Being someone that had put herself in many of the same scenarios as I was in now, I knew I needed to listen to her voice of reason.

“Take a break, eat something and stretch. Stop for at least 15-30 minutes, you’ll feel better.”

Reluctantly I shed my pack and started to nibble on a bag of mixed nuts and Bevita crackers, while stretching my increasingly stiff limbs. I wasn’t feeling very hungry, and the thought of food was unappetizing. After about 20 minutes I began packing up my things that had somehow become sprawled in every direction.

Upon standing I felt tightness in my right groin and the next few miles were at a hobble. Slowly the feeling subsided as my blood began pumping, but my lack of appetite was beginning to worry me. Besides choking down a few energy gels, it had been hours since my last significant calories. Dalton Lake came into view through the trees, marking 40 miles and the end of a brutal 24-mile water carry. I sat down to filter a few liters and hopefully eat an energy bar. It was half past five, and I was on pace to crush the record.

The Pain Cave

The "Pain Cave" is a place endurance athletes become very accustomed to visiting. It is the point during exercise or competition when continuing seems impossible, and every fiber of your being is begging you to quit. Where you meet and have a cup of tea with your darkest demons. 

“The pain cave is when you hit a metaphorical wall during intensive exercise,” explains Justin Fauci, NASM-certified personal trainer, and co-founder of Caliber Fitness. “Every part of your body is screaming at you to cease the exercise and your brain isn’t far behind. At this point, you can listen and give in, or you choose to endure your time in the pain cave.”

Darkness engulfed me as I trudged through the cave. Self-doubt and anxiety consumed my every thought. "This is what I'm here for", I kept telling myself despite my lack of conviction. Now closing in on 60 miles in under 24 hours, I was in completely uncharted waters. Prior to this my 24-hour PR was a little over 50 miles on the Appalachian Trail through southern Pennsylvania. After that I had taken 2 days to recover and shove food in my face. "I won't be resting tomorrow" I thought to myself, "and I definitely don't want any damn food."

My stomach was a complete wreck alongside my confidence. The easy brisk pace I had kept for the first 30 miles had become an injured hobble. At some point in the night, I managed to eat a cold soaked meal, which had done very little to quell my concerns. Feeling battered, I began to quietly whimper with every step. 

Once again, I reached out to my friend, doubting that she would answer at such an early hour. Her sleepy voice was comforting beyond what words can describe. I proceeded to cry and complain into my phone about how stupid I had been, and how much I hurt. The halfway point was only five miles away, but it may as well have been 50. Sitting in that field and looking up at the milky way, with the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, is a memory forever branded into my brain. There was a sick beauty in this pain.

After lots of whining and grunts I began what would ultimately be the last miles I would complete of the Centennial Trail. 

Tapping Out

I woke up disoriented and shivering. The pit toilet's cinderblock walls had been my refuge from the early morning cold. I had tried my best to sleep, and I now reluctantly rolled up the 1/8" foam pad which had felt like memory foam on that cold concrete floor. It had been close to 12 hours since my last intake of calories. 

The dry heaving sent convulsions through my body unlike any I had ever experienced. My eyes watered and my abdomen clenched over and over making it impossible to catch my breath. With my stomach completely empty, the only answer was an acidic bile that filled my mouth with a gritty and unpleasant texture. After a few minutes, and much difficulty, I managed to pull myself together long enough to pack my gear and head out to face the new day.   

 Opening the door, I knew it was over. The time in the pit toilet had cost me, and I would need to keep a pace of over four miles an hour to claim the FKT. My mind and body were at odds with my desire to prove I could go the distance. I continued to limp the next few miles, in denial about what was to come. It was a gorgeous day.

Yellow birch leaves lazily floated around me, and the warm sunlight felt amazing on my skin. For the first time since leaving Bear Butte I really noticed how stunning it was in those hills. By this point I had begun to saunter and enjoy the morning's beauty. Realizing I had already quit, I found a sunny spot with signal, where I could arrange my retreat. Basking in the sunlight, I cried knowing I had failed to finish my goal. 

A few hours later I was laughing with my sister, eating bananas, and drinking hot tea.


Was it worth it?

To many, my brief time on the Centennial Trail may seem like an unnecessary suffer-fest. I mean, why go out and try if you're going to fail? To those people I would argue that failure is subjective, and comfort does not beget growth. This applies to life as a whole, not just feats of endurance. This was my first time, but it won't be my last. Looking back, I don't see wasted effort, I see lessons. This experience was the teacher I didn't know I needed. The trials taught me more about myself than any amount of meditation or psychoanalysis could ever provide. I am a grateful pupil. I choose to continue these pursuits, regardless of whether I'm successful every time. I may not ever hold an FKT, but that won't stop me from getting dropped off at the next trailhead.  

The grind never stops amigos. We must stop looking at failure as a negative and continue pushing our limits. Failing in life is inevitable, so don't let the thought of it stop you from even starting. Failure IS an option.

Have you been procrastinating on a dream that seems impossible? Or maybe there was a time you overcame fear and failure to emerge victorious? Drop it in the comments below and share your experiences so we can all grow together.

Battered but not beaten.

Battered but not beaten.

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