Total Miles: 1654.5
The 100-meter dash is not for the slow-footed. It is the domain of the rocket ships of the human race and the winners are bestowed the title of world’s fastest man or woman. One simple question though: Why?
Why 100 meters? Isn’t it arbitrary? Why not 50, or 40, or even 10 meters? Surely someone who couldn’t win the 100-meter dash at the Olympic Games might stand a chance at giving Usain Bolt a run for his money in the 10-meter dash, a distance that would also surely solicit even faster top speeds.
And even at the arbitrary distance of 100 meters, what exactly are we to make of the world record, a time that has been broken time and again? Track and field, of course, is designed to be a level playing field and the U.S. and International Olympic Committees ensure that by regulating that tracks be level, be of a standard size, and to discount world record-breaking times should there be more than a particular amount of tailwind. But what about the specific material used for the track, temperature, relative humidity, or even altitude, all of which can have a significant impact on athletic performance?
The point is that even in such a simple and highly specific sport, the notion that the person who holds the world record is truly the holder of the fastest 100-meter time ever run is, well, highly questionable. But the idea of a record that is absolute in spite of all the unregulated factors is a myth we sell ourselves because we like the idea of measuring things across time, telling a story of competition from one decade to another, one generation to another. It’s all well and good, it just doesn’t make the story a true one.
You might be surprised to learn that as the popularity of backpacking has grown enormously in recent decades, the idea of competition for speed records has crept its way in. Known as FKTs—Fastest Known Times—they’re mostly attempted on the honor system, with some supporting GPS track data as proof of the feat. Most of the major long distance trails have an FKT, or will soon.
There’s even a bifurcation of FKTs—those for “supported” hikes (think: carrying almost nothing and having a crew meet you periodically at road crossings with food, water, and shelter waiting) and “unsupported” hikes, like the one Ace and I are currently on, where you’re completely self-sufficient.
I think you can probably guess where I’m going with all of this. If I’ve convinced you at all to at least question the sanctity of a world record in the 100-meter dash, you can at least know that when the starter’s gun fires, the person that is first to the finish line is without a doubt the fastest person…at least on that day.
FKTs for hiking, however, have no such comparison. No assemblage of elite athletes waiting at the border of Canada, ready to race head to head all the way to Mexico under the same set of conditions on the same trail. One attempt might start in May of one year, northbound, while another might start in July of a different year, southbound. It might be the same trail, but under such different sets of conditions to render comparison almost entirely moot.
But perhaps the biggest argument in favor of throwing the notion of FKTs overboard entirely is simply this: because the trails themselves change from year to year. Unlike tracks, trails are living, breathing things that change through time, their difficulty and total distance expanding and contracting periodically. New sections of trail are cut to avoid road walks or limit erosion, reroutes occur in response to landslides and forest fires, and when private land is purchased for public use whole sections of trail may be relocated for its future protection. So what is a record if the track you’re racing on is never the same?
If we’re honest, so much of how we measure ourselves is arbitrary. Money, degrees, status, accomplishments, all on an arbitrary scoreboard of our own imagination. At one point in today’s walk, we joked that perhaps we could set the Fastest Known Time for the distance from where we stood to the next trail marker some 50 feet away…until I realized the tailwind at our backs would probably disqualify the attempt. Maybe this isn’t the right track for records either.