Article: Timothy Olson, FKTs, and Raging Wildfires!

By Buzz Burrell on Wed, 07/21/2021 - 08:36pm

Timothy Olson is close to finishing and establishing a new FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail!  This is the most public FKT of the season - and some gigantic wildfires are raging nearby - what’s a runner to do??

This is an important question.  Timothy has been running great, and his crew has been great as well, working proactively with us for solutions.  Climate change is real - heat, drought, and fires may be the new normal out west - so let’s take a deep dive into what Timothy is doing, as it is very educational and sets a good example of FKTs to come.

Wildfire PCTContext:

  • Fastest Known Time requires people to do each and every FKT Route exactly as described, simply so everyone competes on a level playing field.
  • People watch PCT efforts very closely, and purists insist it must be done exactly as described or it doesn’t count.
  • However, trails themselves change, so we spend time and effort to update many of our Routes as they evolve.
  • The PCT is a huge example of this - it is possible, maybe likely, that the PCT might never be done again as it once was described; it will always be re-routed.
  • We don’t want to eliminate the PCT - it is one of the Premier Routes - so for the major routes (not every route) we will adapt each season to what is appropriate for that year.

Thus, runners must follow these overarching principals:

  • Respect official Closures (btw, this includes Tribal land as well as wildfire closures).
  • Follow official re-routes (if they exist).
  • As much as possible, re-routes should be about the same distance and elevation change as the original route.
  • If the re-route is only slightly shorter or longer, live with it.
  • If it is significantly shorter or longer, we might establish a Variation; such as the "PCT 2022”.
  • Be transparent, and document what you did.
  • For 2021, Timothy will be doing the same distance and vertical gain as the original, so there will be no Variation.

Example: Timothy/Lionshead Fire Closure:

  • Timothy did a re-route a few weeks ago, with this method:
  • The re-route was not practical; it consists of long, unpleasant road miles;  thru-hikers are basically hitch-hiking around it.
  • Therefore, he ran up to the southern boundary of the closure, then turned around and ran back out still on the PCT the nearest trailhead, was picked up and driven around, then did another out/back on the northern boundary.
  • This added an additional 23 out/back miles, the Closure is about 22 miles, so it’s a wash, plus he has to sit in the car for 3 hours to get around.
  • Bob Loomis is the Crew Chief; he wrote an excellent report; scroll to the bottom of the Comments section:  https://fastestknowntime.com/route/pacific-crest-trail-ca-or-wa

PCT Final Finish

  • As of this writing, Timothy is 90mi from the finish, is a little less than a day ahead of FKT pace, and moving well, so a new FKT is close.
  • And more big fires!  The Cedar Creek Fire (one example) is 11% contained and is not expected to be contained until October 31.
  • And the Canadian border is closed, so he can’t be picked up at the border regardless.
  • An out-back run to/from the border would be needed, which was their intention.
  • However, this is a remote area, there are massive fires nearby, mandatory evacuations have been ordered, so it is risky and stupid to do an out-back just to tag the border.
  • The solution:
    • Prior to reaching the actual border, turn around and run back along the Trail, to the last accessible pickup point
    • This will equal the same number of miles of the full PCT, on the same trail, with the same elevation gain
    • (UPDATE: Timothy and crew decided he could go to the border, so this option was not needed - it was reported he completed the PCT at the Northern Terminus at 10:48pm PDT July 22).

Bob and Timmy

Alex Bond, Regional Editor:

  • The nearest town to both Rainy and Harts Passes is Mazama, it's a very popular one for resupply. I know two families who live there and both are evacuating. The fires up there are threatening and the authorities don't think they can put it out with human power, they're waiting however many weeks for fall rain to come. No cars will be driving up to Harts Pass anytime soon. 
  • It sounds like the Canadian border is likely to open to vaccinated Americans in mid-August, but I don't know if they're going to reopen their PCT crossing entry permit program. It's still shut down for the rest of 2021 according to the website.
  • I don't see how any thru-hikers could pull off the actual trail this year without doing that 120 miles from Rainy to the border and back unsupported. I think the overwhelming majority of people will have to call it short; you'd have to be very motivated to make it work.

Peter Bakwin:

Not very satisfying to not go to the border, but probably the most reasonable option under the circumstances.  Looks like distances between Rainy Pass & Harts Pass, and Harts Pass and the North Terminus are nearly identical (within 0.25 miles), and the vertical gain is also very close (slightly more climbing and slightly less descending if they yo-yo Rainy-Harts vs. running Harts-NT). 

In Conclusion:

As you can see, we work hard to make it work for you!

And we applaud Bob and Timothy’s whole crew for being transparent and proactive, and safely guiding him to the Finish.

And we (almost - soon - hopefully!) congratulate Timothy on a great adventure!!

Timmy Krista

Comments

With all due respect, Buzz, this line of reasoning is baseless and demeaning to the spirit of these long trails and FKTs at large. First of all, from the public's perspective, nothing about Tim's FKT attempt has been transparent. The tracker was not made live until about five days to go, there have been no authentic social posts from the trail, and all of the tracker backlog was wiped when it was made public. 

 

Secondly, yes, it's probably a fact that the PCT will continue to vary each year as climate change escalates wildfires out west. But all of these long trails are living, breathing, fluid avenues. They are not static artifacts set in stone. The AT continues to grow in length, and yet those wishing to set a new FKT must beat those previous times set on a shorter trail. It is precisely because climate change will continue to necessitate reroutes that you must set a precedent: those wishing to break the FKT must take the official reroute. You can’t make up your own route because the reroute sounds boring to you, or because it's less convenient for your crew.

 

Additionally, there is also something so aesthetically wrong about just out-and-backing a section of trail and leapfrogging to the next section. It’s a thru-hike! You’re trying to get from point A to point B. Official reroutes allow you to do just that. Allowing arbitrary out-and-backs is effectively saying someone could out-and-back a trail in their hometown for 2,650 miles and claim that as a new PCT FKT.

 

Finally, it's wrong to give special treatment to an athlete whose crew has your number on speed dial. Would you be allowing these contrived modifications if it was someone you had never heard of? Or to an athlete whose sponsor was not also sponsoring your website and podcast?

 

You are at a precipice here of upholding the moral compass and ethical guidelines you wished to guardian when you started this site, or losing credibility entirely. 

Thank you for your comment - we share and appreciate your passion!  Here are point-point replies for your consideration.

First, Tracker: We were supplied at the start their tracker URL, which is a requirement.  However, making it public is not required - many women do not want their whereabouts known, TO's crew (which is mostly his family) did not want a "Scott Jurek" situation with lots of people hanging around, and for the same reason they considered that unsafe in pandemic times, so non-public tracking was a good and acceptable choice.

Second, Re-route: There was no official re-route for Lionshead nor one for north of Rainy Pass.

Additionally, Out-Backs: Yes, quite un-aesthetic!  Timothy is very disappointed to have to do this.  And there is nothing arbitrary about these - they only take place where there is no other option - and rest assured, this is NOT a slippery slope, and will only be used on the Premier Routes in certain cases.

Finally, Special Treatment:  There is no special treatment. TO is running is guts out, with the backing of his family. We respect that, as we would with anyone else.

As an added note:  Yesterday afternoon the Pacific Crest Trail Association posted an advisory encouraging north bound hikers to end their hike at Stevens or Rainy Pass and not to attempt completing the trail: https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/closures/washington/delancy-varden-and-cedar-creek-fires-on-north-cascades-highway/

Hey Buzz, thanks for explaining your rationale. That's fine if the Olsons don't want to share their tracking data. My only point is that it's misleading for you to say it's been transparent to the endurance community, or whatever trivial portion of the population expresses any interest in these things. Additionally, I see no reason why they had to wipe the 50 day backlog when they made the data public. As you know, more than one suspect FKT submission has been pointed out by this audience, after which you've taken the submission down from the site. Not implicating Tim of fowl play, simply pointing out that crowd sourcing verification has proven essential to this volunteer-run site.

As per the earlier re-route, correct me if I'm wrong but you stated in the original blog post that there was an official reroute on "boring" roads.

And to your point about the PCTA suggesting hikers end early -- why are you treating wildfire closures any differently from a high snowpack year? If I remember correctly, François had to end his PCT attempt early due to snow. In addition to hard work, so much luck goes into these projects. Luck that your body holds up, luck you see your crew, luck you don't encounter a mountain lion, and of course luck in the weather. Tim lucked out it was a low snow year. Why does he get a free pass on a bad wild fire season?

If there were thunderstorms, you would wait it out. If it was hailing and snowing on a pass, you would wait it out. But if there are wildfires...make up your own out and back?

I disagree with you that "it's about making the trail work for you." IMO it's about working with the trail as you are able, given your health, supplies, and conditions. This human-centric vision seems at odds with the spirit of the trail and this sport. If we wanted contrived out and backs, we would forget FKTs and sign up for a $500 ultra.

Thank you for all of your hard work to shepherd the present and future of this hobby. And best wishes to Tim and his crew. I hope we are able to work together as a community to steer these principles in a sound direction.

 

 

 

Well said!  Yes, mother nature is the strongest player here, (and she's becoming increasingly pissed off ;-), so we don't always get what we expect, and we have to roll with it.

In this day and age, high profile FKT’s on high profile trails should have live tracking public. That’s how people busted that British guy, Robert Young, on his run across the country. The RV was driving 5 miles an hour with him and his tracker inside! Let the public help validate the efforts or call them out when they smell a rat. Keeping it private feels like they have something to hide, in my opinion.

"As you can see, we work hard to make it work for you!"

 

This entire article and the decisions that were made are incredibly disappointing. The point is not to have someone "make it work" for the athlete. The point is for the athlete to DO the work. Not to receive special treatment.

This site is no longer a credible source.

There are as many layers of wrong here as there are in a lasagna.

This attempt is NOT an FKT.

I am in complete agreement with Mountain Ghost.

This entire post is misleading. Looking in from a neutral eye, the effort was not transparent. Making the tracker "live" on the last few days of a 50+ day effort, while also wiping the data history on the tracker is the anthesis of transparency. In my mind, one most complete every section of trail and/or the official PCT designated detours for the effort to be valid. Out n backs take away from the spirit of the trail...think about employing those tactics on any other trail in the world? It just seems silly. Dealing with weather and conditions is part of the game when undertaking such a monumental objective.

It's fine if you disagree with what they are doing and that we are approving their effort, but pardon me, there was nothing "misleading" about my post - I communicated our thinking on this topic clearly.  

And yes, we fully agree with you - dealing with conditions is part of the game, which means sometimes one fails, and sometimes you just can't do the trail.

Thank you for the discussion!  It really helps to hear your comments.

It seemed misleading to say there was complete transparency with the effort. I guess I was thrown off to look at the tracker and not see all the data from the journey. I'm not trying to downplay the intricacies and challenges of embarking on a trip like this or discrediting what he has done. I agree with you that a "pure" PCT may never happen again. Best of luck to TO on the final miles of the trip! 

UPDATE 5:50PM MDT:  We have been informed they didn't like their own out-back plan, so Timothy is on his way to the Northern Terminus in spite of the risks.  He is expected to finish around Midnight PDT, which would be 16 hours ahead of the existing FKT by Karel Sabbe.

"They didn't like their own out and back". It's a little too late for that as they have already chosen and completed out and backs (as well as the car scenario).

This simply appears as though they now feel guilty.

The common theme that continues to be used as a rebuttal is that of climate change. I get that. But this is not about the climate change issue.

It is about wiping 90% of the sharepoint, the countless instances where one day ends and another begins and the mysteriously blank miles in between. It would be great if Tim were able to comment and clear these questions up, but he can't because they are all hidden from everyone. Whether it is or isn't it looks as though they are trying to hide several things here. At the very least, there should be an asterisk next to this attempt.

With the huge amount of support he had here, there were plenty of humans around to do the right thing. This could easily have been done without compromising them wanting to be followed like SJ.

All in all, disappointing from the athlete's camp as well as the stand/requirements from the FKT team. This is not the FKT team we have grown to respect and trust over the years. It screams special treatment.

I applaud Timothy's effort here and it is unfortunate that it feels a bit tarnished.

I would hate to see all of the effort that the FKT team has put in over the years to cast a shadow on itself now.

This is just pure nonsense. Am I the only one who remembers the uproar from Karel Sabbe’s PCT FKT? Trail Runner Magazine, August 31, 2016:

“My feeling is that if he took fire detours, it’s not really the PCT,” says Peter Bakwin, who tracks trail records on the Fastest Known Time website and is arguably the trail-running world’s de-facto authority on the subject…“I’d rather they wait for a low fire year with insignificant reroutes. It’s part of the game.” 

Buzz Burrell chimes in that same article to say that Sabbe’s FKT should come “with an asterisk and a footnote” so “people can make up their own minds what that means.”

In the five years since then, it appears the people at FKT have had a change of heart and lost sight of all standards. The writing was on the wall when they approved Darcy Piceu’s JMT FKT. She took the wrong trail at the end (to her credit, was very open and honest about it). It was a heartbreaking error, but route finding is also “part of the game” to use Bakwin’s terms. 

I just don’t see how doing a made up out and back, and then getting in a car to be driven around, is an acceptable option. The footsteps need to connect at all times. Period. We will never know if the footsteps connected from Mexico to Canada because no data was shared with the public in real time until the last few days.

The PCT is still open beyond Rainy Pass, it was never closed due to these fires. The fact that Buzz was allowing Olson to do an out and back at the finish, and not even tag the end of the trail, is offensive. How would that have been an FKT? If the trail is open, he should follow the trail (which he is currently doing).

This is nothing personal, just sad to see this website sink to new lows.

I've followed the PCT FKT scene for a long time.

A few things:

  • The quandary of what to do about fire closures is not new. If you read the old forum thread (required reading really), the issue is discussed a lot more, with strong opinions. Karel had a fire reroute on day one I believe. https://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/thread/29/pacific-crest-trail-ca…
  • The reality is there has not been a year since at least 2013 where it was possible to do the PCT without encountering a fire closure.
  • The sentence "As you can see, we work hard to make it work for you!" is really strange. FKTs should stand on their own merits, I am not sure it requires anyone else to "make it work".
  • The lack of transparency has made it tough to follow this one. The posts from TO and Adidas (especially) are super out of date/vague to where he was. I hope he releases full data and splits afterwards. That would be basic sportsmanship for anyone who comes after him to look at.
  • If the FKT site wants to be really slick, build a tracking interface that pipes in data from Garmin/Spot and then adds a multi-day delay to the feed before it's displayed on the site. Following along a week out of date would be better than nothing.

Glad to hear TO is going to the border after all. That makes this easier to stomach. I bet he'll have some great stories to tell.

This is ALL spot on ezabielski.

If the plan for the FKT team was to change the way they work with FKT attempts for any reason,  perhaps a post before hand would have been more appropriate than doing so on the fly with an athlete and attempt of their choice.  A formal announcement per se.

I respect that growth and evolution needs to happen with everything in life, but this approach was not well thought out and screams favoritism.

 

 

Just to clarify, this discussion is not an ad hominem attack on TO or an attempt to diminish his efforts. He simply presents a case study in what we as a community want FKTs to embody. Jack Kuenzle (a regional editor for this website) sums up one potential embodiment beautifully in Ultrarunning Magazine:

"In my opinion, setting an FKT is a celebration of commitment to learning the route, practicing the technicality and mastering your body, equipment, nutrition and personal fitness....the decentralized, disaggregated nature of FKTs lends the competition closer to the ethics of climbing more so than running. Often, the ultimate aesthetic in climbing is to climb in the style of first ascent. Climbing in the style of those who came before levels the playing field and gives real weight to claiming a successful summit. A similar logic can be applied to FKTs."

As Jack argues, this is largely a question of precedent and ethics. Did Tim's crew ask Sabbe what his thoughts about the out and back reroutes? Sabbe had more than his fair share of fire reroutes to contend with as well.

And to Jack's point about ethics: if I were attempting an effort like this (which I in no way delude myself into thinking that I will be!), I would want a high level of scrutiny for myself, and for all participants. If you open your effort up to the public beforehand, you're opening yourself up to a certain level of scrutiny. The "live" tracker on Outside, the social media posts, etc. made this a public effort without the ability to scrutinize, since the backlog of data has been erased. Of course, you have the option to wait and publicly announce your effort during or after the fact, which fits more in line with the core climbing value of not spraying.

And perhaps more importantly, I think we need to remind ourselves of the heart, soul, and purpose of the PCT. Hikers embark on that mythical quest to walk all the way from Mexico to Canada, in a continuous line. It's for that reason that PCTA reroutes do not send hikers on out and backs. It simply doesn't make logical sense.

That logic inherently weaves itself into the aesthetic of the trail, and by extension setting a record on that trail. While climate change will inevitably change the route, the heart, soul, and purpose of the trail - to walk from Mexico to Canada - remains the same. 

Out and backs on a point to point trail simply do not fit into that logic or highest aesthetic ideal. 

And finally, what are individuals trying to get out of these efforts? I always thought it's about elevating yourself to the route, not bringing the route down to you. (Or as Buzz said, "we work hard to make it work for you!" Huh?!) Is it about coronating an FKT for the sake of coronation, or testing yourself on the trail as it unfolds, FKT or not.

Thank you all for your comments.  We are learning from them.  

The desire for public tracking is stronger than we knew.  And it remains a tricky issue, because particularly during pandemic times, there are good reasons a runner would want to be alone to focus on their project.  Women regularly send us their tracking info and ask us not to make it public, which we certainly abide by - is this to be accepted if requested by a female but not by a male?

We will continue to learn, and evolve what are the best practices that work for both the runners and the community.

Thanks for listening to the input, Buzz. Again, I think the issue here is you just can't have it both ways. If you announce a very public attempt and put a huge ad budget behind it, people expect some level of transparency. You don't have to post a live tracker. But you can share the backlog when you eventually do make the tracker public (instead of wiping it clean), or you can even post accurate updates on a week delay.

IMO, if the tracking data is made public now, that issue will largely resolve itself. 

The out and back issue remains on the jury floor.

Congrats to Tim on an incredible effort!!!!

Yellow blazing and yoyos to set and FKT is unfortunate.  The precedent was set on the PCT already and this will truly establish the validity of riding in a car.  Would that still apply to shorter routes where the percent affected is greater?  Is everyone entitled to have their FKT even if their route isn't available?
I want to go down that road even less than Tim wants to go down Santiam. :)

  • The re-route was not practical; it consists of long, unpleasant road miles; thru-hikers are basically hitch-hiking around it.
  • Therefore, he ran up to the southern boundary of the closure, then turned around and ran back out still on the PCT the nearest trailhead, was picked up and driven around, then did another out/back on the northern boundary.

That should be a DQ then. Sometimes the course re-routes are not ideal (this one would add a 150mi road section, which if you remove his out and backs would be +127mi). The course can still 'win' depending on the year, and I find it odd we're now allowing interpretations of an official re-route to the list of what allows something to be an FKT.  Yes, 130mi's added on would've completely destroyed his chance to beat the record since there was only slight padding to his times.  Or, maybe he just beats the record by a slim margin, we'll never know.

Regardless, I'm a bit shocked we're allowing this to be acceptable.

This is shameful in my opinion. UNLESS this gets a huge asterisk to explain how it was wildly different and how the data/publicity etc wasn’t up to snuff for an FKT, but even that feels gracious. Cool that he did this, but it’s not a PCT FKT. 

Great discussion.  The PCT community continues to be passionate about the purity of the effort, which I understand and respect.  I also have a few comments:

1) My own thinking on the PCT has changed over the past few years.  It is only fairly recently that you basically can not complete the entire official PCT in any given year.  Years ago (such as when Scott Williamson was making his ground breaking marks there) that was possible most years. Now it never is.

2) The Lionshead Fire is the first case I'm aware of where the PCTA apparently did not declare an "official" or suggested walkable reroute for thru-hikers.  I may be wrong about that, but it appears to be a new situation.  Here's what it says on the PCTA website:

There’s no walkable detour. Northbounders will need to get off the PCT at the Pamelia Lake Trail in the Mt Jefferson Wilderness and arrange a 150+ mile ride. For easier logistics, you may want to get off earlier at Santiam Pass. Due to the risk of Covid-19 transmission this will be difficult. Hitchhiking and carpooling are not recommended. Getting around the closure will likely mean going through Redmond to the east or Stayton to the west. From Sisters, Oregon, Cascade East Transit runs to Redmond, and from there the Central Oregon Breeze runs to Government Camp, passing the PCT near Frog Lake. These are high-speed highways with little to no shoulder, so again, walking is not recommended. Some people may look to rejoin the PCT at Timothy Lake, (Joe Graham Trailhead on NF-42).

3) Many/most of the disparaging comments here are dealing with the "transparency" issue:  Did Timmy do what he said he did?  Their team chose not to make the tracker public for most of the run for reasons already stated.  I wish they had, but understand why they did not (having talked to Scott Jurek about his experience on the AT).  Anyway, these comments are premature.  In order to be approved as the FKT, their team will have to submit full verification data.  I understand they have tracking data (GPX) from his InReach, and from trackers carried by his pacers, as well as data from a Garmin watch.  All of this is going to have to be provided to us, will be examined very carefully by our team, and will be made public if/when the FKT is approved.  They finished a 52 day effort less than 24 hours ago, and in fact Timmy is still out on the PCT hiking back to his crew after touching the Northern Terminus last night.  Let's be patient!

I was out at the northern terminus this past week, finishing up the last 60 miles of my PCT hike. (The last 60 miles were closed in 2018) I think the most important thing is a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada. Some years fires may add a little bit of mileage,that's alright. In a few years the trail will get 50-100 miles longer when it is rerouted up on the Tejon Crest. This year, the lion's head fire closure would have only added about 25 miles (or 1%) to road walk around. I believe that should have been done. This fire closure was in place before he started the fkt, so he knew it was coming. However, this is only a small asterisk,and I am overall very impressed with the effort.

Regarding the plan to end the hike at Hart's pass, I am very glad the team came to their senses. This would have totally disqualified the effort in my eyes. It is concerning that this planwss approved by the fkt team at all in the first place. Having to walk 60 instead of 30 miles after the attempt is really no problem at all. My friends and I went out to the terminus this last week and saw dozens of other hikers in the area as well.

 

If there is an actual fire closure around the border area in the future, the Ross lake alternative should be used as an alternate ending. As a side note, I did not see Timothy's name in the Rainy Pass trail register yesterday afternoon. FKT attempters should sign trail registers whenever possible for transparency sake.

Interesting. Your comment about being able to walk around Loinshead with just 25 extra miles is counter to advice of the PCTA. Can you explain?