Racing for Satisfaction, Not Results
Legendary times and attempts on iconic routes have long been kept alive in local lore, but documented FKTs are a newer phenomenon. When Fastest Known Time was launched in 2000, the website was designed to verify these records and house them in one place. At first it was a lightly moderated message board, but over time it has grown into the recognized authority for the loosely regulated sports of long-distance hiking, running, and skiing. According to site rules, times have to be human powered, done at least halfway on foot, and verifiable—usually by a GPS tracker. Other than that, chasing FKTs has very few rules. You don’t have to pay to play, and anyone, at any time, by nearly any means, can head out and try to run an established route—or make a route and submit it for approval—faster than anyone else has done it before. Some runners pursue records with support (pacers, aid stations, and food), while others take them on unsupported.
“You don’t get paid, there’s no prize, there’s no certificate,” says Mercer. “You get your name on a message board. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it for yourself.”
It’s an approach that appeals to Kuenzle, and in many ways seems suited to his personality and current priorities. At a time when elite mountain sports are dominated by corporate sponsorships, Kuenzle declines to work with brands. He says he wants to keep his efforts independent.
Mountain running supports a thriving series of international races and professional events, but Kuenzle is focused entirely on route records, not organized competition. He appears to be pushing himself solely for the purpose of doing it. When I spoke with him in September, his analytical side came through early during our conversation. He spoke at length about optimizing conditions for pursuing speed records and about finding new ways to push himself. He seems to have an insatiable need to go harder, which expresses itself in his hunger for FKTs.
“Racing just introduces more constraints,” said Kuenzle. “You don’t have as many opportunities to be creative.”
His pursuit of FKTs sets him apart in the small community of top mountain runners. Most of these athletes race for a living and pursue FKT challenges as personal accolades. Few target the fastest times as their primary goal.
“He’s basically reinventing the way that people do these routes,” says Ryan Atkins, the current world champion of Spartan racing and a professional endurance athlete with several FKTs to his name. “Jack is one of the few athletes who legitimately doesn’t race but just trains specifically for these routes and just pushes himself so hard outside the arena of modern, large-scale races.”
Atkins met Kuenzle in the Adirondacks in 2020, when Kuenzle was scouting the Great Range Traverse, which Atkins set the record on in 2019. Atkins was impressed by the sheer quantity of miles Kuenzle had logged on the rugged terrain. “I’ve run the route maybe 12 times ever,” he says. “And Jack did it, like, seven days in a row or something. The volume that this guy can do day after day is just otherworldly.”
Most of these athletes race for a living and pursue FKT challenges as personal accolades. Few target the fastest times as their primary goal.
Kuenzle toppled Atkins’s FKT by about 23 minutes. Two months later, Atkins ran the route again and reclaimed his record by three minutes. The two were cheering each other on then and have been since.
This camaraderie is common in mountain running. Athletes are often generous with sharing beta, and FKT holders seem genuinely excited when someone challenges them. Kuenzle and Jornet didn’t speak before his attempt on the Bob Graham—Kuenzle admits he was too intimidated to reach out to Jornet, who he has long looked up to—but the Spaniard congratulated him afterward on Twitter.
“The worst thing that could possibly happen is we put up a time and nobody ever races it, nobody even tries for the rest of eternity,” Kuenzle says. “And then the best thing that can happen is a ton of people come and they all have a great day, but nobody’s quite good enough to beat your time.”
As Kuenzle sees it, the more people who attempt an FKT, the more legitimate the effort and the route become. “If Killian came back next week and did the Bob Graham Round and I was here, I would absolutely want to help pace, discuss lines and tactics, whatever would help him maximize his potential on it,” Kuenzle says.
But supporting other FKT attempts is about more than making records more robust or putting out good “runner karma.” Kuenzle also wants to help other athletes for one of the same reasons he’s drawn to the sport itself. “Part of it, for me, is just pure curiosity,” says Kuenzle. “Like, how fast is possible? It’s cool to be part of that project, even if your time gets beat.”