Tom Hollins’ guide to FKTs

Fastest Known Times (FKTs) have become the ultimate passion project for endurance athletes looking to push their limits in a unique way in the great outdoors. #TeamMontane athlete Tom Hollins gives his take…

FKT attempts show no signs of slowing down! For those unfamiliar, it’s exactly what it says on the tin - the Fastest Known Time of a route over 5 miles. Unlike an organised race, it is often done solo and self-organised - making this something pretty much anyone can give a go - if they have the mental willpower and physical prowess to pull it off!

Having conquered several unique FKTs in recent years, #TeamMontane’s Tom Hollins knows only too well what it takes to plan and undertake a Fastest Known Time. Keep reading to discover his FKT story so far.

My Introduction to FKTs

Like many English ultra runners, my first introduction to Fastest Known Times (FKTs), and my first introduction to ultra running, was the Bob Graham Round. At that time the Bob felt like the absolute limits of what could be done on two feet. The challenge for me was the 24hr completion. Yes, I knew that the Bob had an FKT but that was set by Billy Bland in 1982 in an amazing 13hrs 53 minutes. No-one was ever going to beat that. Right?

Well, on April 23rd 2016 Jasmin Paris set a new ladies FKT of 15hrs24, only 90 minutes slower than Billy, and suddenly the FKT seemed in reach. Roll on to 2018 and 5 years ago today, as I write this blog, Kilian Jornet smashed Billy’s time down to 12hrs 52minutes. It has tumbled twice further since, but it was Kilian that first made the impossible start to seem possible again.

Guide to getting your Fastest Known Times (FKT)

Kilian wasn’t the only one who had dreams of the Bob Graham Round FKT. I knew that Billy’s time for a single Bob was well out of reach. However, the longer I go the better I do in races and Nicky Spinks had set a new fastest time for a double Bob Graham round in 2016. Although strictly speaking, this wouldn’t be an FKT as it was a double route, after my Spine Race victory in 2017 I really fancied setting a new fastest time. 

I set off in May 2017 in baking heat, got heat stroke and the less said about my GI distress the better. It was a humbling experience but one that made me hungry for more. Knowing that these super long routes have a high failure rate, I decided to go back in 2018 and aim for something slightly different. I ran without a support crew as that kept me flexible on when I could start and simplified the logistics. This also meant I could set a new fastest self supported time.

Montane Athlete Tom Hollins

So, what exactly is an FKT anyway?

This is the beauty of FKTs. They are more than a Strava segment. They have to mean something. That doesn’t always have to be big distance, although big distance helps. The route has to be something interesting, which could be a classic long distance trail or a collection of peaks that it makes sense to run as a loop. There are still new routes being created every week. You just have to be the fastest – male or female within the categories of supported, self supported and unsupported. Take a look at the official FKT guidelines for more information on what qualifies.

Following the double BG I started to think big. Steve Birkenshaw had previously set an FKT for the 214 Lakeland Wainwrights in 2014, and no-one had attempted it for 5 years. It stood there as a legendary feat of what could be achieved if anyone dared to try. The year after I did my double BG Paul Tierney set a new FKT. Not only could the Wainwrights Round be tried, the FKT could be beaten. I had run with Paul at the Tor des Geants, and although I knew he was faster than me over a shorter distance, I reckoned that there wasn’t much between us over the 300 miles and 110000ft of ascent of the Wainwrights. I started to recce the route in 2019.

Tom Hollins Vertical Marathon

The other record I had my eye on was the big 3 UK rounds back to back – Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley, Charlie Ramsay. Again, not strictly an FKT as there was a drive in between them, but the record for all 3 had stood since 1990 by Mike Hartley and looked just about beatable on my best day, and with some sleep in the car between rounds. Of course, in 2020, John Kelly then found a better way to make this an FKT by deciding to cycle in between the rounds and naming this the ‘Grand Round’. This was such an inspiration. Things just kept getting bigger and better!

Then Covid happened…. Covid put paid to my plans for a Wainwrights or a Grand Round, but in many ways Covid was the time of the FKT. There were no races happening and submissions to the FKT website immediately after lockdown increased 400%. There was even a language of its own appearing – running hard leaving you totally FKTd – or having a nice drink of FK Tea on completion of an epic outing. Plus, there was a movement beyond the traditional way marked routes for people to develop their own sources of inspiration. As someone who had spent lockdown working on an intensive care unit, that was just the kind of inspiration that I needed.

Running Tips with our Athletes

How to plan for an FKT

Planning an FKT is different to a race. They don’t have signs, tape or flags but require you to plan the route, understand the terrain, know your kit and what support you want or don’t want. They may be a way marked route or there may be options to navigate from point to point. There are different lengths, from short to long, and I guarantee something out there that will capture the imagination of everyone.

Back to 2020, and as visiting the Lakes was now out of my reach, I was spending more time running on my doorstep in the nearest parts of the Yorkshire Dales. Again, the ability to explore and find new places was magical. I noted that a number of FKTs existed in the Dales but that nobody had put a round together which linked all 30 mountains within the national park. This made sense as an FKT and was also a nice Yorkshire Dales version of the Wainwrights round. Recceing and discovering the park was the best part of this whole adventure, alongside the joy of discovering different lines and creating a new route, but setting a Dales Mountains 30 FKT was also my highlight of 2020.

In 2021, I returned to my plan of running the Wainwrights Round. I didn’t get the FKT but I did complete the round in under 7 days in a week where high winds and rain meant every other FKT attempt in the Lake District DNFed. Sometimes the joy is in completion, not in setting the best time. Although I think my Montane Spine Jacket was as responsible for that finish as I was.

Running In the UK

FKTs were continuing to increase in popularity and the Wainwrights round times started to tumble down. The overall FKT started to feel out of reach but a winter round had still never been done. With my Spine Race and winter Bob experience, I felt well placed to attempt this (and I hope the FKT website differentiates between spring to autumn and winter FKTs at some point in the future). 

This was my most bizarre FKT experience. I set off on a planned 7 day epic one hour before James Gibson set off to attempt the same thing. After 3 days we were still an hour apart and it was getting very interesting for anyone dot watching. At that point it bucketed it down with snow and James made the smart move sheltering and sleeping for a few hours while I pushed on in the storm. 

Essential Advice

My support crew was amazing and we stayed safe at all times, but halfway through that leg I dropped and James then carried on to glory as the first to complete. Thinking back I had let him push me on and that was a major mistake. The best FKT advice I can give – yes you might be going for the fastest time but know what your plan is and be true to your own vision of that rather than someone else’s.

Trying to maintain my strength and resilience, I hit the gym hard that winter and I then immediately slipped a disc. That took me out of running for 4 months, and again, I needed to develop my own inspiration being unable to race to my full potential. An FKT plan came to my rescue. Come summer 2022 I was fastpacking but still not fully running. However, I had massively increased my bike fitness. 

I had completed the big 3 UK rounds individually in preparation for having a go at John Kelly’s Grand Round, but I wasn’t ready for this. I also had friends in Ireland who had recommended that I come and have a go at the Big 2 Irish rounds – Dennis Rankin and The Wicklow. I wasn’t ‘run fit’ enough to set an FKT on either but I was fit enough to make a tribute to John Kelly and fastpack them both, cycling in between. This I did and became the first person to complete the ‘It’ll be Grand Round’, completing both of the Irish rounds in sub 24hr times cycling in between.

Tom Hollins

The Vertical Marathon FKT

I had, by this time, learnt a lot about planning an FKT but I had yet to complete the original goal of setting out to beat someone else’s record. Although I had failed at some pretty difficult stuff, I felt this was one of the primary purposes of an FKT challenge. There was 1 more plan I had been dreaming up in lockdown. How much vertical ascent could be done in 24hrs? The answer was a lot, and several top European athletes had extended the record during Covid. It looked out of reach. Then, while I was in Ireland doing the It’ll Be Grand Round, I noticed that Ricki Wynne of Ireland had set a new UK and Ireland vert record.

That seemed like something still well worth having a go at. I then wondered what the longer distance vert records were and found that Rik Goris of Belgium had set records for double Everesting (running twice the ascent of Everest) and triple Everesting on 2 different runs. I wondered how far could be done and what was a logical stopping point. A marathon remains the most iconic endurance running distance in the world. Had anyone done a vertical marathon before? (138436ft ascent – 4.76 times the height of Everest). It appeared not.

Again I enjoyed the planning phase. Going to try different hills and working out which had the best gradient, distance and terrain for the length of time I intended to be out. I eventually settled on Pendle Hill with the psychological benefits of doing a full completion of the hill on each repetition with the terrain advantages of steps going up and a runners trod next to the steps on the way down. It is also close to home and my core support. In October 2022, I fulfilled my FKT dream beating Ricki’s 24 hr vertical record in the first 24 hrs and then carrying on to set new double, triple and quad Everesting records as well as the first ever vertical marathon. All in one run.

FKT Future Gazing

I can’t wait to see the future of what the FKT scene holds. It feels like the sky's the limit with so many different challenges being created. Almost every runner will have several on their doorstep. And for me? Well it would be rude not to try and combine John Kelly’s Grand Round with my It’ll Be Grand Round into a Round of 5 Rounds wouldn’t it….

Hear more from Tom

Feeling inspired by Tom’s FKT achievements and eager to take on your own? Go on, we dare you! For more inspiring running achievements from Tom, take a look at how he got on at the notorious Barkley Marathons earlier this year.