Monday, 5 December 2011

Proof if proof be need be

I found this story on Ultrarunner Podcast's URP daily feed and have found it to be very interesting. FKT (Fastest Known Time) is an offshoot of ultrarunning aiming to track (unsurprisingly) the fastest known times for completion of popular long distance routes. For instance, one of the most popular routes is the Grand Canyon R2R2R (rim to rim to rim), running 42 miles from the south rim of the canyon to the north rim, then back again. The record is currently held by Dave Mackey in 6:59:56 - yikes! It's all quite informal, and all attempts and potential records are tracked and discussed by runners on the fastest known time forum. There aren't any rules per sé, but the general format is to first announce that you are making an attempt, and then to report your attempt with as much corroborating evidence as possible.

This story concerns an attempt at the FKT record for the John Muir Trail (JMT). The JMT, at 215 miles in length, is one of the longest hiking trails in the USA, running between Mount Whitney and Yosemite National Park. In September 2009 Brett Maune, a relative unknown in the ultrarunning/fastpacking world, set a new record.

There are several impressive things about Brett's record. Firstly, he had already attempted the route only a month before at the previous full moon (I assume for lighting purposes at night). He suffered badly on the first day of this attempt, and had little time to recover for his second successful attempt. Second, he didn't just beat the previous record - he absolutely smashed it by 5 hours and 46 minutes, completing the full distance in 3d 14h 13m! But the third, and most amazing thing is that he did the entire thing unsupported (i.e. he carried all of his supplies with him rather than having help from pacers and a supporting crew). He beat the next best unsupported time by over 19 hours! If you are not sure why this is so damn impressive, consider this; this is a record held and actively contested on a route attempted by many of the top runners in the world, but he was able to complete the route much faster than that while carrying about 27 lbs of gear extra.

The reason that I found this story so interesting was the aftermath of Brett's attempt. Because he ran this attempt solo, there were no witnesses to his attempt. Whilst he had photos and video from his journey, there was little corroborating evidence besides this. Now it must be made clear that people in no way thought that he was lying, but as Carl Sagan once said; "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". As a scientist, I completely understand the need to remain skeptical - had he broken the record by only a few minutes, I'm sure that people would not have been so skeptical, but such an amazing claim raised a few flags. Also generally the people who questioned the veracity of his claims actively wanted to be persuaded - they wanted it to be true.

There was a lot of activity on the FKT blog regarding this. The main problem that was raised was the lack of eye-witnesses along the route who can verify seeing him at the times that Brett claims. But he makes a very good point in responding to this criticism, pointing out that his outfit and general attire made him look like just another hiker, not somebody out for record-breaking run. Chances are that his speed was low through much of it, so anybody interacting with him will have had no idea of what he had been through up till that point - how would they know that they were witnessing a record attempt to corroborate it? Would you have looked twice at him if you were out hiking? Any time he was running and it was more obvious, he wouldn't have had time to stop and chat! Somewhat of a catch 22 situation. Several people suggested handing cards out to people along the way which is actually a very simple yet effective idea - but only if you actually pass people along the route. Many times, Brett has said that he passed nobody for long stretches, so his photos and videos are his only supporting material. Also, people have suggested a SPOT tracker, which in hindsight would definitely have been a good idea - hindsight is a wonderful thing.

However, all of this is (in my opinion anyway) completely unnecessary as Brett did a great job of recording his trip with photos and video recordings as he went. He makes the point that his is actually one of the more well-documented attempts. Again, had he not been so damned good, nobody would have batted an eyelid! So my question is; where does the burden of proof end? How much proof is enough? Several people have been through Brett's supporting information, checking time stamps and the like, and are happy that it stands up to scrutiny. Yes, if he had a SPOT tracker it would have been less of an issue, but this is not a "requirement" according to the loose rules of the FKT forums. I don't pretend to know enough about this topic having only recently been introduced to the idea of FKTs (and being pretty new to ultrarunning in general), but as a scientist this is a topic that I found quite interesting. All I can say is that I am convinced, and think Brett's run is astonishing!

I have to say that it would be very silly to lie about something like this and not expect to be found out. People would be watching you in the future, and if your future activities did not stand up to the bar that you had set for yourself, you would quickly find yourself in some deep trouble. This reminds me of the story of the marathon runner that stole third place by catching the bus. How he thought he could expect to get away with this, and think that the actual third place runner wouldn't have noticed, is beyond me. Never mind the fact that he caught a bus full of spectators! The odd thing is that he actually seems to be a very good runner, having won a half marathon the day before. The worst thing here is that the old saying of, "you're only cheating yourself" doesn't apply. His decision robbed another runner of his rightful recognition. I can't fathom this selfishness. Luckily he was quickly found out and unfortunately has probably screwed up any credibility he may have had in future races.

But if anybody was still doubting Brett's accomplishments, his recent completion of the Barkeley Marathons (one of only 10 people in 25 years to beat the 60 hour cutoff!!!!) should quickly remove any doubts... That's one tough S.O.B!


  1. One tough SOB indeed. I hope Brett is not denied his recognition (but I bet he couldn't be ar**ed, eh?).

  2. Yeah, he certainly seemed pretty happy to not argue too much with people - he knows that he did it. He certainly hasn't made a big deal about Barkeley. I'm not sure I could even attempt the "Fun Run" (60 miles...).


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