9 questions with Buzz Burrell and the Fastest Known Time
Buzz Burrell has been curious about fastest known times for 20 years, ever since he and Peter Bakwin wanted to complete the John Muir Trail more quickly than anyone previously. But there was no official record, no website and no organization dedicated to tracking such information at the time.
Over time, they dabbled in creating an FKT website and in April 2018 made it a priority, formally launching the Fastest Known Time website. In this year of the pandemic, while races have largely been canceled, interest in FKTs has surged. In response, the FKT team has launched a podcast, added volunteer help and served as a valuable asset to the running community.
I caught up with Burrell for an interview over email about his running and FKT background, the history of the website and more.
Question: Let's start at the beginning about your interest/motivation to get into running and how that transitioned to longer runs and adventures.
Answer: I was sitting in 10th grade English class, and Dick Caterino leaned across me and asked Tom Boekout (we were seated in alphabetical order), “Will you be running after school Tom”? Turns out Dick was on the wrestling team, and Tom on the track team. So I went out for a run. It was real. Nothing else made sense, but moving and breathing did. I’m slightly more mature than that now, but moving and breathing still make sense.
I just wanted to go outside and play. Cross-country and track got my attention, but were very limiting, and I was never fast. So to conclude my high school running career, I started at my parents’ house and ran into the water at Lake Michigan, 38 miles away. It was late July and I didn’t carry any food or water, because, well … didn’t know about that back then.
It was a milestone. I was free.
Question: How did the concept for the FKT website begin, and what was your motivation to launch it?
Answer: I worked hard at determining what the existing “record” was on the John Muir Trail, in preparation for Peter Bakwin and I attempting it in 2000. We wanted to know the time to beat, but It was hard to figure out. And the further back in time I researched, the more I discovered. I realized people had been running/hiking these routes all along. There was no “beginning,” and since this was pre-Internet, it was not possible to say with certainty what the fastest time was. All we could determine was the “fastest known time.” That’s the phrase – its meaning was honest and literal.
Peter and I kept informal record-keeping. Then about 12 years ago Peter started a site on a free template called Pro-Boards. We knew we had to do better than that, but I was busy leading Ultimate Direction. Finally three years ago we couldn’t stand it any longer and got serious. We recruited Jeff Schuler as a partner and the web developer. We went live (I think) with fastestknowntime.com on April 1, 2018.
Question: No one could have guessed a year ago that FKTs would be the "in" thing now. Runners from elites to those just seeking adventures are posting FKTs. Did you ever envision FKTs becoming so popular?
Answer: The pandemic pushed it, but FKTs are what I’ve been doing for 40 years, so what’s happening now makes sense to me. If we had a more robust website with more features, I think the interest would triple again. Why not?
Question: You've added an FKT podcast and some volunteer regional coordinators. Was this part of the master plan a year ago, or has this just been reactionary to the surge in interest in FKTs?
Answer: We have no master plan. Adding regional editors was required – one person can’t handle 40 to 60 submissions per day — so we came up with that idea. Many people were very willing to help, which was great — Thank you!! The podcast wasn’t my idea; Craig Randall suggested it. I said, “sure,” and it’s been fun.
The pandemic increases our visibility rather than limiting us. Resources are constrained by the time the three of us can contribute. We have never taken money out, and Jeff works full-time as a web-developer elsewhere. That is by far our biggest challenge. Jeff is excellent, but is very time-limited, and Fastest Known Time LLC essentially is a website. Nothing happens until web-development work happens.
Question: One thing I admire about the FKT website and culture is that I don't recall a public dispute about any particular FKT. Perhaps there have been some controversies expressed privately about someone's FKT route. What do you credit for the fact that — at least at this point — there hasn't been any public dispute or challenges to an FKT?
Answer: Peter and I established a tone early on: we are committed to credibility first, rather than growing the business or expanding the features. This is our personal style regardless. Peter is in charge of the database (Routes and FKTs), and he has a PhD in physics from Harvard, so he’s quite qualified!
Mainly I credit the community. Everyone “gets it” — to be a jerk earns you nothing in this community. Everyone is great — this is one reason I stay involved — interacting with good, sincere people, to whom I can provide a small service.
Just last week someone got caught cheating on an FKT. This happens maybe once a year — very infrequent. The proper response is sympathy and compassion, not anger and reprisal. This person now has minimal credibility in the community, which is an unfortunate place to be.
Question: You must see most, if not all, of the FKTs come across. Which FKTs stand out to you as the most jaw-dropping, incredible or inspirational?
Answer: The Fastest Known Time of the Year award will be back for the fifth year in a row! Stay tuned! We’ll start talking about it in December, with voting by the end of the month, and announcements the first week in January.
Question: Right now you have 14 FKTs listed on the site. Tell me about which one or two you are most proud of, or the most memorable.
Answer: I’m not sure what they are — Peter added them. I’m shy about adding my own because the 14 would triple in number. After looking myself up on our website, I realized, “Dang, my favorites aren’t even on here.” Here are some of them:
Bridge Mountain (Nevada): This is one of the best summits anywhere, and few have heard about it. Cascades Trifecta (Washington and Oregon): Huge and obvious; us Coloradoans were the only people to do it; wasn’t repeated for a long time. Torres del Paine (Chile): Really fun trip with Peter, his wife and my lover at the time. Dientes de Navarino, Tierra del Fuego (Chile): Same as above, plus this is basically the southern-most trail in the world. Half Dome, Yosemite (California): I ran hard on this, back when I could. Flatirons Linkups (Boulder, Colo.): I was the fastest on this and all the Flatirons, into my early 50s. Fond memories. Buckskin and Paria Canyons (Utah): Beautiful. Another foursome trip, done leisurely. Angel's Landing (Utah): Another of the uncommon times when I actually ran hard, rather than enjoyable sight-seeing. John Muir Trail (California): This was a big deal. We really went after it. Got stormed off only 26 miles from the finish while on sub-4 day schedule. Peter went back next year to be first person to go sub-4. Colorado Trail (Colorado): A milestone; I had been doing these “projects” for decades, and this is the first time I shared publicly what I was doing. And the start of a tremendous partnership with Peter.
Question: What's next for Fastest Known Time?
Answer: Our entire existence is to provide service to the community. I’d like to add features that will provide better service.
Question: Anything else you want to mention about FKTs, the website, podcast, etc.?
Answer: I despised running podcasts — they went on forever and were boring. So for ours, I endeavored to be quick, to the point, and entertaining, or at least interesting. I have a low threshold of boredom.
We welcome donations. There is no trust fund or big company. Nobody but YOU to pay for server space, fees, etc. So if someone likes this service, please help it continue — way cheaper than any race fee!.
Speed drill Name: Buzz Burrell
Hometown: Boulder, Colo.
Number of years running: 53
How many miles a week do you typically run: 15 (I paddle more than that, and cycle a lot more.)
Point of pride: Haven’t died yet
Favorite race distance: Half marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Dark chocolate
Favorite piece of gear: iPhone 7+
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: With You or Without You (U2)
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: As soon as we’re done, we’ll know how to do this
Where can other runners connect or follow you: