Conquering FKTs and the unknown drive Ashly Winchester
Running was the escape that Ashly Winchester needed a decade ago. Now, it’s been an escape of sorts from the pandemic as she has piled up dozens of Fastest Known Times, more than any other woman.
In 2010 she was inspired to do a Tough Mudder but needed to get in shape for the 10- to 12-mile course. She checked the Tough Mudder off her list, but was drawn to the trails.
“Once I discovered running on the trails, that's when everything got really serious because I just totally fell in love with it,” says Winchester, who has 39 FKTs in the past two years. “I have always spent a lot of time outdoors. I grew up in this kind of unique way where I was outside all the time as a kid, hiking and stuff like that was something that I had always done.”
She progressed from a half marathon to a full to ultras.
“I always enjoyed racing, but there was something about it that I didn't love,” she says. “I really loved going out on my training runs and being solo and just the quiet, the solitude. There's something about races that is just a little too much for me. I love races for the camaraderie and the fun and meeting people. That's great, but it's just not my jam.”
Leaving her abuser
For Winchester, it’s the purity of the activity, the freedom it brings and the way it saved her.
“Running for me has always been really therapeutic,” she explains. “I was in a pretty abusive relationship during the more formative years of my running and running was really the only way that I could get away and process what was going on in my life. It really gave me the escape that I needed to figure things out and heal.”
After leaving her abuser, she continued to run.
“Being outdoors was the only way that I could hit the reset button,” she says. “It was the only place that I really felt whole and truly myself, and so it just made sense to keep running and increasing my mileage. The more time I spent out running alone, the better I felt, so it's something that has become really important in my life from a mental health standpoint, not just a physical health standpoint.”
Winchester isn’t able to say for certain whether running allowed her to escape that relationship.
“It's actually something that I have pondered here and there,” she says. “It was the only form of therapy that I had in order to comprehend what was going on in my life. I'm not sure that I would have escaped that situation if it hadn't been for running. Running was also the one thing that I really stood my ground on in that relationship because he didn't want me to run. I think he saw how freeing it was for me and it was the one thing that I was not willing to give that up and it definitely drove more of a wedge in between us, but I'm not sure that I would have had the mental strength to leave that situation if it wasn't for running.”
Partners in running
Now her partner, Jason Hardrath, not only embraces running, he has accumulated more FKTs than anyone else.
“He started running them and I started looking at them and going, ‘Well, these aren't just the elite athletes who were running these things,’’ she says. “That's kind of what I thought for a long time was that doing an FKT meant that you had to be this elite athlete. But once Jason started running them, I started looking at them and realize these are actually within my reach. I don't have to be an elite athlete in order to run these."
FKTs fill Winchester’s passion and fuel her training.
“What I really loved about FKTs is that they give me a reason to explore these new areas that maybe I wouldn't have otherwise gone to explore in a way that I enjoy doing, which is solo, unsupported, or self-supported, or just really self-reliant,” she says. “It just really feeds my soul. Doing FKTs was a way that I could focus my training on something specific.”
Once Winchester started doing FKTs, she started using them to train for other attempts.
“When I first started doing FKTs, I never really anticipated that it would turn into something that I would be this dedicated to. It was fun but then I wondered, ‘What else can I do? What else is nearby? Where else can I explore?’ I just started collecting them and wondered if I could maybe someday be the woman with the most FKTs.”
Winchester, of course, has some FKTs that stand out for her.
She cites the Telescope Peak FKT in Death Valley, a 32-mile roundtrip which goes from Shorty's Route and the Badwater Basin to the summit of Telescope Peak. “It's one of the bigger climbs that you can do in the contiguous United States. It's almost a continuous climb with about 11,600 feet total.”
Snow prevented her from completing her first attempt. “I was in snow, this powdery snow that was up to my hips and I was just floundering. I couldn't move through it very quickly, and ended up going through all my water and all my food before I even got to the summit. Once I got up to the final ridgeline, I turned around and went straight back down, so that one was looming over me for a while.”
But toward the end of November 2020, she claimed the FKT.
“I love Death Valley a lot. I have this fascination with the ecosystems in the area and you actually pass through multiple ecosystems when you go from the valley floor to the summit,” she says. “It's just really, really cool. Part of it is completely off-trail, and so there's some route-finding skills that are necessary. It's just a really phenomenal route. It just felt so good to not only get the FKT, but to complete something that I failed on before. That one's really special to me.”
Among Winchester’s other favorites is the entirety of the Lost Coast Trail, which has about 10,000 feet of gain over 58 miles.
“I really, really love that route,” she says. “I actually grew up near that area and so we would go camping at the southern trailhead when I was a kid. It's really rugged and beautiful, and just a pretty incredible experience. That one lives pretty close to my heart as well.”
Taking on Death Valley
Another recent one, called the Death Valley North-to-South Crossing, didn't work out as she had hoped. It goes from the northernmost point of Death Valley and traverses all way down through the valley to the southern-most point. It's about 165 miles long and is 100 percent off-trail and off-road.
“You're navigating through canyons and through open desert, sand dunes, that kind of a thing,” Winchester explains. “It's done in a completely solo and unsupported fashion, and being Death Valley, that means there's no water on the route. Being completely solo and unsupported on a point-to-point route means that you have to carry all of your water for the entire thing from the very beginning, which adds a level of difficulty to the route. It turns into a backpacking or fastpacking adventure.”
During her first attempt, in February 2020, she ran out of water but still completed about 100 miles. She got different gear, updated her training and returned in December to attempt it again.
Winchester started off well, covering 40 miles the first day and hitting her goal on the next day. Then the rains came.
“I was feeling pretty excited, but there's a lot of aches and pains that come along with carrying that much weight over that type of terrain,” she says. “When the rain hit on day three, I decided that I didn't want my gear or my clothes to get wet because I knew that if I stayed out overnight in the cold in wet clothing, then I was not going to survive. I'd become hypothermic pretty quickly because the nights there get really cold. I hunkered down and hid underneath an emergency rain poncho that I had. Kept my gear dry, kept myself dry.”
When the rain let up, Winchester was rejuvenated.
“I felt pretty good and was expecting the rain to create a lot of mud,” she says. “But I didn't expect the type of mud that ended up showing up. I don't even know how to describe it. It turned this normally powdery, crunchy soil surface into concrete on your shoes. It just kept piling up and piling up and piling up and I couldn't get it to come off my shoes and it was just dragging my feet through this mud and collecting more mud as I went and it wore on me so much. It slowed my pace down to the point where my watch wasn't even registering my speed.”
Other sections of mud were just slippery.
“It was like skating on ice; it was really, really hard. I knew that the next section that was going to come up was actually going to be even worse because there's a spring in that section and it's already really muddy there and really hard to get through.”
The mud was relentless. Her body was locking up. And her feet were covered in blisters.
“I was feeling really pretty rundown. I was getting these shooting nerve pains through my feet and my legs. I strained a muscle on my right leg because I'm still limping on that side from the whole thing. I just knew that continuing on was probably not a good idea, especially since I would be moving away from an easy point of extraction and into an area where it would have been really hard for me to get out. I made the decision to call it at that point, which was really, really hard for me to do. This route is something that I've been working on for a year and I really thought that I would be able to pull it off. I do think that if it hadn't rained as much as it did, that perhaps I could have finished it because I did have enough gear and supplies with me to take a couple of extra days if I needed to, and so it was really disappointing for me to make that call.”
A week after the second attempt Winchester was still processing it.
“It's still really hard for me to get my head wrapped around it because I was so confident going into it and I felt so good for the first parts of that route,” she says. “The thought of having to go back and go through all of that again is kind of daunting. But I had some fellow athletes reach out to me and say, ‘You did the right thing. The conditions were terrible. We saw the videos. You definitely made the right decision.’ It's really easy for athletes to get wrapped up in their projects and push themselves beyond when they should. There's this part of me that feels good about the decision that I made and knowing when to call it and not being bullheaded and continuing on when I probably shouldn't have. The whole experience taught me so much about myself and Death Valley.”
Will the third time be the charm?
“When I decided to pull the plug, I thought, ‘There's no way I am doing this again. This is too crazy,’" she recalls. “But now that I'm absorbing the whole situation and the experience, I'm thinking that I probably will. I want to see the rest of the route. There's about 65 miles that I haven't seen yet and I want to experience it.”
Learning from failure
In my limited FKT experience, I believe I learned more from my failure than from my successful attempt.
For Winchester, it’s a mixed bag. She says she has learned a lot about pushing outside her comfort zone from her successful FKTs. While the other ones also provide valuable teaching moments.
“The successful ones spur you to want to keep pushing your boundaries and get better. But I do think that failures have a way of teaching you more. Actually, I did a whole podcast on what we call ‘formative failure’ with my friend Sunny Stroeer on my podcast, Womxn of the Wild. We talked about how some of our best experiences, not just learning experiences, but even our best and most memorable adventures are the ones where we didn't succeed in what we were aiming for. Failure gives you the opportunity to learn a lot more.”
Her podcast, launched a little over a year ago, was inspired by her desire to introduce more women to her passions for the outdoors. It’s another example of how she has pushed outside of her own comfort zone.
“I knew that it was something that I was going to have to try and run with, but it terrified me because I am kind of an introvert,” she admits. “I don't like public speaking, I don't like talking, I don't actually really like being recorded, which is kind of funny because I have a podcast. I'm a writer, not a talker. The idea of a podcast terrified me, but I felt like it was something that I really had to do in order to reach the people that I wanted to reach and accomplish some of my goals.”
First and foremost, the podcast is her way of building a community of like-minded adventurous women in an effort to inspire others. From there, she wants to host retreats, guide backpacking trips and create scholarships for women to get outside.
“It was really hard for me to get into, but I found that I actually really, really love it,” she says. “I love making these connections with these really amazing women who are doing cool things in the outdoors and I enjoy the friendships that are coming out of it.”
The positive feedback indicates she is on the right track. Listeners have shared stories of how the podcast has motivated them to try something new, tackle an eating disorder or something else of significance.
“That's been a really incredible experience for me and something that I didn't really expect.”
Winchester continues to heal from the Death Valley attempt. As for what’s next, she isn’t ready to divulge specifics but has more epic adventures planned and hinted at some 200-plus mile efforts.
“I have some big dreams and big goals,” she says. “This year, I'm going to focus on my outlying climbing skills and that's going to be really important to me, not just as a mountain guide, but going forward with some of the FKTs that I want to do.”
As she chases more FKTs and grows her podcast, she embraces her mantra, "Who do I want to be in this moment?" That phrase emanated from a conversation she had with Hardrath.
“It’s this idea of seeing yourself as a certain person and when you're going into some of these big efforts, you see yourself as overcoming these obstacles and handling whatever pain and sleep deprivation or whatever it is,” she explains. “But sometimes when it actually comes down to those moments, you might not be the person who you thought you were going into it. When things get tough, if you ask yourself, ‘Who do I want to be in this moment? Who is the person that I want to see right now? Who do I want to look like? Who do I want to be?’ it can help you overcome some of those obstacles.
“I think about it frequently, not just in running and FKTs, but in everyday life: Who do I want to be? Who do I want to be right now? It actually has helped me become more focused and more disciplined. It's helped me tremendously.”
Name: Ashly Winchester
Hometown: I grew up in Boonville, Calif., but currently live in both Chico, Calif., and Klamath Falls, Ore.
Number of years running: About 10 years total, with the last seven or so being more serious... although I did take a short break from running at one point.
How many miles a week do you typically run: It depends, but my minimum is usually around 30, with mileage ramping up into the 70s before a big effort.
Point of pride: My podcast, Womxn of the Wild, not just because of the content or the quality, but because I've really had to push myself outside my comfort zone to make it happen. It's taught me a lot, and I've met some pretty incredible new friends because of it.
Favorite race distance: I don't really race much! But I do love the 50K distance currently.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pre-FKT attempt usually involves a smattering of foods/drinks because I almost always have a nervous stomach. Avocado toast is one of my faves though.
Favorite piece of gear: Probably my NWAlpine Back Spider Hoody. It's my most reliable layer.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: The wind through the trees, the sound of my feet striking the ground, my controlled breathing ... I don't listen to music when I run!
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "I can do hard things" and "Who do I want to be in this moment?"
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Personal Instagram: @ashly.winchester
• Podcast IG: Womxn of the Wild @womxnofthewild
• Website: www.womxnofthewild.com