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Alone In The Wild: Long-Distance Endurance Runs Gain Popularity During The Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even though marathons are canceled and pro teams are struggling to put together a season, one niche sport is seeing a boom. It's something athletes can do on their own far from other people pretty much anywhere in the world. Anna Wiederkehr wrote about it for the website FiveThirtyEight. And she is here to explain. Hi there.

ANNA WIEDERKEHR: Hi. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: I'm good. So what's the sport?

WIEDERKEHR: The sport is called FKT. It's an unofficial record that's geared towards endurance runners.

SHAPIRO: And FKT stands for fastest known time.

WIEDERKEHR: Exactly. And that describes it almost perfectly. The gist is most of the routes are on trails or typically in the wilderness. Just like a course record, you want to be the fastest person to have ever run that course. And special with FKTs is it's not organized through a specific body, so there's not going to be any bibs or crowds or medals at the end. It's a very unofficial record that kind of lives on one single website.

SHAPIRO: So then why do people do it if they don't get the bibs and the crowds and the glory and all the other things that go along with most sports?

WIEDERKEHR: That's a great question. I mean, I - my personal opinion is I think there's some intrinsic need for this type of runner, an endurance runner with a personality who's got to run 46 days in a row. They love that recognition on a very, you know, low-key sphere of people who - they all know each other and they all know the sport, and they don't care if other people know about it. I mean, that's what I think.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about some of the coolest routes that you've seen because this can happen all over the world, right?

WIEDERKEHR: I mean, there's tons of really beautiful and amazing routes. There's one through Lava Beds National Monument that goes 1.3 miles underground into a cave.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

WIEDERKEHR: Of course, there's the Greenland Arctic Circle Trail, which is about 7 to 13 days to complete, and that's along the coast of Greenland. There's a pass in Baffin Island up in Canada. You have to get mandatory polar bear safety training before you do it. I mean, there's pretty much the whole gamut of different routes.

SHAPIRO: I'm not an endurance racer, but you're making me want to go to all of these places.

WIEDERKEHR: Right?

SHAPIRO: Your article includes an eye-popping chart. Can you just describe what it shows?

WIEDERKEHR: Yeah. So if you take a look at this chart, you can see that we are not dealing with a linear trend of popularity in FKTs. Basically, if you start in 2015, you see around 222 FKTs. You look at 2018, we're talking about 530 FKTs. If you look in 2020 so far, until July, we're looking at 1,718 FKTs clocked.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So a huge spike in popularity.

WIEDERKEHR: I mean, it's an exponential spike in popularity.

SHAPIRO: And does that mean people who actually set a new record for a given route - not just people who attempt it but people who did it?

WIEDERKEHR: Right. Yeah. So all I'm looking at is FKTs that have replaced a record that already exists in the site or OKTs, which are only known times for that route, which is the first FKT on that route.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so I could just, like, set a route around my neighborhood and get an OKT, an only known time, at least for a day until somebody runs it faster.

WIEDERKEHR: Right. Well, in theory, you could, but there is a validation process for the types of routes that get accepted. And, no, your couch to your refrigerator is not going to work on an FKT. It does need to be interesting and it does need to be something that other people will find valuable and want to do.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this is going to stay popular once marathons and other sporting events are back? Or is this just something people are doing in the time that they can't do other things?

WIEDERKEHR: Well, I mean, I definitely think we'll continue to see a trend and an uptick. And I think now that this is on people's radars, it's fertile ground for records, right? So, like, I can't go around the NYC Marathon and get a top 10, but I can definitely find my own route, make an FKT that's interesting, and then my name will be on something. So I think if we're looking at recognition, I think a lot of people are kind of gearing in that direction. And trail running and ultra-marathoning is seeing a boom anyway, so I wouldn't be surprised if this trend continues.

SHAPIRO: Anna Wiederkehr wrote about the spike in FKTs, fastest known times, for the website FiveThirtyEight. Thank you for speaking with us.

WIEDERKEHR: Yeah, absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.