Kim Collison tells Jessica Whittington and Euan Crumley why ultra runners across the country have gone the extra mile(s) in 2020 to secure themselves a slice of history
Before this summer, the pursuit of Fastest Known Times – or FKTs, for short – was already a popular pastime for ultra and trail athletes. The restrictions and changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, however, have been the catalyst for an extraordinary period of achievement by those who like to push the boundaries of endurance towards eyewatering levels.
In recent months, barely a week has gone by without a bulletin announcing another epic, groundbreaking feat.
The sharp rise in FKTs is all the more understandable when you consider the current circumstances. With all major races cancelled or postponed, targets have instead been moved and energy redirected towards goals which require no organisation other than from the athletes themselves.
Given that most of these attempts take place in extreme landscapes and weather conditions, meticulous planning and safety considerations are very much required but, essentially, the FKT process is as ‘simple’ as picking an established route or planned course, working out whether or not you will be supported by other runners and pacers, honing your fuelling strategy and then setting off. Don’t forget your tracker, though – you have to be able to prove what you’ve done, of course!
Whether it be scaling the peaks of the Lake District, Highland Scotland or Wales, traversing some of the UK’s best-known long-distance paths or even running all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats, hardly an FKT stone has been left unturned. The same has been happening across the globe.
Kim Collison is one of those athletes who has written himself further into the fabric of his sport. On July 12, the British international broke the Lakeland 24-hour record, climbing 78 Lakeland peaks within 24 hours to break a 23-year-old record which had been held by Mark Hartell.
The challenge requires each peak to be more than 2000ft and in total Collison covered 153km with more than 12,000m (39,000ft) of ascent in 23 hours and 45 minutes, adding one more peak to Hartell’s record.
“It was something that I always thought about, but it was one of those things that I thought ‘maybe I haven’t got the ability or the talent quite to reach that lofty goal’,” says Collison, who is also a coach and mountain guide.
“I guess it wasn’t until last December, when I broke the winter Bob Graham record (another legendary fell running route in the Lake District) that I started to believe that I could potentially try this record.
“I was going to target the other two rounds – the Paddy Buckley in Wales and the Ramsay Round in Scotland – but with COVID and lockdown it meant they became out of the question.
“Luckily, I live on the side of a fell, right at the bottom, so even during lockdown I could run from my door and train – it was like having a training camp.
“I was actually thinking maybe if I could then peak towards the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) race, that would be good, and then when that was cancelled it was like ‘okay, where do I re-evaluate my goals?’”
That re-evaluation pointed towards the Lakeland attempt – something which became an unforgettable adventure.
“The early parts of the Round were really good and smooth but then when I dropped into Wasdale about 14 hours in roughly, I suddenly started to get the energy lows and the stomach crisis that you get in ultra running and suddenly you are faced with this big wall of mountain that is really steep,” he explains.
“That was a particular low point. I came through that, got moving again and was able to add the extra summit in with the time up I had built in and then it came to the last leg.
“It was about 11pm and by that point I was really tired and fatigued. It was dark, I was struggling to climb the hills quickly enough to keep on to the schedule and I was starting to lose a bit of the buffer.
“Then the stress levels started to rise a bit because the mists came in and we could see about a metre in front of us with our head torches. You’re trying to run, not being able to see much of the ground in front of you, and trying to navigate because every second was quite vital, getting the right lines.
“If we had got it wrong and gone down into the wrong valley or on to the wrong mountain top, we could quite easily lose five or 10 minutes and that’s the record gone.
“All I had to do, though, was try and focus on following the people in front and keep moving and keep pushing. It wasn’t until the last summit that I felt ‘yes, this is going to happen today’. The feelings of joy start to flood in then, which is brilliant.”
The simple act of keeping going is crucial when it comes to these ultra attempts. However, there are also various skills required for maintaining momentum.
“I use quite a bit of visualisation before the event,” says Collison. “I am constantly going through the routes and the vision in my head and what it looks like. Then I try and pick out what I know are likely to be the hard points so I can plan those into my consciousness that I know, ‘this is going to be hard, how can I work through this?’
“Being mentally prepared for the lows, whenever they hit, can really help. Also trying to chunk it down into small parts, so just try and focus on each leg and then each top and then each little section and focus in on doing that bit the best you can, in the moment.
“I guess the other thing I’ll try and do is accept mistakes and go ‘okay, that has happened, move on, what do I need to do now to make it work on the day?’
“The other one really at the end was a lot of self-talk and using positive words to reinforce the actions that I wanted to happen. So every time I would start to slow down and the stomach and the brain is screaming at you to stop and go easy and give us a break, I think my key word at the time was ‘I am strong, you can do this’ just to try and up the pace again.”
“You need to be able to forget the pain … It is hard and takes a lot to complete an ultra, both physically and mentally”
Supported runners also have help on hand. In few other sports, however, can the camaraderie be stronger. In even fewer would you find the current record-holder actively helping someone to beat their time and yet, when it comes to FKTs, such a scenario is a very common occurrence.
“I guess part of the spirit is to help others achieve their dreams, their ambitions, and be supportive, because that usually comes back to you as well,” says Collison.
“It is really good to see other people achieve their dreams and push themselves and if you can be a small part of that, it is brilliant. Because we all know what it is like to challenge ourselves and push ourselves and that is what it is, it’s about trying to get the best out of yourself, whatever that may be. For some challenges, you need that support. It helps with the motivation, the positivity, the sharing the journey.”
Such things make for unforgettable moments, which makes Collison’s choice of a key attribute to have when it comes to covering big distances a little incongruous.
“Forgetfulness I would say is a really useful skill!” he grins. “You need to be able to forget the pain and suffering that is tied into it. It is hard and takes a lot to complete an ultra, both physically and mentally.
“But those aches and pains, they disappear, and all you’re left with is that feeling of pride and happiness, the smile that you get from a big achievement.”
This summer, there has been a lot of that going around.
WHAT IS AN FKT?
FKT is an abbreviation for ‘Fastest Known Time’. It is essentially a race without organisation and rules, a record set by an individual over a particular course or planned route.
Some of the most notable FKTs in Britain this summer:
» Kim Collison, Lakeland 24-hour: 78 Lakeland peaks within 24 hours. 95 miles, 39,000ft ascent. 23hrs, 45min
» Carla Molinaro (right), Land’s End to John O’Groats: 820 miles. 12 days, 30min, 14sec
» Sabrina Verjee, Wainwrights: 318 miles, 214 summits, 118,110ft ascent. 6 days, 17hrs, 51min. First woman to ever complete the route, third-fastest time ever (wishes not to claim)
» Sabrina Verjee, Pennine Way. 74hrs, 29min
» Damian Hall, Pennine Way: 268 miles, 37,000ft of ascent. 61hrs, 35min, 15sec
» James Stewart, John Muir Way: 134 miles. 21hrs, 53min, 22sec
» Carol Morgan, Lakeland 24-hour: 65 Lakeland peaks within 24 hours. 23hrs, 57min
» Dan Lawson, Land’s End to John O’Groats: 820 miles. 9 days, 21hrs, 14min
» Beth Pascall, Bob Graham Round: 65 miles, 42 fells, 27,000ft ascent. 14hrs, 34min. Fifth-fastest ever
» Rhys Jenkins, Wales Coastal Path: 870 miles. 20 days, 10hrs, 38min
» Finlay Wild, Ramsay Round: 58 miles, 24 summits, ascent of 28,500ft. 14hrs, 42min, 40sec, unsupported
» Donnie Campbell, Munro Round: 282 peaks. 31 days, 23hrs, 2min. Campbell ran the hills, cycling and kayaking between them
» Click here to find out how you can become an AW subscriber to receive our monthly magazine and weekly email newsletters as well as gain access to the online AW Clubhouse, which offers exclusive content as well as the latest results, member-only podcasts, an AW magazine archive, offers and more