Inside the Mind of Mikaela Osler, FKT Record Holder
When I finally removed my socks, at the end of a 20-hour hiking day, my feet were a waxy grey-white. My skin was grotesquely wrinkled and loose at the heels. When I ran my thumb across my sole I felt a jolting, ticklish sensation I later learned meant I had nerve damage.
It was 12:30 in the morning. I was at the Rolston Rest shelter in the middle of an attempt at an FKT, or Fastest Known Time, on the Long Trail, and I had trench foot.
It’s easy to describe the proximate causes of the trench foot: by then, it had been raining for nearly 24 hours. I’d been hiking since 3 am the day before, when I awoke from a three-hour nap, packed by headlamp in the rain, and started walking. Obsessing over miles, I hadn’t allowed myself breaks to dry out.
But as I sat in the shelter, fog swirling outside, I wasn’t thinking about proximate causes. I was thinking of quitting, and wondering why I was hiking in the middle of the night in the rain in the first place. Why was I trying to hike the Long Trail in six days? What on earth had possessed me to try for a speed record?
What are the FKT Basics?
FKTs are verified through GPS recordings and trip reports and are published on fastestknowntime.com, which grew out of a humble internet forum started in the early 2000s.
There are three types of FKT: unsupported, self-supported, and supported. On an unsupported FKT, the athlete carries from start to finish all the food and supplies they’ll need for the attempt. Self-supported FKTs are similar to other thru-hikes: athletes may cache, mail, or buy supplies; and may accept trail magic or favors from strangers, but they don’t pre-arrange aid and they never get into vehicles, even to hitchhike. Supported athletes can have any help they can imagine, short of somebody carrying them down the trail.
These guidelines are inflexible. Last year, Joe “Stringbean” McConnaughy completed the LT unsupported in under five days, breaking the previous record by over 24 hours. However, in a sleep-deprived, dehydrated delirium he accepted a sip of water when another hiker offered. So, his hike is recorded as self-supported.
The sport has recently exploded in popularity; 2020 saw a 350% increase in FKT submissions on the site over 2019. The Long Trail is no exception. At least 12 attempts, including mine, have been made on the LT FKT in 2021. Although I haven’t found anybody who has a definitive count of attempts in previous years, most people I’ve asked have estimated it to be in the low single digits—three, four, maybe five.
Turning the LT into a race track?
“Can we please stop celebrating these things?” reads a comment under the GMC’s Instagram post about my Long Trail FKT. “It’s not in the spirit of the Long Trail to turn in (sic) into a race track or an ego filled competition. It sickens and saddens me.”
In other words, not everybody is happy about the growing popularity of FKTs. I’ve gotten similar criticism before, and usually my reaction is righteous anger: hike your own hike, dude! But if I’m being honest, the criticism bothers me because it’s a little bit true. Publicly attempting to be one of the fastest people in the world absolutely involves ego. I’d love to say that I was on the trail purely for personal challenge, but as I sat at Rolston Rest Shelter considering my wrecked feet, I was thinking a lot about how other people perceived my hike. I had wanted to quit before, but didn’t have a good reason. Now, I could post the nasty photos and nobody would blame me for bailing. I could go home and rest with my vanity intact.
But the next morning I awoke urgently needing to use the privy. I leapt from the shelter. I was halfway there before I realized I was able to walk.
Oh no, I thought. I still had the option to quit without shame, but I couldn’t leave the trail knowing I hadn’t given it my full effort.
Something other than ego was driving me, but I’m still puzzled by what. Luckily, I know a lot of people who’ve attempted Long Trail FKTs, and I reached out to them to help me work it out. Why do we do this? Is it really all about vanity?
Ben Feinson, who recently broke the supported record, rephrased my question: “Is it possible to connect to the rhythms of nature and the flow of the trail while simultaneously struggling physically and pushing yourself to the limit?” The answer seems to be yes. Most people I talked to spontaneously told stories of transcendent experiences in nature. Ben remembers sobbing as he ran across Mount Mansfield. RJ Thompson, who made unsupported attempts in 2021 and 2011, talked about hiking the Monroe Skyline at sunset, the shadows playing tricks on his eyes. Joe McCounaghy recalled being on Camel’s Hump at midnight in 40-mile-per-hour winds. Nika Meyers, whose unsupported record I was attempting to break, remembers connecting to the tiniest details of the trail: “I think less about huge views and vistas than tiny trickles across the trail, these micro-landscapes…I feel so small on an FKT. I’m part of this big picture and I can relate to so many things. I can see the connection between this root and this rock.”
FKT attempts also offer the opportunity to connect to your body and mind. It’s human nature to forget pain, and when I asked people about it they often struggled to articulate the appeal of such a physically intense experience. Instead, they spoke of the mental state their FKTs unlocked. An FKT requires immense focus and awareness. It can feel strangely freeing to subsume yourself to such an extreme goal. And sleep deprivation, hunger, and prolonged solitude can produce bizarre mental experiences. Jeremy Howard, who attempted the unsupported record this year, told me about an hours-long out-of-body that he describes as “the most tranquil and peaceful I’ve ever been in my entire life.” On the last night of my FKT, Nika texted me the story of a conversation she had with a newt on the last night of hers.
A Sacred Trail
Everyone I talked to felt a profound connection to the Long Trail. Many of us consider Vermont our home, or one of our homes. Nika worked for the GMC for years before her FKT and talked about how her hike allowed her to connect with people and places that had been “incredibly transformative” in her life, including some who had passed away. Joe, who got married in Vermont, did his FKT attempt shortly before moving from Boston to the West Coast in the middle of the pandemic. Many called the LT “perfect.”
I know of a few people who’ve attempted Long Trail FKTs without setting foot on the trail in advance, and most failed. The athletes I talked to had spent countless days and weeks hiking, running, camping, and working on the LT, and see a speed attempt as one among many equally valid ways of experiencing the trail. Ben said, “Everyone is allowed to have the experience that is meaningful to them, in life, and especially on a trail as sacred as the Long Trail.”
Like my fellow speed demons, my connections to the trail go much deeper than an FKT attempt. I grew up in Vermont. My first hikes in preschool and kindergarten were to Butler and Taylor Lodges. My home looks out on the Bolton Mountain ridgeline; the Long Trail traverses the horizon of my childhood world. I chose to attempt an FKT to challenge myself, and yes, I even chose to do it a little bit out of vanity, but mostly I wanted to deepen the connection I already felt to the Green Mountains. I wanted to access that ineffable mental state that comes with extreme exertion while immersed in a landscape that has always nurtured me. For me, the Long Trail could never just be a race track.
The morning before I got trench foot, I reached an outcropping at a pause in the showers and looked out across the Green Mountains. Wisps of fog were rising from the valleys. The sky was a flat mass of clouds except for one perfect, tiny circle of sun. The glacier-carved ridges, the lush green forest, the schist under my feet worn smooth by generations of hikers: the view elicited something deep within me, a profound recognition and comfort. I was home.
At Rolston Rest, sleep deprived and starving, my feet a mess, I thought of that view, of how special it was to be there when everybody else was still asleep. I thought of how much I had left to learn about my body and mind, how much the Long Trail still had to teach me. Like any other Long Trail user, I made the choice that was meaningful to me at the time. I kept hiking.
Mikaela finished the LT in 6 days, 11 hours, and 33 minutes, setting a new women’s unsupported record. She is originally from Jericho, and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she is working on a memoir.
This post was written by Mikaela Osler. It appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of the Long Trail News under the headline “The Long Trail in Less Than a Week: Inside the Mindset of a Fastest Known Time Record Holder.”