As Ben Thompson collapsed following his blistering run in Middlesex Fells Reservation last Thursday, hikers walked by with smiles, oblivious to his accomplishment.
The 29-year-old Medford resident had just fulfilled a goal that required five years of planning and countless days of training, breaking a 20-year-old speed record on the reservation’s Skyline Trail, a 7.2-mile loop over rocky terrain with about 1,100 feet of elevation gain.
After finishing the course in 51 minutes 53 seconds — the record of 52:08 had been set during a 1999 race — Thompson caught his breath and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever run that hard. I don’t think I’ve ever cared that much about a race.”
Of course, Thompson wasn’t running an official race. He competes in one of the few forms of sport that has continued during the pandemic without much interruption — the pursuit of a Fastest Known Time (FKT).
This growing sport requires no entry fee and can be done with or without support. On their own schedule, runners or hikers can attempt an FKT on routes that range from, say, a 5-mile loop in a suburban area to a 45-day marathon hike of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.
Originally a subcultural phenomenon dependent on the honor system, the sport has become increasingly popular with runners able to use GPS data to verify their times, which are included in an international database at Fastestknowntime.com.
Site co-founder Buzz Burrell reports a 370 percent increase of FKT submissions in April, with almost all runners competing locally
“A [FKT] can be done anywhere, by anyone, so it’s highly individualistic,” said Burrell, who founded the site in 2018. “These [recent submissions] are almost entirely local due to stay-at-home orders. FKTs can be done while still protecting public health.”
Thompson has held FKTs for multiple iconic routes in New Hampshire's White Mountains, but said this record means more to him.
“I live right next to it; it’s my home running route,” said Thompson. “Running 52 minutes really fast is not in my wheelhouse. It’s something I’ve been training for very specifically for 12 weeks and really I’ve been working on it for five years.”
Trail running became Thompson’s main hobby shortly after he moved to Boston from Michigan in 2009. A former soccer player and cyclist, he actually determined that bounding down jagged rocks at high speeds is less damaging to his body.
With an undergraduate degree in Earth and Computer Science from MIT and a PhD in Earthquake Science from Harvard, Thompson knows how to interpret data. Now working as a software engineer for Boston data science startup QuantCo from his home at the edge of Middlesex Fells, Thompson is able to run in the reservation twice daily.
Running with his training partner and friend in quarantine, Somerville resident Julien Klaudt-Moreau, Thompson took a couple of final scouting trips on the Skyline Trail last week to fine-tune his best route on rocky descents and over fallen trees. He believes this meticulous prep work made the difference in breaking the previous record, which was set on a slightly shorter course that has been rerouted and now runs 30-40 seconds longer.
“People who don’t run might say, “'Oh, it’s just 7 miles,' ” said Klaudt-Moreau. “But with that terrain, every little hill and rock can really impact your time. The smallest things can slow you down.”
“So the last six months he’s really been theorizing and gaming out the whole route. To see him take his professional life, which is all about analyzing data and trends, and apply it to this has been fascinating.”
While he has been immersed in this mission, Thompson is quick to assert that he runs for fun.
When he set FKTs for the Presidential Range traverse and Pemigewasset Wilderness loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in 2017, he did so more on a whim — the same curious instinct that has compelled him to find makeshift routes from Wakefield’s Breakheart Reservation to Middlesex Fells during the pandemic.
“The dichotomy between running and hiking is artificial,” said Thompson. “When I go for a run in the mountains, or in the Fells, I get out there because I love being in the woods.
“There is a competitive aspect to it, definitely, but it's not the main reason I'm out there.”
Someone who ran 3,300 miles with 550,000 feet of elevation gain in 2019 (data courtesy of the Strava App) certainly seems to enjoy his time on the trails.
His times are impressive, yet Thompson believes there are plenty of elite athletes who could do better on these mountainous routes if they put their efforts into something that comes without tangible financial gain.
And with no traditional races on the books for months, the sport of FKT could continue to grow exponentially.
“It’s almost the perfect social distancing sport,” Thompson said.
“One of the sad but funny aspects of this whole COVID thing is that doing silly fast runs in the Fells has become newsworthy somehow.
"I’m not an elite athlete. I never will be. There are people who could show up and run the Skyline FKT way faster than I could, but that’s fine. For the moment, it’s an interesting, achievable goal.”