Fastest Unknown Time
What running 171 miles means.
Fastest Unknown Time
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 030, January 2021
by Liam Boylan-Pett
Photography by Tony Di Pasquale
Forty-one miles into her run, Corrine Malcolm had to stop and wait.
It was about 2:45 p.m. on October 18, 2020, and a little less than nine hours earlier Malcolm had taken off from Tahoe City, California, on a run around the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 171-mile loop with over 26,800 feet of elevation gain, with the intent of becoming the fastest woman to ever complete the route.
It had been a long, winding road to the start line for Malcolm, who planned to make a run at the Tahoe Rim Trail’s Fastest Known Time (F.K.T.) in late August before forest fires in California made conditions unsafe. She postponed attempts in September and early October, too, but, finally, on the 18th, the smoke cleared, and Malcolm was 41 miles into her attempt with Devon Yanko, who was pacing and supporting Malcolm for the first stretch of the run.
Arriving at Tahoe Meadows on the Northwest corner of the route, Malcolm and Yanko were supposed to meet her support crew, who would have some food, dry clothes, and another pacer in the wings. The crew, however, was not there. Malcolm and Yanko had run comfortably for the first 40 miles—in that first stage of the race, Malcolm urged herself just to run and not think about much else and felt good clicking off miles hovering between 9 and 15 minutes depending on the incline. And somehow, 40 miles in, Malcolm was already about two hours ahead of pace.
So, she had to wait once more. Which was fine. Malcolm had waited for this opportunity, waited to run 171 miles, waited to take a shot at a record she felt was one of the most impressive in the country, waited to do some sort of racing during the pandemic. Fortunately, this time, the delay was short.
Yanko called the crew to let them know they were at the meeting spot—Malcolm could hear a mumbled version of, “We’re coming!” through the phone as she took off her shoes and socks and changed into a dry outfit. As she pulled a clean shirt over her head, a forest green Honda S.U.V. roared into the parking lot. Tony Di Pasquale and the support crew had arrived. Someone immediately pulled out a Jetboil propane tank to make some ramen noodles. Paddy O’Leary, a star ultrarunner in his own right, packed his bag with more changes of clothes, food, water bottles, and water filters—he was next up on the pace squad. And Malcolm ate and drank quickly.
It was less than 15 minutes, and she was on her way again, this time with O’Leary, running toward an F.K.T. she was eager to capture, thinking not about the entirety of the 171 miles, but about this 40-mile portion.
Thinking about the moment, she told me three months later, was important in an ultra. When we spoke, though, she was thinking about the bigger picture after the fact: What her run meant, what an F.K.T. means, and whether the validation that sometimes comes with a monumental run is even worth it. Some F.K.T. attempts had made national news in publications like National Public Radio and Outside Magazine throughout 2020. But her’s, it seemed to her, was under the radar.
“I’m a sore loser,” Malcolm told me, “because there’s this part of me that wanted people to care more about this run. I was sad that I had this perception that people didn’t care, and then I was sad that I was sad about that.”
Malcolm was proud of her run, she said, but still grappling with what it meant to her. “It was a personal challenge,” she has had to remind herself.
The more we spoke, however, the more it became clear that the run was about more than only her. Validation did matter.
As she ran with O’Leary on October 18, however, she was not thinking about validation or anything other than the mile she was in. Fifty-two miles into the run, Malcolm was thinking about one more thing: An off feeling in her stomach. Moments later, she was projectile vomiting ramen noodles.
She still had about 120 miles to go. With O’Leary by her side, she started running again.
In the year of COVID-19, runners around the globe have looked for ways to be competitive. There was an Ekiden with coronavirus protocols in Michigan, a blue-jeans mile in New York, small and fast one-off meets in Southern California. For non-elites missing out on road races, there were Strava segments to chase. For ultrarunners and trail athletes, there were F.K.T.s.
According to Trail Runner, F.K.T. became a thing in the late 1990s when two runners in Colorado could not prove whether they had run the fastest time on the 500-mile Colorado Trail due to poor record keeping. It was a safe bet Buzz Burrell’s 11 days, 16 hours, 13 minute run in 1998 was the fastest the trail had ever been run, but there was no way to prove it. So, they called it the fastest known time ever run on the course.
Today, with FastestKnownTime.com—which was created by Burrell and running friend Peter Bakwin—keeping a library of times on courses throughout the world, many F.K.T’s are likely Fastest Times.
This year, attempts at F.K.T.s rose dramatically. According to a story for FiveThirtyEight—yet another larger publication that covered the phenomenon—Fastest Known Time’s website recorded almost 3.8 times as many F.K.T.s in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.
Many trail and ultrarunners are expected to compete at ultrarunning events like the Western States Endurance Run in California and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in the Alps to fulfill their contractual duties with their shoe sponsorships. In 2020, without those races, many turned to chasing course records on some of the most sought-after F.K.T.s.
Malcolm, 30, who runs for Adidas and is also a coach, was also interested in chasing a course record. She started her running career after life as a competitive biathlon athlete. Growing up in Wisconsin, she excelled in winter sports and, going to school at Montana State University, took up the biathlon, leaving to train with the national team. She was an athlete to watch to make the 2014 Sochi Olympics for Team USA, but she trained herself into the ground and had to retire from the sport at 23. Her competitive itch remained, however, and soon, she slowly took up running. At first, it was just adventures she would take with friends. But eventually, she realized she loved running long distances.
“It clicked,” she told me. “It turns out I’m really good at suffering for a really long time. With skiing, I learned how to compete with no rest and being pinned the entire time. But with ultrarunning, I was like, oh, I can take snacks and run with my friends. It hurts, but that’s O.K.”
By the fall of 2015, she was giving trail racing a try and by 2016, she was winning the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile to qualify for the World Trail Racing Championships in Portugal. Soon enough, Adidas sponsored her, and she was running races like Western States 100 and the Leadville Trail 100.
Then the pandemic hit, and there were no races to run. So, like many trail runners, she decided an F.K.T. attempt might be fun. Living in the Bay Area since June 2018, she had her eyes on the 171-mile run around Lake Tahoe in her sights. It would be the longest she had ever run, but it seemed like the perfect course. Krissy Moehl—a runner Malcolm adored and looked up to—had set the F.K.T. in 2015 at 1 day, 23 hours, 29 minutes. Malcolm felt that was feasible. Her training was impressive, running in the 80 to 100 mile per week range in July and August and even getting a nearly 80-mile run in that included going up and down Mount Tamalpais multiple times.
Plus, she had a group of seven people willing to help her. (Longer F.K.T. courses often have two records: One for a supported run, one for a solo run.) And in late August, the plan was to head to Tahoe City to run the long, mountainous loop around Lake Tahoe. One quirk of the Tahoe Rim Trail is that because it is a loop, there was no official start point or direction a runner had to go for the F.K.T. Moehl’s run in 2015 began and ended at Big Meadow on the south side of the lake. Malcolm was going to run clockwise like Moehl, but she was starting on the northeast side of the lake. The plan was to take off August 29 and run for just less than two days straight.
California wildfires, however, had other plans. The largest wildfire season in modern California history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, wreaked havoc on the state’s land, burning over 4 million acres. The fires impacted much of the state and made getting outside for exercise nearly impossible thanks to dismal air quality.
In late August, there was no way Malcolm could attempt to run 171 miles. Nex up, she hoped to begin September 11. Malcolm and her friends checked weather apps and smoke maps incessantly, watching smoke patterns and hoping there might be a break, not only for life in the golden state, but for the F.K.T. attempt. Before the 11th, the smoke maps did not matter—national forests closed.
She had trained all summer with the hopes of taking on the Tahoe Rim Trail, but Malcolm could not catch a break. Her “taper” was extending from weeks to months. Finally, the smoke was clearing up and the Tahoe Basin Management Unit—who Malcolm had been in touch with as she checked the air quality in Tahoe constantly—gave Malcolm the go ahead to run the course October 7. She would not have her full crew, only Yanko would join her, but they decided they were going to run the course unsupported. That F.K.T. was closer to 60 hours, and they figured they would run it more as an adventure. On the drive to Tahoe from San Francisco on the 6th, their excitement built. “We got this,” was the prevailing emotion. Then they woke up on the 7th to smoke everywhere.
“Things are derailed yet again,” Malcolm thought to herself. It was over, she knew, and she “emotionally pulled the plug on it.” She met her partner, Stephen, who was doing a medical school rotation in Fresno, and they went camping for a night. They hiked and did not think about the run. Malcolm resigned to the fact that she was not going to attempt an F.K.T.
And yet, she kept checking the air quality in Lake Tahoe.
And the thing is, the air kept getting better and better. While numbers had been in the orange and red for much of September and October, they were now hovering between yellow and green. “Shoot,” Malcolm thought. “I probably have to try it just to be done with it and move on with my life.” She had spent all summer hoping for a race during a pandemic, and now, she barely wanted to do it. “My mindset was very motivational, right?” she joked.
But on the 11th or the 12th, she texted the seven runners that would make up her support crew. Writing to Devon Yanko, Tony Di Pasquale, Paddy O’Leary, Ben Koss, David Lam, Olivia Amber, and Erik Soli, she asked if they were up for pacing and crewing her run. Everyone was in.
This time, the weather held. The Tahoe Basin Management Unit told Malcolm she could run if she didn’t camp. Malcolm told them there would not be time for camping in her 171-mile run.
On the drive to Tahoe she told Yanko that mostly, she just wanted to finish. Sure, and F.K.T. would be great, she thought, but she wanted to get to the end of it. That was exactly how she felt on the start line, too.
“It was really odd to go from being really focused on getting a certain time,” Malcolm said, “to being like, ‘I just want to complete it.’ And maybe that’s a good place to be mentally because there wasn’t pressure.”
The air quality was still fine the next morning. So, at 5:58 a.m. on October 18, with Yanko beside her and coming off one of the longest tapers in history, Malcolm finally took off.
About 52 miles later, she was throwing up. There was still about 120 miles to go. Like she had done during the first 40 miles, however, Malcolm focused only on her stretch with O’Leary. Sure, throwing up was not ideal, as fueling the run was one of the most vital parts of the trek, but in the moment, she thought about how she could feel better with some water and some gummies to replace the calories.
And she was right. “I was so in the present that I was not thinking about the miles I had run,” she said. “And I was definitely not thinking about the miles I still had to run. That mindset puts you in this weird like space-time continuum where you’re not really sure how long you’ve been running for, but you know that you just have to make it to the next slot, and then you’re going to like get a new water bottle and you’re gonna take off with a new person, and then you have to go to the next thing.”
And so, she ran and ran and ran. She climbed nearly 1600 feet from miles 63 to 70. Around 80 miles, she left O’Leary behind. Ben Koss had joined just after mile 60. Running under a starry sky, they kept clicking off miles. Waiting at the 104-mile mark was David Lam, who relieved Koss after 40 miles of work. All the while, Malcolm ate and drank as much as she could. Her hands felt like they had tendonitis thanks to holding the ski poles she ran with for so long. By the time she reached her next pace crew at Echo Lake, she would be 122 miles in.
Unbeknownst to Malcolm, the pace crew was running into their own problems. Tony Di Pasquale was driving again, this time in Lam’s black Honda S.U.V. with Olivia Amber and Erik Soli. They had run into traffic, and Di Pasquale had to decide stopping for gas and potentially being late to another pacer handoff, or he could risk it. As they rolled into the parking lot at the Echo Pass viewpoint, the estimated mileage remaining read “0.”
They did not tell Malcolm, and instead used the propane tank to make instant mashed potatoes—the new food after the ramen ralph—and packed bags with water, food, and dry clothes. After Malcolm took off once more with Amber and Soli, Di Pasquale slowly drove out of the parking lot and was able to coast down a hill to a gas station with the gas meter reading empty all the way down—he did not officially run out of gas, but he is not sure how much more he could have gone.
Malcolm, meanwhile, was running with two close friends through Desolation Wilderness, past 30 hours into the run. Malcolm’s stomach felt funky, so she was getting most of her calories through liquids. Amber felt like a barista, taking a water bottle to a stream, filtering the water, then adding protein powder and delivering it to Malcolm, who would do what she could to down it.
Malcolm was still doing her best to live in her “space-time continuum,” but she was struggling. She was past 102 miles, which was more than she had ever run before. She was tired. Her stomach hurt. Her hands hurt. And she still had more than a marathon to go.
So, she asked her pacers to play “Would You Rather?” with her. At first, they took turns asking one another questions, but eventually, Malcolm did not have the energy to think, so she made Amber and Stoli trade off questions.
“Would you rather,” Amber started at one point during the marathon of questions, “drink Roctane or orange soda for the rest of your life?”
It was a difficult question for Malcolm, who had already had a lot of Roctane on that run. But, she rationalized, there was more than one flavor of Roctane, whereas orange soda was just orange soda for eternity. So, she went with Roctane. Then waited for the next question.
Once she got to 140 miles, Malcolm said, she hit her low point. She wanted to get to Barker Peak at 154 miles. That was where she would meet her final pacer. But that stretch was just awful, and doubts kept creeping in. In her head, she knew that she crossed a dirt road just before she got to Barker, but with each dirt road she crossed, she still was not there. “We’re almost there,” she kept thinking before cursing to herself that she wasn’t. She felt like she was the crazy racer who had gone out too fast and the pack was slowly catching up to her. Amber and Stoli kept telling her she was fine, but Malcolm could not shake the feeling that it was all falling apart. But then she finally crossed one of the dirt roads she was waiting for and made it to Barker Peak.
Devon Yanko was there again. She had run the first 40 miles with Macolm, and she would join for the last stretch, too. There was one more good piece of news, Malcolm thought she had 19 miles to go. She only had 16. “I switched from low point to high point, really quickly,” she said.
From Barker Peak, Malcolm and Yanko took care of the rest of the run. Buoyed by only having 16 miles to go, the last bit went quickly, all things considered. Sure, everything hurt, but Malcolm was going to finish.
She knew she was still ahead of pace, but it wasn’t until she reached the final stretch on the bike path into Tahoe City that she really knew it was going to happen.
Over the final few steps of her 171-mile trek, Malcolm ran toward a makeshift finish line Amber and some of her crew had “built.” It had been dark for a few hours, and with head lamps guiding the way, she ran through a finishing tape made of toilet paper. She crossed in 1 day, 20 hours, 51 minutes, 25 seconds. She broke Moehl’s record by nearly three hours.
Amber and the crew were in shock. They were relieved she had done it and awed by the performance.
Malcolm was thrilled to be done, and thrilled to claim the F.K.T. “I couldn’t believe that I could run for that far or could not sleep for that long,” she said.
But she had. With her crew helping the entire way, she had done what she had set to do in August, only now it was October. Malcolm had the F.K.T. she wanted.
Now, Malcolm and her crew thought, the rest of the world needed to know.
Not all F.K.T.s, however, had the same cachet during a pandemic.
When I first emailed Malcolm in December to ask her about her Tahoe Rim Trail run, she wrote back saying she would love to talk about the run, and she mentioned a blog post she was writing about her being a sore loser—that she was seeking validation for an F.K.T. that was not about validation to begin with.
Speaking on the phone, she was still grappling with that idea. She ran the F.K.T. for herself, she said, but once she did it, she wished more people would talk about it. “I don’t need running to validate my self worth,” she said, “but it’s still a little bit bittersweet to be, like, ‘I did this thing.’ Yet people might not care that I did this thing.”
She did not necessarily expect a profile in The New York Times, but her perception was that the fanfare was nonexistent. In a normal year, she would race and there would be a report in iRunFar, the trail running news site. With an F.K.T., there was a leaderboard thanks to the website, but it was more of a personal challenge. Malcolm felt she was being foolish in caring so much about no one caring about her run, but she could not help it. As Malcolm discussed being a “sore loser,” she said her crew felt similarly.
Amber wished more people knew about the effort. She had seen it up close and could not believe how incredible it all was. Each pacer’s Strava account of the run gushed in admiration. “Busy holding on for dear life,” O’Leary wrote. “This was a tough segment and she didn’t complain once,” Koss wrote. “I could really learn something!”
“SHE IS AMAZING!!!” Amber wrote. “We will be talking about this for years.”
Over three months later, they are still talking about it. The more Malcolm spoke about validation with me, the more she realized that her run was a validation of sorts. She had run 171 miles in 1 day, 20 hours, 51 minutes, 25 seconds. She had done so after waiting out the fires, waiting out the horrible air quality. She was proud. Proud she was able to share it with the crew that waited out the fires, waited out the dips in air quality, waited to run with their friend.
“I could not have done what I did without the support of my small, but mighty crew,” Malcolm said. “That’s how I feel about ultrarunning in general, getting to share an experience with a crew is something we often forget when talking about these crazy endurance challenges. Getting to share that time with each of my friends—that was the highlight of the whole run for me.
“And knowing how invested they were—that they wanted more people to care, too—that to me has a lot of value, independent of whomever else out in the ether cares about it.”
Validation, it turned out, was nice from a close group of friends, too.