With one sleeve of his T-shirt chopped entirely off and one cut into thin dangling strands, Jeff Garmire had just 20 yards separating him from the finishing point of Merrell’s “Get FKT” race when he reached the final rise and came into view.
Garmire, a prodigiously talented thru-hiker and ultra-runner prone to wearing tiger print T-shirts or cosplay outfits during past FKT efforts, was finishing the route that had climbed 2,200 feet from the base of Steamboat Springs’ ski area to the resort’s midpoint in just 3.2 miles.
He has 20 FKTs to his name, the most impressive perhaps being his “Triple Crown of Thru Hiking” where he hiked the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Appalachian Trail — all self-supported — in just 252 days. The “finish line” this time was a support beam on the Thunderhead Express chair lift marked with an “M” (for Merrell) made from strips of blue masking tape.
But the prize for this particular effort was no mere time on a website. This challenge, held at the end of September, lured elite runners from around the country to the steep terrain of Steamboat Springs with the promise of a serious, prestigious prize: a professional brand ambassadorship.
Are FKTs the New Path to Pro Sponsorship?
Before the pandemic, companies might judge an athlete’s worth by the quality and quantity of a runner’s race wins. But then the coronavirus pandemic happened and sanctioned races stopped.
The solution to social distancing for hungry athletes was to “FKT.” The founding “Fastest Known Time” website’s traffic was overwhelmed, and what was previously a hobby for mostly long-distance adventurers or old-world European traditions (like running from the church in the village center to the top of a nearby peak and back) became somewhat Strava-ified. Thousands of people submitted new routes, sometimes with varying degrees of thoughtfulness or intrigue.
Big, dramatic FKTs like the Rim to Rim to Rim saw new record-holders (sometimes within days of each other) and this new stage allowed runners to showcase their talent and remain relevant to the running industry during a precarious time.
Many brands today use a confusing alchemy of metrics to determine an athlete’s value: some combination of race results, social media influence, salesmanship, diversity, and more. Athletes vie for attention using all manner of social media tactics, sometimes above and beyond their actual credentials as runners.
Merrell has notably gone the opposite direction. The company previously supported Colorado Springs’ Joseph Gray, one of the most decorated trail runners in the world, who admittedly has never had the social media impact of his much less successful peers.
In a 2021 interview with fastestknowntime.com co-founder Buzz Burrell, Gray said, “There are two ways to build a running career. One is on social media by talking about yourself. The other by winning races.”
Merrell’s latest campaign — dubbed “Get FKT” — further emphasized real-world performance. You want a contract with the company? Earn it. The fastest person to the top wins a sponsorship.
Merrell ‘Get FKT’: Base to Thunderhead
Six athletes (three men and three women) were selected by Merrell to compete in a time trial-cum-FKT in Steamboat, Colorado.
The company created a route at Steamboat Mountain Resort called “Base to Thunderhead” for the athletes to race for the FKT. The men’s and women’s winner would earn a 2024 sponsorship with Merrell, specifically Merrell’s “MTL” (Merrell Test Lab) high-performance, boutique running shoes division, where its athletes intimately contribute to product development.
How were the athletes chosen? Runners were invited to submit an application with their running resume (race results, current FKTs) along with a personal narrative explaining their “why” behind running.
Six were selected (four Colorado-based runners, one Californian, and one Montana man); their backgrounds were wildly different, from a World Championship Vertical Kilometer (VK) participant to a runner like Garmire, one of the foremost thru-hikers in the U.S.
The Race for Merrell’s Next Pro
In fairness, the FKT attempt was part of a larger promotion to make the MTL Skyfire 2 be the shoe with the world’s most FKTs (in case you were curious, the person with the most FKTs currently is Germany’s Volker Buschka with over 200).
Reid Burrows and Rachel Tomajczyk, the core members of Merrell’s U.S.-based pro trail running team, have somewhat modest social media followings and strong, but not groundbreaking, race results. Tomajczyk, a former professional steeplechaser for ASICS, has been racking up new FKTs this year (18 currently) while moving up the ranks of the Golden Trail Series since her switch to trail running in 2022. Burrows finished eighth at this year’s Leadville 100.
The two athletes spent many hours with the “Get FKT” contestants before and after the event, admitting they hoped whoever won would be a fit with their camaraderie.
‘Get FKT’ Surprise Ending
The all-uphill race, which finished at about 9,000 feet above sea level, was not typical terrain for Garmire, nor many of the other runners who competed. Most have strong race results more commonly in the 50K to 100-mile range, the type where an all-out effort would signal early demise.
The exception was U.S. Mountain Running National Team member Morgan Elliot, whose specialty is short, VO2 max efforts on this very type of terrain. He easily beat Garmire and Anthony Kunkel in the men’s division in a time of 34:19, and in doing so earned the 2024 Merrell sponsorship.
Durango, Colorado-based runners Sara Aranda and Mercedes Siegle-Gaither miraculously tied in exactly 48:41 to co-win the women’s division and also take home a Merrell sponsorship. The admins at fastestknowntime.com, which approved the FKT, confirmed the tie.
“This effort was part of a Merrell event, whereby athletes time-trialed this FKT route. Since the difference in time (i.e. milliseconds) between two of these efforts was within the error of hand-timing, these athletes are considered to have tied. And, since the starting time of the effort was not up to the individual athlete (Merrell had the athletes draw for start times), it is not our position to favor the time of the first athlete who completed the route over that of the second athlete. Both athletes used the same start and end points, and both used designated trails to complete the route, as per the guidelines in the route description. The order of the athletes on the record page does not reflect who as (sic) the ‘true’ FKT.“
FKTs for the Future
Running brands from Rabbit to Ultimate Direction to Montrail have all used FKTs in names for products. New Balance once named a shoe the “Leadville,” and Hoka used the “Zinal.” The biggest races once inspired products, and in the same way FKTs have become a signal back to more grassroots, less commercial days of trail running — an antidote to “golden” tickets and maddeningly long waitlists.
With the exception of Elliot, who is a consistent winner in big races, the five other Get FKT participants and their mixed-bag resumes wouldn’t traditionally have earned attention from a major shoe company like Merrell. However, a willingness to simply throw down a fast time was representative of the athletes and a way for Merrell to see past “likes” and social media influence.
That influence doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but the more concrete qualities of FKTs (the best person wins) might help Merrell, and the running industry at large, reach athletes who are in it for running, not the clout.