Rise of the FKT: PART 2: The Pennine Way
Written By: Ben Mounsey
In Part 2 of this series, we take a look at the famous Pennine Way Challenge, including the route, its history and the recent record-breaking attempts by ultra-runners Sabrina Verjee, John Kelly and Damian Hall.
In part 1, we covered the Bob Graham Round; check it in The Rise of the FKT: Part 1. Not sure what an FKT - or Fastest Known Trail - really means? Check out our What is an FKT & How Can You Get Started guide.
THE BACKBONE OF ENGLAND
The iconic Pennine Way is one of Britain’s oldest and most loved National Trails. The 268-mile route starts from Edale in the Peak District and finishes at Kirk Yetholm on the edge of the Scottish Border, in the Northumberland National Park (although the direction of travel is completely optional). Often referred to as the spine, or backbone of England, this ancient route is undoubtedly one of Britain’s toughest off-road challenges, the total ascent exceeding that of Mount Everest. From South to North, highlights include visiting these famous landmarks; Stoodley Pike, Malham Cove, Pen-Y-Ghent, Tan Hill, High Force, Cauldron Snout, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell, Hadrian’s Wall and The Cheviot. With impressive limestone cliffs, challenging climbs and a wealth of varied rural landscapes, the Pennine Way provides a real test of grit and endurance for even the most experienced of athletes.
THE HISTORY OF THE PENNINE WAY CHALLENGE
The origin of the route can be traced back to 1935, when British journalist and rambler, Tom Stephenson, proposed the idea in an article entitled WANTED – A long Green Trail. Since then the Pennine Way has massively grown in popularity, with several hundred thousand people annually travelling on the route.
The recommended time to attempt the Pennine Way is between May and September, by sensibly dividing the route into manageable sections. However, the Pennine Way Challenge requires would-be record breakers to tackle the course in one fell swoop, aiming to complete the trail in the fastest time possible. Of course, there are very few people who have managed to add their names to the impressive list of finishers, all earning their place in Pennine Way history.
The first person to set the Pennine Way record was Arthur Puckrin in 1958, in a time of 6 days, 7 hours and 25 minutes. Since then 12 people in total have held the record, either as the fastest person or fastest pair to complete the route*.
Until very recently, the FKT (Fastest Known Time) for completion of the route belonged to Mike Hartley, who set an incredible benchmark of 2 days, 17 hour and 20 minutes, in 1989. According to sources, he only stopped twice during his record-breaking run and one of these stops was to eat fish and chips! Hartley’s record has stood for over 31 years, with some believing that it might never be broken. However, given the current global circumstances, many of the world’s best ultra-distance runners have since set their sights on attempting to beat seemingly unbreakable records and the Pennine Way is no exception.
*Taken from records kept by Martin Stone.
THE RECORD BREAKERS
Despite the absence of organised races during 2020, the new sport of dot watching has kept members of the Trail Running community thoroughly entertained throughout.
Recently, the hugely inspirational Sabrina Verjee took on the mammoth challenge of attempting to set a new female record for the Pennine Way, aiming to beat her previous time of 3 days, 10 hours and 19 minutes. An extremely ambitious task, given the fact that only a few weeks ago she became the first woman** to ever complete the 328 mile, non-stop round, of all 214 Wainwright summits in the Lake District. Yet in challenging weather conditions, she did indeed make history once again, by successfully setting a new woman’s FKT for the Pennine Way in an incredible time of 3 days, 2 hours and 28 minutes, beating her previous record by almost 8 hours!
**Sabrina Verjee has since refused to claim her time for the Wainwrights Challenge as a record.
Sabrina Verjee in action on the PWC. Image credit: Claire Maxted.
This summer, we witnessed one of the greatest battles in ultra-running history, as two of the most prolific ultra-distance athletes of our generation, John Kelly and Damian Hall, went head to head on the Pennine Way, their respective attempts both planned just a few weeks apart.
Kelly boldly set out to become the first American and the fastest person to complete the Pennine Way. The La Sportiva athlete is certainly no stranger to ultra-distance challenges, having completed several Ironman events and one of only 15 people to ever finish the infamous Barkley Marathons. Along with Sabrina Verjee, he was also this year’s winner of the Montane Spine Race, which covers the Pennine Way from South to North as an epic Winter Round.
John Kelly in action during his Pennine Way challenge. Image credit: Steve Ashworth Media.
With a small team of support and under the guidance of social distancing measures, he successfully completed the 268-mile Pennine Way Challenge in just 2 days, 16 hours and 46 minutes, setting a new FKT by narrowly beating Mike Hartley’s 31-year-old record by just 34 minutes.
“Soon others will attempt to break my record, and that’s fantastic. Without those attempts the record would no longer hold meaning, and once it is broken my time will have served its purpose – to propel us further in what we know to be possible.” John Kelly
It was arguably the most impressive FKT this year, but as he himself predicted, it was also one of the most short-lived. Because just two weeks later, inov-8 athlete, Damian Hall, had set his own sights on achieving that very same goal.
On the 24th July, he successfully set a new record of 2 days, 13 hours and 35 minutes, eclipsing the time set by John Kelly only two weeks previously.
“I always felt comfortable with my approach, so the way John did things and his final time didn’t affect my approach at all. Mentally though, he showed that Mike Hartley’s incredible record could be beaten, and this gave me a big boost to go and try to beat John’s time. It was amazing that John and Mike Hartley both came to the finish in Edale, it felt like quite the social occasion” Damian Hall
In comparison to Kelly, he chose to tackle the route by travelling North to South, whilst also picking up rubbish along the way. Hall is a leading environmentalist figure within the trail running community and his attempt has been officially recognised as ‘carbon negative’ by Our Carbon; just another reason why his outstanding record should be praised and celebrated.
Damian Hall at the end of his record-breaking PWC run.
Image credit: Dave Mcfarlane / Inov-8.com
Perhaps what is most inspiring is that the spirit and ethos of trail running was very much present in both of these successful record-breaking attempts. Despite the fact his own record was under threat, Mike Hartley whole-heartedly supported these recent challenges in equal measure, and was even the first person to donate to Kelly’s charity fundraiser. As friendly rivals, Kelly and Hall also supported each other, training together before their respective attempts, sharing information about the route and demonstrating their encouragement and support for one another – before, during and after each record was broken. The result of this friendly and respectful rivalry between these outstanding athletes is that an incredible new Pennine Way record has now been set, ironically something that might never have happened had it not been for the unfortunate events of this year. In conclusion, two things are very clear; the bar has well and truly been raised on this particular trail and the popularity of FKT challenges across the globe is continuing to rise rapidly.
Feeling inspired to tackle the Pennine Way? You certainly don’t need to consider completing the trail at record-breaking pace. Hike or run along the backbone of England at your leisure and discover some of the most beautiful and rugged countryside that our nation has to offer. You can even plan your adventure with an organised company like Brigantes or The Sherpa Van Project, who will book accommodation and transport your luggage, allowing you to take more time to enjoy the cultural and historical interests along the way. Head over to the National Trail website for further information about the Pennine Way, including the route highlights and suggested trail itineraries.
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