Blazing trails with Marcy Beard, the female runner setting endurance records around the U.S.
Marcy Beard currently holds 31 women’s records for Fastest Known Time runs — and is the current women’s leader worldwide — but that’s only because she travels more than most people.
At least, that’s the humble answer she gave when I asked her about her achievements in a recent phone interview, where she picked up my call from Moab, Utah.
The ultrarunner doesn’t consider herself an “elite” runner — in the few hundred-milers she’s run, she says she’d consider herself a “mid-pack” runner. Becoming the world’s current leader with so many Fastest Known Time records wasn’t initially something she aspired to, but it’s something she’s come to enjoy the more she does it.
She first became interested when she was exploring the Fastest Known Time website and noticed that a lot of the routes listed didn’t have a women’s time posted, she said.
The “Fastest Known Time” concept is somewhat self-explanatory — it tracks the total elapsed time an athlete spends hiking or running along an iconic route. These routes are intended to be notable, distinct and special — the best “bucket list” quality routes in the world to traverse on foot.
According to Trail Runner Magazine, the website has experienced an explosion of new records being posted in recent months since the COVID-19 outbreak started, with competitive runners facing widespread race cancellations even seven months into the pandemic. Year over year, the number of FKTs recorded in July 2020 nearly tripled from July 2019, to 566 from 151 verified FKTs.
Amid this surge of pandemic-prompted interest, Beard has posted six records throughout the Western U.S. since May, including a South Bay route she created.
Running the Bay
Beard, 51, shares a travel trailer with her husband, John, and the couple migrates around the country as work and whim permit. Her husband installs solar panels and they move around the U.S. for his job. Work is often plentiful in the Bay Area, so they frequently stay with Beard’s brother, Kipley Fiebig, who lives in San Jose, she said.
Using his property as a home base, Beard has taken on a number of the fastest-known-time routes in the Bay Area and set several of records on them. And she’s inspired her younger brother to start setting some of his own.
Beard said one of her favorite Bay Area FKTs is the 33.5-mile East Bay Skyline Trail, which she first ran in February 2018. Since she first ran it, others have come and beat her time, but the route’s got great mountain and trail views, she said. (She also later ran the route as an out-and-back, doubling the miles).
Another favorite run, she said, is the Skyline to the Sea trail, from Saratoga to Waddell Beach, through Big Basin State Park, which has been badly burned by the recent CZU August Lightning Complex fires. She ran it as an out-and-back in April 2018.
She’s also developed some of her own fastest known time routes.
Inspired by the sight of Mt. Umunhum from her brother’s house, she said, she mapped a route from the Bay, from Alviso Marina County Park, all the way to the summit of the mountain, the fourth-highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She set the point-to-point route record on July 24 this year. Finding her way there, she said, was fairly easy because the box-like radar tower that sits at the summit was mostly visible the whole way up as she wound through the streets, then the trail systems that led up the mountain.
The radar tower is one of 23 similar radar stations in California and hundreds across the country built during the Cold War. It was in operation as part of the Almaden Air Force Station from 1957 to 1980, according to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which operates the open space area surrounding Mt. Umunhum.
Another route she created is the Bay to Ridge Trail, which runs from the Palo Alto Baylands to Skyline Boulevard, connecting the Bay Trail to the Bay Area Ridge Trail through Arastradero Open Space Preserve, Foothills Park, Lost Trancos Open Space Preserve and Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. As an out-and-back route, it runs 34.9 miles.
The incomplete trail was described in a 2008 Palo Alto Weekly article as a route that had already been envisioned for decades to connect the Bay to the foothills through Palo Alto.
Part of the fun
The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled many races, including the hard-core Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, which Beard had been training for. Instead, Beard has been using FKTs to challenge herself to train for longer races. The timed solo runs provide a lot more motivation than a long training run might, but falls somewhere short of a formal ultra race with other competitors, she said.
“It’s a really good training run that can be almost, or even more pressure than a race, depending on what you are trying to do,” she said.
But the system creates other challenges and attractions. FKTs aren’t just for mapping new Strava segments. They should be iconic and follow a route that makes sense, she said.
Beard, for her part, says the travel trailer lifestyle is awesome and makes living on the road easy. Having new FKTs to conquer, she said, has helped her explore new areas and places she wouldn’t otherwise visit.
Another challenge of FKTs, she explained, is that running one is not an organized race — there are no aid stations or medical check-ins.
Fiebig, Beard’s brother, has recently also started running FKTs. He has also helped to support Beard’s runs, and said that seeing his older sister’s participation piqued his interest in tackling some local routes.
He says the absence of organized help along the way is part of the fun.
Figuring out how to get the supplies you need without aid stations every few miles demands problem-solving through logistical challenges.
He also ran the Mt. Umunhum route, as well as the Iron Horse Trail in the East Bay.
“Prior to this whole pandemic shutdown, I would race as a typical thing to do on weekends,” he said. With many races canceled, he said, FKTs offer new competitive challenges along scenic routes he otherwise might not explore.
There are three categories of FKTs that describe the different levels of support a runner might access on the route, according to the FKT website: supported, self-supported an unsupported.
Supported: You have a crew that helps you along the way, whether it’s one person handing you a water once or or even someone who just hikes or runs alongside you, to a team that gives you everything you might need.
Self-supported: You can use support you find along the way without pre-arranging help from other people. You can store supplies in advance, buy them along the way, or use food or water you can find or beg for.
Unsupported: You get no outside help and must carry everything you need — though public water taps alongside trails are OK.
Beard says her husband, who is also a runner and hiker but not quite so interested in the “crazy long” runs, often supports her runs, bringing her water, a change of shoes and moral support. Plus, once, he brought her a critical ice ax when she was running in the Tetons.
Doing so makes the challenges a shared experience and helps both of them explore new areas, she said.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you go all-out with support,” she said.
We asked Beard for some advice for folks who are considering taking on their own FKT challenges — whether that’s taking on one of the bucket-list monster runs on the FKT website or just aiming to explore a new, challenging trail. Here’s her guidance:
- Do research on which route you might want to try. Learn as much as you can from people who have done it before. There’s a lot of information available on the FKT website.
- Make sure you know what the supported, unsupported and self-supported categories mean and what each entails.
- Be ready to be self-sufficient the whole time.
- Plan for how you’ll verify your achievement. Plan to use systems that track location and time, whether that’s a Garmin, smartwatch or phone.
- It’s also good to take photos as you go to document the route. People who complete the FKTs often write reports that they share with the online running community.
- While many FKTs listed are extremely long and cover hundreds of miles, some are between half- and full- marathon lengths, Beard said. “There are so many to choose from,” she said. “(You) don’t have to do the crazy ones.”
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