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Fastest Manitou Incline time a point of pride, controversy

December 19, 2016 Updated: December 20, 2016 at 8:35 am
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Professional long-distance and mountain runner, Joseph Gray, poses for a photograph on the Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs, Colorado on Monday, September 28, 2015. Gray, holds the record for the fastest time up the Manitou Incline at seventeen minutes and forty-five seconds and placed fifth in the World Mountain Running Championships earlier this month in Wales. Photo by Daniel Owen.

An underground universe in Colorado Springs erupted this summer, triggered by a verbal claim.

The assertion was made by a mixed-martial arts fighter who told The Gazette she had scaled the Manitou Incline in 19 minutes, 27 seconds. That would be the fastest known time for a woman on the 1-mile spine of railroad ties that includes more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. That would be the fastest known time - if it were accepted by the keepers of the FKT.

They are the outdoor athletes who obsess over the obscure: milestones on trails and mountains, and the completion of those in record haste. Theirs is a tribe that values honesty over all. And, in August, when the fighter made the Incline claim, they balked. They will tell you that the FKT is 20:07 and belongs to Allie McLaughlin, the Air Academy High School graduate with Pikes Peak Ascent and World Mountain Running championships to her name.

"It's crazy to me that this is like a big deal or whatever," says the fighter, Raquel Pennington, a Harrison High School graduate who has risen to elite ranks in the UFC.

Two years ago, at the time when she says she clocked herself in less than 20 minutes, Pennington was scaling the Incline three to four times a week, sometimes carrying a training partner on her back for intervals. "After doing that for a while and then going straight up the mountain not carrying anything, that makes it easy," she says.

Many contend they'll believe her when they see it.

Raquel Pennington spars with JJ Aldrich at Triple Threat Gym on Friday, August 12, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette 

Asked if she'd climb publicly, Pennington chuckles. "I don't really care whether they believe me or not," she says. "I have nothing to prove to people."

It's not the first controversy the Incline has inspired: For years, trail addicts debated the legitimacy of professional triathlete Mark Fretta's reported FKT of 16:42 as well as the sub-17-minute ascents claimed by Olympic speed skaters Ryan Bradford and Apolo Ohno. The debate ended when local Joseph Gray, a professional runner, charged up with a satellite tracker that verified his time of 17:45 - respected as the official FKT.

"For me, I can't go to sleep at night without knowing I prove what I do," says Gray, USA Track and Field's reigning Mountain Runner of the Year.

That helps explain his feelings for FKT claims such as Pennington's that he deems unsubstantial.

"It pisses me off. It pisses me off," he says. "It's like you're just slapping all of us in the face who actually take this seriously."

That includes Roger Austin, the Colorado Springs resident who used the past calendar year to hike the Incline 1,719 times, a record he verifies with 1,719 pairs of dated photos - one of him at the base of the trail and one at the top. He lost 34 pounds in 2015, sleeping maybe four hours at night before getting up in the dark to bag multiple climbs before work and many more later through the evening.

He enters a flustered rant about never having seen Pennington on the steps, and he sighs. "It's very easy to just say a number," he says.

Setting the guidelines

Peter Bakwin is an ultrarunner in Boulder, a retired research scientist in atmospheric physics whose career was built upon the collection of data and evidence. He spends his days now maintaining the website he made about 10 years ago, an open forum meant to build some semblance of objectivity within the FKT community. FastestKnownTime.proboards.com is the subculture's closest thing to a governing body, with Bakwin the de facto commissioner.

He hesitates to take the title. "I just created a website," he says. "But I'm aware people see me as an arbiter, and I do take that seriously."

The website is an archive of claims, with 660 threads designated to venues around the world where FKTs are kept. "Read this first!" is the thread at the top, and it leads hundreds of regular browsers to a list of FKT-seeking guidelines:

- Announce the intention in advance, paying respect to those who came before

- Be transparent, inviting the public to follow the attempt

- Record the attempt, compiling evidence with reports and photos

"These three rules do not 'prove' you have done anything," reads the forum. "They just make it easier for a good person to believe you."

Allie McLaughlin, 23, passes through the crowd as she makes her way to a first place finish in the Pikes Peak Ascent Saturday, August 16, 2014. McLaughlin was the overall female finisher with a time of 2:33:42. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

Bakwin's note in bold strongly urges people to use a satellite tracker if they want their FKTs to be honored. The device, which allows viewers to follow someone's progress online, was fundamental last year to Andrew Hamilton's pursuit of Colorado's 14,000-foot-mountains speed record. He explained this to a crowd who gathered in Colorado Springs this summer to hear him speak about the journey, tried by many for decades.

"Before, there was no way to prove what you did," Hamilton, a Golden resident, said. "You just had to sort of say it and hope people believed you."

On his way up and down the state's 58 tallest peaks in nine days, 21 hours, 51 minutes, the tracker lent him comfort. He knew he would be believed.

And the trackers give comfort to Bakwin, too. "It makes my life easier," he says.

At least with real-time evidence, the chances of bickering are lower. When discrepancies exist, the forums flare and Bakwin must take on the role he didn't foresee when he started the website, in a time when FKTs were more or less spoken lore. Now, Bakwin has given FKTs a seat in the virtual arena. And he worries about his creation being a platform for frustration, a place where people obsess over one-upping each other and are doubted and even harassed.

In September, he hated what he was reading about a woman who claimed to set the FKT on the Appalachian Trail, a woman previously unknown in the circle of outdoor athletes. Online, she was labeled a "fraud," a "lysergic acid diethylamide tripper over your own feet" and "the worst." So Bakwin got in touch with her to ask about evidence.

"I never said, 'I don't believe you did this.' I just told her I didn't think she had the verification materials to where people would believe her," he said. "I said, 'If you continue to push, you're gonna continue to be vilified on the internet."

While technology has helped substantiate FKTs, technology also has complicated things.

"The unfortunate byproduct of social media and the internet is people can claim whatever they want," says Brandon Stapanowich, a Manitou Springs ultrarunner who in July set the FKT for fastpacking the Colorado Trail without outside support.

In this subculture, doubts are vanquished by credibility. Assertions by Colorado Trail hikers have raised questions on Bakwin's website, but Stapanowich gained quick acceptance when he reported his completion of the 485-mile route in nine days, 14 hours, 28 minutes. Not only did he announce his intentions in advance and use a satellite tracker, he also had a strong resume that included Incline endurance records along with a run at the challenge known as "Nolan's 14," a trek across 14 fourteeners that he finished in 56 hours, 19 minutes - just shy of the FKT of 53 hours, 39 minutes set by Hamilton.

Stapanowich recalls sleeping less than two hours during that foray, and he has no desire to try for the record again. He expects his Colorado Trail FKT to be topped, and he's OK with that: He doesn't envy anyone going for it.

He wonders why FKTs matter so much. The self challenging the self - isn't that all that should matter? Then again, he finds himself on the trail with a satellite tracker.

"Part of me feels like you shouldn't have to prove anything to anybody," he says. "But with erroneous claims, you're potentially hurting others."

Going faster

Bakwin calls the Incline "a total classic."

"The classic FKT is the little local hill where all the fast local people want to make their mark," he says. "That's how it always was, just everyone in the local endurance community knowing what the time to beat was."

Now everyone can find out. If they visit the Incline thread on his site, they'll see McLaughlin's name beside the FKT for a woman.

McLaughlin would rather not think about the record belonging to anyone else.

"FKTs are cool, but I'd rather focus on doing what makes me better rather than worrying about people telling the truth or not," she says.

She glances back inside a three-ring binder, her training log and her reminder of how she beat herself up trying to conquer the Incline in less than 20 minutes. On July 29, 2010, according to her log, her Garmin flashed 20:07 - the record that is believed. She hated that seven seconds, so she tried over the subsequent days to go faster: The next Sunday she clocked in at 20:50, then on Tuesday at 23:25, and then on Thursday at 20:23.

It was supposed to be a private struggle. Then she was asked what her best Incline time was, and she answered - just like a UFC fighter was asked, and she answered.

And now McLaughlin is struggling to express her frustration.

"I mean, it's like, like if you," she says, searching for words before stopping and laughing. "Yeah, I don't know. FKTs are just kind of crazy."

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