AAWT FKT Tactics
Although Fastest Known Times (FKTs) are rapidly growing in popularity, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of information online about FKT tactics and strategies. Because of this, Paul and I spent a lot of time contemplating our approach to setting the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) FKT.
Given Paul had previously set the AAWT FKT back in 2016, he had a good idea of how to better optimise another FKT attempt. I brought my knowledge from ‘thru hiking’ long distance trails, and Paul had new strategies he wanted to employ from adventure racing.
Each section below breaks down a specific aspect of how we approached the FKT. This post is a companion to AAWT FKT Gear List (2.7kg/5.9lb) + Analysis, where I break down gear-specific choices we made.
Also, if you are contemplating an FKT feel free to get in contact and it’d be great to discuss how to get you over the line! I would be most helpful for the Bibbulmun or AAWT, but we can chat about any track.
When Paul and I were in the early stages of planning, we both had strong feelings about one thing: pacing. Specifically, that meant only walking, and no running.
On Paul’s last attempt in 2016 with another Tom, their intention was to run as much of the track as possible. However, after their first day it became clear that running simply wasn’t sustainable or efficient. There was too much impact when running with a heavy pack (relative to ultra running races) to back up day after day for a self-supported effort.
From my perspective, I simply didn’t think my body would hold up to setting the FKT by running and was worried about serious injury and long-term damage (and having to pull out during the attempt). Therefore, I considered walking to be the most likely way of reaching the finish line in one piece.
Given the AAWT FKT ‘only’ required covering 60-70km per day, walking seemed like a sensible option. For 5+ day FKTs where a higher daily mileage is required, I still think walking nearly the entire time is sensible. It’s primarily about figuring out how to walk faster, or for more hours. There aren’t many self-supported FKTs that couldn’t be beaten walking 5km/hr for 18 hours/day (90km/day). If the required distance is lower than that, it’s probably because the terrain is nuts and you will be walking anyway!
One consequence of no running was that we had to compromise on sleep. Lack of sleep was the biggest unknown for me and, ironically, caused the most lost sleep leading up to the FKT attempt.
Luckily, Paul was no stranger to sleep deprivation from his experience adventure racing. His main advice was to know that our planned 4hrs/night for 11 days was totally normally in the adventure racing world. If anything, it was soft compared to pro adventure racers who might get 2-3hrs.
We planned on 4hrs/night thinking that it was a good balance between maximising time on feet, and giving our bodies and minds a good chance to recover whilst sleeping. In the end, we slept 4hrs/night for 8 days, 5hrs for 2 days, and didn’t sleep on the final 23hr push. One of the 5hr sleeps was waiting for the sun to come up in a tricky nav section, and the other was needing extra recovery after a big 21hr day. We optimised our sleep schedule by aiming to stop at a hut, avoiding hard nav in the dark, or based on energy levels.
When setting up for camp we would deliberately choose a spot where it was easy to elevate our legs whilst sleeping. There was a noticeable reduction in recovery when we got lazy and slept on flat ground. This is something I am interested in testing out more on normal hikes to see what difference it makes when not pushing as hard.
In the second half of the trip we supplemented our sleeps at night with a 15 min nap during the day. This strategy was extremely successful. We would set our alarms (don’t forget!), lie down on our foam mats (in our bivies if there were lots of insects), and close our eyes. Almost instantly the alarm would go off and, normally, I would feel like I had a second wind (or maybe third or fourth).
For most of the trip I was able to stay awake without any significant issues. It was only on the last few nights that I started having serious problems and called in the trusty No Doz caffeine tablets to boost alertness. Comparatively, Paul didn’t seem to experience the same level of sleep monsters. This could be a combination of age, experience and just being tougher!
It was only on the final day that I struggled to stay awake during the daytime. It was 11 am and we still had 18 hours to go. After my second No Doz of the day, lots of cold water on my face, and blasting Kanye through my ears, I was slowing down and struggling to keep my eyes open. Not wanting to stop for too long, I declared I would try a 1 minute nap. This was something we had jokingly discussed before the FKT and I was running out of options. Paul set a 1 min timer and I was out on the ground. I shook as the alarm woke me up and, comparatively, I felt like a million dollars. I definitely wouldn’t underestimate the 1 min nap in the future and I think it is a good tool to have in the sleep deprivation toolbox.
Before the FKT, I concluded that one of my most likely issues was going to be eating enough food. I generally feel sick after eating large meals, and tend to struggle eating large amounts of refined and calorie dense foods.
Anticipating these problems, my strategy for the FKT was to eat as many small meals as possible. I packed lots of carbohydrate rich foods as I find carbs significantly easier to eat and digest than fats. Simply, when exercising, my stomach feels better when I eat mostly carbs. I determined this was more important than the weight savings provided by carrying a greater proportion of fats (1g of carbs ≈ 2g of fats).
I tried to have a wide range of foods and twice the number of calories I anticipated needing in each drop, hoping that there would always be something that looked appetising, or I could at least get down. My food strategy ended up being a lot more successful than anticipated. After tracking and letting my weight stabilise for few days after finishing, I only lost 500g over the length of the trip.
At each food drop I downed 2-3 250mL Up & Go drinks, a fruit puree squeeze pouch, and whatever other special goodies I had stashed there. Roti bread when down particularly well and I was grateful for the energy drinks I packed for the last few days. Although not very calorie dense, I often ate part of a canned ‘chunky’ soup. This was the closest I got to eating vegetables or real food, and helped me reset my brain to tolerate more practical foods.
Whilst walking, the bulk of my calories came from chocolate, cold soaked oats with Milo and milk power, Weet-Bix with milk powder, chips, dry noodles, soy crisps, sweet biscuits (e.g. scotch fingers, Nice biscuits, Mint Slices etc), and savoury crackers (Jatz, Saladas, Shapes etc). I was particularly drawn to foods that didn’t require too much chewing (e.g. chocolate), or turned to mush when combined with water (looking at you scotch fingers). In each drop I packed either beef jerky, pork crackling or salami as a nice alternative to carbohydrate focused foods. I also had mixes of nuts and seeds but tended to only eat them when I was struggling with getting down sugary foods. We also carried soft drink and Paul brought along electrolyte tablets to incentivise drinking water (and for electrolytes I suppose).
The biggest problem I encountered with food was that I developed ulcers on my tongue from eating and chewing so much food (I estimated consuming around 8000 calories a day). This occurred 3-4 days into the walk and was resolved by increasing how often I brushed my teeth. Initially I was brushing 1-2 times a day but increased to 6 times a day to fix the issue and stop further problems. This was a rookie FKT mistake and is definitely predictable and avoidable.
The main change I would make in the future is to significantly increase the amount of calories consumed by liquids. Even when I was struggling to eat any foods, I never had any trouble downing Up & Go drinks, juice poppers, fruit purees, or soft drink. I should have packed sports drink powder and perhaps even a ‘meal replacement’ powder like Soylent. This would allow carbohydrate-rich calories to be delivered through liquids whilst hiking, rather than solely at drop boxes (or the first few hours after leaving one). It would also help reduce the likelihood of developing ulcers or other tongue and throat issues associated with eating and chewing.
On a self-supported FKT attempt you can’t have a crew looking after you. In order to replenish food, gear and consumables, Paul and I placed 12 drop boxes along the track. We had a drop box every 50km or so and, on average, had to carry less than a days worth of food. This also meant we could strategically place drops to shorten long water carries, significantly reducing the amount of weight we carried.
Ideally, in every drop box you would have anything you could possibly need. In reality however, you need to make some judgement anticipating what is likely to be useful, what is practical, and how much time and money you are willing to spend organising drops.
Apart from food (discussed in the section above), we used our drops to replenish consumables such as head torch batteries, power banks, toilet paper, sunscreen, caffeine tablets, ibuprofen and paracetamol. We should have packed extra toilet paper as we went to the toilet a lot more than normal given how much we were eating!
We also included spare gear in each drop. Every drop included a spare pair of socks, whilst some contained new clothes (for morale and hygiene), a sleeping mat (Paul was using a notoriously fragile NeoAir Uberlite which punctured on the last night), a trekking pole (if one breaks), and new shoes (foam compresses over time and provides less cushioning). I didn’t always feel I needed the spare gear we packed, but you never know ahead of time what you might want and it isn’t hard to throw in stuff you have lying around at home.
One way we could have improved our drop boxes was by packing non-hiking clothes for wearing at the drop. I was often at my coldest at the drops and I would have loved to chuck on my trackie pants and a big cotton jumper. It isn’t practical to have this stuff in every drop, but I definitely have 3 or 4 jumpers I could have put in drops just to be a little bit warmer and more comfortable whilst sitting there. This would have worked especially well for this FKT attempt as we spent at least half our nights at a drop box.
Feet get a decent amount of abuse on any hike, let alone a FKT attempt. Reading other trip reports, foot issues have ended more than enough FKT attempts, and are a limiting factor in most. Paul and I were determined to do our best to look after ours. On top of our own experiences, we consulted Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhof, and Rebecca Rushton’s website on blister prevention.
For us, foot care started weeks before the hike itself. This involved moisturising our feet daily and removing callouses with a pumice stone (and even an electric callous remover!). The current theory is that soft and supple skin has the lowest friction and is therefore the most resistant to blistering inside a shoe. Calluses, on the other hand, are high friction and also absorb lots of water meaning they rub easily. I could see the logic but I hadn’t personally tested any of these techniques prior to this hike. With hindsight, I believe these preparations helped and would use the same steps again.
When preparing my feet I made the rookie mistake of cutting my toe nails only two days before the walk. This is fine if you don’t make any mistakes, but I was overeager and cut my nails too short, and rounded the edges rather than keeping them straight. Because of this, the skin on the corner of my big toenail lifted up, like when you pick at your nails too much. Consequently, my toe was slightly inflamed before we started. I was nervous about this starting, but I quickly had much bigger and more painful problems to deal with and it wasn’t a big issue.
One significant problem I could have avoided with good preparation was a bacterial foot infection. Everyone has bacteria on their feet, however mine seemed to go crazy on the FKT. It turns out spending 20 hours a day with shoes on is a great environment for bacteria. The infection wasn’t directly painful but it meant my feet held significantly more water than normal, meaning the base of my feet were slow to dry out and more tender than they would have been normally. I have since learned that applying anti-fungal and anti-bacterial creams to your feet is common practice prior and during an adventure race!
For the walk itself, we had many different plans to help protect our feet. Our first line of defence in blister prevention was to use a lubricant. Specifically, we applied Gurney Goo in between and around our toes, the back of our heels, and around the edges of the base of our feet. We didn’t put Gurney Goo on the base of our feet because you end up sliding around in your shoes which can cause even more problems! Paul already knew this before the walk, but I learnt this the hard way at the end of the first day when I had hot spots from sliding in shoes with feet completely smothered in Gurney Goo. We applied Gurney Goo every morning, and every 6 hours or so, after river crossings, or whenever we could feel it wearing off. Basically, we used Gurney Goo a lot. I was a bit more paranoid than Paul and he was often waiting for me whilst I was doing something with my feet.
Gurney Goo was all we used when we didn’t have any feet issues. However, when we started getting blisters we would stop applying Gurney Goo to that area and turned to using Fixomull and kinesiology tape (e.g. Rocktape). Fixomull is breathable, thin, sticks pretty well when dry, and is pretty low friction as far as tape goes. Comparatively, kinesiology tape doesn’t breathe as well, is thicker, slightly higher friction, and adheres better (especially when wet). When applying kinesiology tape make sure to rub the tape for 30 seconds after applying as the glue is heat activated. I like both tapes and use Fixomull when it’s nicer to have a thin tape and if I think it’ll stay on. I tend to use Fixomull first as I think it is more breathable and leaves the skin underneath healthier when using it over many days. I like that both tapes are stretchy, allowing you to curve them over your feet without getting folds in the fabrics.
Beyond a foot lubricant and taping, we had several other tactics up our sleeve. Our main goal was to keep our feet as clean and dry as possible for as long as possible. This meant we spent the extra time to try avoid getting wet feet at streams and river crossings. We would either walk across bare foot if the crossing looked easy enough, or alternatively walking across in our shoes after removing our socks and insoles. We swapped socks at each drop, slept without socks or tape (at night and in the day), and aired our feet if we were stopping for more than a minute or two. I also used trail running gaiters to keep debris out of my shoes.
On this FKT, we spent a lot of time stopping and trying to be proactive looking after our feet (I needed more time than Paul). Developing foot care techniques with less stopping time would be an easy way to save at least 30 mins a day. For the first week or so, our foot care techniques were working and our feet held up remarkably well. We had occasional hot spots and small blisters but nothing that warranted concern. Paul’s blisters were worrying and painful at points but never became a significant problem. On the other hand, I had significant issues in the last few days. My rapid increase in blisters was acutely linked to swapping into a different style of shoe.
Shoe choice was another consideration when trying to protect our feet. Paul took road-inspired trail running shoes, and I used normal road running shoes (see FKT Gear List & Analysis). For the flatter, final 260km of the walk we both used road shoes. Our thinking was that most features on trail running shoes add excess bulk and reduce breathability. Road shoes are lighter, more breathable, and have more cushioning. I never wished my shoes had more tread and was happy with the decision to use road shoes.
For most of the track I used Nike Vomero 15 road running shoes with great success. However, once we reached Cowombat Flat Track and the route flattened out, I swapped into a pair of Nike Invincibles. The Invincibles are basically a mega squishy foam shoe with maximum comfort (think more foam than a Hoka). I was trying to seek out a footware advantage similar to racing in road running supershoes like the Alphafly Next%. My thinking was a flat walking track would be well suited to extra cushioning. This was correct and I immediately felt relief in the base of my feet as I started walking in the Invincibles. The problem, however, was that the extra-wide platform of the shoe is not well suited to uneven terrain. The wide platform provides lots of stability, but if you can’t place your foot on a flat surface, then the shoe is constantly sliding from side to side and for me caused significant edge blisters around both my feet.
This was the primary source of problems for my feet and it would have been a lot more comfortable if I could have swapped back into a pair of Vomero 15s. I tried to reduce friction with lubricants, taping and ENGO patches but nothing seemed to work. On the last day I decided to use hydrocolloid plasters (like Compeed) as a last resort. Normally these are only for deroofed blisters, however I was desperate to try anything. In the end they worked very well for the final 24hr push. However, this is a last day tactic as some of the blister roofs tore when removing the plasters after finishing! Interestingly, I didn’t have any issues with the Nike Invincibles in the extensive testing before the hike, presumably because my feet weren’t so tender and beat up.
Pain Killers and Caffeine
As a runner and cyclist, I have long turned to caffeine to improve my races and early morning sessions. Caffeine seems to reduce my perception of effort when pushing hard in short races (e.g. a 5k running race), and helps me stay awake in 24hr + events. However, I also know that caffeine is a double-edged sword. I like to think of caffeine as letting me use energy from my future self. It’s great because you get to push harder now, but you pay the price later (with interest!). Because of this, I knew I had to be careful with how I used caffeine for the FKT. My thinking was that once I was on the caffeine train, I had to keep taking it until the end where I could deal with the big bonk.
And that’s exactly what happened! I surprisingly lasted 8 days or so without any caffeine, and finally caved when I was having serious problems staying awake. I was glad I waited this long as I benefitted immensely and had to noticeably increase my intake over the last three days to improve my alertness. On the last day I maxed out at 600mg in 3x doses of 200mg over 24hrs (I find larger doses are more effective). For reference, a single-shot cup of coffee is often in the ballpark of 100mg. Therefore, 600mg is definitely on the higher end but isn’t too crazy when taken over a 24hr period. To get my caffeine hit, I primarily relied on No Doz tablets, but also used energy drinks and Coca Cola (1L ~ 100mg).
Although I was very familiar with caffeine, prior to this FKT attempt I had never used pain killers in an endurance event. Generally, I am of the opinion that reaching for a pain killer is a good way to cause long term damage, and is a poor substitute for good biomechanics, sensible training, and sufficient recovery. This perspective is based on the idea that pain killers help you you ignore signals from your body that something is wrong, and that continuing with your activity is dangerous and will make your problems worse.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to balance the obvious performance enhancing effects of pain killers, and the serious risk of long term damage and injury. This was the strategy I developed:
- I would only take pain killers if I wanted to reduce pain that didn’t impact my biomechanics. (i.e. I would take pain killers if my feet were just sore, but I wouldn’t take them if I rolled an ankle and I couldn’t walk properly without them)
- I would carry ibuprofen (Nurofen) and paracetamol (Panadol), but nothing stronger
- I would consume up to the daily recommended dose for each (figuring this was a low and safe threshold for my liver etc)
- I would delay taking pain killers as long as practical
Over the course of the 11 days, I didn’t take any pain killers for the first 6 days. My body was feeling good and I didn’t have any need to. I started taking a low dose of ibuprofen when I felt a niggle develop in my knee associated with large elevation changes. Fortunately, the steepness dropped significantly for the last few days and the niggle never developed further or caused any pain.
I started combining ibuprofen with paracetamol for the last three days. This was almost entirely because of blisters associated with an ill-fated shoe change. On the last day, I broke my rules and took an extra set of both ibuprofen and paracetamol above the recommended daily dose. I was happy maxing out both ibuprofen and paracetamol for the last few days because my pain was caused by blisters, not something I would consider likely to cause long term damage to my body.
Overall I would say my pain killer strategy was very effective, frighteningly effective really. By day 6, both Paul and I had significant swelling of our legs and feet. My swelling reduced significantly in the days after I started taking a low dose of ibuprofen for a niggle in my knee. After a few days, it was a stark contrast comparing Paul’s legs with mine, as he hadn’t been taking any ibuprofen at that point.
Beyond the significant anti-inflammatory effects, I appreciated how 2 ibuprofen and 20 mins later my feet wouldn’t hurt. I was acutely aware of when the ibuprofen wore off hours later as my feet would let me know! The analgesic effect was even stronger when I combined taking both ibuprofen and paracetamol at the recommended maximum dose (at staggered intervals).
One odd side effect of taking ibuprofen was how it exacerbated the blood noses I got on the FKT. Normally, I never get nose bleeds, but started getting them 3-4 days into the walk. I think my skin was dry from antihistamines I was taking to mitigate my strong reactions to mosquito bites etc. Before I started taking ibuprofen the nosebleeds would stop after a minute or two. When taking ibuprofen they lasted up to half an hour! At 5am with watery blood streaming down my nose, Dr. Google helped me conclude that ibuprofen slows down your blood clotting time. I certainly learnt this the hard way and in the future would avoid taking antihistamines to help prevent this issue.
Music is an interesting subject because it’s something Paul and I used completely differently. On one extreme, Paul didn’t listen to any music (or podcasts), never had any intention to, and didn’t bring any headphones. On the other hand, I saw music as an important tool for improving my performance and expected to spend a significant amount of time with AirPods in my ears. Both approaches worked. Paul was very happy without music, and in all honesty, I think I would have struggled significantly more without it.
I normally like listening to podcasts or audiobooks when hiking but during the FKT I found my brain was too tired to process information (the one exception being the Hidden Athlete interview of Abdullah Zeinab). Because of this, I found myself listening to music I knew intimately well as it helped me draw my focus away from whatever was happening in the moment. This was particularly helpful on long flat sections, and whenever the sun went down.
The difference between Paul’s and my approached permeated beyond music. I would often call my family a few times a day to have them talk to me about whatever they could come up with. On the other hand, Paul said if he was calling his family then they knew something was seriously wrong! I suspect different approaches are simply better suited to different people.
The one aspect we could agree on was social media. We both loved providing updates to those following along on Facebook and we got real boosts from the encouragement of dot watchers at home (thank you!).
This is an interesting topic for an FKT but I thought it was worth mentioning. For an FKT it’s important to follow the official route. This sounds like an obvious and simple statement, however, for the AAWT, what is considered the official route is not exactly clear. There is, of course, the strictly official route that is outlined by the national parks. But what about if some of those tracks are completely overgrown or no longer exist? Because of this, there is some ambiguity in what exact route should be taken for an FKT.
For us, we decided to use the John Chapman AAWT guidebook as the answer to the question of what route should be attempted for an FKT. Chapman’s guidebook is arguably the gold standard for the track. In fact, I’ve never met an AAWT walker who didn’t use the book in some way. We think it strikes a good balance of staying true to the spirit of the track by going up every single mountain possible (i.e. not taking the alternate fire road), but also recognising when the ‘official’ route is no longer maintained and should be rerouted. Because of this, we recognise that the official route will change in the future as some tracks are no longer maintained whilst new tracks are made. We think the Chapman book will reflect this and therefore is a good choice for setting the standard FKT route.
Trip Intentions and Verification
Another topic unique to FKTs is trip verification. For us, it was important that we were open about our attempt and made sure to post publicly beforehand about our intentions and start date etc. We provided live tracking and tried to make frequent trip updates when possible. For us, this was worth doing as we wanted to be as transparent as possible.
I thought it would be fun to do a write up of all the interesting tactics Paul and I thought about for our FKT attempt. Most things worked pretty well, but there is definitely room for improvement next time. If you have any questions about our tactics feel free to send me an email. Alternatively, if you have any suggestions for improvements let me know!