First-ever FKT recorded in Colombia

May 27, 2021

On April 26, 2021, Chaski Coach and HOKA pro runner Emily Schmitz became the first woman to set an official Fastest Known Time (FKT) record in the country of Colombia, a country she’s called home for the last decade. She covered the nearly-50-mile route (well-known by cyclists but without an official running record) in 8 hours, 36 minutes, and 45 seconds. In this interview, Emily shared some thoughts on the route, training in Colombia during the pandemic, and how the big day went.

Tell us about the route you decided to go for. Why’d you choose this particular route? What’s the route like?

After living in Colombia for over 10 years I wanted to share some of the local routes I had gotten to know, specifically during the past few years when I have dedicated more time to running and racing in different parts of the country. The first time I saw the Alto de Letras was by car, driving down from its highest point 3,677 meters,12,063 feet above sea level, to Mariquita, a small, subtropical town located about 150km from the capital city of Bogotá. The road is long (80km or 50miles) and gains 3,700 meters (12,140 feet), averaging an incline of 4% as it winds between green pastures, cows, and coffee farms. It is referred to as “the longest climb in the world” and is well-known amongst local cyclists. Colombians are really strong cyclists. If you follow cycling at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I knew of a few ultra runners who had taken on the challenge before me, and wanted to try it myself.

Give us a bit of context -- your situation is unique as an American living in Colombia. How’d you end up there? What’s the last 14 months been like for you with the pandemic? How has it affected your life/training/racing?

It was honestly a bit of an unplanned decision, I never intended to stay for so long. I always told myself I would just stay “ six more months”, and somehow those six month stints added up to ten years. There was always something more I wanted to do, a new project I wanted to take on, or some new place to explore...

When the pandemic hit last year, we immediately went into strict lockdown. We were allowed to go outside only for essential reasons.  Not even exercise was allowed for the first six weeks. I had a very homemade static bike stand that worked by removing the front tire of my MTB and balancing the back tire across PVC tubes. It served its purpose. After six weeks we were allowed to go outside within a 1 kilometer radius of our home. This restriction was in place for a long time, almost 5 months. In August of last year, it was finally lifted. As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, it was difficult for me. I learned that cities are really great places to live, as long as you can leave. Bogotá is surrounded by lush mountains, but for almost a year we weren't allowed to access them.

Was this your first attempt at an FKT? How did it compare to a traditional race for you?

Yes! This was my first FKT attempt. I really love the FKT format, it gives you space to be creative and invent your own route, your own reasons behind what you’re doing, and the conditions you want to do it in. You’re competing against other athletes, but the focus is really on bringing out the best in yourself. I had a lot of support from my coach and teammate, who came out to support me. It meant a lot to me. It made it a group project.

This route was basically a 50 mile continuous climb. Did you try to break it up in your mind? Were there particular moments that stand out as really positive or really negative?

Toward the end of the route I started breaking it up into smaller segments, taking on 10km at a time. The second half of the climb is much more challenging than the first half, in part because you are starting to get into higher altitude, and because the road gets steeper as you near the end. Breaking it up into small segments helped me mentally take it on.

It was a challenging route for me. I am normally a trail runner, and Letras is basically a highway, completely paved. While there are a few flat parts and some slight downhill segments, the majority of the route is really consistent. This is really different from trail running, where you will find varying terrain.

Are aggressive dogs along the route a problem? (Asking from personal experience)

Surprisingly not! I have been on roads with really aggressive dogs, but I only encountered a few along the way.

This was the first “official” FKT recorded on the FKT website. Is there much of an FKT culture in Colombia that’s offline, or is this a relatively new concept?

This past year has definitely sparked an interest in exploring new routes, and even creating unofficial records. The closest thing to FKTs in Colombia might be found on Strava, where there is a fairly active community of runners competing against one another on leaderboards. Alto de Letras is on Strava, but only for cycling. When I first got the idea to do this route, I started looking for official times and records, but it was mainly word of mouth. I heard rumors about records on Alto de Letras but there was no official information.

Are there any other routes in Colombia you have in mind for FKTs (either for yourself or simply for others to tackle)?

There are so many routes that would make amazing FKTs. Colombia is a really geographically diverse country, and you can find snowy mountains, tropical jungles, and everything in between.

Do you plan to run any traditional races in the coming months? Do you have any other FKTs in mind?

I hope to be able to start racing soon! I have high hopes for the summer racing season, and am looking forward to it. I have just been vaccinated, and am planning on running races in Europe this summer.

I would love to run another FKT, and have some projects in mind. I really enjoy creative running projects, and FKTs allow you to do exactly that.

What’s one thing that most people don’t know/would be surprised to learn about Colombia?

Colombia is a country of contrasts. In Bogotá, where I spent the majority of my time, you can find desolate high altitude mountains characterized by the páramo, an ecosystem unique to the Andes region that lies above treeline but below the permanent snowline and is abundant with fresh water springs and relatively untouched by human population. Below, just a few kilometers away, lies Bogotá, Colombia’s largest city, with an urban sprawl made up of almost 10 million habitants. The Andes mountains are full of unknown trails, and local trail runners are passionate about the sport and delighted to share their local routes.

— Emily Schmitz

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