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Max King Sets FKT Around Mount Hood—Well, Sort Of

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There’s a new fastest known time for running around Oregon’s Mount Hood—sort of.

On October 28, elite runner Max King completed the 40-mile Timberline Trail in 6 hours 40 minutes 40 seconds, unsupported, setting what he calls the “modern” FKT. Although a runner named John Coffey still holds the overall FKT for the trail—6 hours 24 minutes 33 seconds, set in 1982—a massive flood in 2006 drastically changed a section of the trail; the “modern,” post-washout route is slower.

Iconic Route, Complicated Record-Keeping

The Timberline Trail circumnavigates Oregon’s highest peak, 11,239-foot Mount Hood, and boasts panoramic views of fellow Cascade Range giants like Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainer and the Three Sisters. Backpackers usually cover the strenuous route, with roughly 8,000 feet of vertical gain, in three to four days.

“It’s in my backyard and one of my favorite trails in the world,” says King, 35, of Bend, Oregon. King is known for his record-setting wins across an astounding variety of disciplines, including track, road, trail and obstacle-course racing. “It used to be a race in the ’80s, so I wanted to see how I could stack up against the times they were running back then.”

In 1982, John Coffey won the now-extinct Timberline Trail race in 6:24:33, the overall course record by almost 19 minutes. As he had the help of aid stations along the way, his record now stands as the trail’s supported FKT.

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Mount Hood on a glorious, sunny day. Photo by Flickr user pauljess999Creative Commons 2.0

In 2006, a large flood roared through a section of the Timberline Trail, the Eliot Creek drainage, washing out the trail, destroying the footbridge across the creek and tearing away massive cliffs on either side of the creek.

After the incident, park officials closed the Eliot Creek crossing, and it remains closed today; daring runners and hikers are able to use a system of ropes to make their way down and out of the steep, dangerous and highly technical drainage. Although there is some talk of building a new bridge across the area, unstable cliffs of volcanic debris, scree and precarious boulders continue to pose a danger.

Because of the newfound difficulty of the Eliot Creek section, besting Coffey’s supported time on the Timberline Trail has so far seemed a far cry. Thus, runners now chase the post-washout FKT—acknowledging Coffey’s record while still pushing the limits of speed on the trail.

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King steps back for a selfie during his FKT on the Timberline Trail

King of the Mountain

The night before his attempt, King packed his car and left his home in Bend at 9:30 p.m., arriving at the Timberline Lodge parking lot at 11:30. He slept in his car and, at 7:30 the next morning, took off.

Prior to King’s attempt, Tyler Green, 31, of Portland, Oregon, held the “modern” FKT. His time of 7:28:15, set on September 27, was just a hair under the 7:29:56 run by Ryan Matz and Ryan Ghelfi in July.

King, however, had to be back in Bend by 4 p.m. to coach a youth cross-country practice, leaving him only six-and-a-half hours to run the entire trail.

“The attempt was definitely on the fly and improvised,” he says. “I hadn’t had a day where I could get away.”

Wednesday, October 28, was a pretty typical Pacific Northwest day, raining on and off, and King didn’t see another person for the entire 40-mile loop. He made it through the Eliot Creek washout without issue, and pushed through the final uphill—the last section gains about 3,000 feet in 10 miles—despite being totally soaked and wind-chilled after all the rain.

“Had anything happened that would have slowed me down I would have been in a world of trouble. Life on the edge,” King says. “I made it, just a little late”—6:40:40, a new “modern” FKT and the second-fastest time overall, after Coffey’s.

“I’d say it went pretty well,” he continues. “The Timberline Trail’s always an amazing experience whether you take your time or do it fast. I would like to go after Coffey’s time at some point. I’ve known about his race time for quite a few years and really consider that to be the real FKT.”

Related: It’s Good to Be King: How could America’s most versatile distance runner consider himself mediocre?