Gnarly Athlete Ashly Winchester: Lessons Learned Running 50 FKTs
Gnarly Athlete Ashly Winchester: Lessons Learned Running 50 FKTs

Gnarly Athlete Ashly Winchester: Lessons Learned Running 50 FKTs

I started my journey into Fastest Known Times (FKTs) in 2019. I had known what FKTs were for a number of years, occasionally catching wind of a new FKT on the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim of the Grand Canyon or on the John Muir Trail (Nuumu Poyo). I always thought FKTs were out of my reach, reserved for the elite of the elite. But after I snagged my first FKT on the Bay to Ridge Trail in January 2019, I was hooked. I knew that I’d be chasing FKTs for the foreseeable future, and I have not looked back.

 

ashly winchester trail running

 

I recently celebrated my three-year anniversary in FKTs. Over the last three years, I’ve collected more than 50 of these speed records. Throughout this process, FKTs have redefined who I am and what I’m capable of. They've given me a means to meet other amazing athletes, and to connect with other women in the industry to interview for my podcast, Women of the Wild. FKTs have given me a reason to train my body and my mind, and to go explore the incredible wilderness spaces that we all love so much.


Maybe it seems a little over-the-top to say, but I would argue that FKTs have changed my life by teaching me some great life lessons, making me a better person.


So I’d like to share five lessons that I learned from running my first 50 FKTs.

1. Plan extensively, then go with the flow.

An FKT attempt takes extensive planning. You need to know the landscape you’ll be running through, where potential water sources are, the splits you need to hit, and what the weather conditions will be like. You need to know what gear to take and how your body handles the weight of the pack. You have to train for the distance, the speed, and the terrain. You need a plan A, plan B, Plan C, and what the heck, throw another plan in there in case of emergency. However, no matter how much you plan, something is almost always going to go awry.


As a person who feels the need to know exactly what I’m going to encounter, when I will encounter it, how long I will encounter it for, and whether or not I have the ability to handle it, planning comes easy to me… but the “something going awry” part can derail me, in FKTs and in regular, everyday life.


So I’ve learned to go with the flow when things are out of my control. One of my mantras is “Be Water.” Be fluid, yet powerful. Shift within your confines, but remember that you have the capacity to break through your embankment and change your course. This allows me to be more present and more flexible, and being flexible has translated into my daily life in unexpected ways. I find that I’m better able to switch tasks while working and I can handle uncertainty with more grace.

 

ashly winchester in the desert

 

2. I am far more capable than I think I am.

I remember when I first started running FKTs, I would often write off a route because I didn’t believe I was capable of handling the distance, the terrain, the speed, or some combination of the three. The first time I saw the Joshua Tree Double Traverse, I didn’t think I’d be capable of running 74 miles through the desert unsupported. I wrote it off as impossible for me.


A few months later, I found myself on a climbing trip in Joshua Tree National Park. My fingers were destroyed by climbing on the area’s infamous monzogranite, but my legs felt good, so I decided to give the double traverse a try. The undertaking was relatively low risk since there were plenty of road crossings that I could use to bail out if I needed to. And you know what? I did it. I completed the double traverse and set the first Female Unsupported FKT on that route. 


That experience completely redefined what I thought I was capable of. My list of potential FKTs grew significantly after that, as did my confidence. I started wondering what else I could do. What am I capable of? Not just in FKTs, but in my professional career, my relationships, and general mode of living?


My tune has changed from, “I can’t” to, “maybe I can.”

 

 

3. Stay Curious.

Running FKTs has helped me adopt a mindset of playfulness and curiosity. Curiosity has always driven me further; What’s behind the next corner? What’s over the next hill? That mindset of maybe I can mentioned previously is a result of this line of thinking, and it’s helped me overcome fears and tackle obstacles.


When I ran the Bridge Mountain FKT in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, I was nervous about the section of 4th Class scrambling. I’m not one to take on a lot of risk, and exposure can sometimes get in my head. I decided to give it a try anyway, because, well, maybe. I was curious.


When I rounded a corner and got my first glimpse of the scramble-y section, I thought there was no way I could do it. But I decided to get up to the base of the climb and have a look. I could always turn around, after all. I wasn’t obligated to do anything. Once I was at the base of the climb, it didn’t look so bad, so I continued on to the summit. That day ended up being one of my most memorable and fun days out.


I used to be fearful of running through the night, of multi-day efforts, and of sleep deprivation. Staying curious has helped me prevail over these things. How many times have you looked at a race or a climb and immediately wrote it off? What about that job you’ve always wanted? What if you got curious and gave yourself the opportunity to go for it?

 

 

4. Fuel for Success. 

There’s a saying in high-altitude mountaineering that goes, “Fuel to summit.” It means that in order to succeed in your goal, you need to eat. Fueling is an important (perhaps the most important) aspect of training and succeeding in your athletic goals.


I used to have a pretty toxic relationship with food. I verged on anorexia in high school, and after high school, I would alternate between bingeing and restricting food. Diet culture forced into my head that certain foods are “bad” and that calorie restriction was how you lost weight to look thin (and therefore, good). Insert eyeroll.


This mindset made it extremely challenging to optimize my training and recovery. I bonked frequently in training and in hard efforts. I ended up with chronic injuries that almost ended my FKT pursuits. I would do anything to recover from those injuries and become stronger, so I educated myself and learned about how important fueling is before, during, and after exercise. 


I worked on the mental aspect of overcoming an eating disorder, improved my diet, ate more regularly, stopped restricting food, and added in supplements to aid in recovery. Gnarly BCAAs were the first product that I ordered to aid in recovery. Now, with proper nutrition and supportive Gnarly supplements, I’ve achieved some of my biggest goals, and have started making plans for greater things to come.

 

 

5. Failure is a Gift. 


When you think of failure, what do you think of? The definition of failure is “the lack of success,” and most people operate along this line of thinking. However, I don’t see failure as a negative thing. Failure can be viewed as an opportunity; you can find success in failure.


While I have more than 50 successful FKTs, I have attempted many more without success. I have a whole list of failures to my name. I’ve learned that with failure comes opportunity. If you’re willing to explore your failures, to dive in and seek out the causes and survey the depths, you might come away with better insight into why you failed. That insight can help you make better plans for the future, to train better, or to avoid certain things. Failure can be formative, but you have to make it so.


Some of my proudest and best days in the mountains have been days that I’ve failed. I am proud of myself for making the decision to quit for my personal safety. I’ve allowed myself to slow down and enjoy the views and the flowers because I fell behind my splits. 


Within each failure there are big lessons, and those lessons, if you’re willing to explore them, can make you a better athlete. And since I don’t see failure as a negative anymore, I allow myself the opportunity to try new things or to go for something that may seem out of reach. Trying is better than not trying, and if it ends in failure, I’ll make sure to learn from it.

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