Ashly Winchester says she’s “technically from California,” but she spends most of her time on the road, travelling around the U.S. in search of her next adventure. Winchester is an ultrarunner, but she rarely races these days (and not just because of COVID-19), instead focusing on fastest known times (FKTs). With 39 FKTs to her name so far, Winchester owns the most of any woman, and she says she doesn’t see this obsession ending anytime soon.
Winchester started to take running seriously in 2010, but she says she has always loved the outdoors. “When I was a kid, my parents would shoo me and my brother out the door,” she says. “I grew up with a lot of respect for the outdoors and for nature, and that kind of spurred this need to be outside a lot.” She says the outdoors became “a kind of coping mechanism” for her, which made running a natural outlet for her when she needed to decompress.
“The more I ran, the better I felt and the more clearly I could think,” Winchester says. After a while, she decided to test her fitness in a race. She started with a 5K and worked up to the marathon before training for an ultra. She ended up running a pair of 50K races just a few weeks apart, posting great results in both events.
Even after her success in those runs, though, Winchester says she didn’t feel a passion for racing. “There was something about races that just wasn’t my jam,” she says. “I love the camaraderie, and the events are fun, but I felt like something was lacking for me.” It was at this point that she decided to take a break from running, switching her focus to backpacking and climbing instead. When she eventually found her way back to the sport, she decided to combine her passion for adventure with her love of running and endurance challenges.
“I kind of just started to go, ‘I’m going to do everything adventurous and find exactly what makes me feel alive,'” she says. Not long after rejoining the running community, she met Jason Hardrath — a fellow runner and mountaineer who today owns the most FKTs of anyone (he currently sits at 93). After connecting through their shared interests and passions, the pair began dating, and when Hardrath got into the world of FKTs, Winchester followed. “I tried them and was kind of hooked from the start,” she says.
Among the best
When Winchester first started running FKTs, she worked as a veterinary assistant, but she left that job to feed her hunger for adventure. “I really wanted the freedom to do what I’m passionate about,” she says. She transitioned into a career in freelance writing and started her own podcast, Womxn of the Wild — two jobs that she can perform anywhere in the world.
Her first FKT came in January 2019 on a 59K route in Palo Alto, Calif., called the Bay to Ridge Trail. She has since run 38 more, which is the third most of anyone in the official FKT rankings and the most among women. Winchester only recently grabbed the top spot on the women’s list, passing fellow American Marcy Beard (who owns 33 FKTs), which she says is a goal she was chasing for a while. With that title firmly in her grasp, Winchester says she doesn’t have specific goals moving forward. She might shoot for second place overall, which currently belongs to Ben Nephew, who sits 29 FKTs ahead of her in the rankings with a total of 68 (although she notes that Nephew is still running FKTs and adding to his tally, making catching him a difficult task).
“There’s also this very big part of me that’s sort of like, “OK, I’ve got a lot of FKTs, maybe I should start focusing on bigger, more specific things.’ I kind of want to start focusing on bigger, longer trails. Whatever I choose, I don’t see this stopping anytime soon.”
When asked to pick a favourite FKT that she has run so far, Winchester can’t come up with one answer. She points to Telescope Peak, a 50K run with more than 3,500m of elevation gain through California’s Death Valley National Park that she completed in November. She had failed to complete this route before, and so going back and finding success makes it stand out as a potential favourite.
Then there’s Mount Shasta, a 4,300m peak in California where Hardrath created an FKT. This was the first mountain Winchester ever climbed, and she now works as a guide there. “I love it on Shasta,” she says. “It’s my home mountain.” Her history on this route makes it an obvious favourite.
But she can’t forget Mount McLoughlin in Oregon, an almost 60K route that involves circumnavigating and then summiting the mountain. Winchester says she was “terrified” going into that run, which has no established trails on the route’s east side, making for a treacherous trek. When she completed that run and climb (becoming the first woman to do so), she says she gained so much confidence in herself.
She won’t ever be able to pick a favourite because, really, all 39 of her FKTs have certain aspects that put them in the running for that title. Her next run will also be a favourite, and so will the one after that, and that’s because every FKT — no matter where they are — will give Winchester the chance to be outside, fulfilling her passion. “It makes me feel alive and it’s where I can really be myself,” she says. “I feel 100 per cent me when I’m out in the wilderness. That’s where the magic happens.”