LOS ANGELES — Tim Freriks remembers being a kid and gazing up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon at the intimidating, steep walls looming thousands of feet overhead. He dreaded the long hike back to civilization and never imagined he would one day run up the trail snaking along those cliffs.
The distant memory came to mind this month after Freriks blazed from the North Rim to the South Rim at a blistering pace, crossing the 21-mile (34-kilometer) chasm to claim what is called the "fastest known time," or FKT. There was no prize, only bragging rights to the unofficial record that has become a focus for athletes in all kinds of pursuits on trails, mountains and cliffs.
Endurance feats at what amounts to warp speed have captured the imagination of an increasing number of trail runners, climbers and mountaineers. Social and mainstream media now create attention for the once largely solitary figures and audiences for their accomplishments — and sponsorship dollars sometimes follow.
Freriks' "rim to rim" run in under 2 hours and 40 minutes was one of three notable marks recorded this month alone.
A French winemaker took fewer than three days to cover 221 miles (356 kilometers) up Mount Whitney and across the John Muir Trail through Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. Two California rock climbers broke a speed record climbing the sheer granite wall of El Capitan in Yosemite in under 2 hours 20 minutes — a climb that typically takes experienced climbers three days.
These increasingly popular quests have been driven in part by development of lighter gear, growth in long-distance trail running and the ability of people to follow athletes' progress online, said Shawn Bearden, an avid trail runner and physiology professor at Idaho State University.
And some people are just bucking traditional contests and racing when they want.
"The FKT stuff is a cool dynamic," said Freriks, who slept under the stars on the rim of the canyon the night before his Oct. 1 run. "It's competitive, but the other side of the coin is it's impromptu. You're out there alone a lot of the time. There isn't much publicity. It feels more pure."
There's a long history of adventurers setting out to conquer firsts. Sailors have long attempted 'round the world journeys for record time. Swimmers have successfully tested the English Channel since 1875. But bagging Mount Everest "because it's there," as George Mallory famously said before his ill-fated 1924 quest, isn't enough for some mountaineers now pushing the limits through thin air to reach the summit fastest.
"I think it's a natural human tendency to keep pushing back the human boundaries of what's perceived to be possible — like trying to set a world record," said Peter Bakwin, a Colorado trail runner, who created a website to track fastest times.
Treks and climbs that once took months, weeks and days are now being knocked off in weeks, days and mere hours.
As keeper of the unofficial record, Bakwin has also found himself as reluctant arbiter of whether a claim is legit. What was once self-reported on the honor system can now be backed with global positioning system data, digital photos and social media posts.
A woman's claim to the fastest time on the Appalachian Trail last year was widely questioned by other hikers and remains in dispute.
Even well-accepted marks are often fleeting.