2017 Barkley Marathons Quick Recap

I’m hoping to get to my full race report in the next week, but I wanted to go ahead and get a quick recap and some thoughts out. The past few days have been pretty crazy, and it’s still kind of hard to believe. I owe a huge thank you to my family, awesome crew, and companies that supported me. I needed all of their incredible support and commitment to get me to that gate a 5th time. Having 30 minutes might seem like a nice cushion, but just 8 minutes more per transition, or just 30 seconds more per book, and I would’ve been over.

Brief race recap

The early start meant I only got about 30-40 minutes of sleep beforehand, and the dense fog early on caused absolute chaos. I still feel horrible; all those people were relying on me for navigation and in the fog I failed. People separated and rejoined multiple times, a lot of time was lost, and by the end of the loop it was just me and Gary at the front. We had agreed to stick together by that point, as we were both moving at a solid pace and the name of the game was disaster avoidance.

Gary and I worked well together: him the by the book navigator always checking bearings, and me the instinctive navigator who read and followed the lay of the land. By loop 4 we had put ourselves back in good position, but we started to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. Things that were familiar appeared to not be familiar, and we made a few critical mistakes that changed the narrative from “easy loop 5 after a nap” to “tight loop 5 with no nap.”

Coming in from loop 1. Photo: Ed Aramayo

Gary and I had originally both wanted clockwise on loop 5, but partway through loop 4 he agreed to do the other direction. I had been transitioning between loops much faster than him and he wanted the certainty ahead of time to think about his direction. I’m still extremely grateful for this, and it was a huge stress relief to not have to figure it out later or race each other out of camp. He led the rest of loop 4 as practice in that direction.

I had plenty of time on loop 5 but couldn’t afford any mistakes, which the sleep deprivation put me at a big risk of. I ended up taking two naps on course, though, (possibly three) and navigated flawlessly. Fortunately foot pain and cold rain helped keep me alert.

Coming up Rat Jaw on loop 5, with a bit of extra gear I picked up out of the briars. Photo: Ed Aramayo

After seemingly blacking out and becoming disoriented after collecting my last page, I ran down Chimney Top and through camp to the gate not because I wanted to sprint to the finish, but because I thought that I might fall asleep if I went any slower. Finally touching that gate was an unbelievable feeling. It had actually happened. It was real, and my mind could relax and think about things other than staying awake.

Coming in to the finish. Photo: Tyler Landrum

After I sat down I fully expected to see Gary come in from the other side at any minute. His fatal mistake and resulting end was absolutely heartbreaking, I don’t view those last 2 miles as the difference between 100 and 0, though. It’s the difference between 100 and 99, and what Gary accomplished out there is tremendous. I know he’ll bounce back and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Waiting. Image courtesy Howie Stern Photography

Post-race

First, I seriously can’t believe the overwhelming support and the incredible messages that I’ve received since the race. As I explain a bit in my FAQ, I’m an introvert and generally not a people person. I ran Barkley for internal reasons, the primary one being to find my own limits and see how far I could push them. I would have been fine if no one outside of the park had ever known. Getting messages that I’ve inspired or motivated so many people is incredible, though, and a greater reward than I would have imagined. (also though, when I say overwhelming I do mean that literally… I apologize if you’ve sent me something and I haven’t responded yet).

Otherwise, though, I’ve remained pretty out of it since the race. The toll that that 5th loop took on me was an order of magnitude beyond what 4+ did last year and I haven’t really been able to process and enjoy things yet. I believe in a previous year Jared Campbell jokingly told laz that a loop “extracted part of his soul” and that’s honestly how I feel right now.

These are by far the least of the recovery issues right now. Image courtesy Howie Stern Photography

I’m sure that recovery will happen over time, though, and any part of me that was extracted will be returned stronger from it. I can at least already feel my appetite returning, and although it was a few days late I finally got to treat myself to a KrispyBo today! (for a bit more info on my actual nutrition, please see my FAQ)

My wonderful creation I call the KrispyBo: two Krispy Kreme doughnuts with a Bojangles’ cajun filet patty in the middle. I allow myself to eat one of these wonderful monstrosities twice a year (once after each of my main races). This particular version was cheesecake on bottom and maple iced on top.

24 thoughts on “2017 Barkley Marathons Quick Recap

  • April 6, 2017 at 8:29 pm
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    It was absolutely fantastic to follow your progress all weekend, as well as over the past couple years during your Barkley journey. So much determination and so very pleased you have reaped the rewards of your tenacity. Congratulations! Oh, and you can have another four of those KrispyBos … one for each loop.

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    • April 8, 2017 at 2:04 am
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      Thank you. Haha I have gone up to two KrispyBos before (plus a BoKrispy), but I think five might have pretty disastrous consequences

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  • April 6, 2017 at 8:51 pm
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    What a great effort John. You and Gary are great ambassadors to the sport. I grew up in Tennessee and remember visiting Brushy Mountain Prison (on some kind of sadistic field trip – can’re member exactly why). I remember thinking that place was on another planet; even considering that I lived in the middle of nowhere. 100+ miles in those woods. I can’t even imagine. Congrats — what an amazing accomplishment.

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    • April 8, 2017 at 2:03 am
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      Thank you. It’s certainly a unique place, and one that I love.

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  • April 6, 2017 at 9:44 pm
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    Amazing and inspiring feat John!! your determination thru all the challenges you faced out in the forest is unbelievably awesome. It was an epic event, a story of the ages and I congratulate you on over coming everything to touch that gate 5x.

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    • April 8, 2017 at 2:01 am
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      Thank you! In the end, the extra challenges made it all the sweeter

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  • April 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm
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    We need this right now. Thank you for being so strong.

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  • April 6, 2017 at 10:07 pm
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    Hi Mr. Kelly! I just wanted to congratulate and thank you for your amazing run at the Barkley last weekend. I’m a college student who’s never gone longer than 50k, but I got a little obsessed with the race and have been inspired enough to run some steep slopes around campus. After your finish, all I want to do is buy a neon orange hat and go find the steepest, foggiest, thorniest hill available and run up and down it all day. Thank you!

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    • April 8, 2017 at 1:58 am
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      Thank you, and good luck with your races! I’d recommend avoiding the briars, though, and maybe see what other color hats are available… Rat Jaw was just sold out of all the good ones. 😛

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  • April 7, 2017 at 7:23 am
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    I may not run but I do get out there. My walking seems like nothing compared to this. My 101 miles at last years 3 day event with John seems like nothing. Rest, recover and savor this victory. It can never be taken away.

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    • April 8, 2017 at 1:56 am
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      Thank you, and that’s quite impressive on your own end. You’re right; I’ll have this forever as will John. And now he also has a second one that he was a key part of.

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  • April 7, 2017 at 7:29 am
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    John you are a unique and wonderful individual. Your family is very excited and proud (and relieved) that you completed the Barkley. You approached this challenge with the same determination and thoroughness (maybe stubbornness?) that you have displayed for the other challenges and opportunities in your life. My favorite part of the race was seeing the footage of Jessi running after you, hooping and hollering, as you touched the yellow gate for the fifth time. The joy on her face reflected the relief I think you felt in your mind and heart about finishing. I know she’s been a big part of your success and I applaud her as well. I hope your recovery goes well. Next time you visit Tennessee, we’ll have a toast to celebrate your accomplishment. Love you all!

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    • April 8, 2017 at 1:54 am
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      Thank you very much! This was as much Jessi’s as mine, and I’m lucky to have such unbelievable support from her. Not to mention unbelievable support from family who can make me a whole slew of homemade food to keep me going. 😉 #transitionbagels

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  • April 7, 2017 at 9:20 am
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    Mr Kelly,
    Outstanding effort and an Extraordinary feat of sheer will to survive. Pulling things out of the briars to use for survival is that added situation of you doing what ever it takes. Again… Just OUTstanding!!

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    • April 8, 2017 at 1:53 am
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      Thank you! The bag probably didn’t help as much as I was hoping, but the hat was definitely a fortuitous find.

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  • April 7, 2017 at 10:06 am
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    Dear John Kelly,
    Congratulations seems so minor to what you have accomplished, but here it is! I am a mother of a son who just completed his first ultra trail race (Chuckanut) of which I went and supported him. I had never been to a trail race before and what I saw in the culture of the competitors there, I absolutely loved: the genuine concern and camaraderie for each person was infectious! I had never heard of the Barkleys until my son sent me a link just after the race and I have been addicted ever since. As everyone is telling you, you are an incredible human being: for accomplishing such a feat but also for being such a caring human being. To hear and see you so concerned for Gary was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. I hope you recover physically and emotionally very quickly and I hope you and your family are having a well deserved rest. Thank-you for being such an inspiration to so many people!

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    • April 8, 2017 at 1:52 am
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      Thank you, the community is one of my favorite parts about ultrarunning! Best of luck to your son in his races!

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  • April 8, 2017 at 9:51 am
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    John,
    Just wanted to send a quick congratulations to you on this massive accomplishment! It was so great to follow along with your race over those 59:30 hours and hear that you did it!! Hope you continue to recover and eats lots of donuts!! Congrats again

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  • April 10, 2017 at 10:07 pm
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    Dear Mr. Kelly,
    I am almost 59 and only been running for 4 years. The last 2 of these have transitioned into trail running. I only heard of the Barkley marathon a few months ago through a Canadian outdoor magazine article called “Get Out There” magazine. The article talked about how unique this event was: the history, the registration, the letter of condolence, the cigarette lighting, the pages of the books. But what amazed me was how challenging it was, the elevation, the sleep deprivation, the utter exhaustion.

    I enjoyed so much about this post. How you and fellow Canadian Gary Robbins worked so well together. Appreciated why you ran Barkley. I know Barkley is WAY out of my league, and I have so much respect for people like yourself who put themselves up for the challenge of running it. To “find your limit and see how far you can push it” has inspired me, and I have registered for the 50 mile North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario.

    Congratulations on such an incredible achievement. I sincerely you return to full strength very soon.

    Sincerely,

    Carl Wright

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    • April 11, 2017 at 11:11 am
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      Thank you very much, and I’m glad that you’ve found a love of trail running. Best of luck with your 50 miler; TNF Endurance Challenge races are great events!

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  • April 11, 2017 at 9:53 am
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    Read about the race and your win on Deadspin. I had never heard of the Barkley before but it’s always very cool to see humans push themselves to the limits of what’s possible in any form, be it endurance races, big wave surfing, etc. Congrats.

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    • April 11, 2017 at 11:14 am
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      Thank you very much! This was certainly right at my limit at least. I don’t think I could have gotten a single climb more.

      Reply

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