2017 Barkley Crew Report from Joe Kelly

My cousin Joe has been a tremendous support over the course of my 3 years running Barkley. After this year, he wrote his own report and I thought I’d share a perspective of the race from someone there crewing and spectating. The crew put in an enormous amount of work themselves to be out there, take care of everything I need between loops, get back and forth between the camp and the fire tower, and to wait, wait, and wait around some more in the same weather conditions the runners have to deal with. I added the photos, but the words are Joe’s. Thank you again to friends, family, and the incredible work of Josh Patton Designs and Howie Stern Photography for the photos.

Before Joe’s report, here are my crew for this year:

My cousin Joe. He’s helped me all three years now, getting more experienced each year right along with me. Photo: Josh Patton Designs
Julian Jamison. Julian crewed for me last year as well and was the de facto team captain this year. Photo: Josh Patton Designs
John Fegyveresi, AKA #12. Fegy became part of my crew mid-race last year and came down to help me full-time this year. Fegy also wrote his own report and of course has a report from his finish as well. Photo: Josh Patton Designs

 


The 2017 Barkley Marathons – A Crew Report

My name is Joe Kelly and this is a story of my experiences during the 2017 Barkley race as I supported and helped John Kelly to complete this horrific but rewarding task. John is my first cousin and we grew up at the base of Chimney Rock and Kelly Mountain near Frozen Head State Park. He’s a few years younger than me and looking back at our childhood I remember characteristics about John that helped him complete this insane race. Now, you are probably thinking, what characteristics can you see in someone at a young age that would apply to the Barkley? Growing up as neighbors on the same farm, me, John, and our older brothers played everything together from cards to video games to sports, including my favorite, back yard whiffle ball!

From left: John’s brother Patrick, my brother Darren, me, and John

We all noticed during these games that John had an extreme sense of competitiveness along with some stubborn ways. It could have been that he was the youngest out of all of us and was just trying to prove something, but who knows. However, no matter what game you played with John, he gave it 110%, and had to win! So, about 20 years later a race at Frozen Head called “Impossible, but Doable” was just an invitation to John!

2017 Barkley Preparations

On Friday March 31st it is prep day for the race of the year. Everyone is at Frozen Head enjoying the comradery of all the runners and looking at the course that Laz has set up for this year’s race. John is working on his two maps and making sure he knows the course to its finest detail. John is saying things like, “I’m really not worrying about the map as much as I used to, I know the terrain very well now,” but he’s still marking every detail on his map as I hold his light.

Plenty of great food to go around before the race. Photo: Ed Aramayo, Cake: Liz Norred

During this time I’m thinking to myself, Laz is going to blow the horn at midnight! Finally John finishes his second map and everything is prepped for the ever so questionable start time of the race. Julian Jamison and John Fegyveresi (Fegy), two of his crew, have everything packed and decide to have a final talk with John before he heads off to bed. We are all concerned that John is not going to get much sleep, but that is just one of the many challenges of the race.

Once John is in bed I drive to my house knowing it will be a long night for me waiting on a message from Julian for the start of the race. I know it has to be early! The last two years it was around 10 AM. Laz won’t do that again! At 2:00 AM I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling wondering to myself, where is my text from Julian, has Laz not blown the horn, what is going on?

The conch. Photo: Conrad Laskowski

Loop 1

Suddenly, at 2:02 AM, I get a text from Julian, “They started at 1:42am.” I knew it! Out of bed, lights on! I start sending text messages to everyone that the race has begun! Calculations, thoughts in my head, how long to the tower? Four hours, maybe? But it’s dark. More like five. Wait a minute, it’s John, this is his year, he is a machine, I can’t miss him at the tower on loop one. He’ll be there at 7:00 AM, I know it! Wait, it’s dark. I’ll have to hike in the dark. Who will go with me at this hour? Back to bed to stare at the ceiling, thinking, I have to go see John. More calculations in my head. I’m thinking, I can drive to Armes gap and be at the tower in one hour. However, I still don’t want to go alone, it just wouldn’t be smart.

More thoughts, and then at 4:30 AM the phone rings. It’s Mike Dyer, (a close friend and Barkley enthusiast), “Joe Lets go to the tower!” I’m ecstatic, and at 5:00 AM we begin our journey up Armes gap with our head lamps shining bright. It’s so foggy you cannot see your feet! We start discussing the mess that Laz has created for the runners. “There will be people lost all over Gobey,” Mike says, as we walk at a really fast pace up the mountain. “You think they will be there by 7:00?” I ask Mike. “There is no way, they will be lucky to be there by 9:00” he says. “John’s 8 hour first loop is screwed,” I say. This is going to be like last year, with no time for sleep! What a mess!

We keep walking, until suddenly we look up and see the Tub Spring Camp sign. Visibility is zero! We look down and notice a large area where some wild hogs had been digging for worms. That made the area feel real creepy in the dark! We start walking up the last steep incline and in a few minutes we walk right into the chain link fence that surrounds the tower. We were both shocked! We had missed the famous Rat Jaw power line, the water station and the Barkley book. We had walked right past all of it in the fog.

We sit down, eat a snack, and wait for the runners. As we sit, we notice that we can’t even see our hands in front of our face. “How will we see the runners?” I ask Mike. There is no one else at the tower. The only two idiots hanging out in the dark, thick fog, looking for runners when you can’t even see two feet in front of you. I started questioning my sanity! At 7:00 AM some other spectators come jogging to the tower to see the runners. There is more talk of the fog and how lost everyone probably is. It’s cold, it’s wet, and those spectators that just showed up in their little shorts, T-shirts, and running gear are freezing their butts off! Mike and I are prepared with big coats because we knew why it’s called Frozen Head!

At 8:00 AM it’s still foggy and finally we hear noises of something on Rat Jaw. We all instantly stand up, focus hard down the mountain, and out of the fog comes a runner! All the cold spectators are instantly warmed with excitement. We all start to cheer as we see two more runners! Finally, it’s John and he is pushing hard with a disgusted look on his face! John tops the hill, hits the main road and I ask him, what has it been like in the fog? John replies, “I couldn’t see a thing. It was a disaster. I’ll need a quick turnaround at the gate.” His frustration shows as he gets his page and chugs some water. Back down the hill he goes and disappears into the fog as we cheer him on.

It’s 8:30 AM, and time for calculations to the infamous yellow gate for John. As we begin to leave Mike says, “With these conditions, it will be four hours at best.” Down the mountain we head in a mad rush slapping our feet against the gravels like ducks. I’m thinking to myself, “I hate downhill. This sucks, what’s the rush? Oh yeah, I need to update Julian and Fegy, I almost forgot!” I pull the ever so nice “flip phone” out of my pocket to call Julian and notice there is no service. I tell Mike, “I can’t call Julian, we have to get back to Frozen Head ASAP!”

Entering Frozen Head. Photo: Conrad Laskowski

Around 10:00 AM I make it to camp after sending what seemed like a thousand text messages to friends and family. I park my truck and walk to the campsite to find Julian and Fegy prepping John’s pack. I tell them, “I met John at the fire tower this morning and he wants a quick turnaround at the gate.” “What can I do to help?” I ask. “Check the batteries for his light,” Julian says. I quickly grab the volt meter and the pack of very expensive lithium ion batteries. Julian then starts talking about loop two strategy for John as we wait for the runners.

At 11:30 AM we all go to the yellow gate to prepare for the pit stop of the century! Waiting, waiting, more waiting. There is nothing like standing at a yellow gate waiting on someone to run up and touch it! Everyone should try it sometime! Finally there are two runners coming up the pavement and it’s John and Gary Robbins coming in strong! Everyone is cheering!

Finishing lap 1. Photo: Howie Stern Photography

John hands Laz his pages and then we move him to a chair. “Eat, Eat,” Fegy says, as I cram a one of a kind, apple butter bagel in his mouth. John is trying to un-lace his shoes as discussions begin about the fog and the time he has left for loop two. “I’ve gotta go,” John says. “What about Gary,” we ask. “I’ll take it easy on the first climb until he catches up,” John says with a mouth full of banana.

Pit stop before loop 2. Photo: Conrad Laskowski

He finally gets his shoes laced, his gaiters in place, and stands up. He puts on his pack, grabs his poles, gets a new number from Laz, and heads off. “Nine minute pit stop” Laz says. That was incredible! As I watch John disappear in the distance I zone out and think to myself that someone should statistically run some data to make a spreadsheet for the estimated times to the Frozen Head Fire Tower during the Barkley for both the runners and the crew.

Starting loop 2. Photo: Ed Aramayo

Loop 2

Fegy speaks and wakes me from my trance, “John could be at the tower at 2:15 PM. He’s a good runner and the weather is perfect!” Instantly there are phone calls, lots of phone calls. “Be at the tower at 2:15” is what everyone is texting. For a moment I’m sitting in a chair trying to relax. I’m absolutely exhausted! I’ve been up all night, walked to and from the tower, and I’m now considering going again. My mom asks, “which way, what trail, how are you going?” As her excitement builds, I get up from my chair and tell everyone, “we need to hurry, we don’t have much time. I am going South Old Mac, who is with me?” Meanwhile mom is trying to call everyone and get them to meet at the easy trail at Armes Gap. I’m still thinking, “I can’t miss John at the tower, I have to leave now! “

It’s 1:00 PM and I start up South Old Mac trail. I’m not sure where everyone else is but I am heading up. I hope the easy trail hikers make it before John gets there. More walking, and I’m tired, and I’m hungry. Keep walking, I tell myself, this is the Barkley! Determined to be there before 2:15 PM, I start thinking what a waste it would be to hike all that way and miss the runners! I think to myself that this is like my own mini Barkley. Two times to the tower in one day. Who does that?

After 1 hour and 20 minutes of hard uphill hiking I finally reach the summit and there are many spectators this time. I see Julian, Fegy, and others just hanging out waiting for the moment they see movement on Rat Jaw. I sit to rest, and more people from John’s fan club come strolling up looking extremely tired from the grueling hike! The weather is far better than it was earlier that morning.

It’s 3:15 PM and there are runners spotted coming up Rat Jaw! Everyone is excited and clapping as Gary and John drag their way up the steep briary trail! John’s family and friends are cheering him on! However, I’m again calculating in my head how much time it took for John to get here and how much time it will take for him to get back to the gate. Man, I need that data spreadsheet bad!

The view we stare at waiting to see tiny dots start coming up the hill. Photo: Kendra Miller

John and Gary make it to the book, drown themselves in water, and tear their pages out. Back down the mountain they go on loop two! I think, “really, just loop two.” It has to be such a demoralizing thought for the runners as they try not to roll down the steep hill. There are three and half more loops to go? It makes me sick at my stomach just thinking about it!

Heading back to the top of Rat Jaw. Photo: Kendra Miller
John and Gary starting the Rat Jaw descent. We have to head down too on another route. Photo: Kendra Miller

We head back down the mountain on South Old Mac Trail. The weather is nice and the woods are beautiful. However, deep down I’m thinking, “it’s such a long walk downhill.” Did I already mention that I hated downhill? Finally, 3.5 miles later we are back at the parking lot and for once I get a chance to go home and take a shower and get some rest. I know. Poor, poor, pitiful me, I have walked to the fire tower twice. It’s so hard! Moving on, I return to camp around 9:30 PM. Julian and Fegy are prepping for loop three. I again check the batteries for the head lamp.

Julian is looking at the very detailed checklist for the pack and I start preparing the food for the next loop and the transition, including the notorious apple butter bagel. It’s 10:00 PM, and we’re again waiting at the infamous yellow gate. I think, this is crazy! Most people will not even stand in line for a free meal, but for some reason we are all standing and waiting for these runners to touch a gate. I swear, there is something wrong with all of us! I mean, we could at least sit in chairs but we don’t. I’m sure there is something better we could be doing.

Finally, at 11:00 PM we see headlights in the distance on Bird Mountain! What a relief! Suddenly the calculations start again and John was not looking real good on time! However, the pit crew has the chair in place at the gate, the food is prepped, and team Kelly is ready for action! At 11:15 PM, Gary and John come running down the trail and the gate is finally touched.

Looking tired but in good spirits they give Laz their pages. Fegy quickly grabs John’s poles, Julian gets his pack off, and I am waiting at the chair to start cramming that oh so tasty bagel down his mouth. Wait? Suddenly John, Fegy, and Julian are heading to the camp site. What is this? Have the plans changed? He needs to be eating and getting new shoes. I instantly grab what I can and fall in behind them to discover that he had to take a bathroom break. I think, “there’s no time for that!”

Julian, Fegy, and I are strategizing and discussing all the options. John returns to camp and tells us he is going to sleep for 25 minutes. What? First a bathroom break and now a nap. He will never finish! This is just after lap two. He needs to be running I’m thinking. Time is so precious! Anyway, John is the boss so a nap it is. We give him some food and water, remove his shoes and socks, and under the covers he went with his little cricket noise machine, ear plugs, and eyeball night shade. I never really understood how he heard the crickets with the ear plugs, but whatever works, right? Now, time for team huddle. Julian says, “he needs to be on the trail before midnight.” “We need to wake him at 11:45,” Fegy says. O.K, we have a plan.

Getting ready after the nap. Photo: Conrad Laskowski

Julian shakes John out of bed at 11:45 PM and it’s like waking the dead! Fegy pounds some more food down John’s mouth and I powder his feet and put on his socks. After the socks are on I grab the fresh shoes and John says, “I don’t want those, they have like 300 miles on them. Give me those shoes.” He points toward one select pair in the van. Finally, the proper shoes are being installed on his feet like a new set of Goodyears. We talk to him about strategy and try to encourage him by telling him what a great job he is doing and how good he looks! After what seemed like an eternity we are marching back to the yellow gate to meet Laz so John can get his number. John is off before midnight heading up Bird Mountain looking strong in his low mileage shoes!

Ready to head out on loop 3. Photo: Josh Patton Designs

Loop 3

It’s time for calculations again. We decide he can’t be at the tower before 7:00 AM. It’s time for me to go home and get some sleep myself. Sunday morning as I am sleeping the phone rings at 8:30. It’s a text message saying John was reported at the tower around 8:30. As I’m still half asleep I think that’s not too bad for a night loop. It’s maybe a little long, but he is still O.K. I arrive back at camp at around 9:30 AM to help prepare for loop four. When I get there, camp is calm and not many people are stirring about. Julian is again going over the very detailed checklist, and Fegy is talking about food and calories. He’s convinced at this point that John needs to be eating more, so he suddenly starts trolling the food supply for some high calorie options. Fegy tells Julian he is going to lay all of it in front of John like a mini Barkley buffet during the pit stop.

I start my usual routine of checking the batteries, preparing the apple butter bagel, and making some of the food for the next loop. As we finish packing, there is more talk of strategy. We think at this point John has roughly a three to four hour buffer on total time. However, he is still not back at camp and the clock is ticking. We go back to the yellow gate at 10:00 AM to wait for John and to prepare for the NASCAR style pit stop of the century! Again, we are all standing, waiting, and looking for runners. It seems as if this is the highlight of the Barkley Marathons. Standing at the yellow gate. You could end up waiting several hours just standing around and talking to each other about Barkley horror stories and where the runners are on the course.

At least we have a fire to wait by. Photo: Ed Aramayo

Suddenly a random guy on a motorcycle drives up to the gate like he owns the place and tells us, “10 minutes, two runners just came off the trail.” The crowd at the gate instantly doubles in size as people are eagerly waiting for the arrival of Gary and John. At 11:00 AM, both Gary and John reach the gate looking very strong and determined. They give Laz their pages and it’s time for the newly labeled FJ&J (Fegy, Julian and Joe) pit crew to perform!

Quick discussion to prepare as laz counts pages. Photo: Kat Bermudez

Quickly John goes in the chair about 10 feet from the gate where we are set up. Spectators are swarming but we are focused on getting John a quick turnaround to loop four. I decide to start with his shoes so his hands could be available to feed himself with as many calories as Fegy can throw at him. John looks at Fegy’s smorgasbord of food laid out on the asphalt and notices homemade oatmeal cookies with icing in the middle (compliments of another runner who has been tapped out) John’s eyes light up like a Christmas tree. “I want that,” he says with his finger pointing at it like bird dog on a cubby of quail.

Pit stop before loop 4. Photo: Ed Aramayo

Finally the shoes are off, socks are off, and his feet are looking good! After I put powder, socks, and shoes back on him I let him tie his own shoes because I figure he is particular about the tightness of the laces. Plus, if they come untied, it is not my fault! After devouring the Big Mac sized oatmeal cake, John notices on the Fegy buffet some cold pepperoni pizza and starts chowing down! Fegy is pumped! John says, “I’ll take a piece to go too.” Carry out pizza for a Barkley runner. Little Caesar’s should get in on the action! I take the whole bag of pizza to the yellow gate and stage it so we are not late on the carryout.

Fegy going over his menu. Photo: Josh Patton Designs

John stands up, heads to gate, gets a slice of pizza out of the bag, and asks Laz for a number. Laz asks John, are you sure you have everything? Laz was probably thinking, “loop four in such a quick turnaround, he had to have forgotten something.” Without blinking, John throws his whole FJ&J pit crew under the bus! “If I don’t it’s their fault” he jokes as he points to us and crams that piece of delicious pizza in his mouth. John then grabs his number and is off like a race horse for loop 4! Meanwhile, I start second guessing everything we had in his pack!

Final touches before starting loop 4. Photo: Kat Bermudez

Loop 4

John is off at 11:30 AM to run loop four of the Barkley Marathons during the day! This is insane, I’m thinking! He looks good, he feels good, he ate well, he did not seem tired, and suddenly I think to myself, “there is nothing that can stop him now!” Calculations, calculations, check the time, how long to the tower? Julian, Fegy, and I are strategizing like crazy as if we can do something while John is out on the trail. Finally we decide that John could be at the tower as soon as 2:15 PM. Well, back to the tower for me. I’m starting to think that John’s Barkley adventure is going to kill me just from the hiking back and forth to the tower.

I grab my jacket and head home for a quick stop to grab the kids and let them hike to the tower. We then drive to Armes Gap. Yes, I’m taking the easy trail this time because I have the kids, I’m tired, and my feet hurt! We finally arrive at the Armes Gap trailhead at 1:05 PM. I have my brother, his girlfriend, and my two young daughters tagging along for some Barkley action! Up the trail we go and I notice that they are already lagging behind. I look at my flip phone for the time and it’s not good. We have to be there by 2:15. I notice that my brother and his girlfriend have the look of regret on their face and I am sure they are thinking, “what the heck am I doing out here?” “It’s hot” my daughter Shelby says over and over again. I tell her to keep walking! We can’t stop until we are at the tower.

It’s hot and we’re tired, but the woods are beautiful. Photo: Ed Aramayo

I finally round the corner at Tub Springs and I power walk up the last 1/2 mile of incline to the tower just hoping in my mind that I will arrive to see people still waiting. I’m hot, sweaty, and breathing hard, but I’ve made it for the third time and notice that people are looking down Rat Jaw! What a relief! It’s time to cool off and drink some water. It was so hot! I started to think to myself how hot John and Gary will be when they are coming up that crazy hill.

At 3:45 PM, there are sightings on Rat Jaw! Everyone is on their feet, yelling and screaming as John and Gary make their way up to the water. They are miserably hot! They’re continually pouring more water on their head than they’re drinking. Considering the heat, they still look good and are in good spirits. They talk of some navigation errors that they both made and how much sooner they would have made it if it had not been for that. They fill their water bottles, tear their pages out of the book, and down the mountain they run with the blazing hot sun scorching them all the way down! Julian, Fegy, and I talk about John, how he looked, and the fact that he is doing great and still has about three hours of a cushion on total time. We decided that John could be back to the gate as soon as 10:30 PM but more likely 11:30 PM. Another late night is what instantly went through my head.

Heading back to the Rat Jaw descent. Photo: Josh Patton Designs

I round up my crew and we slowly walk down the mountain. This time, there is absolutely no hurry to be back at camp! Sunday evening at 9:30 PM I arrive at camp awaiting to see my cousin who last year during this lap came in not even recognizing who I was. I am nervous! I keep having these bad thoughts in the back of my mind as I start doing my part in prepping his stuff for loop five. Again, batteries, bagel, shoes, everything is in check. We have done this routine four times now and John has not complained yet so we must have done O.K. At 10:45 PM, we pack everything for the last time and we head to the gate knowing that there is no other option than a quick turnaround. Time is getting short and we know that loop five is going to be close. Again, gate waiting. It seems like we spent hours upon hours waiting at that stupid gate doing nothing but talking about things that could have happened on the trail.

Waiting at the fire again. Photo: Ed Aramayo

At 11:45 PM there is a glimmer of light at the top of Bird Mountain. Could it be? Is it a star? Is it really a light? Everyone is looking in shear suspense and yes, it is moving! It must be them. John and Gary have completed loop 4 and will be touching the gate any minute. How will they look? How will they feel? Will they start loop five? Which way will each one go? The questions are going around like crazy but we are all excited about the shear abuse these two guys have put themselves through over the last four loops. Something seems wrong with us being excited about that, but oh well. At 12:10 PM John and Gary are within sight and they are running side by side.

They touch the gate and turn their pages into Laz. We grab John’s pack and poles and are off to the chair for some food and major discussion! We are all amazed! John is very alert! He is eating! He is talking! He even knows who we are! He is eager to go again! I am motivated and I start tearing at those shoe laces like a duck after a June bug! I am thinking, this is loop five and John still has a brain! He will never quit now! We have to get him back on the trail.

John asks if he should nap. No, we say, you look good! “But if I sit still I fall asleep,” he replies. As I start removing his socks I think, “that is not a hard problem to solve, don’t sit still and keep moving.” I continue with my job of powdering his feet and putting on his socks and shoes. I notice that his feet appear to be quite sore. There seems to be a twitch every time I touch them! Fegy and Julian are really getting him motivated for the loop to come and that is just what he needs. Fegy questions John about his food and if all the storage locations in his pack were O.K. John mentions that something was inaccessible, and in my mind statements like that mean John is obviously coherent and fine!

Preparations for the final loop. Photo: Josh Patton Designs

We then mention to John that the weather report is calling for rain and we ask him what his plans were for rain gear. He said, “I’ll just get wet. As long as I’ll be warm I’ll be fine” Finally his shoes are tied, his pack is on, and he is heading to the gate under his own power for loop 5! Wow, what a difference from last year when we basically shoved him to the gate and told Laz to give him a number. At 12:20 AM, John grabs his number and is off up Bird Mountain. Laz then starts ringing the bell for the final lap! Just a few seconds later John is already past Upper Kelly Camp! (This is the area during the previous year where John took a nap on loop five). What a success!

Gary then heads out not long after in the opposite direction. The crew is pumped as we shake each other’s hand, talk about how our job is finished, and the rest is up to John! But wait, calculations, what time to the tower? We can’t forget that! I mean, who would miss a runner on loop five of the Barkley at the fire tower, right? We all agreed that John would need that extra motivation and encouragement. Fegy grabs his chin, looks to the sky, and says, “7:30 AM is the soonest he can be there, but it will be more like 8:00.”

Loop 5

We all depart for the night and as I drive home I start thinking, am I really going to walk to that stupid fire tower again for the fourth time? I am tired, my feet hurt, and it will be early. All these thoughts continue running through my head as I finally lay down and turn on the weather channel to get an update on the rain. Scattered thunderstorms for Morgan County starting at 6:00 AM. What will John do at Rat Jaw!? That is the time he should be there. “He will never make it if it is that slick,” I say to myself. I can’t hike to the tower in the rain. I’ll get wet. All these bad thoughts rumble through my head as I fall asleep.

Bang! At 6:00 AM big thunder rolls me out of bed and it is raining so hard it sounds like Niagara Falls! My feelings drop for John and I think, “loop one in the fog and loop five in the rain, how much worse could it get?” I suddenly fall back asleep knowing that I would never make it to the tower in those conditions.

At 8:30 AM the phone rings. It’s a report that John was spotted near Rat Jaw but was moving like a slow snail! Wow, I am going crazy! He’s still moving! More calculations. He has five hours and twelve minutes to get back to the yellow gate during this torrential downpour. “Can he do it?” my wife asks me. “Of course he can do it!” I tell her with great excitement. I drag my stiff body out of bed and eat some nice warm oatmeal. I look at the clock and decide that I need to be at the gate no later than 10:00 AM. Deep down I know that this will require me to stand at the yellow gate in the pouring rain with the rest of the dreary onlookers, but that’s O.K.

Waiting again. This time in the rain. But there’s still a fire! Photo: Ed Aramayo

When I get to camp I notice that Julian has packed his tent, the camp area is pretty bare, and most of the people have gone home. Everyone else is standing around Laz’s tent and campfire just hoping that at least one of the runners will make it. “What a success it will be” we start saying to each other as we start the countdown to the final 1:42 PM deadline.

“One hour,” Laz shouts as we cringe in fear that neither runner may make it back. “Forty five minutes,” Laz shouts as we start talking about how bad it would be to make it to the gate with all thirteen pages just a few minutes or even seconds past the deadline. Fegy then starts talking about how statistically Gary should be back before John and every minute that passes is not good for Gary’s odds. On the other hand, Julian is talking about how it is going to be close for John. Perhaps even down to the final minute. I then start telling people that John never quits and he knows how much time he has. If he has to, he will sprint off the top of Chimney Rock and crawl to the gate if that is what it takes to finish.

Laz calling out the time. Photo: Ed Aramayo

Laz asks, “where are they right now, to make it back in time?” We all start thinking in our own head of a location in the woods. But do we really know? It has rained all morning and both runners could be piled up under a rock somewhere asleep. John, keep moving, I say to myself! Butterflies fill my stomach as we start getting close to the deadline and everyone is getting nervous!

My parents, John’s aunt Marcia and uncle C.A. Photo: Kat Bermudez

The finish

Suddenly there are screams! Could it be? Which direction? What is it? It’s John! He’s running up the road and everyone is in total shock! Could this really be? John Kelly is going to finish the Barkley Marathons with time to spare. What a story! He runs to the gate and grabs it with both hands and instantly you can see the emotions in his face as he realizes that he has just completed one of the hardest endurance races in the world!

All the pain and agony came down to this very moment as Laz looks at John with a big smile and holds out “The Easy Button.” John smacks the button. “Well that was easy,” the button says. It was just another way for Laz to rub in some more of that shear pain that the Barkley puts on the human body and mind. John, quickly going for the zipper, pulls his little zip lock baggie full of wet pages and hands them to Laz. Laz counts the pages. The suspense is killing everyone! Finally, 13 pages! John Kelly has just been labeled as the 15th finisher of the Barkley Marathons in 59 hours, 30 minutes, and 53 seconds! His wife Jessi instantly hugs him with tears in her eyes! “You did it babe,” she says over and over again!

Celebrating, sharing stories from the race, and refueling John one last time. Photo: Josh Patton Designs

I take my big coat off and put it on John’s back as I know he must be freezing to death. We all notice that he has a shredded grocery sack wrapped around his shoulders and an orange toboggan on his head. The FJ&J crew is thinking, “we didn’t pack that.” John then talks about how he found those items on Rat Jaw and thought they would come in handy. Looking back, I don’t think the grocery sack did much because he was drenched from head to toe!

We all started thinking about the difficulty of the five loops and what it must have been like to have been out there on the trail. This year there was an early morning start, loop direction changes, extreme fog, high temps, and torrential rain. With all those, John still completed a race that will go down in the books as one of the hardest Barkley Marathons ever! As John sits and shivers with many friends and family close by, he is still waiting on Gary. Deep down you can tell he is more interested in Gary making it to the finish line than most of the questions people are asking him. John is cold and in pain but insists on waiting at the gate.

As John continues to sit in the cold and talk to various people everyone starts cheering. We all look up and it’s Gary running toward the yellow gate. We all start cheering him on but there’s a problem. He’s coming from the wrong direction. Gary makes it to the gate under his own power but once he touches it he collapses to the ground. Very winded, he starts explaining to Laz that he has all his pages, but took a wrong turn on top of Bird Mountain in the fog.

John, looking puzzled, pulls his map out of his pack and hands it to Laz. Laz looks at the map and instantly sees where Gary made the mistake. Due to running off course, Laz could not give him credit for the 2017 Barkley. However, under true Laz fashion, he gave Gary a big hug and said a few words. Laz then knew what came next. He would have to have him “tapped” out. Everyone was in complete shock as the bugle was playing! It was emotionally tough! When the taps were over, John gave Gary a big hug! Gary and John then returned to their camp to rest, recover, and warm up.

Walking back to the van. Photo: Kelly Brooks

All of John’s family and friends were very excited for John and stayed around camp to congratulate him on a race that he actually began 3 years ago! I will never forget the way I felt when John touched that yellow gate after loop 5. I was so happy knowing that he had finally achieved his goal and also that I played a very small part in helping him get there. I am so proud to say that he is my cousin! I knew from his first attempt at the Barkley Marathons that he was a horse worth betting on!

12 thoughts on “2017 Barkley Crew Report from Joe Kelly

  • April 24, 2017 at 2:31 pm
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    What a great article! I loved this Joe… it made me feel like I was right there!! 😊

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    • April 26, 2017 at 7:28 pm
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      Glad you enjoyed it, and Joe has loved seeing how much people have related to it!

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  • April 24, 2017 at 3:57 pm
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    Joe Kelly, well written. I remember watching the anticipation of family, friends and others at the tower and then again at the gate to see the runners, especially John. Thank you for sharing.

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    • April 26, 2017 at 7:30 pm
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      Thanks for your support as well, and Joe was thrilled to be able to share this

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  • April 24, 2017 at 8:40 pm
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    Both of those boys, John and Joe, are my nephews! A very proud aunt, Brenda Kelly Shelton

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    • April 26, 2017 at 7:31 pm
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      Thank you Brenda, and thanks again for those cookies that Joe put in my pack for each loop!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 8:37 am
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    Great write-up Joe – it was fun to relive the experience all over again! And thanks for all your help throughout the weekend (last year and this year).

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    • April 26, 2017 at 7:35 pm
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      Joe was particularly interested in yours and Fegy’s feedback, so it’s great to hear that you enjoyed it!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 12:38 pm
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    Really loved the “insider view” here. Congrats to the crew on what was a hugely successful weekend!

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    • April 26, 2017 at 7:36 pm
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      If Barkley had a prize, the crew should get a nice chunk of it for their own success. Glad it gave you a new view of the race!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 12:52 pm
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    Awesome support crew and mission accomplished for John. 24 years after my “fun run” finish in 1993, I envy those who tow the line and challenge themselves on “being out there.” Congrats on 5 loops.

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    • April 26, 2017 at 7:37 pm
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      Thank you very much Steve. I couldn’t have done it without these guys, and it’s always great to hear from someone who’s been out there and experienced it themselves and really knows what it took.

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