I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.
As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.
I wanted to get my thoughts on why I’m doing this “Grand Round” out ahead of time, before they’re forever altered by the pain, joy, and experience of actually doing it. For my own sake as much as anything, I wanted them crystallized in writing and set aside for me to reflect on afterwards. Because honestly, I’m terrified. This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley, and I haven’t been this terrified of anything I’ve attempted since my very first attempt at Barkley. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; actually I’d say the opposite.
You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometimes well you might find You get what you need
We’ve all at some point or another had those lyrics stuck in our head, and we’ve all probably had a number of situations where they were quite appropriate. I think a key word that really gets overlooked, though, is try. You don’t just sit there and have what you need fall into your lap.
Training for Barkley is a bit of a conundrum as it is. There are so many variables involved in the race that it is impossible to optimize training for all of them. This year I had a couple more wrinkles thrown in: I was getting ready for a big move and trying to somewhat hide the fact that I was doing Barkley. At the same time, though, I had the benefit of more experience and more confidence under my belt, and a much different mindset approaching the race.
I have no idea what this post is going to end up looking like. I just have some thoughts that I want to attempt to get out, and we’ll see where it goes.
I’ll also preface this by saying that this is 100% my opinion and feelings on what I do and why. As far as I’m concerned, what anyone else does is completely up to them and none of my business as long as they’re not endangering others. And that’s my main goal I guess is to try to ensure that people aren’t needlessly doing stupid things for the wrong reasons or without the proper training and preparation on account of me. I have 3 kids, and after seeing my 4 year old scramble up a briar and scree-covered 60 degree slope like a mountain goat a few days ago I know that there are enough problems my genes will cause without adding me setting a poor example.
So the general topic of this post, at least, is the trend in endurance sports of glorifying pain, needlessly disregarding sensible safety precautions, and trying to look like the biggest, hardest “badass” instead of just going out there for the personal challenge and the experience. Some people probably are going to have problems with this or get offended by it, but I feel like I need to say it, especially with people out there putting their lives at risk for nothing more than taking a cool selfie.
“I was urinating dark dirt brown”
Again, what someone else chooses to do to themselves is up to them and I really try to not single people out in any sort of negative light, but it’s hard to broach this subject without mentioning “the hardest man alive” and I do have a problem with this kind of stuff being passed off as motivational or as an example to others. For the context around the title of this section, see the excerpt from his blog posted here. (I’m not a reddit user myself but this is what came up when I Googled that anecdote). If you have more time on your hands you can also listen to his interview on the Joe Rogan podcast.
The guy is tough, no question. He has an amazing life story, has accomplished some unbelievably incredible things, has done great work for charity, and has no doubt inspired a lot of people. That’s all awesome. But I don’t view unnecessarily putting yourself at serious risk of major health complications or even death as a positive example and I don’t want anything I do to influence someone in that way. He was in real need of medical attention and continued on, making it even worse, for the sake of a race. And frankly, not even an “important” one. Some things are worth it, some are not.
That’s especially the case when the risk is primarily caused by lack of proper preparation. I’ve mentioned before that I’m all about jumping in the deep end and seeing if I can swim, but when I start to sink and someone throws me a life preserver I’m not going to say “no thanks let me enjoy the pain of water filling my lungs.” I’m going to get out and use the knowledge I just gained to know what I need to do the next time. Even when risking your life might be worth it, like in actual war, you’ve gotta know when to cut your losses.
For me, the pleasure has never been in the pain; it’s been in overcoming the obstacles that cause the pain. This is a perception I find myself coming up against constantly, with Barkley being viewed as a “masochistic” race. And yes, I do voluntarily put myself through and force myself to push past a lot of pain. There’s just a line, and for me that line is when I’m creating a high risk of permanent or long term health consequences.
This is something I haven’t told many people, but after IM Mont-Tremblant, where I was pushing for the age group win and my first sub 9 hour Ironman, I peed red. Blood red. It was like Kool-Aid. Did I stand there and laugh and say “oh man, look how tough I am!”? Nope. It scared the absolute @#%& out of me like few things ever have. And it gave me serious pause as to whether I should be doing what I was doing.
I told the doctor in the med tent, and she had me wait around until I could use the bathroom again. Fortunately it was clear the next time and she said it was just dehydration. If it had been red again, or brown, good chance I wouldn’t still be at it, at least not at the same level. My health, and my ability to grow old and be there for my kids, is far more important than finishing some race in some certain time. And yeah, it’s a real fine line to walk. I want to find what I’m capable of and inspire my kids and others, showing them what you can accomplish if you really set your mind to it and work for it, but without going too far.
Amelia Boone has also put her body through some incredibly tough things and accomplished some amazing feats. She’s a 4 time world champion in obstacle course racing, has been called the “Queen of Pain,” and even with her consistent success in OCR she wanted to branch into ultrarunning to continue challenging herself and pushing her boundaries. I also have a great deal of respect for her and consider her a friend. She knows that some risks are worth it and that sometimes you have to back off, e.g. by focusing on health instead of running Barkley with a fractured heel and pushing further past the breaking point (pun not originally intended, but I do love a good pun… sorry Amelia 🙂). She isn’t afraid to share that with people and expose that she’s not, in fact, invincible. Note: to be clear, nothing in this post is Amelia’s thought or opinion; I’m just using her as an involuntary example.
Then why do I do it?
There are quite a few reasons. And sure, one of them is because I’ve always been super competitive and love having something I can compete at now that my stellar grad school intramural softball and flag football career is over. I could easily find something for that competitive urge that doesn’t involve continuously pushing my body to the brink, though (anyone up for a game of ping-pong?).
The main reason is that I love to discover new things about myself: most of all new strengths and new things I never thought I was capable of, but also what my weaknesses are (hi swimming, my name is John). That translates to so many other areas of my life, ones that matter much more than some race through the mountains in Tennessee, and I hope translates to other people’s lives as well.
I’ve had the great joy of being able to do that through an activity that I also love: running aimlessly (randomly, if you will) through forests and mountains. So I get to kill two birds with one stone, and I hope that everyone is able to discover something that allows them to do that: whether it’s running, analyzing data and writing code (oops, that one’s me too), music, reading, traveling, or any of the other countless hobbies out there.
At the end of the day, that’s all I am: an overly competitive guy doing the hobby I love who has had the good fortune of discovering that I’m also rather good at it. I’m not a badass, or a stud, or a hero, or a legend, or a warrior. I appreciate the sentiment, and I know people mean well, but to be honest I just feel a little awkward whenever anyone calls me those things (and what do we then call people who actually are those things?). In fairness, though, taking a compliment in any form has never exactly been one of my strengths.
But whether you’re a proponent of those terms or not, I think the key here is that I do these things out of internal motivation, not to try to show people how tough I am. I greatly appreciate the words of encouragement I receive and I’m really, truly amazed and grateful that people can take motivation and inspiration from something I do (that’s one reason I have this blog in the first place), but otherwise I wouldn’t care if people even knew that I run.
And if you want to call me something, then John will do just fine. Or for a select few, Dad. Or, since I’m moving to a country where they still hand out crowns just for coming out of the right womb, I guess King of Frozen Head will also do. 😉
I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. The whole moving to the UK thing hasn’t left much time for writing blog posts. On the running side, though, here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to in the past month.
I did this as a fun project and challenge on my home turf, not really as anything related to Barkley. It was a personal challenge, and I chose to share in hopes that it would motivate others to set their own big challenges, or to come visit the park to challenge some of the records. I think it’s safe to say, though, that Brett’s record isn’t going anywhere. Probably ever. Plus, no one will ever run that same course again… it totally wouldn’t trigger the segment on Strava.
Even by my standards this is really, really late for a race report. But that is in no way a commentary itself on the race, I’ve just been a bit busy with the whole moving to another country thing. It was an extremely well organized event with a great community and a challenging course that I came away from with quite a few lessons. Thank you to Rob Goyen, Trail Racing Over Texas, and the volunteers who put this race together, and also to Gina Fioroni, John Sharp, and Jaime Aparicio, my impromptu crew who turned out to be invaluable when things didn’t exactly go as I planned.
Now that we know for sure where I’ll be located this year, I can start to plan out the year a bit more. But first, a quick look back at 2018. The idea of a ‘year in review’ has always seemed a little arbitrary to me, as I view my goals as more of a continual progression, but I do think it’s useful to occasionally pause to take our bearings and appreciate how far we’ve come. And the start of the new year is just as good a time as any!
Or Kellentry? Usexit? I don’t know, I’m not very good at this. I do know that I at least outlasted the other John Kelly in DC, but after five and a half years in the DC area (the longest I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home in TN), we’ll be moving on in April. That is, assuming our destination doesn’t implode on March 29. Sorry, 29 March (gotta get used to that).
If you don’t care about the why, or any other details, here’s the important info:
When are we moving? April
Where? Somewhere near Bristol, England
Is it permanent? No, temporary while I build out the development team at our company
Where to next? Not sure, but hopefully finally to a “permanent” spot where we can settle down and our kids can grow up, likely somewhere in the VA / NC / TN area
Are you going to run races in Europe? Dang sure better believe it
Why are you moving? Well, that’s what the rest of this post is for