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.
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
I thought I’d be one year and done in triathlon, but the sport and the challenge of trying something different sucked me in and resulted in a great, fun few years. Unfortunately, though, time is finite. It’s time to spend the last years of my prime (for endurance sports) focusing on the thing I love even more and am best at. But first, one last race, as a pro, at Ironman Arizona. Sarah Wassner Flynn did a great write up for Triathlete Magazine on my journey and my race this weekend.
When it comes to racing as a professional triathlete, John Kelly’s triathlon career will be one and done. John Kelly is a standout age-grouper triathlete who has had a very impressive 2018: multiple podium finishes, an 8:58 Ironman PR, and a world championship title.
My last post was one of the more serious ones I’ve ever done. You might expect me to say that this one is not… but I don’t mess around with my junk food. See, I try to eat healthy most of the time. My normal diet is pretty clean, I actually pay attention to which nutrients I need and get, and I almost never eat fast food or drink anything other than water. So when I do indulge, it had sure better be good. I ain’t wastin’ my junk food eating on junk.
With that said, there is always an exploration vs exploitation tradeoff. In my quest to find the best, there must be some experiments along the way. If that experiment doesn’t result in something absolutely superb, then I will never waste my time or calories on it again. Mediocrity doesn’t cut it. Only the best.
Kona was again an awesome experience overall: a great week before the race with Team EMJ, and a better week afterwards with Jessi. For the race itself, though, I’m honestly not 100% sure where to start. I made no secret that my goal was to return and make it on to the podium after falling just short in 2017, and that a year of training was focused on that. I managed a sub 9 hour finish, a time at Kona that I can be proud of by any measure, but I fell well short of the podium. I am incredibly fortunate to have even been able to pursue that goal, and oftentimes the pursuit of a goal can be more valuable and enjoyable than its achievement.
So I’ve had a lot of shifting and at times conflicting emotions since the race, and I’m not even sure that how I feel now is how I’ll feel next week. I don’t even know where this post is going to go exactly. I’m just going to transcribe my thoughts as best I can as they come to me. Some of those thoughts I’m going to compartmentalize into separate posts, though, as I want this post to be about my race itself rather than about larger issues within triathlon (Ironman specifically).
The ITU Long Course World Championship was an unforgettable experience and I can’t thank enough my wife and family and others who made it possible for me to come to Denmark to represent the USA. Standing on top of the podium with an American flag is definitely one of my proudest sporting moments. Sure, it’s an amateur age group win, and I’m not exactly very fond of triathlon age groups, but I’m still going to enjoy that it’s a world championship and a gold medal (ok, probably a nickel alloy with a goldish colored plating on it, but, close enough).
Coming out on top of my age group by just 32 seconds still feels a bit surreal, and on reflection I think it gives me a bit of early closure on triathlon – I feel I can walk away at the end of the year without regret, satisfied with the goals I’ve accomplished. I owe an enormous thank you to my wife and other family and friends, including my Team EMJ teammates and the companies that work with us, any of which could have easily made the difference of 32 seconds.
A large number of condolences went to extremely strong women in 2018, so much so that laz dubbed it the ‘year of the woman.’ Unfortunately some of those strong women didn’t make it to the starting line for one reason or another, but there were still some very good contenders in the field this year. Quite a big deal has been made over the years about the lack of a woman finisher at Barkley, and laz loves to get people (and especially talented women) riled up by saying a woman can’t finish.
Had a great time interviewing Amy Leedham. She’s a gifted trail runner and continues to improve. Also had a chance to catch up with John Kelly to hear about his 2018 races along with crewing the Barkley Marathons for Gary Robbins.
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. – John Wooden
This year my return to Barkley was a much different experience for me, but one that may have taught me as much as any of my previous three trips there. I witnessed some amazing performances in some unbelievable conditions, and had the honor of crewing for two of those athletes. Sometimes it’s not the completion of a goal itself, but the experience and the lessons learned in pursuing it that are the most valuable. Seeing close up the attitude and perspective that Jodi and Karine, Gary and Linda, and others had this weekend in the face of the tough conditions and the resulting “failure” was a true privilege, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me.
The weekend allowed me to see things from an entirely new perspective, experience what my own amazing support system has gone through the past few years, and reflect on how some incredible people handled adverse conditions and outcomes that were far from their goals. Thank you so much to Jodi and Gary for inviting me to be a part of it.
If you just want to find out what happened to Gary’s headlamps, click here.
Or if you’d rather just see the footage I grabbed while out there, head over to Youtube (thank you to James DeFilippi for the camera for the weekend).
I’ve put together some on-course footage, pictures, and commentary from my time crewing and acting as a random course checkpoint at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. The video and audio quality is pretty horrible, but this is what I got so it’s this or nothing. And maybe grainy, noisy footage is appropriate for “on-course” Barkley coverage.
This one was nearly a year in the making, starting with the incredible photos that Alexis Berg took at the 2017 Barkley Marathons and then adding interviews with me, Gary, and laz. The editing and production here is incredible, and the result is a 20 minute film with portions that get me to relive the experience more than anything else I’ve seen to this point. (English with French subtitles)
La course la plus difficile du monde se déroule chaque année dans les forêts du Tennessee. Vous allez comprendre pourquoi en regardant le formidable documentaire vidéo, ” La Barkley sans pitié “. Une production @lequipeExplore
No. No I’m not running Barkley this year. Yes, I’ll be crewing (plus some other stuff). And yes, Gary is one person I’ll be crewing for. But there’s another Canadian that I actually committed to first. And no, it’s not *just* about the maple syrup. I’ve been waiting three years to be able to pay Jodi and Karine back for all the help they gave me in 2015 during my first attempt – before Barkley was widely known and before I had absolutely any idea whatsoever what I was doing. After Jamil and I completed a Fun Run, I crashed pretty hard. The people in this video feverishly trying to help me when I’m at my lowest of lows are my wife and dad, and then two people I had never even met before the race: Jodi and Karine. A lot like me last year, Jodi is a bit of an unknown, but anyone who knows Barkley history knows what he’s capable of. I’m looking forward to helping him reach that potential.
TWOT 100 was a great weekend retreat to the mountains, somehow relaxing yet at the same time one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I came in just under the wire (23:48) for a goal that I honestly had serious doubts about being able to do: almost entirely self-supported sub 24 on 112 miles of mostly rough trail with 30K ft of climbing. Congrats to John Fegyveresi and the other runners I got to share the experience with (and who had to deal with much worse conditions than me), and a huge thank you to RD Antoinette Landragin, founder and true legend Dennis “The Animal” Herr, and the volunteers for making an event like this possible. And of course my wife for making an event like that possible for me to do by taking on the kids solo this time for a couple of nights.
John Kelly is an ultrarunner with a triathlon habit. In April 2017, John became only the 15th person in history to finish the infamous Barkley Marathons. He finished in a time of 59h30m33s – only 27 seconds before the 60-hour race cut-off.
As far as racing goes, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to top 2017. After working towards a number of goals for the past few years, they all seemed to converge at once. I raced at Kona (and had a pretty good race to boot). I started the year with my first overall win in any race of any form since Kindergarten (TWOT 100), and then I finished the year with another, actually getting to break the tape for the first time (Lookout Mountain 50 Miler).
Two of my races ended up resulting in national championships (Miami Man Triathlon and Lookout Mountain 50 Miler). They’re really titles in name only, as I wasn’t actually competing against all the best in the nation, but maybe they can at least cover for those state titles I never could get in high school.
Then of course there was Barkley. Barkley was my Super Bowl. My World Series, World Cup, green jacket, ok you get the idea. It had been my focus for years, and most other races I had done were merely training for Barkley. Finishing was an achievement for me that I really don’t know if I’ll ever surpass athletically.
More than that, though, the journey to finishing Barkley taught me invaluable lessons that extend well past the bounds of athletic achievements that are admittedly somewhat arbitrary and in the big picture rather inconsequential. I came away a stronger, smarter, and better person from the experience (which would have been true even without the finish), and that ability to take on and reach goals with seemingly assured failure will apply to pursuits in all areas of my life.
In addition to the unbelievable support I received from my wife and family, I was also fortunate to become more a part of the ultrarunning community: some of the most supportive, giving, and fun people there are. I’ve made incredible friendships with people who have done amazing things, and essentially everyone I’ve met is someone I would enjoy hanging out with.
I was able to find a similar group of people with Team Every Man Jack, and enjoy the benefits of teammates who truly want everyone to achieve the best result they’re capable of. In the meantime I got to learn, oftentimes the hard way, how to navigate the world of social media and sponsorships.
So where does that leave me for 2018? That’s a good question. I’m down in San Antonio right now, with my first race of the year tomorrow at Bandera 100K. I’m honestly just here to get a Western States and Spartathlon qualifier, and don’t really have any intention of doing much more at this one. Even if I did, there a good number of people here a good deal faster than me (men and women) and I hear there are zero briar patches or hills so steep you can reach straight forward and touch them where I can make up ground on those people.
I will be back at TWOT 100 in February, with the goal of lowering my course record to sub 24 hours. It’s a pretty big stretch goal, but it’s one I’m excited about and right there in my zone of difficulty that will keep me motivated. And it also has those steep hills I need. And I’m out of prize apple butter.
I’d also like to go for a few fastest known times this winter, possibly the Maryland 4 State Challenge and/or the Benton MacKaye Trail. Those will be pretty dependent on weather, family plans, and work, though.
In April I’m doing the London Marathon, which will actually be my first marathon not dressed in costume in nearly four years. I’m excited to see what I can do now, but at the same time I’m not going to build my training around that.
Then, my final season of competitive triathlon begins. After this year, I’m going to ultras full time. There are a lot of ultra goals I have that would happen during what has been my triathlon season. I also feel like there won’t be much left for me to pursue in terms of goals in triathlon, at least not enough to get me to keep subjecting myself to swimming. Doing different triathlons doesn’t excite me the same way that doing different ultras does. The races just don’t, and can’t, have the same level of uniqueness.
With this being my last year of triathlon, though, I want to make sure I come out of it knowing that I reached my potential, and being completely satisfied with the efforts I put in to it. So throughout these next few months I’m going to try to do something that I haven’t done the past few years: continue to work on my bike and swim.
I’ve already joined a Masters swimming group, and have continued to do my bike commutes the last couple of months. Last year I was 2 minutes off my age group podium at Kona, after coming out of the water in 854th place. Originally I only planned on doing Kona that once, but now the goal is to go back one more time and see what I can do if I learn how to swim and strengthen my bike a bit.
I’ll be going for an early season Kona Qualifier at IM Boulder at the beginning of June, a time at which in years past I would have only recently gotten back in the pool and on the bike after dedicating the winter to Barkley training. If I don’t qualify at Boulder I’ll probably take one more shot at a later season race.
In the middle of the season I have the awesome opportunity to go represent Team USA at the amateur Long Course World Championships in Denmark. I’m pretty excited about putting on the Team USA kit and seeing what I can do.
Then after Kona (if I make it there), I might do one final “victory lap” in triathlon by grabbing my pro card and racing as a pro at one last race. It’s one of those things that would be cool to look back on when I’m 85, and I don’t want to be disappointed at having the opportunity and not ever taking it.
Then, then I burn my goggles and wetsuit. Ok no, I’ll probably at least sell the wetsuit. And I might do a recreational triathlon here and there in the future, but I’m definitely never training for the swim again. Maybe I’ll do an occasional competitive duathlon (if I can find one that’s long enough) as I do enjoy biking and feel like I can keep up my fitness there without it adversely affecting my ultra training.
But otherwise, it will be all ultras all the time. I’m already excited about some of the ideas I have for 2019. A lot can happen in a year, though, and who even knows where I’ll be at the time. So for now, those will just remain as ideas lurking in the back of my mind.
Good luck to everyone with your 2018 goals! Reach far, don’t be afraid of failure, and enjoy the experience not just the outcome. Even if 2018 race goals aren’t reached, the pursuit of them should leave you better from it come 2019, and that should be the main goal above all.
As for me, I truly might not be able to top my personal 2017 outcomes, but I can guarantee at least two things: 1) I will continue to push my boundaries and never regress in terms of challenges and continuous improvement, and 2) I will seek to help others reach their goals, as the sum of outcomes across many will always be able to exceed anyone’s individual outcomes.
While the elite road runners of the world were at the New York City Marathon, and a lot of ultra runners were recovering from races like Javelina Jundred and Pinhoti 100, I ran a local 5K! The real performance of the day came from my 3 year old son, though, who crushed the one mile fun run. I originally signed up for the 5K because it was right after that and I thought, why not have my own fun run (by the normal definition, not the Barkley definition)?
This isn’t really a race report, as obviously I would never do a report for a “race” like this (I did throw a small one in, though). This is more a set of unexpected lessons I took away from the experience and if anything it’s more related to training than to racing. I’ve posted before about choosing goals and failure when pursuing them. This looks a bit at using component-level goals to build towards those main ones. A lot of training components go into meeting my primary racing goals, and having individual goals for each of those components is an effective, and fun, way of improving.
And in case your news feed was buried in football and you missed the first American woman winning the NYC Marathon in 40 years, check out the finish video below (this was the only video I can find that appears to actually be licensed on youtube).
I had a great time this week chatting w/ Rob from Training For Ultra – everything from Barkley, to triathlon, to goals and limitations. And whisky. Still holding out for that George Dickel sponsorship. 😉
The main question that arose out of the previous post was, “what is just the right amount of difficulty?” I advocated for setting stretch goals where failure is a likely outcome. I still believe that more benefit can be realized by falling short of a stretch goal than by overachieving on an easy one, but just sending yourself on fool’s errands isn’t very productive. There’s a tl;dr at the bottom of the post if you’d rather skip to the bullet point version.
This isn’t a Western States post, but it’s one that it inspired. This also steals almost entirely from a talk I gave a couple of months back for my high school’s honors night (if you really want to see the video, it’s at the bottom). I hadn’t planned on posting it, but with some of the discussion I’ve seen this week I felt like I should.
My results have steadily improved since my Boston Qualifier at the 2014 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon, honestly far beyond what I originally thought I would be able to do. In 2016 I became 1 of 16 people to ever make it to the 5th loop at the Barkley Marathons, set a Guinness World Record for fastest marathon dressed as a videogame character, and finished 2nd overall at Ironman Maryland. This year I’ll be returning to Barkley and in triathlon I’ll be making a trip to Kona to race in the Ironman World Championship as part of Team Every Man Jack.
JFK 50 is America’s oldest ultra, local for me, and it was on my birthday this year… how could I not sign up? It was also my first big, well-known ultra and a great opportunity to get out there and knock the rust off of my trail running legs after my triathlon season ended in October. I enjoyed the race, it turned out to be a beautiful day (at least while I was on the course), and for the cherry on top I got to share the experience with my dad while he was in town.
I ended up in 8th, something I didn’t think I had a shot at given the conditions, and Jim Walmsley broke the record in a 54 year old race by over 13 minutes.