This Triathlete Will Make His Pro Debut at Ironman Arizona—And Then Retire

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.

This Triathlete Will Make His Pro Debut at Ironman Arizona-And Then Retire – Triathlete

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.

 

Tour de Kona – Ironman’s drafting problem

Tour de Kona – Ironman’s drafting problem

Update: If you’re a triathlete and want to help do something about this problem to ensure that everyone gets a safe, fair race, please fill out Team EMJ’s survey.

My actual job is as a data scientist, so of course I have a need to try to look at the numbers and try to quantify things. A lot of variables play into how much drafting helps in a triathlon, but we can still look at some general data to get a broad idea of its effect.

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2018 Kona Ironman World Championship

2018 Kona Ironman World Championship

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).

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2018 Kona Training

2018 Kona Training

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a full year now since I raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona. After coming away 1 minute and 42 seconds short of the podium I decided to come back and give it another shot, focusing much more of my year on triathlon-specific training. I arrived back on the big island this week, knowing that even if I come up short again that I took the shot and will never have to wonder “what if.” I owe a huge thank you to the team that supported me getting back here – my wife Jessi above all, and then all of our great Team EMJ sponsors. Gear matters a lot when seconds count, and I’m very fortunate that I’ll also never have to wonder “what if I’d had better support.”

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2018 Ironman Mont-Tremblant

2018 Ironman Mont-Tremblant

Ironman Mont-Tremblant was special for a number of reasons: the maple syrup, the poutine, the awesome course and scenery, the people, my actual race. But the best part by far was that for the first time my entire family was there. The twins are too young to be able to remember it later on, but it was still awesome to have them all here and for my kids to get to see me do that while I still can. So it’s equally important to point out what it took to make that possible: my wife wrangling a 4 year old and 1 year old twins at an Ironman that required off-site parking and a shuttle system. I’m thrilled with my own performance, but actually probably fewer people have pulled off what she did. I also owe a huge thank you to my teammates and their families who offered to help in so many ways.

As for my race, I am thrilled to have pulled out a sub 9 on a difficult course (and my new favorite course), an age group win, and top 10 overall including the pros. This was just a great event in a great area, made better by being with family and teammates. Thank you to all the great people I met here as well who gave such amazing support and made this such a friendly and exciting atmosphere. Next up, Kona!

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2018 Ironman Boulder

2018 Ironman Boulder

So much focus goes into getting to the finish line of a race, but the real journey is usually getting to the start. IM Boulder was much earlier in the year than I’ve ever done an Ironman, but the support of my family and my teammates got me to that starting line. The years of accumulated training and experience kicked in for that final 140.6 mile stretch.

On an incredibly hot and at times downright miserable day, I was thrilled (and honestly, relieved) in a way that I’ve been for few other races to make it all the way to that finish line  Adversity breeds achievement, and everyone who made it to the finish line that day should be proud of it.

I also managed to accomplish my main goal in doing an early season race: securing my Kona slot with an age group win and 2nd overall amateur finish.

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Triathlon – The Final Chapter

Triathlon – The Final Chapter

After a compressed winter ultrarunning season, with 3 races (Lookout Mountain, Bandera, and TWOT), 2 FKTs (AT 4 State and SCAR), and 1 weekend as the Barkley Marathons utility man, it’s time to fully switch into triathlon mode. Well, now that I’ve also had a little fun with a transition race at the London Marathon.

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2017 Recap, 2018 Goals

2017 Recap, 2018 Goals

2017 Recap

Onward! And upward? Or maybe sideways at least?

I don’t know that I’ll be able to top this one in 2018. Photo: Thomas Gathnam

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).

Kona was a pretty incredible experience, even if the big crowds and hype isn’t really my scene.
TWOT was exactly my kind of scene: low key with a small group of great people. Photo: John Daniel

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.

Despite a bike wreck and some clerical issues, the USAT Long Course National Championship was a great experience, and I came away as the top amateur and top American. Photo: Kristin Simpson
I had been aiming for this for two years, and after nearly getting derailed the week of the race I can’t think of a better way to have closed out the year. Photo: Jessi Kelly

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.

Sometimes pictures really do speak 1,000 words, and this photo makes me feel my experience more than anything I could ever say. Photo: Alexis Berg

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.

Forgetting pants and working in a bike kit and dress shirt on the first day your new cohort of interns starts might seem like an inevitable failure, but we pulled through on that one and had a great summer. Photo: Michael Brett

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.

People like this are what makes ultrarunning even better than the mountains and forests alone. Photo: Kendra Miller

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.

Looking forward to another great year of racing with these guys. Photo: Talbot Cox

2017 Results

Date Race Place Time
Dec 16, 2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler 1 7:27
Nov 12, 2017 Long Course National Championship 2 4:23
Oct 14, 2017 Kona Ironman World Championship 60 9:13
Sep 10, 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship 99 4:25
Jul 23, 2017 Ironman Lake Placid 18 9:25
Jun 18, 2017 Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 5 4:45
May 21, 2017 Columbia Triathlon
Apr 1, 2017 Barkley Marathons 1 59:30
Feb 10, 2017 TWOT 100 1 26:35 (CR)

 

2018 Goals

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.

Need more apple butter. Photo: Antoinette Landragin

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.

The last time I ran a serious, standalone marathon was the 2014 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. Photo: Gary Kelly

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.

Ironman Lake Placid was an awesome, scenic course. But for me it still can’t approach the beauty of the trails. Photo: Patrick Kelly

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.

Hopefully I can make it back here and next time only a few hundred or so of these people will come out of the water ahead of me. Photo: Talbot Cox

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.

Unless I’m here to play Marco Polo or Sharks and Minnows with my kids, in about 10 months I’m done with you pool.

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.

Current Confirmed 2018 Schedule

Date Race
Jan 6, 2018 Bandera 100K
Feb 17, 2018 TWOT 100M
Apr 22, 2018 London Marathon
May 19, 2018 General Smallwood Triathlon
Jun 10, 2018 Ironman Boulder
Jun 24, 2018 Columbia Triathlon
Jul 14, 2018 ITU Long Course World Championship

 

Training for Ultra Podcast #15

Back on the Training for Ultra Podcast, but actually for triathlon this time: a recap and a quick discussion on Kona.

The Training For Ultra Podcast: Episode 15 – Tim Freriks Interview – w/ Zach Bitter, Yiou Wang and John Kelly – Training For Ultra Podcast

Great interview with elite ultra runner Tim Freriks. Zach Bitter does a race recap on his Javelina 100 miler. YiOu Wang talks about travel and background on her amazing running photo. John Kelly shares insights on his IronMan Kona finish. Fun episode!

Tri-Oraklet Podcast

I had the opportunity recently to talk to Lasse Stengård Jensen (all the way from Denmark) about Kona, triathlon training and how it fits into life, and just a bit about Barkley too. I hope to meet Lasse in person next year if I have the chance to represent Team USA at the Long Course World Championship.

John Kelly – #15th Barkley Marathons finisher – 2nd. fastest AG run in Hawaii by Tri-Oraklet

Ultrarunner John Kelly didn´t take up triathlon untill 2015 – but has already plenty of great results under his belt: He was 2nd. overall in Ironman Maryland 2016 – 3rd fastest run-split (including the PRO´s)in IM lake Placid – and 2nd. fastest AG-runsplit in Hawaii 2017. Oh and PS…..

Canadian Running Magazine – 2nd fastest amateur marathon at Kona

Nice little write-up from Canadian Running Magazine on my run at the Ironman World Championship.

Barkley finisher runs 2nd fastest marathon among amateurs at Ironman World Championship – Canadian Running Magazine

Update (10/18): Kelly posted the second-fastest, and not the top time as originally reported, marathon among amateurs. Stefano Passarello ran 2:53:32. The 15th finisher of the Barkley Marathons competed at the Ironman World Championship on Saturday. RELATED: Three-time Barkley Marathons finisher races Whistler Alpine Meadows.

2017 Kona Ironman World Championship

2017 Kona Ironman World Championship

Kona was an unforgettable experience. The race was incredible to be a part of, especially with so many of my teammates there to share the experience with. The trip itself was an amazing time with my wife – some time off like we really haven’t had the chance to have in over four years. In fact it was all a bit much to put into one post, so this is just the race report itself. The rest of the trip will come separately.

Team Every Man Jack at Kona. Photo: Talbot Cox

My race went well, finishing as the 26th amateur, 60th overall, and 10th American male. That came after coming out of the water in 854th place, putting together a solid bike, and then turning in the 2nd fastest amateur run for the day. The support we received as a team throughout the event from our sponsors, family, and friends (as if the support during training isn’t enough) was unbelievable and a huge boost throughout the day and the typical rough Kona conditions.

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Triathlete Magazine – Showdown: The Barkley Marathons vs. Ironman Kona

To be fair, this year’s Barkley involved a bit of (inadvertent) swimming as well. I enjoyed my chat with Sarah Barker for triathlete magazine, and appreciate the great job she did making sure things were accurate!

Showdown: The Barkley Marathons vs. Ironman Kona | Triathlete.com

John Kelly has a pretty strong mental game. This past April the 32-year-old data scientist became only the 15th person ever to finish the Barkley marathons-approximately 130 miles of thrashing through Tennessee wilderness- within the 60-hour cutoff. Exhausted and sleep-deprived at the finish, Kelly had the wherewithal to offer a plausible explanation for why he was wearing a plastic Walmart bag ala shrug.

 

2017 Kona Training

2017 Kona Training

Ever since I started running again a few years ago I’ve focused on two main races per year. All of my training has been built around those races, and other races were themselves part of that training. For the past few years the focus has been Barkley in the spring to cap off my ultrarunning season, and an Ironman in the fall to cap off my triathlon season.

This year had the same general plan, but there were a couple of differences. First, my Barkley finish left me in a bit of a victory hangover: the unquenchable fire I had felt pursuing that goal was finally satiated. How much of a thrill could a strong showing at Kona really add? Second, qualifying for Kona had been the goal itself for triathlon. Should I treat it as a victory lap like I did for the Boston Marathon, or put forth a serious effort? It took me a bit to sort through these questions, and it took me long enough that the questions were somewhat answered for me, but eventually I did manage to regain focus and put in a solid few months of training.

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2017 Ironman Lake Placid

2017 Ironman Lake Placid

I had a great time at Ironman Lake Placid racing with Team Every Man Jack and bringin’ home the maple syrup! I was also incredibly fortunate to have my brother to support me and to be able to spend the weekend there with him.

The course was incredible and the race went well: 3rd in age group, 6th amateur, 18th overall, and 3rd fastest run overall. As usual my teammates James DeFilippi, Michael Hoffman, and Clay Emge turned in outstanding performances, with Clay leading the way with the top amateur finish and 5th overall. A number of other teammates also showed up just to support us – I’m constantly amazed by what a great group this is.

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Babbittville Radio Podcast

It was great to chat Barkley and for a bit of a change a little triathlon with Ironman legend Bob Babbitt on Babbittville Radio.

John Kelly – Babbittville – Babbittville

John Kelly ran his first marathon in 2013 at the Marine Corps Marathon, blew up, and still ran 3:38. Just recently he won the infamous Barkley Marathons, which this year was approximately 130 miles long with about 68,000 feet of ups and downs. John’s story of falling asleep during the last of the five laps…

Slowtwitch – The triathlete who conquered Barkley

For the record I’ll always consider myself an ultrarunner who does triathlons, not vice versa, but I really enjoyed this interview and getting to look at Barkley from a bit of a different perspective.

The triathlete who conquered Barkley

A week ago triathlete and ultrarunner John Kelly became the 15th person since 1986 to conquer the infamous Barkley Marathons – a ultra difficult 100 mile trail race in the Frozen Head State Park in TN. This humble Every Man Jack athlete talked to us about that experience and more.

2016 Ironman Maryland

2016 Ironman Maryland

Pre-race

Ironman Maryland was the focus of my 2016 triathlon season, and it was a relief just to get to race day. My wife Jessi was 35 weeks pregnant, and with twins we knew that in the weeks leading up to the race that they could arrive at any time. I had continued training as if the race was a sure thing, but obviously the race was far from my most important concern and at any moment I could be dropping everything and end up with my first DNS (did not start).

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2015 Ironman Maryland

2015 Ironman Maryland

My first Ironman was supposed to be my last. I signed up for it on a bit of a whim, out of curiosity in what I could do with a new type of challenge and to fill a gap after qualifying for the Boston Marathon and having to wait a year and a half to run it. I thought it would be fun to see what I could do in triathlon, so naturally I signed up for an Ironman.

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