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.
Antoine Jolicoeur Desroches is a pro triathlete in Quebec, but I spent a good deal of the time talking to him about Barkley as well. I might do a race up his way next year, and if so hope we cross paths.
I took a quick trip down to Miami to finish up my triathlon season, got to reconnect with some old friends from high school, and came back a national champion! Between my friends’ help, my wife’s support at home with the kids, sponsor support, and years of hoarded airline miles from work travel, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to do this race and two day trip at almost no cost. Getting to the point of being able to do this kind of thing wasn’t easy, and I’m thankful every day for my family, friends, and teammates who stuck with me and helped me get there.
The race itself seemed to be one mishap after another (possibly due to getting bib 666?!): I nearly started the race without my timing chip, swam off course on the swim (surprise!), wrecked on the bike, took a slight wrong turn on the run while battling the effects of what may have been a concussion from the bike wreck, then found out after the race that I had apparently registered for the wrong category. Things mostly came together, though, and I ended up finishing 3rd overall (2nd after a DQ due to a course error), 1st amateur, and I *think* top American regardless of amateur status. The race was the amateur USAT Long Course National Championship, so I came away as the overall national champion. Not all the nation’s best amateur talent was at this race, so the title is a little bit hollow, but it’s still an awesome way to wrap up the triathlon season.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Update: Thanks everyone for the great feedback, whether here or somewhere else! Please continue to provide it at any time. There are a couple of things I wanted to mention that arose from that feedback. 1) In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, any social media post I make specifically for a sponsor or any recommendation I make for a sponsor’s product will be hashtagged with #sponsoredpost. Sometimes I might still tag a sponsor on an otherwise normal post, but the litmus test will be me asking myself (and honestly answering) “would I have made this post if it weren’t for a sponsor relationship?” 2) I’m of course open to supporting great causes. If anyone has one in mind please feel free to message me.
Let me start this post with this: I have no idea what I’m doing. I majored in electrical and computer engineering, the one thing at NC State where they required us to take both a public speaking and a writing class because they thoroughly expected us to be completely socially inept and incapable of basic communication. So I lack authority on this topic almost to the point of it being comical that I’m writing about it, but I have learned quite a bit and put a good deal of thought into this over the past year or so. I wanted to pass along those thoughts and my experience. Hopefully it might be useful for anyone in a similar situation, or even interesting for anyone who is not. Discussion, feedback, comments, advice, etc. are all welcome and appreciated.
I’ve actually been meaning to make this post for quite some time, but wanted to be sure I could put real thought into it. The usual priorities (family, work, training… sometimes sleeping), and of course making the very posts that I’m going to discuss in this post, didn’t leave time for doing that. In the meantime, I’ve seen other perspectives on this topic covering a wide spectrum (Bobby Geronimo’s scathing post and Dakota Jones’ satirical take both come to mind).
This post isn’t about what other people are doing, though; it’s not my place to say what other people should or shouldn’t be doing. One of the people I’ve looked up to and admired for years is Jared Campbell, who I think has a rather minimalist approach to social media and publicity. I also have a great deal of respect for Jamil Coury, one of the people mentioned in Bobby Geronimo’s post. He has an immense love for the sport, is living that out daily, and a lot of people get inspiration from that. I also of course owe him a great deal myself for two loops of navigation at my initial Barkley attempt in 2015.
But again, this isn’t about other people. This post is just about the path that I’ve taken, for now, and how I ended up on it. At times I feel like the punk band that signed with a record label, but so far I don’t regret where I am.
As much as I love to race in new places and experience new challenges, there are really few things better than going back to race in East TN where I grew up. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship being in Chattanooga this year gave me the perfect opportunity to do that, and to do it against the best in the world. To make it even better Jessi was able to come watch her first triathlon of the season, we got to spend some time with friends and family, and I was joined by a large group of guys from Team Every Man Jack. And of course without all of their support, plus our great sponsors, competing at these races wouldn’t even be possible.
The course was amazing, as was the competition. Apparently the course was one of the hardest 70.3 courses people have seen, but I’ve only seen one other 70.3 course and to me it just seemed like a bunch of fun hills to play on. I had a strong bike, and actually a swim that could have been worse and a run that could have been better, to put me 19th in AG and tied for 99th overall. For a world championship, at that distance, I’m pretty happy to come away with a top 100.
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. 😉
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.
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.
Note: This post generated some great discussion, which led to The Goldilocks Difficulty as a follow-up post. Also related: Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K.
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.
Conditions were tough at IM 70.3 Syracuse this year, with strong currents and chop on the swim, wind on the bike, and heat on the run, but Team Every Man Jack turned in a solid performance! Greg Grosicki finished 2nd overall, I snagged 5th overall and 1st in my age group, and Michael Hoffman was first out of the water and 5th in his age group. My goal was to do well enough to grab a spot to the IM 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, and I’m happy to say that I punched that ticket and will be heading to my home state in September to race against the best.
As usual I wouldn’t have even made it the race, let alone raced well, if not for quite a bit of help: from my wife’s unwavering support, to my parents coming to help with the kids the weekend of the race, to my teammate James Defilippi for lending me his wheels for the race. I’m extremely lucky to have such great family and teammates.
In the weeks leading up to the Columbia Triathlon, I actually considered a DNS for the first time in my life. My post Barkley “indulgence period” had been a bit longer than expected and I hadn’t kept myself in the best shape. There were also delays getting some rather important parts for my new bike, like, you know, wheels. Finally, some big travel had come up for work that would sandwich the race. I had to travel to Europe the week of the race, which was a bit of a disaster where I averaged less than 4 hours of sleep per night including spending a night homeless on the rainy streets of London, and then go straight from the race to the airport to fly to Hong Kong.
The race was planned as a tune-up to jumpstart my triathlon season, though. I figured that no matter the outcome, I would at least accomplish that. I also still had the incredible support of my family, and teammates even more amazing than I originally thought, so I moved forward with my plans.
In the end, things didn’t really work out the way that I planned. After finishing 2nd overall, I noticed from my GPS data that I missed a turn on the run course. I reported myself to the race director and got DQ’d. I can’t thank the RD enough for everything he did to try to get the best outcome after my course error, but in the end rules are rules. I’m still glad I did the race, and if nothing else it was great preparation for the rest of the season. It’s also an outstanding event with a course that I really love (I can’t get enough hills). Read more →
In this episode, Craig and Jeremy chat with Barkley Marathon finisher John Kelly. The Barkley Marathon started back in 1995. This ultramarathon trail race held in Tennessee annually is brutal as it must be completed within the 60 hour time limit.
Great conversation with Kristian Manietta on training, setting goals, and overcoming mental challenges in endurance sports. This one really isn’t a Barkley podcast or an audio race report, and dove into things that are much more broadly relatable.
This week I get to virtually sit down with John Kelly. The 15th finisher at the Barkley Marathon – which has been going for way more years than finishers of the event. It’s really the end point of ultra running. If you haven’t watched the Netflix doco do it.
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…
In this episode of the Intelligent Racer Podcast we talk with John Kelly about being the 15th ever finisher at The Barkley Marathons. We also discuss his triathlon training / racing. Some related links for more information: John’s Blog: http://www.randomforestrunner.com The Barkley Marathons: http://www.mattmahoney.net/barkley/ The Barkley Marathons Documentary: http://barkleymovie.com Photo Credit: Keith Dunn What is a podcast?
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.
When I considered joining a triathlon team after the 2016 season, I really had no idea what was out there. I was (and still am) quite new to the sport and had been improvising up to that point. I knew almost no other triathletes and I wanted to find a group of people with similar goals that could help me learn more about the sport and the community. As I researched teams, my sights landed squarely on Team Every Man Jack: they were a team of extremely good athletes, but they also made it a top priority to be great ambassadors for the sport and to avoid having anyone on the team with the arrogant, elitist mindset that can unfortunately be found in triathlon.
This was my first podcast, actually before 2017 Barkley. And before I figured out how to keep my eyes focused. This was an awesome experience for me and these guys were great. I wouldn’t hesitate to chat with them again at any time.
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).
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.