I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was indestructible, but I also didn’t know where my breaking point was. Over the past two years I’ve had a pretty heavy race schedule, with an ultra, long FKT attempt, or iron distance triathlon about every six weeks. And for the most part they went pretty well, great even. Sure, I was just hanging on through some of them (most recently, Lavaredo) knowing that I wasn’t in the best condition for them, but I had never in my life DNF’d a “normal” race (i.e. Barkley and The Grand Round excluded).Read more
Lavaredo had a lot of firsts for me: first time in Italy (and Austria, after driving down from Munich), first time in an ultra that big and competitive, first time competing in an ultra between April and November, and first time in a race in anything that would be considered an alpine environment. I had an unforgettable experience and I think I ran a fairly smart race, but in the end it wasn’t my best outcome. Oh, and yeah, first time in a helicopter too.
Compared to the my recent novella on The Grand Round this will be a comic strip, complete with a nice punch line at the end (actually the punch line part is bigger than the race part). I need to move on and shift my focus to the two biggest races on my calendar for the year: Ronda dels Cims and Tor Des Geants.
I owe an enormous thank you to La Sportiva on this one, who not only sponsors me but sponsors the race. Without them that punch line may have been an absolute logistical disaster. It was also great to see a number of my teammates there from across the world; congratulations go to many of them for great performances (including Sophie Grant and Rachel Normand from here in the UK – 9th and 15th females).
Lavaredo was crammed into my schedule just a few weeks after the Grand Round and a few weeks before Ronda dels Cims. I wanted to run a smart, consistent race and not go out too hard.
After looking at recent results and considering the conditions this year I thought that I could still aim for around 14 hours and see if I could slip in to the top 10 (I nailed one part of that equation – 10th place ended up being 13:59). I had actually never finished outside the top 10 in an ultra, and while I recognized that I had also never been in an ultra with such incredible competitive depth, I figured I owed it to myself to at least give it a shot.
I found someone’s results from a previous year that I could use as a template: around 40th at the first checkpoint and then consistently picked people off to finish 9th. Perfecto.
One of the reasons I wanted to focus on ultras is because I personally just enjoy the environment and the culture more than triathlon. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the big event that some European ultras are made to be. I’ve gotta say, it was actually kind of cool (but any more would probably be too much for me). It was good to get the adrenaline going, but then within a few minutes you’re out of town, out of the crowds, and it’s just like any other ultra.
I will admit I may not have felt the same way if I was in the normal corral getting crushed by 2,000 other runners. Somehow I had enough ITRA points (things like Barkley and The Grand Round don’t get any points) to get into a reserved corral and had plenty of space. I even got to chat with Tim Tollefson and Gabe Joyes, two of those people who for me I feel like I know (from online interactions and knowing so many of the same people), but had never actually met.
Off Into the Night
At 11 PM we took off from Cortina. As planned, I started off slow. Then Caroline Cheverot passed me. Let me be clear, this wasn’t a reaction of oh I’m getting “chicked” I can’t let that happen. It was quite the opposite. It was a reaction of “there’s someone who knows the course and knows what they’re doing and is probably gunning for around the same time as me.” I slipped in behind and stayed within sight of her on the first climb. Then, for better or for worse I flew past her and a half dozen other people on the first descent.
I actually came in to the first split 3 minutes slower than my template, so all was good. Then after the aid station (all I picked up was water) I got some of the worst bloating and stomach cramps I’ve had in a race. I thought about trying to stop somewhere to force myself to poop or puke. My theory is that I overdid it a bit with eating the day of the race. Normally I sleep all night, wake up, have breakfast then run. With the night start I had a big breakfast then pretty much snacked all day.
In any case, I kept on, but could barely eat and had horrible stitches in both sides. Eventually the cramps went away but my stomach didn’t feel decent again until, well, the next day really. After that point I relied almost 100% on gel and water. I got down less than 1,000 calories during the nearly 16 hours of the race.
Even before the caloric deficit should have been a problem, though, I also just felt completely sapped of energy. Maybe it was the late start coupled with a few nights of poor sleep leading into it, maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was insufficient Grand Round recovery (probably a little of all of them), but it just felt like there was absolutely nothing there.
Caroline passed me back at mile 20 something, and shortly after that the worst thing happened. People started passing me on a big climb. Hills are for me in ultras what the run was to me in triathlon: that’s where I do my passing. But I had nothing. I couldn’t do anything other than watch them go; it was such a helpless feeling.
We got above treeline for the first time around mile 30, and after that climb the quitting thought honestly entered my head. But, I quit Barkley and Grand Round, I’ve never DNF’d a “normal” race, and as much as it might suck I was going to continue running on fumes all the way to the finish barring injury.
Here Comes the Sun
But at the top of that climb came the sunrise, and the first beautiful views from the top of the Dolomites. I also got a pep talk from Matteo from La Sportiva and he set my sights on what lay ahead: a nice long somewhat sort of almost technical descent.
Up to that point the race had basically been a series of gravel roads, and I completely felt like a fish out of water. The descent gave me some energy and confidence back, and after dropping about 10 spots over the previous 15 miles I stopped the bleeding and held position to the big support point “halfway” in (How to frustrate an ultrarunner? Put their drop bag at the “halfway” point, 5K past actually halfway.)
For the next few hours I was completely alone in the most remote and most technical section of the course (but still, really not technical). It was glorious, just a fun day in the mountains. It didn’t matter where anyone else was, I was back in my element.
Then came another long descent. Time to get back to this whole racing thing. I cruised down it, my legs continually seeming to gain strength. I’m nearly convinced at this point that my body takes about 50K to get warmed up. I was feeling strong and ready to make a final charge.
Then with 16 miles to go someone told me it was all downhill, and me, knowing there was a final long downhill stretch and being stupid enough to believe that person, let it rip a bit more before encountering a pretty good climb. When I got to the top I was excited again and thought this must be the big final downhill. That pattern repeated itself no less than 6 times, a mental dagger every time.
When we finally did hit the last big downhill stretch (with about 8 miles left) I took off out of frustration more than anything. I flew down the mountain, the temperature continuing to rise as I arrived in the valley. I came back into town feeling pretty good and enjoyed my run through the chute.
Yay, a Helicopter Too?!
After finishing I sat down for a few minutes, and the hard effort, the heat, and the nausea I had battled for the last 15 hours all finally caught up with me. I was taken to the med tent, where they took my blood pressure and stuck an IV in me. Ok, I thought, that’s normal and it will probably help my recovery anyway.
After a bit, all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel and take a nap. I had just finished hard in a hot race after running all night; it seemed that being hot, nauseous, and sleepy were quite reasonable things. Then I actually did manage to puke. Perfect! I feel much better now!
But at some point they decided to take an EKG. I had no chest pain, and absolutely nothing other than the hot and sleepy thing (nausea gone now!). I also don’t speak Italian and had no idea what they were saying or doing. Next thing I know I’m in the back of an ambulance going to the local hospital.
They hooked me up to a better machine and some more people looked at it. At this point I’ve kind of figured out what’s going on and I try to explain to them that my EKG has certain abnormalities in it that are well-studied, perfectly normal, and nothing to be concerned about for an endurance athlete. Let me re-emphasize: I don’t speak Italian. At one point I even tried Spanish.
It comes to the point where they’re telling me I may have had a heart attack and I need to go via helicopter to a better hospital where a cardiologist can see me. I’m still 99% sure there is absolutely nothing wrong, but when “heart attack” is thrown around that 1% chance looms pretty large. So, off in the helicopter I go. My first ride in one! And over such a beautiful landscape! Except, I was strapped to a gurney and couldn’t see anything at all.
The cardiologist started doing an echocardiogram. It’s basically a sonogram of the heart, and the last time I’d seen one of those there was definitely an abnormality: two babies instead of one. By this time I had also managed to reach Jessi, and when the cardiologist left for a bit I called her. I’m an OCD data scientist, of course I have EKGs of myself stored on my computer. I also work in cyber security, of course sensitive medical documents are stored in a hidden encrypted folder with a 24 character passphrase and a keyfile. I walked Jessi through the process of unlocking it and sending me a previous EKG (great, now I’m going to have to change it all because the NSA was probably listening to our phone call 😛).
When the cardiologist walked back in I showed it to her. “Oh, it looks exactly the same. This is normal for you.” So there I was. No heart attack, but stuck in a hospital in who knows where. They still tried to wheel me in for a chest x-ray, but at that point I at least knew that no is still no in Italian. I had been scanned about 4 different ways and over a dozen needles had been stuck into me. Grazie, but I’m done.
I was wheeled into the recovery room, to await…. ok I have no idea what to do now. Fortunately the people at La Sportiva were on top of things. You know, the ones who actually speak Italian. They found an English speaking taxi driver who came into the hospital to tell me how to get myself out of there, and then drove me the 1.5 hours back to Cortina. At around midnight I was finally back in my hotel room and allowed to sleep.
It was an unbelievably frustrating experience, but let me be clear: I hold absolutely no ill feelings towards a single one of those doctors. On the contrary, I’m incredibly grateful that they did their jobs so well. It was kind of amazing to see a system in work where the utmost caution is taken in the patient’s best interest regardless of what it takes. I’ll admit I do feel a bit better knowing I got such a thorough exam after a race and checked out just fine. If anything, I feel a bit guilty that I wasn’t able to explain things a bit better due to the language barrier and that I used resources that I really didn’t need.
There is just one thing for me that is a problem, and is unforgivable really. My favorite post-race meal is pizza and ice cream. And there I was in freaking Italy for the first time ever, and my post-race meal consisted of some unidentifiable mush in a hospital recovery room. This injustice must be corrected. Tor Des Geants just became even more important…
Oh, about that race
My summary observations:
- If you look at place, I actually ran a fairly good race: first checkpoint at 37th, then dropped to somewhere in the 40s during my low point, then on the 2nd half worked my way up to 32nd overall, 29th male (so I reiterate, Can a Woman Finish Barkley?).
- I need to be more mindful of eating on race day for a night start
- If I’m going to compete at events of that caliber, they definitely need and deserve more focus. Three weeks of maintenance mode isn’t enough. I do think I’m capable of top 10 at something like that, but I also think that if I’m going to focus on fewer things then I should probably choose things that I’m more well-suited for. The more elevation, technical terrain, miserable conditions, briar patches, navigation, weird old guys with a cigarette and a sea shell, etc. that are thrown in the better I can do.
So bring on Ronda and TDG, a bit more my style. 🙂
Gear and Nutrition
I wore the same thing the entire time despite the big swing in temperature and I ate pretty much only one thing, so this will be pretty simple. I have relationships with a number of the companies below, which you can see on my Partners page (and find a few discount codes).
For the food, it was just two flasks of my Raspberry / Peanut Butter Chocolate Hammer Gel mix, along with a couple of cups of fruit at later aid stations (kind of like Dole fruit cups, but Italian).
I again went with the XOSKIN double socks – toe socks with normal socks over top. I also used Run Goo on my feet again. I have absolutely no scientific data to back this decision up, but with that strategy now having resulted in absolutely perfect feet after both the 72 hours of continuous wetness of the Grand Round and the heat and fast descents of Lavaredo, it’s going to be what I do every, single, time.
I also used XOSKIN compression shorts and a form-fit short-sleeved shirt the entire time. Over the socks I wore La Sportiva Akasha with Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, and I accessorized myself with a UD Ultra Vest and a Petzl Actik Core (compact but stayed nice and bright for the full 6 hours of darkness).
I had a pair of Black Diamond poles because I really wanted something collapsible for this race, and they did quite well. They were just a little heavier than I’ve become accustomed to.
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.
I still need to write up my full race report from Franklins 200, but I did go ahead and put together some thoughts on lessons learned from the race. You can find them over on the Ultimate Direction blog:
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.Read more
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!
If you want the really quick overview you can always just head over to the schedule / results page.Read more
If you understand both references in the title of this post, then your invitation to the triathlon sci-fi geeks club should already be in the mail. Next week we’ll be re-enacting the Battle of Endor with TT bikes. It’s totally safe. Completely. (but be sure to sign those waivers… you know, just in case).
This will be my last “last” triathlon post. There were just a few things left unsaid, and a few things worth repeating, that I wanted to put into a proper farewell post. I’ll start with what I will and won’t miss, and finish with why I actually left. And no these lists aren’t comprehensive, just some of the highlights.Read more
Unlike other John Kellys in DC, I’m not afraid to put my name on an op ed. Granted this one is, or should be, much less controversial. With so many high profile issues, a lot of smaller but important things can slip through the cracks, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Everyone knows about national parks, and yes they’re incredible, but it’s really the smaller, more local things that most of us get to experience on a more regular basis and that more directly impact our lives. A lot of those are at risk without the renewal of the LWCF.
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.
Apparently Jeremy Sanders (Running Dad) and I ran a race together a few years ago when I was just starting back to running and before either of us knew who the other was. I was happy to answer some questions from him and then actually meet him for real at Miner’s Lady 8 Hour over the weekend. He’s a great guy and I’ll look forward to our next time on the trails together.
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.
It’s always good to catch up with Rob. In part of this episode we discuss my 2018 so far: Bandera, AT 4 State Challenge, TWOT 100, SCAR, and my crewing experience at Barkley.
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.
It was great to chat with Brodie not just about my 2017 Barkley, but about my full experience with the race going back to my first attempt in 2015 and some of my background that led me to it.
This episode is extraordinary. I am very blessed to have on John Kelly who is the 2017 Barkley marathon finisher. He has become the 15th individual to ever complete this infamous 160km race and we have the opportunity to relive his mental struggles, his defeats and of course, his victory!
Quick chat with David Clark discussing this year’s Barkley Marathons results, some of the brutal conditions faced out there, and some interesting questions on how hypothetical changes would affect Barkley’s difficulty.
WASLAT 3.31.2018 Barkley Marathons with John Kelly, Greg Ellis talks about hip replacement. by We Are Superman Podcast/ Lactic Acid Trip
From David Clark’s radio show “WeAreSuperman’s Lactic Acid Trip” on #AM1300XtraSports: It’s Barkley Marathons Week and in studio with David is John Kelly, one of just a handful of finishers in the history of this iconic and insane race. The two recap this year’s Barkley that once again didn’t produce a single finisher.
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.
Video: Keith Knipling
The SCAR was a tough challenge, but one that I enjoyed every minute of. I came away from it with a whole new appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains, and barely snagged the unsupported fastest known time. The run traverses the length of the national park on the Appalachian Trail, a 72 mile stretch with close to 18K feet of gain and loss. Most of it is right along the border of the two states that mean the most to me: Tennessee, where I was born and raised along with 6 generations of Kellys before me, and North Carolina, where I went to college, met my wife, and where her family calls home.
I also once again owe her a huge thank you for dropping me off in the middle of nowhere before proceeding on her own the remaining 1.5 hours to my parents house with all 3 kids late at night. On the other end of the run David Abraham, part of my extended family, was incredibly kind in driving out and waiting around in the middle of nowhere for me to show up a bit later than anticipated. And without the awesome community of trail runners in the area I probably wouldn’t have even known about the SCAR, much less known enough to attempt it.
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.
I was fortunate to have perfect weather in January and great company for my fastest known time attempt on the AT 4 State Challenge, the section of the Appalachian Trail that starts at the Pennsylvania border and travels through Maryland and West Virginia to the Virginia border. It was a beautiful stretch of trail with a rich heritage and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a day of running. Conrad Laskowski and Chris Roberts joined me for the day and while I hope they enjoyed it just as much, I owe them a huge thanks for coming out and providing the company, the support, and of course for making the logistics of getting back to the start afterwards easier. And as always, I owe my wife Jessi a huge thanks for providing the support back home for letting me get out for the day to try these crazy things in the first place. At the end I ended up with a new FKT in 6:39:51 and a new appreciation for some of the terrain I have in my own backyard.
Great discussion with Peter on my background, ultras, Barkley, Kona, and future goals.
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.
Between the terrain, the landscape, the distance, and the travel, Bandera 100K was a pretty unique experience for me. I was incredibly fortunate to have John Sharp there to support me, and it was great to meet some new folks outside of the southeastern ultrarunning bubble that I’ve mostly lived in to this point. In the end, I was pretty happy with my result. I didn’t run the smartest race or stick to the plan as well as I should have, but I held on for top 10 and met my primary goals: getting a qualifier for Western States and for Spartathlon. One of these days, though, I’m going to figure out how to not go out too fast and how to not let myself get dehydrated. Maybe. At least mostly. Where’s the fun, though, if there aren’t a few hitches in the plan?
Onward! And upward? Or maybe sideways at least?
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.
|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)|
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.
Current Confirmed 2018 Schedule
|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|
Lookout Mountain would be a great addition to anyone’s 50 miler list. The event and the course really typify what I love about trail and ultrarunning. It’s a great, low-key community of people putting on a well-organized race on a course with incredible trails and views. And it’s great knowing that the proceeds from the race are going back towards those trails. Thank you to Wild Trails and all the volunteers for such a great event.
I was thrilled to come away with the win against great competition. It turns out the race was also the RRCA Ultra National Championship, which is a pretty cool bonus (although let’s be real there are plenty of people in the country who can handily beat me in a 50 miler).
I also learned some great lessons, the biggest being to stop worrying about the details and just run! I caught a stomach bug the day before the race and absolutely none of my “all-important” pre-race preparations that I usually worry so much about went right. Sure, some of that stuff matters a little and given the choice I’d rather have it be right, but in the end, the cumulative training and experience built up through time and hard work are vastly more important than the final 24 hours. The issues before the race forced me to run one of the smartest races I’ve ever run and I may have actually ended off better from it.
I spoke with Neisa and Andrew from Territorio Trail on a beautiful day down at the reflecting pool in DC. I’m a little disappointed that my Spanish (my college minor) is too rusty for me to have an actual conversation in it, but probably better for most people here that it’s in English. 😉 They do an intro of me at about 41:30 (in Spanish), and then after a commercial / music break my interview (in English) starts at about 47 minutes.
Territorio Trail 22 de noviembre de 2017. John Kelly. Gran Trail Collserola. Mónica Aguilera. Marató dels Dements. Gema Quiroga. Yaiza Miñana. Dani Osanz. Manuel Martos. – Territorio Trail Media
JOHN KELLY. LA MISTICA DE BARKLEY MARATHONS. John Kelly llegó a Frozen Head el abril pasado como un perfecto desconocido. 59 horas y media después inscribió su nombre en la historia de los ultras convirtiéndose en finisher de la Barkley Marathons. Repasaremos con Kelly su trayectoria, en la que destaca la variedad de pruebas en …
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.
John Kelly is an ultra runner and triathlete. He won the prestigious and legendary Barkley Marathon and had the second fastest Age Group run split at the Ironman World Championship. http://www.randomforestrunner.com
This was a bit last minute, but the timing worked out perfectly to talk about Kona and my journey there from Barkley. It’s always great to chat with Ethan and Kim!
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.
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.
I’ve been asked by a number of people for advice on the Barkley Fall Classic. Well, I’ve never run the BFC, so some of this could be wrong, but here’s my best effort.
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. 😉
They say save the best for last. There have been a lot of good articles so I’m not sure if this is best, but it’s definitely great and the last 2017 Barkley article to my knowledge.
For the record, though, I’ve never focused training on Barkley year-round. I haven’t even focused training on running year round. I’ve focused on Barkley for 6 month chunks, which is something I believe every finisher has done at a minimum.
On June 11, 1977, when James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and was at large amid Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, Gov. Ray Blanton preached calm. In the prison’s 81 years of operation, he told The Washington Post, no one had ever permanently escaped.
This is a long-awaited feature on the 2017 Barkley Marathons in Esquire. The author, George Pendle, was a pleasure to speak with and is an extremely nice guy who I know wanted to to portray the race as accurately as possible. Overall, it’s a great article. With today’s editing and sensationalized headlines, though, it should be no surprise what appears on the first page and the title that was chosen.
“Masochist’s Marathon” implies pleasure in the pain itself. The pleasure is in overcoming the obstacles that cause the pain. Despite an impressive amount of fact-checking, I believe the article also misquotes me just a bit (I don’t think I’ve said “daddy” since I was 3) to further cast me as the local yokel dark horse who somehow managed to finish (no one who knew anything about the race considered me a dark horse). But that doesn’t really matter, and the article is a very entertaining read. To paraphrase (not quote) laz, the world at large can never truly know what it’s like out there, and those that do (including myself) know what we did and why we did it.
The world’s top ultrarunners fight to compete in the Barkley Marathons, an ever-shifting race designed by a madman to break their spirits through 100 miles of hellish Appalachian mountains. So far, only 14 people have completed it. A man is begging on the side of a Tennessee mountain.
A couple of weeks ago I posted Failing with Purpose. I had some great feedback, questions, and discussion from that, and have been meaning to post a follow up for a while now. So here it is, finally. Also related: Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K.
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.
A nice little feature done by Josh Patton, one of the talented photographers who was at Barkley.
The Barkley Marathon starts with the race director blowing on a conch shell and lighting a cigarette, and it ends with either the Easy Button or Taps. It brags that it has a near complete failure rate. In its three decades of existence, only 15 runners have been able to defeat the clock, the mountains, and the briars.
A feature in Hammer Nutrition’s Endurance News magazine on the 2017 Barkley Marathons, obviously with a bit more info on some of the fuel I used during the race.
BY ENDURANCE NEWS STAFF On April 1st, 2017, Hammer Nutrition sponsored athlete John Kelly left the start line on his third attempt at the 100 plus mile, 60 hour ultramarathon trail race, the Barkley Marathons. On April 3rd, at 59:30 in with just 30 minutes to spare, Kelly became the race’s 15th Finisher since 1986.
I was done with Barkley posts, but this is one that I told quite a few people I would make and hopefully it will answer a number of the questions I’ve received. After this, though, I’m done for real. If you’d like to revisit anything else related to the 2017 Barkley you can find it at the Barkley Archive.
This post is meant to give a small glimpse into my Barkley strategy, gear, and nutrition choices this year. Parts of this might seem like plugs for my partners, but there’s a reason I work with these companies. They make great products that I’ve found are the best for me. If they weren’t, then I’d work with someone else and you’d see them here instead.
This podcast was pretty unique amongst the post-Barkley interviews, and definitely the most relaxed one I did. It was a lot of fun to touch on some things that I hadn’t really talked about before.
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.
My cousin Joe has been a tremendous support over the course of my 3 years running Barkley. After this year, he wrote his own report and I thought I’d share a perspective of the race from someone there crewing and spectating. The crew put in an enormous amount of work themselves to be out there, take care of everything I need between loops, get back and forth between the camp and the fire tower, and to wait, wait, and wait around some more in the same weather conditions the runners have to deal with. I added the photos, but the words are Joe’s. Thank you again to friends, family, and the incredible work of Josh Patton Designs and Howie Stern Photography for the photos.
That time when two people in DC disagreed but then actually discussed like civilized human beings. Not all Barkley views are rainbows & unicorns, but enjoyed the chat! The Barkley portion starts at 34:52. The original segment in question was on the April 17 episode at 58:25.
Slate ‘s sports podcast on the NBA playoffs, breaking the two-hour marathon, and a Barkley Marathons follow-up. Listen to Hang Up and Listen with Stefan Fatsis and Greg Howard by clicking the arrow on the audio player below: In this week’s episode of ‘s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis and special guest Greg Howard of the New York Times are joined by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz to talk about a slew of storylines in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Southeastern Trail Runner was a great place for a guy from the southeast to chat about a race from there as well.
The Barkley Marathons are infamous in trail running lore and this year’s sole (and 15th total) finisher John Kelly joins Clinton and Shannon to recount his grueling weekend.
I went to a road running store in my cycling kit to talk ultras. Maybe we can all get along.
We are joined by local runner John Kelly (@RndmForestRunnr) who just became the 15th person to ever finish the Barkley Marathons. John talks about the event and its history, and gives us a recap of his race. We also talk about his support crew, how he finds time to train for ultras and triathlons, google, …