2019 Ronda dels Cims, A Mountain Too Far

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).

Yet here I am, writing this while I should still be out on the course. There is a race report here, or a 50K DNF report or whatever you’d like to call it, but the more important thing here is I guess more of a life report with the larger lessons learned from this experience.

After writing this I considered deleting most of it and just leaving the section on the race itself, but I’ve always tried to give the whole story without any filters. So everything that came out of my head in the first day after my first DNF is here.

Why so much on the schedule?

Never DNF’ing was something I took an inappropriate amount of pride in. I’ve never considered myself the fastest, or the best racer, but I thought that I could make up for those shortcomings through sheer stubbornness. I’m the guy who, to a fault, doesn’t give up. As a kid it’s something that mostly probably annoyed my brother, who no doubt tired of me incessantly wanting to play again despite the obvious outcome that he, being 4 years older, would keep winning. As an adult, it’s translated to some amount of success at endurance sports and working at startups (but, still probably quite annoying at times). The tougher and more miserable the conditions, the more I excel relative to the competition.

So I saw no reason that I couldn’t maintain the same sort of race schedule. When we found out we were moving to the UK I was inundated with incredible races that were now within easy reach. Why not do as many as possible and let them create a tour for us through many of Europe’s most beautiful places?

I also admit that I’ve felt a non-trivial amount of pressure to continue to perform and excel. This has been nearly entirely imagined and self-induced, but for someone driven and stubborn like me that can be the worst kind. After finishing Barkley there were two things I felt the need to constantly prove: 1) that me finishing wasn’t a fluke, and 2) that Barkley doesn’t have a low finishing rate because “the best runners don’t do it.” That’s where it would have been great to finish before the race became well-known, when the only people who would have known that I finished would have been the people who really knew the race and understood.

Then there’s the sponsorship issue. My ultrarunning sponsors have never put any direct pressure on me to race more, or race better, or post about using their stuff while racing more and racing better. For that, I’m incredibly grateful. Still, though, it’s hard not to imagine pressure to do more to justify continued and additional support.

The race schedule isn’t all that matters

The problem with continually operating near the limit is that any errors past the limit accumulate, creating a domino effect. The real dangerous part is that racing is not the only thing that contributes towards that limit. This was my ultimate mistake: failing to factor life stresses in towards that overall limit. With life being, well, life, if you’re already near the limit just from racing then it’s a game of Russian roulette.

Working at startups has never been easy, but the past year has been one of those surges in life stress far beyond my own norms. I don’t want to go in depth into my own details and I don’t want any of this to sound like an excuse; the point here is that everyone has life stresses that need to be factored in. I failed to do that and over extended myself, and that’s on me the same as if I had failed to train properly or do any of the number of other things that contribute to racing success.

The worst of it for me was December (most contracts in our business start on 1/1), with me essentially living at my computer in the basement, eating horribly, training horribly, and getting sleep only by occasionally wandering into the guest room to take a nap. I put on 15 pounds that I still haven’t taken off (not the good kind of pounds that many endurance athletes need to put on) and ended up spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s sick. And so the first domino fell.

That domino fell into Franklins 200, where I managed to pull out a win but at a great cost and not with my best performance. That fell into Barkley, where I at least somewhat recognized the problem and tried to pull the plug in time to keep the next domino from falling, but this was still in the middle of moving with my family to another country. Then came The Ground Round, which was without a doubt past my limit at the time. A few weeks later I managed to fake my way through Lavaredo, and then a few weeks after that came Ronda dels Cims. There’s no faking your way through Ronda.

About that race

I had been eagerly looking forward to Ronda for nearly a year. Everything I had heard and read about it was amazing, and right up my alley: tons of technical and steep terrain and through a beautiful mountain region (an entire country of mountains with grades fit for the Barkley course!). I was excited at the start just to experience the course, but I also had visions of the podium in my head.

I had been eager to get out into those mountains for quite a while. Photo: Jessi Kelly

From the 50 km that I saw of the course, it was truly incredible and challenging, living up to all my expectations. I have never been to a place so completely mountainous and wonderfully steep. There is no flat terrain anywhere, with the little towns just built in to the gullies that were barely wide enough for a road, very much forming mirror images of the sharp ridgelines above.

As is often the case, a picture just can’t do justice to the steepness of the terrain, and the complete lack of level ground anywhere.

Everything went to plan up to the first aid station. There was a group of five of us in the lead who came in together. Leaving the aid station I decided to back off just a bit as the temperatures climbed, saving myself for the night-time when it would be cooler. Two of the five pushed on ahead and I trailed in the back, but thought to myself “at least one of these people will DNF.” 🤦‍♂️

Then about halfway to the 2nd aid station the heat hit me like a freight train. The only thing I’ve ever experienced similar to that was during the run at Kona last year. The difference is that there I had a relatively flat 13 miles on asphalt left. Here, I had about 90 miles through the Pyrenees. I stopped to cool off in the next creek and tried to get things back under control. Relative to some other races, it wasn’t extremely hot (it was probably in the 80s F), but it was much hotter than the upper 60s I had been expecting and for some reason it felt absolutely scorching to me. I’m sure that the British (lack of) summer wasn’t helping me at that point, but even if I had been living through another sweltering DC summer I don’t think my body would have taken me much further this time.

I’ve been in some really low, bad spots before, but never one where I really felt the decision of whether to continue or not was one of health and safety. There’s a big difference between feeling hot and feeling overheated. Before I reached the next aid station I had to be sure I could continue without going past the danger zone. I laid down in another creek, fully submersed from the waist up (except my face). My head was propped up on a rock, looking back towards the trail. I watched as people passed: there goes 7th… 8th… 10th… 12th… ah, screw it. When I finally got up I had no idea what place I was in.

I wandered into the aid station, strongly considering stopping there. But I had managed to cool off, and I’ve experienced enough low points and seemingly miraculous comebacks to know not to count myself out too early and to not quit “in camp.” It doesn’t always get worse.

But, sometimes it does. I managed to keep myself cool, but my body had nothing left to give and now the calorie deficit from not eating while I was overheated and nauseous was catching up to me. The closest I had to a resurgence was when I followed a hiker the wrong way for a quarter mile and got a moment of resolve born out of frustration (that type of resolve rarely lasts long), cruising down a descent and catching a group that had been a good deal ahead of me.

I don’t generally make an effort to smile for all the pictures. Because sometimes, well, I just don’t feel like smiling. I’m still incredibly grateful that I’m able to be out there, and in nearly all cases I’ll look back on it and smile, but I’m not going to pretend like in the moment it’s not sometimes pretty rough. Photo: Daniel Mateu

It wasn’t long before I knew my race was over, and I started treating it like a hike: stopping to enjoy the views, having a few conversations, taking a few more breaks in creeks. Pic Comapedrosa was magnificent, and I sat to admire it with an Italian in a similar predicament before we both headed down to the next aid station to drop… and then another 7K from there back down to town with a couple from Bulgaria.

Ronda dels Cims DNF 50K – John Kelly’s 30.9 mi run

Overheated and ended up with my first DNF in a normal race

At least I got two CRs?

Where to now

To be honest, I’m not in a great spot at the moment. I went to full-time ultrarunning this year, and the season feels like it’s been filled with a lot more failure and disappointment than success. My first normal race DNF is the cherry on top. On Clot Cavall, the peak before Pic Comapedrosa, I lost it just a bit. I’m not a crying person – as an adult I remember crying when my grandpa died in 2004 and the last time I played fetch with our dog before we left for the UK and had to leave her with my parents. That’s it. Jessi has been with me for nearly 15 years and hasn’t seen it. I don’t say that as a point of pride, I’m just a bit, “Vulcan” I guess is the best way I can put it. Yet there I was, on top of a beautiful mountain, crying like a baby while shuffling along. I didn’t know why, and I still don’t. It wasn’t from pain, I wasn’t particularly sad about anything, and I’m not trying to be dramatic… it was just a race. But it just happened.

Before I dropped a few people tried to get me to continue, one saying that it’s always better to finish than not. The truth is that I could have continued; I could have made the cutoff. But if finishing comes at too high a cost then it’s not better. A DNF still sucks, but I didn’t go to full-time ultrarunning to see how many races I could finish. I did it to see how well I could perform. Continuing would have ensured that that next domino would fall, destroying my chances of a successful Tor des Geants. And if that domino still falls, then I have nearly a 4 month stretch where I can do next to nothing.

We’re also finally settled in to the UK (although I still have my driving test in two weeks!), and our company is growing rapidly off of the actual revenue that December brought. The people who have joined the tech team in Bristol are all incredible, and with a larger team in place I or no one else will have a month like last December. Ever. Soon enough, who knows, maybe I’ll even have a regular sleep schedule. But until then I’ll be constantly trying to remind myself that my body can’t really compartmentalize these different stresses as well as I’d like to think it can. Proper recovery, from everything, is essential.

I’m also extremely thankful that I do have a great family and career. If running were to suddenly completely disappear from my life, I would be just fine. We actually made an awesome family trip out of this, spending the whole week in Andorra. Saturday at a park with the kids was a pretty nice option to have instead of continuing along in the state I was in (although I must say, it was a bit disheartening to be looking up at the incredible mountains that I should have been on top of).

I still spent a large part of my Saturday running around. Photo: Jessi Kelly

So this might be a low point, but like ultras themselves it doesn’t always get worse. I’m still relatively new to these types of races and I’ll take the valuable lessons I’ve learned and put them to work towards that resurgence. I’ll continue pushing my limits and trying to stick with that Goldilock difficulty, but pushing limits and jumping right past them are two different things. The latter type of failure rarely serves a purpose.

I did at least get my post race pizza and ice cream this time. It wasn’t Italy, but they were both delicious. Unfortunately they were somewhat overshadowed by my 2nd ever absolute disaster in trying foreign foods (the 1st was chicken feet in Hong Kong): an andouillet sausage in France. I still can’t think about it without feeling like I’m going to gag.

Gear and Nutrition

I have relationships with many of the companies below, which can be found here.

The gear at least definitely wasn’t an issue. It all performed quite well and the La Sportiva Mutants were definitely the right choice for the steep and technical terrain on that course. I again had on XOSKIN socks and base layers, and Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters and an Ultra Vest 4.0.

Nutrition didn’t really go according to plan here, as the overheating quickly and authoritatively shut my stomach down, but before that I had my usual mix of Perpeteum, Hammer Gel, and some assorted normal food (that ended up doing nothing but adding weight to my pack because I never got to actually eat it).

Further reading

I wouldn’t really say that I was suffering from FOMO (maybe just a bit); I truly thought that the schedule I had planned would be the best way of testing myself and taking advantage of our new surroundings. But many of the causes, symptoms, and solutions for FOMO are quite similar. Here are a couple of great posts, one by David Roche and one by Canadian Trail Running Magazine that coincidentally came out yesterday.

I actually started working with David as a coach after Barkley this year, and he’s been an enormous help in mitigating and accounting for overall stress levels as much as possible. My original schedule for the year was actually even more crammed, and he fortunately got me to drop some stuff from it. I look forward to creating next season’s schedule with his input rather than turning to him to try to salvage it after it’s already created.

Just Say No to F.O.M.O. | Trail Runner Magazine

As I’m writing this, it’s a beautiful sunny day where I am sitting in Boulder, Colorado. It’s 76 degrees and runners are passing by on the trails out the front door. I hear birds chirping the same thing over and over, which I think roughly translates to: “Hey, you coward.

The biggest risk for trail runners – Canadian Running Magazine

Running in the trails and mountains has its risks. Whether it’s heading out unprepared, getting lost, rolling an ankle, running out of water and fuel, puking, falling, or bloody blisters-doing what we love can be risky. But just as avoiding the risks won’t get you very far as a trail runner, neither will the opposite-saying yes to every adventure.

16 thoughts on “2019 Ronda dels Cims, A Mountain Too Far

  • July 22, 2019 at 11:24 am
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    Thank you for this very honest post. FOMO sometimes is the worst. Rest, relax, and get the next one and yay for pizza and Icecream.

    Reply
  • July 22, 2019 at 11:46 am
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    It’s incredibly difficult to see low points in the long-view context of an entire lifetime, but you seem to have a solid grasp on life’s priorities. Your family is lucky to have you!

    Wishing you the best on this recovery/reset – and if we readers get fewer race reports this year, so be it! I’m sure there will be a worthwhile Upper Kelly Camp post on the other side of this with plenty of self-awareness and life lessons 🙂 (and if not, again so be it! We’d settle for a UK Krispie Bo post…)

    Reply
    • July 22, 2019 at 4:03 pm
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      Thanks Chris. Haha, I haven’t yet thought of a UK Krispy Bo variant. Sticky toffee bangers? Fish and scones? The problem is the lack of good fried chicken around here…

      Reply
  • July 22, 2019 at 12:07 pm
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    John, for those of us that aspire to run farther, who read all that we can, train diligently and have a long path to tread before we toe the line, getting inside your head is the best way to learn.

    Single races seem quite possible for most but the relentless programme particularly after moving countries almost seems like a path to destruction. But then this is partly about just how much is your mind and body capable of. I guess that DNF is a good opportunity to learn, I wonder if your stubbornness will allow for that?

    Watching your schedule for changes will be interesting, as will Strava, to see how you move on.

    Reply
    • July 22, 2019 at 4:06 pm
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      It’s a matter of goals and priorities. I recognize that I have a finite amount of time at the pointy part of my athletic potential, and I would like to use that time as much as I can. So it’s a matter of fitting in as much as I can up to the point that quality starts to suffer. I wasn’t for sure where that point was, now I have a better idea. Later in life maybe my goal will shift more towards just the experience alone, in which case finishing will be perfectly sufficient.

      Reply
  • July 22, 2019 at 2:07 pm
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    Appreciate the honesty ..and for mere mortals like me its also good to know people at your level also struggle,,Cheers and welcome to the South West of England!

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    • July 22, 2019 at 4:10 pm
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      Thank you, and one of the fun parts of running is that everyone who pushes themselves the same amount essentially also struggles the same amount, regardless of the actual outcome. The better you get, the more the difficulty stays the same.

      Reply
  • July 22, 2019 at 4:07 pm
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    Very honest report John thanks for sharing…oh and understand that sometimes shit just happens…our inclination is to think that it is a problem that can be solved by changing training, nutrition, equipment, etc. Sometimes shit just happens just like Life. Mahalo, Joe

    Reply
    • July 22, 2019 at 4:34 pm
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      Right, but there are plenty of ways to minimize the chances of that happening. Thanks, and all the best.

      Reply
  • July 22, 2019 at 5:00 pm
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    Very “interesting” read John, well done for a) recognising the underlying issues and b) having the guts to share it!

    Fully appreciate a lot of it is circumstances you can’t control and choices you make for your family and future but if you are interested in a bit of geeky reading relating to sleep and its effects on central nervous system check out Matthew Walker, his appearance on Joe Rogan podcast is a good listen on a long run (well long for normal people, warm up for you 😂)

    Good luck on your recovery and refocus and look forward to following whatever comes next!

    Chris

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    • July 22, 2019 at 5:26 pm
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      Thank you, and thanks for the reading tip will check it out!

      Reply
  • July 23, 2019 at 10:47 am
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    I appreciate your honesty! You always excelled at judging your ability correctly, I was admiring the level of “objectivity” you displayed towards such a subjective matter. And despite crossing the invisible line, you still are a powerful analyst of the situation. You will come back stronger from this.
    I learned this about myself the hard way this spring, when I did not factor caring for my toddler enough and continued with the training despite the lack of sleep and general tiredness (I could find the time! I was hitting all my paces!). It resulted in almost 6 week hiatus due to various ilnesses and anemia.
    I’m looking forward to your next reports and life updates, you are a continuous source of inspiration!

    Reply
    • July 23, 2019 at 12:14 pm
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      Thank you, and I hope that your own recovery has gone well and that you’re back on track! We’ll see in September where mine is…

      Reply
  • August 6, 2019 at 12:07 am
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    I hope things improve for you the remainder of the year. I too had my first DNF this year at Ronda. I was wondering what happened to you when my wife\crew told me you dropped from the race. I’m first getting around to writing my report now but will probably take another week to finish it. I was already convinced I’ll be back there again by Saturday night. I was undertrained due to an injury. Like you said, I maybe could’ve finished, but at what cost.

    Reply
    • August 9, 2019 at 10:36 am
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      Sorry to hear your race didn’t turn out as planned either. Best of luck with the injury recovery and preparing for next time!

      Reply

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