I have many running achievements that will always be considered much more noteworthy, but one of my proudest is now a late race comeback to the top 10 men at Hardrock after suffering altitude sickness that kept me at an aid station for over four hours.Read more
This is probably the longest it’s ever taken for me to write a post for anything. It’s also probably the most difficult to put into words. Nearly a full week of nearly the entire Lake District, revisiting some of my favorite places with some of my favorite people snacking on some of my favorite foods. Ok, actually I guess that pretty well sums it up. No need to read any further.Read more
In 2015 I took my first shot at Barkley. Like most things I’ve done, from my first marathon to my first triathlon to my first startup, it was supposed to be one and done – to go out and give it my best shot and see how I could do. But also like those other things, I didn’t feel afterwards that it had been the best I could do. So in 2016 I tried again. I seemed to be so close to a finish that in 2017 I went back. I vivdly remember Gary Robbins and I discussing that year, as we ascended Stallion Mountain: “if you finish will you ever do it again?” The answer for both of us was a pretty emphatic no.Read more
It took me months to post anything here on my failed Wainwrights attempt and my Tor Des Geants DNF. Partially, I didn’t really know what to say, or if there was anything worth saying. And partially, things just kept getting in the way. When I first started I didn’t even finish the first paragraph because I had a rather sudden onset of symptoms from a virus I got from one of my kids.
I thought about combining everything into one post, but instead I kept things separate with this post to tie them together and look at the bigger picture. According to Robbie Britton’s excellent 1,001 Running Tips, my posts should be kept below 1,000 words. I thought that by cheating and splitting it into three posts I could get by. Spoiler alert: I failed miserably… they’re all over 1,000 words. 😅Read more
I’ve had a great time adventuring about the UK in my time here. I’ve seen amazing places unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before, and become a part of a wonderful community. Also, I’ve become quite familiar with mud, bogs, nettles, British weather and food, and extreme swings in daylight hours. Before my residence here ends I wanted to pull as many of these things as possible together into one day. Before we moved here from the Washington, DC area I put together a similar event: The Farm to Founders 50K.
This past spring, as I was exploring my local trails in the Mendip Hills, I did the 47 mile Butcombe Trail over a weekend. After researching the trail a bit more and finding that it was created to link the original six Butcombe Brewery pubs in the Mendips, the idea came to me of an ultra pub crawl.Read more
I don’t feel like there’s a lot to say about my Tor Des Geants race itself, but the outcome is something that I think is worth sharing. It could happen to anyone doing these things and people need to be more aware of it.
The race is a 200+ mile lap around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps with around 110K feet of ascent, and this was my first time putting on an actual race bib since the Spine in January 2020. It’s the most beautiful course I’ve been on, has amazing local support, and the start/finish of Courmayeur has pizza and gelato around every corner. The Aosta Valley also isn’t just special for the mountains, or the food, but also the people. I cannot thank my Aostan crew enough for their support of a complete stranger who didn’t even speak their language, especially to Marlène Jorrioz who took on the role of crew chief. As with Wainwrights and Pennine Way, I’ll be sending them each a tiny token of appreciation through Trees Not Tees.Read more
This is by far the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post on one of my adventures. It’s now nearly five months since my attempt at the Wainwrights. I don’t know that I have a lot to add beyond what I initially posted on social media, and a lot of this is copy/paste from that, but I at least wanted to collect it all here in one place if for nothing more than my own future reference (and planning 😉).
The Wainwrights are a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District described in the seven books that make up Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere around 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee this year in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes. It was also completed this year by Chris Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours fully unsupported (alone, carrying absolutely everything needed to finish from the start except water from natural sources).Read more
I thought long and hard about that title. Ok it just came to me. I think I owe Rob Pope, one of my support runners, for the Star Wars theme inspiration. I wasn’t sure though if Damian and I were episodes I – III or IV – VI (Return of the Tennessean?). In any case I suppose Mike Cudahy and Mike Hartley were the original episodes and the only dark side here has been stomach ulcers and weather.
But since this is the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post for one of my runs, I should probably stop with the Star Wars digression and get to it.
Not so fast my friend
I doubt anyone in the UK will get the Lee Corso reference, but up front I wanted to clarify my final thoughts on the never-ending “record” vs. “FKT” debate. To be honest, I don’t really care. If the person hearing the term knows what it means, and the person using it doesn’t mean to offend, then I don’t care. Like when I slip up here and say “no pickles please” instead of “no gherkins” people generally just pause for a second, smile, and then get on with it. To me this one is like the relationship between squares and rectangles. All squares (records) are rectangles (FKTs) but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square. There are many routes where things haven’t been diligently recorded over the years, and the best that can be said is that something is literally the fastest *known* time. On the Pennine Way, and many of the established routes in the UK that are rich with history and tradition, things have been recorded and record is an entirely appropriate label. So generally I try to respect that tradition and use record when referring to the Pennine Way, but I couldn’t care less which term others choose to use.
A long brewing plan
It might seem that I returned to the Pennine Way just to attempt to reclaim the record. In all honesty, I knew I would likely return before I even finished my own run last year, sometime just before breaking Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record and 8 days before Damian Hall then broke mine. There are certain goals that take on extra meaning, where it’s not just can I do it but how well can I do it. They become benchmarks, for me and for others who seek the same challenge in the future. After some major gut issues last year I felt there was much more I could do.
But of course the record was added motivation. I had the usual competitive drive but also admittedly a simmering frustration from endless jokes after anything I did about how Damian was going to come do it better a week later. They were just harmless jokes, ones which I could have ignored, but instead I deliberately chose to let them grow into a little motivational chip on my shoulder. Damian is a great friend, person, and runner, but we’re also competitors. Every comment was a little poke in my side, and I had a picture from last year above my computer monitor as a reminder to get out for my run on those dreary winter days.
This year I decided to go north to south as Damian and Mike had done, getting the Cheviots & Cross Fell out of the way early. I also made a smarter schedule that would allow me to attack and pick up time in the middle portion of the run, I took steps to prevent a recurrence of my gut issues from last time, and my fitness was probably the best it’s ever been thanks to David Roche, the mutual coach of both me and Damian (but I had him first, kind of like the Pennine Way record 😂).
I arrived in Kirk Yetholm on Thursday evening with Nicki Lygo, my crew chief, full-time road support, and all-around Pennine Way guru. I had a full day to relax and prepare after the long trip. Friday evening we were joined by Jen Scotney, had an inspirational viewing of Totally FKT, and I went down for what I can only describe as a night of “could’ve been worse” sleep.
Conditions on Saturday were nearly perfect as I filled my belly with Scottish porridge and then started out from Kirk Yetholm with Jasmin Paris and Graham Nash at 9 AM on the biggest climb of the route, all the way up to The Cheviot. Last year the little out & back to the summit had seemed endless – at night in terrible weather at the end of the run. In Totally FKT you can hear me vent a bit of bleeped frustration as I slap the trig point on the summit. This time it was over before I knew it, & we made quick work of the entire Cheviots section. I even got to see some Cheviot goats, which had never made an appearance for me on all my previous trips up there. The only real setback was a bog attempting to steal my shoe – sucking it off my foot, my gaiter trying in vain to pull it out before its connector broke and the shoe snapped back down into the muck. It would have been fascinating to watch in slow motion.
My plan had been to go out slower than Damian, and not overtake him until a bit past 100 miles. But we had taken advantage of the good conditions and I was ahead. I felt good about the pace, but still the doubts crept in. Coming out of Byrness, led by Martin Wilson and Ed Hyland, places in my legs were already starting to hurt and feel a bit tight. Was this normal? I’ve done these things so many times yet that part always catches me off guard. I have over 200 miles to go, surely everything should still feel great? Oh, right, I’ve already run 50 miles on tough terrain. Yeah, I guess things are just gonna hurt. I was at least in a much better spot than Martin was used to seeing me in – he had joined me last year on the Pennine Way and my Grand Round during my absolute lowest of lows on each.
With Bill Johnson and Jayson Cavill joining for sections, we made our way through the boggy forests north of Hadrian’s Wall, had a nice run along the wall, and arrived at Greenhead where I took a seat for the first time. I was a bit over 11:12 and 64 miles into the run, about 40 minutes ahead of Damian’s pace and over an hour ahead of where I had planned to be at that point. Weather conditions had been great, but underfoot conditions were definitely a bit messier than I had hoped.
Tim Wiggins led us flawlessly through the quagmire known as Blenkinsopp Common while Graham Thomas tried to keep me fed and focused as night fell. The section between Blenkinsopp Common and Alston has a bit of a reputation as many people’s least favorite part of the whole route. For me, it reminds me of the fields I run around in Somerset. It’s like I’ve been training for that section ever since I moved to the UK. At Garrigill I had a seat again. This part had been planned – I wanted to get some significant calories in before the long climb over Cross Fell, and Sharon Dyson had prepared a nice buffet headlined by a burger.
I layered on extra clothes and set off with James Elson and Andy Blackett. I knew that the trek up The Corpse Road to Greg’s Hut would just be long mindless climbing, something I’ve discovered is one of my bigger strengths (thanks Rat Jaw!). I’ve still yet to be on Cross Fell in the day, or without clag, but this was the least bad conditions I’ve had up there. The wind wasn’t even bad. Coming down the other side into Dufton I hit 100 miles almost right at 19 hours as the new day arrived.
In my plan, this section is where I would take the record. I saw an opportunity over this stretch to gain a significant amount of time where both Damian and I had slowed down last year. I was over an hour ahead of my 58 hour 14 minute plan, but I had no intention this year of being content with a buffer. I was not just out to break a record; I was out to set one at the outer edge of my limits. There was also still plenty of time for disaster – bad weather, sleep issues, stomach problems – when at the edge for that long it doesn’t take very much at all to fall off.
So I stuck to the plan. The Cheviots and Cross Fell were already out of the way, and I was on my way home. I headed up High Cup Nick led by Tom Middleton and flanked by Julian Jamison, who I think is the first person outside my family who ever crewed me (2016 Barkley) and who happened to move from DC to the UK at about the same time as us. After a wet and slightly precarious descent next to Cauldron Snout and a scramble across the boulders alongside the River Tees, Mel Steventon joined to finish bringing us along the long flat path into Middleton (no relation to Tom 😉). We made good time, and as planned added a nice buffer on the record pace, but this is one section that I didn’t enjoy as much going north to south. The waterfalls along the River Tees and High Cup Nick are some of my favorite parts of the route, and the view in this direction wasn’t as enjoyable or lasting.
Last year I was in the depths of my ulcer-induced crisis at Middleton – wasting a good chunk of time attempting to nap, eat, and do everything I could to reset my body. This time I briefly had a seat, got some food down, and moved along. I set out with John Parkin and Elaine Bisson for the push to Tan Hill Inn. I considered Tan Hill to nearly be the midway point (in terms of time) going this direction, and if I could get there in good shape then I felt pretty confident that I could make it the rest of the way in time. Sabrina Verjee and Ben Turner joined for a solid pick-me-up at what is probably my least favorite part of the route: Sleightholme Moor. When I first encountered this section it was during the Spine Race in the middle of Storm Brendan. I felt like I was wading down a river, complete with an occasional stake in the ground acting as a buoy to keep me in the main channel, I mean path. Fortunately conditions were a bit better this time around, but altogether avoiding the mud and bogs was impossible.
Oftentimes in these things I feel a bit like I’m a baton and all the support is doing the actual work. At Tan Hill Inn I was handed off to Darren Moore, Matthew Beresford, and Matt Neale (with Zepp the Collie!): all a regular sight supporting people’s big adventures. Howard Dracup and Carmine De Grandis also joined as we pushed on to Thwaite and up Great Shunner Fell, the highest point remaining. We flew down the other side with sub 8 minute miles, which at that point felt like accelerating down the first big drop on a roller coaster. It was a nice smooth runnable descent, the kind you have to take advantage of. We arrived in Hardraw, 153 miles in, in under 31 hours. Last year, heading the other direction and just over 100 miles in, I was already starting to have issues and took my first nap. This year I still hadn’t slept and I moved on without sitting down.
Sam Booth, who would help get me through nearly half the remaining miles, led the way out while Forrest Gump afficionado and podcast host extraordinaire Rob Pope lifted my spirits with his Tennessee socks and seemingly endless positive energy. It would be needed, as the trek up from Hawes to the Cam High Road and down into Horton was the first really tough stretch I had. Sure, things hurt before that, and there had been difficult parts, but this was the first time I *really* struggled. The weather got rough, with rain and wind picking up before turning to hail. I tried to move faster to stay warm, but I was suddenly having significant pain in my feet.
At Horton I changed shoes. I had been in Jackals up to that point but I decided to switch into an oversized pair of Akasha with a special gel insole that I keep around to try to deal with foot swelling and pain that can occur this far into something. I was also glad to start the climb up Pen-y-ghent and give my feet a break from the pounding of the previous few miles. Martin Stone and Ross Jenkin (who just completed his amazing Big 4 at 40 challenge) joined us for the climb as a beautiful sunset provided our backdrop and rainbows shot up ahead of us.
I felt renewed, and we continued on over Fountains Fell, the last real climb until the home stretch. We arrived at Malham Tarn, 181 miles in, at 37 hours and 28 minutes. The plan had worked. Since Dufton I had been methodically chipping away at the record time, about 10 minutes at each checkpoint. I started the day at Dufton about an hour ahead and by the time I reached Malham Tarn I was 4 hours up with about 80 miles to go.
Weather so far had been not awful relative to some of what I’m used to. Underfoot conditions weren’t great, with plenty of muddy and boggy sections, and there were the stretches of heavy rain and hail, but most of the bad weather fell into the category of what I would call extremely annoying and uncomfortable but not limiting. This weather affects what most people likely will do, but not what they can do. Importantly, there had not been the strong southerly headwind I had feared.
But at that point I also hadn’t slept. Damian had already gotten a nap or two by then. Like a racecar driver deciding to get new tires early, those naps can pay dividends over that critical 2nd night when sleep deprivation really starts to be a major factor.
It wasn’t long after leaving Malham Tarn, where I had joked about an afternoon finish (sub 56 hours), that the sleep monsters began to attack. I felt myself drifting as we made our way through the precarious rocky terrain of Malham Cove, then began to stumble and stagger through the fields that largely make up the section between the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District.
For the remainder of the run James Ritchie and Suzy Whatmough would be swapping out alongside me, with Jim Graham providing additional road support. James and Suzy previously had the opposite of Martin Wilson’s experience with me: always seeing me early on before I decayed into the miserable wreck they were now witnessing.
By the time we reached Gargrave, I had decided to give in to a nap. I got some food down and requested 20 minutes. After 10 I woke up with throbbing legs and a shivering torso. Instead of getting a move on I spent another 20-30 minutes trying to warm up, my support crew bring me hot bags of water to shove in my jacket. I largely regret warming up there rather than trying to by moving on, but who knows. If I hadn’t have had that time to reset a bit then maybe I would have crashed and burned shortly after.
The stop did undoubtedly refresh me. My pace picked up and I was more energetic and alert. But the question is always whether it’s enough of a pick-up to make up for the time stopped – in this case needing a minute / mile faster for 45 miles to break even. Mark Rochester and Ben Cliff led me through the rest of the night, which I would describe in more detail if I remembered it in more detail. Just before dawn I stopped for one more nap, a much more efficient 10 minutes in Cowling just past the 200 mile mark at 43 hours.
The remainder of the run was constant highs and lows – often swinging back and forth by the minute. There were stretches where I felt like I was flying, followed shortly by me wondering what I was doing and questioning the life choices that had led me to do it. The climb up Stoodley Pike felt endless, but I was spurred on by another fount of seemingly endless positive energy: Danny Bent. With Danny singing and Dave Beales leading, we made our way to the White House pub.
Another band of heavy storms rolled in, and I knew I was in trouble when people started handing me my full waterproofs and good Gore-Tex layers. But, few things keep you awake better than hail in your face. My stomach also began to shut down. On the move I was relying nearly completely on my 8 month old daughter’s baby food squeeze pouches. At support points I was stopping just a bit to get in rice pudding and pot noodle.
The final stretch was a bit of a daze. My anchor leg support runners were Jamie Rutherford and Marcus Scotney, with Simon Bennett providing reinforcements through a storm going over Black Hill. On Bleaklow my mind had just enough bandwidth to fixate on and follow Marcus’s bright yellow shoes. I had slipped into that state where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was real or a dream, just that I was still controlling my actions.
I followed those shiny shoes past Kinder Downfall, over Kinder Scout, down Jacob’s Ladder, and through the fields leading down to The Old Nags Head pub in Edale. I turned the last corner, went through the last gate, and released my final reserves of adrenaline to cruise down to the finish where my family was waiting. I didn’t specifically plan the timing this way, but for the entire run I had the motivation of knowing that if I ran fast enough I’d finish at a reasonable hour and they would be there. 58 hours, 4 minutes, 53 seconds, for ~3.5 hours off the record and a finish just past 7 PM – even the pub’s kitchen was still open.
A collective record
Any record like this is a collective achievement, built on the efforts and imagination of the past, competition and support of the present, and the desire to leave a mark for the future. I would not have had the courage to go for sub 60 hours without Damian’s incredible run. I hope my record also drives someone to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have thought possible and that at some point in the future the time is lowered again. There is still time that can come off of it now, and in the future further improvements to the trail and to gear will leave people with advantages over us similar to what Damian and I had over earlier efforts.
Then of course nothing like this would be possible without incredible support. My wife Jessi is an absolute rock, supporting me and four kids during these adventures, my coach David Roche has gotten my fitness to a place I didn’t know existed for me, and my returning crew chief Nicki Lygo has selflessly given so much to my and other Pennine Way efforts and also helped me work out some of my gut issues. Jen Scotney and Sharon Dyson were also flawless road support throughout, and I had a small army of amazing support runners and a number of others who unexpectedly contributed valuable support along the way.
But could it have been faster?
At the outset I mentioned that my main goal was to see how well I could do it, to put down a time on this route that truly reflected my capabilities. I feel I did that this time. I’m not only thrilled with the outcome, I’m content with my performance. But of course that still didn’t keep me from analyzing it and picking everything apart. So, time to geek out a bit.
For something this long, a 58:04 finish pretty much nailed my 58:14 schedule (the schedule I shared on the OpenTracking page was slowed down to be just fast enough to beat the record). And, it was pretty consistent with the 57:59 schedule I originally made last year (which is the schedule David referenced in a Trail Runner Magazine article).
My basic approach for creating schedules for these types of challenges is to:
- Map out the route with some nominal average level of effort applied to it (or better, find the data for an actual run on the route, like, say, maybe Damian’s run from last year 😉)
- Upload it to Strava and let it calculate the GAP (grade adjusted pace)
- Create an ideal curve with a smooth decay of my GAP, based on previous experience and top performances for similar lengths of time on a track (where there are many fewer variables to contend with)
- Reverse Strava’s pace to GAP conversion from step 2 and apply it to my ideal GAP curve from step 3 to get my “ideal” split for each mile
Of course the process above isn’t perfect, and for routes like the Pennine Way in particular it’s problematic because GAP can’t account for underfoot conditions and weather, but in general it works pretty well for me and over distances this long the law of large numbers comes into play and errors mostly average out. And most importantly, I haven’t yet come up with a better method.
The chart above shows a few things. First, why my plan revolved around the middle section. The moving average of Damian’s pace (green line) had a significant uptick from around mile 85 to around mile 210. That’s where I felt I had the most to gain, and I would need to capitalize on that opportunity to hold on during Damian’s big surge over the final 20 miles.
Second, my actual pace (black line) was really close to my plan (dotted red line). At the beginning when conditions were good I was moving a bit faster (but still following the same trend). At the end, when conditions got bad and I just wanted to go to bed, I slipped a bit. The end result was finishing 10 minutes ahead of schedule after over 58 hours.
|Stop||Scheduled Time||Actual Time||DH Time|
|Lamb Hill Refuge Hut||3:36||3:11||3:19|
|Road after Padon Hill||6:45||5:59||6:26|
|Bellingham (Spine CP)||8:05||7:03||7:47|
|A689 west of Lambley||13:51||12:33||13:26|
|Middleton in Teesdale||24:43||23:33||25:02|
|Tan Hill Inn||28:37||27:31||29:21|
|Horton in Ribblesdale||35:40||34:27||37:13|
|Thornton In Craven||41:49||41:24||45:07|
|A58 White House pub||49:21||48:59||52:46|
|A57 Snake Pass||55:45||55:49||59:47|
But generally my schedules, while tending to err on the ambitious side, are for average conditions and reasonable allowances for breaks. Going back and looking over my data on Strava, I had about 2 hours total time stopped with 1.5 hours of that coming in the last ~70 miles starting with the 45 minute Gargrave stop.
So that sounds like a lot, but the question is always whether the benefit outweighs the time stopped. Coming into Gargrave I had dropped to ~13 min GAP (grade adjusted pace) and then coming out I was around 11:30 GAP. So I needed to retain that benefit for ~30 miles to make up for the stop at Gargrave. And who knows, if I hadn’t have had a bit of a reset there maybe I would have gone over the edge and irrecoverably imploded.
This all leads to the question: what could be done under ideal conditions? No mild hypothermia at Gargrave, less stopping, less mud, and better weather. If everything went perfectly, I think I could do ~56 hours. But the probability that things that went wrong would go right is now less than the probability that things that went right would go wrong. Part of the beauty of these challenges is that there are always marginal gains – perfection is nearly impossible.
And someone might decide to have a crack at it (I hope one day they do!) who is better than me – better fitness, better mentally, and better prepared. The Pennine Way might also keep getting more flagstones until the whole thing doesn’t have a single step in mud. Then we can again refer back to some of the best performances on the track for similar amounts of time. The American record for 48 hours on a track is ~11 minutes per mile, which is about 48 seconds better than my GAP, which translates to about 55 seconds better pace, which would give a time of 54:20. Increase the pace a bit due to the slightly longer duration, then decrease it a bit due to people who are better than the current American record, and we’ll call it even. I reference the American record just because that’s what I have the data for, and because expanding to the world record would include a certain seemingly untouchable outlier from Greece who would really skew the numbers here.
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Not much changed on my gear compared to last year. For shoes, I was in the La Sportiva Jackal up until I switched to my intentionally oversized Akasha in Horton. Both the Jackal and Akasha did very well and were well-suited for that terrain and distance. The Akasha has long been my general purpose go-to shoe for long distances, only starting to get pushed aside a bit when the Jackal was released last year.
I again wore a pair of XOSKIN toe socks with a pair of their non-toe socks over top. They were soaking wet for nearly the entire time, but never once did I even remove them. No blisters, no foot issues at all. This is a strategy that has been working for me for years now. As important as it is to avoid foot issues at these distances, I have no plans to change a thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I also had an XOSKIN long sleeve top on nearly the entire way, and a pair of their new XOUNDERWEAR liner briefs. No chafeage anywhere.
My feet were also no doubt helped by my Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, which stayed in place (despite one having front hook broken by a bog early on) and kept the dirt and grit from the bogs out of my shoes. I don’t see gaiters in the UK nearly as often as in the US, probably because there’s less sizable debris (rocks, sticks, etc.), but over that distance keeping even the small grit out is important. I also wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends. I used Ultimate Direction FK Poles, first just on the steeper sections and then more liberally near the end.
At night I used my lightweight and reliable Petzl Actik Core, which was perfect for these situations where I have frequent road support and support runners guiding the way. If solo, with tougher navigation, or needing light for longer stretches on a single battery, I would normally use a Petzl NAO+.
The periodic deluges required a bit of a rotation between my La Sportiva Run Jacket and Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket + Pants (trousers). For the worst of it, my crew threw my La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket at me, which is actually designed as a skimo jacket. It’s a great lightweight waterproof that provides a lot more protection than most running waterproofs (which are designed to be the bare minimum to meet most races’ kit requirements).
I used a COROS Vertix, which has proven to be an outstanding watch. I originally decided to try one because of its battery life, but its interface and other features have also been great for what I do. The navigation now includes waypoints, and it was quite nice to know how far (and how much climbing) before the next checkpoint. I did just have a bit of an issue at the beginning due to me trying to load my original full GPX route into it, which had over twice as many datapoints as most handheld GPS devices can handle. So I’ll remember to downsample those a bit in the future. It did need to be charged once along the way.
Nutrition required some changes from last year. It’s not that what I ate last year caused my stomach problems; that wasn’t the issue at all. But I found in training leading up to it that I had a bit of PTSD of the stomach (not at all trying to make light of actual PTSD, but I can think of no other way to aptly describe it). Like if you eat something and then get sick later, the thought of eating that food can make you queasy in the future even if it’s not what actually caused you to get sick. In my long training runs even the thought of pulling some of my previously tried and true foods out of my pack would make my stomach tighten up.
So I had quite the spread for this, with far more options than I would ever eat. I ate pretty well throughout, aiming for 250 – 300 calories an hour, although I do feel I started to get a bit light on calories over the final stretch. That’s one reason I stopped more often was to try to get some food down.
When I was packing things up my son pointed at something and said, “Dad, is that healthy food?” I kind of laughed and said that no, nothing here was healthy. But for endurance events of this length, these are the important criteria for food, in order:
- Food that you’ll eat
- Food that won’t keep you from eating later (i.e. won’t give you GI issues)
- Food that won’t get squished or fall apart in a running vest
- Food that has the optimal nutrient profile and will be converted to energy and absorbed in the scientifically proven quickest and most efficient way
As much as we’re all sold on #4, that doesn’t matter at all if it’s something that doesn’t meet criteria 1 and 2. And really, I think those same criteria apply outside of running as well. Except for #3. It’s hard enough to not be able to take ice cream on a run; I would never want to impose that rule on every day life.
My coach is big on recovery and time to adapt to big stimuli, so I had a week off. The usual recovery nemesis, DOMS, wasn’t that bad. Honestly I’ve had worse from marathons (running hard on asphalt for 26.2 miles hurts!). But edema / water retention always leaves my legs swollen like tree trunks for a week or so.
Systemic exhaustion and lack of energy are bad for ~1 week. Sudden “attacks” where gravity seems to increase by 10X, mentally it feels like I’ve been hit by a train, and there’s no choice but to lie down.
Sleep deprivation: I can’t just go sleep 30 hours. Clawing back sleep debt is gradual over 2+ weeks. I don’t sleep well the 1st night with the adrenaline, aching muscles, etc. Plus, life. I have a job and a family. A huge reason why this is my first blog post since January is that for me running is in addition to all those normal parts of life; a week after I posted about doing less in 2021 a lot happened that left me no choice but to do less in other areas. Life has its own highs and lows just like an ultra does.
Hunger. For 3-4 days my stomach instantly incinerates anything tossed into it. Day 1 by 2 PM I had eaten everything in the fridge that was supposed to feed our entire family for dinner. I also often get cotton mouth & tongue ulcers from multi-days. So I largely stick to soft foods (treacle pudding and ice cream in the pub at the finish, and of course a nice southern breakfast complete with sweet tea).
The “post-race blues.” These things really wreak havoc on hormones, plus even if successful there’s the mental shift of no longer having *the goal* – as if it had been pulling me forward but someone just cut the rope. It takes a while to mentally refocus.
By about 10 days later I had started easing back into running, feeling fairly normal and going about life as usual. I even finally got my first Covid vaccination two days after finishing (my coach’s response to whether that would be ok: “Generally the 1st dose has some mild inflammation, which for you right now is like throwing a cup of water in the ocean”).
At that point my sights were set on the next challenge, and part of the delay in getting this post finished was due to getting plans together for that.
The Full English
Last year I put together two big back to back adventures (The Pennine Way and The Grand Round) and called it The Hartley Slam in recognition of Mike Hartley’s incredible feats that helped pave the way for those and so many other big running challenges in the UK. Those challenges took me across Wales, England, and Scotland. This year, except for those first few miles of the Pennine Way in the Scottish Borders, I’m sticking to England for “The Full English.”
In mid July I’ll be setting off for an attempt at the Wainwrights, a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere above 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee recently in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes.
I’ve been planning this for close to a year now, and Sabrina has been unbelievably supportive throughout – not just in a “cool that sounds great” sort of way, but in going out of her way to actively support me and provide me with the information and guidance needed to have a good attempt. It’s likely she’ll be out there guiding me around on sections and has offered their house as a stop for a shower and nap if the timing is right. Yes, I also carried her stuff around for a few legs of one of her attempts, but between learning the route and getting a good final training stimulus before the Pennine Way that benefitted me as much as it did her. I should also note that I’m not the first to go after the Wainwrights and the Pennine Way in the same year. Sabrina did that already too, last year.
On one hand I’ve been blown away by her support, but on the other it simply exemplifies the fell running community I’ve gotten to be a part of while living here. I’ve also learned a great deal on the Wainwrights from Carol Morgan. For someone like me who doesn’t have the chance to make it to the Lakes very often, challenges like these would be impossible without others paving the way. There have been quite a few Wainwrights runs over the past year, some in pretty brutal conditions, and a recent unsupported completion (no help, no resupplies, starting with absolutely everything needed to finish except water from natural sources) by Christopher Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours.
As part of this challenge, I’ve decided to set up a fundraiser for Action Medical Research. I would have set this up before the Pennine Way, but going back to the whole lack of time thing, I never got around to it. The charity has been very supportive in helping me set things up, though. I’m thrilled to be working with them and to be able to contribute to their mission. Even the smallest donation helps, and while a far less important reason to donate it will also give me a nice boost through those inevitable lows when I’m wandering around the Lake District wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that one of my great passions is kids who have the cards stacked against them. Last year with the Hartley Slam I supported Blueprint for All (formerly Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust). They’re doing amazing work and I will continue to personally support them, but in doing these fundraisers I believe it’s as much about raising awareness and the follow-on benefits as it is the direct immediate donations. I hope in highlighting a few different charities that more people will see one that really resonates with them and drives them to be actively engaged and supportive indefinitely. It’s the whole give someone a fish vs. teach them to fish thing. I was actually made aware of Action Medical Research myself through Rod Tredgett and Raring to Row, a four person team rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Action Medical Research is another charity that fully resonates with me. While Blueprint for All helps young people who are socially or economically at a disadvantage, Action Medical Research helps kids who are medically at a disadvantage. They are the the leading UK-wide charity saving and changing children’s lives through medical research. They also remind me a bit of one of my favorite charities back in the US (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) and they contribute to a cause that’s near and dear to Nicki Lygo: ending Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I hope everyone can find a good cause that they’re as passionate about as Nicki is about this. For all her work supporting people like me and Damian on our crazy challenges, Nicki more than deserves some support herself.
Pennine Way podcasts
Well, as usual, what I thought would be a quick post largely copy / pasted from what I had already posted on social media turned into a rather lengthy endeavor. But if you still haven’t quite gotten enough of the Pennine Way, below are some podcasts I did after my run. I’ve made it one of my goals this year to do far fewer podcasts, taking the time to focus on other things (including the things that cause people to ask me to do podcasts in the first place). But the ones below are with people I always enjoy having a chat with, and who I know will ask the good questions.
I’m a very goal oriented person. I always have been, it will probably never change, and I’ve written so many posts about goals that I gave them their own page. For the most part, I consider it one of my greatest strengths. It’s helped me take on and overcome big challenges, spurred on by failure and unexpected obstacles. This is true not only in running, but also in my career and really life in general.
My main goal for this year, though, is to focus less on goals. Sure, I still firmly believe in success through failure of stretch goals, and I have some big ones for 2021 that I’ll pursue wholeheartedly, but I don’t want those to completely overwhelm everything else in my life. Writing this out helped me think through what concrete steps I could take, and I decided to post it in case it’s useful to anyone else who feels they’re in the same situation.
Failure through success
One difficulty from being a stubbornly focused and irrationally driven person is the potential to steamroll anyone with a much more reasonable mindset. I’ve worked hard on communication and on listening to the goals of my wife and others who share the same lane on life’s highway, but I must admit that so far it’s been my own goals that have had the larger gravitational force on those around me. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the unwavering support of my wife and family. “Hey, how about we move across the ocean with 3 pre-schoolers so I can build out the 4 person startup I just co-founded? Great, now that we’re here how about I bike and run around the whole country and we have a 4th kid during a global pandemic? Ok super, now next…”
The more easily overlooked difficulty is the risk of my goal-oriented mindset steamrolling me. I’ve realized that I have essentially lost the ability to just be – to just sit, and relax, and do nothing that makes progress towards one of those goals. It’s difficult for me to enjoy the day to day seemingly trivial experiences that make up the majority of life. This probably started as far back as grad school, when nearly every free minute that I wasn’t working I felt guilty that I wasn’t. It’s not how I want to live and not something that’s sustainable.
I want to enjoy every moment with my kids; I will never have them again. One day I want to be able to just sit, and do nothing, and be completely content and happy in it. Maybe I’ll actually read a book, or try out this Netflix and chill thing I keep hearing about.
Since leaving my nice safe corporate job with regular hours, I’ve been in leadership positions at startups and have had the incredible benefit of largely setting my own hours. I could show up mid morning in the office muddy from a run commute, or flex days around family trips and races.
But that benefit comes with a terrible curse: my work hours have no bounds on timing and duration. Saturday morning? Sure, why not. 2 AM? Of course, that’s when all my best thinking happens. It’s like grad school: there’s rarely a specific time when I absolutely must be working but even more rare is the time when I don’t feel I should be working.
One reason I love long crazy things in remote places is because they force me to pull the plug. “Yeah, about that email… I was off on a mountain with negative 2 bars of service and a dead battery.” It’s also one of the few things that can fully mentally detach me. When I’m worried about not getting lost, cold, hungry, or giving in to the dozen body parts yelling at me to stop… that TPS report somehow completely disappears from thought. The effect lingers as well – once back in the real world it takes a while before I’m fully reabsorbed.
So I plan on forcing that upon myself more. Certain days of the week, certain hours of the day: no phone, no computer, no anything where anyone can message me or pull my thoughts elsewhere.
Be in the moment
Disconnecting and being physically present is simple. Being mentally engaged is something altogether different. It’s easy to be somewhere or with someone yet be completely preoccupied by something else: a problem at work, something in the news, an upcoming goal, or the cat picture that random guy on Twitter just posted. All of those things have their time and place, and some of them might even be more important. But they’ll still be there later, and not every moment will be. “Hold on son, I can’t help with that right now because people just stormed the capitol building and I need to read these updates now before you go to bed or else it will be an even bigger disaster.”
I’m a master multi-tasker, which is a great way of saying I can do 4 things in an hour instead of 1 thing every 15 minutes. Sometimes that’s useful, but not everything can be spread out over that hour. Some moments, some of the best and most irretrievable, might only last 15 minutes.
Whatever it is I’m doing, it will have my attention. Wherever I am, there I will be.
Just say no
Of course there’s a limit to how much we can prioritize. There’s usually a choice between doing a few things well or many things poorly. I could target 50 races a year, but then I would never perform at my best. I plan on saying no to a lot more responsibilities, including podcasts, sponsor requests, and tasks at work.
I’ll still do podcasts, but I’ll likely stick with people I know or ones I’ve done before – not because I know them but because they know me. They’re more likely to have insightful non-repetitive questions.
I’ll still work with my sponsors, but I’m well beyond the point where I have any interest in essentially selling social media posts (alongside small pieces of my soul) for gear. My sponsor engagement will focus on product feedback and testing (hopefully using those products to succeed in some big challenges), and on leveraging our combined platforms for positive change within the sport and beyond. My posts will be personal and my own voice. That might mean my benefits aren’t as good, and I might miss some opportunities altogether, but it’s entirely worth it to me.
This doesn’t all mean that I’ll cut myself off or go live under a rock. There are many important and urgent issues right now and I hope that I can help in some small way with my time, resources, and skills. I might even make more non-running blog posts.
So I’ll aim for more, by doing fewer things. Opportunity costs are unavoidable.
Ignore the noise
The big choices are usually easy to recognize, but oftentimes it’s the little things that kill. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, and it can all add up to hours lost.
I’ve placed a great deal of emphasis on eliminating noise over the last 5 years. I work, I spend time with family, and I run. That’s basically it. I have no other hobbies, no social activities, I don’t watch TV, and I gave up video games years ago when the twins were born. My scrolling on social media is already extremely limited (sorry for all the Facebook birthdays I’ve missed), but I plan on restricting that even more. It won’t be my main news source, a chat room, or a distraction.
That doesn’t mean those choices are best for everyone. They might be terrible for some. But there is significant value in deciding what’s personally meaningful and truly of value.
I’ll continue my own usual social media posts for those who are interested or genuinely get something from them, but also for me. Like this one, they’re often very useful to me for gathering and articulating my own thoughts.
I’ll more carefully consider the value that everything brings and weigh its cost against the pursuit of my goals, the support of a good cause, or just sitting and relaxing – being truly in the moment, disconnecting to recharge, and enjoying the day to day experiences of life.
Building on 2020
I think many people would like to forget 2020, but often our bad times can form a strongest foundation. Focusing on the bright side, I was extremely fortunate in 2020. My family and I are in good health, we welcomed a daughter into the world, the startup I’m at actually grew, and I’ve spent more time at home with my family than ever.
I was still able to complete 3 of the 4 running goals I had before the pandemic struck (win The Spine, break the Pennine Way record, and complete The Grand Round). The 4th was canceled (Barkley), but I did manage 5 loops around Frozen Head. To hear more about those, here are some 2020 podcasts. A lot of podcasts.
But other than those few big events, life has been rather monotonous. Every day is the same and it’s easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, something I think a lot of people probably relate to at the moment. No matter when we get back to normal, or whether we ever fully get there, I hope I can be more intentional about enjoying those day to day moments.
I love winter running. For me, one of the few places that can compete with the view from the top of a mountain is a forest blanketed in snow. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is not only my favorite poem, it’s probably the only one I actually know by heart. When I worked in Washington, D.C. my greatest respite was my commute home from work. Anyone who has dealt with a D.C. commute is probably pretty confused, but I didn’t take the constantly jammed beltway or the over-crowded and prone-to-catch-fire metro. I left my office in Dupont Circle and in just over 2 miles I hit the trails in Rock Creek Park, which would take me the remaining 12 miles home.
My favorite time of year for this wasn’t when it was sunny and 90+ Fahrenheit with 90% humidity. It was when I was in the dark and cold, and the air was calm and crisp. Snow was a bonus, with thousands of tiny crystals glimmering in my headlamp’s beam on the ground and in the trees. It was magical, and peaceful, and I felt as if I had the whole place to myself.
As great as winter running is, it of course has its dangers. I want to be clear: this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive set of winter safety recommendations. It has some suggestions to hopefully add to your comfort and your enjoyment of winter conditions. Before venturing out, always be sure you have the proper experience, knowledge, and gear, and that you’re aware of all conditions you *might* face. Not what you’re likely to face, but might face with even just a tiny probability. Gradually work your way up from short days out to longer adventures. Learn from problems others have encountered and don’t be an idiot like I was on a November hike in Yosemite back in 2013. This is even more true this winter with emergency services in most places already pushed beyond their limit from Covid. Here in the UK, any winter adventures currently shouldn’t be overnight or involve travel from home.
Nature isn’t the only danger
I also recognize that the scene I describe in the first paragraph is one that unfortunately many women don’t feel they can safely enjoy. If one of my daughters were old enough to go out for a run, I can’t say I would feel very good about her doing it in Rock Creek Park at night. Without launching into an entirely different topic that I’m severely unqualified to speak about, I’ll only add two more things to that. First, if you’re a guy please be aware of these issues and listen to and support the women who face them. Second, if you face these issues yourself, please consider carrying mace. Not just for bears. I’d love for my daughters to one day think it’s the cool thing to do if they go off running through the woods at night.
Emergency avoidance > emergency preparedness (but do both)
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, and don’t even read anything else, let it be this: mountain rescue is not a safety net or a security blanket! Be sure you let someone know where you’re going, and carry some sort of tracking and communication device, but otherwise when you plan, prepare, and venture out, pretend that mountain rescue doesn’t exist. Your mindset must be that you’re on your own – there will be no one coming to get you and if you get in trouble you need to always know the quickest route out and be able to keep yourself warm and safe at least through the night. Then if you do experience an emergency situation and someone is able to come get you back to safety then you can be pleasantly surprised and appropriately overcome with relief and gratitude.
Now moving on to the actual topic of the post: finding greater joy and comfort in winter running. And this isn’t just about comfort, it’s also about performance and injury prevention.
The most obvious discomfort in winter: it’s cold. I’ve long been a fan of the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just inappropriate clothing.” In the past couple of years I’ve found that that’s not necessarily true. It’s not the temperature that causes the unavoidable problems, though. It’s poor visibility, immobilizing wind, or sloppy underfoot conditions. Subzero temps (on either scale), or light precipitation and wind… those can all be addressed by wearing the right kit.
Core is key
I used to think that I was really susceptible to cold hands. I’ve collected quite the variety of gloves to attempt to remedy this problem. It turns out, the problem was usually that I wasn’t protecting my core enough. If it’s not sufficiently warm then the body essentially says, “abandon the extremities, protect the vital organs!” Moreover, it’s using extra energy in that attempt to fall back and defend the keep. Running along with a cold chest might feel manageable, maybe even nice, but if the chest starts to become unbearably cold then we’ve stopped talking about comfort and now we’re back to the issue of safety.
Second to the core are the legs. I used to overlook these entirely. I even had a saying I used for years – “tights are for the teens” (as in degrees, Fahrenheit). I would happily run around in bare legs in freezing temperatures. I reconsidered first at the behest of my coach, David Roche, who penned the article I linked above about performance and injury prevention in cold weather. It turns out, muscles don’t like being cold. And leg muscles, well, they’re kind of important when running. I’ll now start covering up my legs when temperatures are just above freezing, and just like protecting my core it also helps with overall warmth extending to my extremities.
But the other stuff is important too
Protecting the core doesn’t mean you can run around in freezing temperatures with bare hands. I used to go with the minimal choice that was bearable for gloves. Having available fingers that can manage zippers, open food packaging, etc. is important. I’ve always been a fan of lightweight gloves with built-in mitten covers like the La Sportiva Trail Gloves. Those are still my go-tos for “chilly” temperatures, but when things get really cold I’m less shy about moving up to heftier gloves. I’ve found that my hands are happier and more nimble if they’re warm and cozy throughout the run but really cold for a minute when I rip the gloves off to use my fingers, rather than being constantly a little cold in lighter weight gloves that I never need to remove. I’m still a huge fan of the flexibility provided by over-mittens, though. Mittens will always be much warmer than gloves of comparable weight.
Feet are often overlooked. As ultrarunners, we’re used to dealing with all sorts of strange things going on with our feet. The gradual onset of frostbite is not something that should be casually ignored or battled through because we’re super tough, or something. Wool socks are a must, and it might be necessary to get shoes that are a size or two bigger to allow for multiple layers of socks. If feet are stuffed into shoes without enough room for blood flow and a bit of toe wiggling then extra socks can do more harm than good. Gore tex shoes and waterproof socks are also great for extreme conditions, not because they’ll necessarily keep your feet dry in all conditions, but because if your feet do get wet they’ll provide a bit of a wetsuit-like effect to keep your feet warm.
One mistake that’s easy to make is to judge what’s needed in a race or long day out based on what’s been needed in training. In ultrarunning nearly everything is magnified in races, but this is especially the case for cold weather. Generally we aren’t moving nearly as fast in a big mountain 100K as we are in an hour long training run. The slower we move, the colder we get. And the longer we’re out, the more that matters and progresses from a slight inconvenience to a major problem. It’s also a much worse situation than getting hot. If you’re hot you can always slow down or even stop, or go lie in a cool mountain stream for a few minutes. If you’re cold, and you’re fatigued or dehydrated, the solutions to those problems are in direct conflict. This is again why if you’re headed out solo into the mountains you absolutely need to have enough gear to stay warm even if you’re forced to stop moving completely.
Zippers are a modern marvel
Saying “dress in layers” is probably the most trite thing I could say in this post (albeit very important and true) and there are tons of resources detailing how to do this properly. I’m going to expand that a bit and say dress in layers with zippers. Conditions can change quite quickly in winter in the mountains, and there can be substantial differences even between two spots 10 meters apart. A long steep climb in the sun and protected from the wind can leave you wondering why you’re not in shorts and a t-shirt. Then once on the ridgeline getting hit by the wind with snow underfoot and clouds coming in overhead it can suddenly be dangerously cold.
On my Grand Round this past summer, I faced Storm Ellen in Scotland at a time when my body was completely drained and no longer capable of regulating its own temperature. I ended up getting decked out in 10 layers up top. All but my base layer had a zipper, and on some climbs I would unzip all of them about 3/4 of the way. Once up top, they were all zipped back up. Even a lot of shell pants / trousers have zippers on the side that can be used like this for temporary ventilation.
Cold isn’t the worst enemy, wet is
Avoiding over-heating isn’t critical due to real-time comfort; it’s due to sweat that can come back to do real harm later. If base layers are wet when it gets cold again, it’s going to be extremely difficult to stay warm and again an uncomfortable situation can very quickly turn into a dangerous one with hypothermia a real possibility. This is also why having a shell is so important in any sort of wet conditions – even if it’s just clag that can slowly be absorbed by an exposed inner layer. A good shell (or two) can create its own nice dry and warm micro-climate (nano-climate maybe?) around your body. Don’t wait until you feel cold to worry about rain, sweat, or anything else that can get you wet. Stay dry at all costs!
Be prepared to abandon ship
Being able to recognize an unacceptable level of risk is important across pretty much all decisions we make. Risk is basically the probability that something can happen times how bad it would be. The “how bad could it be” part of the equation is high if solo in the mountains in winter. The probability of something going wrong can change quickly, and when it does we need to recognize it immediately and escape. During these outings I’m constantly considering changes to internal and external conditions and forcing myself to answer the question, “is it worth it?” in terms of the most up to date risk / reward profile.
Always know the quickest and best exit from every spot along the route. GPS devices and phones are great, but those aren’t 100% reliable. Have a map and compass and a familiarity with the map before heading out. And always have a headlamp (or two or three)! With the shorter days it doesn’t take much for a run to get extended beyond dusk, and getting stuck out there as the temperatures drop even further can quickly get dangerous.
In the brief window when Wales was open to visitors before the Covid curve started flattening against the wrong axis in December, I went to the mountains for some winter solo fun. I was having a great day out when I face-planted into a bog. I was completely soaked through from head to toe. My hair was wet, all my inner layers were wet, my pack was wet (which is why it’s a good idea to put spare layers in ziplock bags). I had nothing dry left. I continued along for a bit just fine, but as evening approached the temperatures began to drop and the wind picked up. Cold + wet is dangerous; cold + wet + wind is the absolute nightmare scenario. I knew the situation would only get worse, and pulled out my map to find the quickest way off the tops and back down to the road. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to finish my planned run that day, but it will be there another day and now so will I.
It’s not just about body warmth
Food and water are always important for mountain running, and in winter they can be much trickier to manage. Food can be difficult to open with gloves or cold hands, and can freeze and be difficult to eat. Calories are another ingredient to staying warm, though. One thing I like to do is take the next thing I’m going to eat and stick it up my shirt sleeve, like a little oven to warm it up before enjoying.
Water is even more difficult. Many of the usual sources could be dry or frozen. Always plan ahead where to refill, and consider whether something to break through the ice might be necessary. Sometimes giving a forceful (and careful) heel kick to the edge of the ice can do the trick. If in doubt, carry extra water to ensure you don’t run out between viable sources. We might not be sweating as much as summer, but the dry air causes a lot more water to be lost through the skin and mouth. And don’t eat snow! You can bottle it and let it melt first, but don’t eat it directly – that will cause further dehydration.
Bottles, particularly valves, can also freeze. Having a shell that fits over your vest can usually take care of the problem. Another solution for moderate freezing conditions is to put a wool sock over the top of the bottle. Bonus: emergency pair of socks (or gloves)! Also try to alternate sips between bottles to keep the valves from freezing solid.
I made this mistake myself on my most recent winter excursion: an attempted solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round. Everything was going great, and it was an absolutely beautiful day and incredible experience, but I over-estimated the availability of water and slowly became dehydrated to the point that I had to stop with just one short section left.
My kit list from last year’s Spine Race can be found at the bottom of my race report.
For my recent failed solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round, below is what I took. Note that I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
- La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
- XOSKIN wool toe socks
- Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
- XOSKIN tights
- La Sportiva Radial Pant
- La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
- XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
- La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
- La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
- La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
- La Sportiva Race Overgloves
- Generic knit Santa hat
- La Sportiva Beta Beanie
- Janji neck warmer
- Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0
- Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 with Adventure Pocket (I really like the additional easily accessible storage a waist belt can add)
- COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
- Bob Graham Round Harvey map
- Baseplate compass
- Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
- Backup pocket compass
- Phone with OS Maps loaded
- OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
- Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
- Petzl Actik Core
- Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
- Extra in pack
- First aid kit
- Kahtoola microspikesa
- Dry XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
- La Sportiva Rook long sleeve
- La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket
- La Sportiva Merak soft shell jacket
- Blizzard 3 Layer Survival Blanket (bulkier, but highly recommended over a standard Sol Bivvy for solo outings in true winter conditions)
- Small battery recharger
I did a lot of podcasts in 2020. I guess without many races there weren’t as many people to talk to or things to talk about. In the future, I won’t be doing as many. I enjoyed these, and greatly appreciate the opportunity to do them and the time the hosts put into them, but too much time doing podcasts = not enough time to properly prepare for doing the things the podcasts are about. My main 2021 goal is to cut back a bit to focus on the priorities and have time to enjoy life’s day to day moments.Read more
Matt and Ellie Green with Summit Fever Media were out chasing both me and Damian around the Pennine Way, and did an incredible job putting together this documentary. It was a pleasure to work with them and see the passion and work they put into capturing the story.
The film is available on Vimeo (linked below) or Amazon video. The free trailer is on Youtube (also linked below). My full written report can be found here: A New Pennine Way Record.
When I was first approached about making a film on my 2nd attempt at my Grand Round project, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. What if I failed again? Or got injured and had to stop on the very first round? This was a personal project, something I was passionate about doing for the adventure and individual challenge. As Covid emerged and escalated, it wasn’t clear that I would be able to do it at all much less whether there would be any available support for a film. In the end, I’m incredibly glad we moved forward with it and that Phil and Jon from PH Balance Photography came out to capture and share the experience. They did a wonderful job and this is something I will always cherish looking back on.
My full report on the adventure can be found here: The Grand Round 2.0.
Update: A film on this adventure is now available on youtube.
I’ve had the draft of this post open on my computer for over a week, the relentless cadence of the blinking cursor mocking me as I sat here idle, unable to figure out how to even start. Do I start with a simple summary, repeating the same old statistics on distance and elevation? Or maybe I should wax philosophical on one of the many things I wrestled with or discovered on this journey. The literal journey itself – the incredible places and landscapes I got to explore… surely a remark on that would be a suitable start. And of course I would be horribly remiss to not lead with a mention of the amazing support I received throughout, without which none of this would have been possible.
The truth is, none of those things alone would sufficiently reflect the experience I had. In fact I’ll go ahead and say that I’m incapable of putting it all into words even with a full write-up. So I’ll skip the whole synopsis bit and get right to it, with everything included in due course. You can find a recap of each section over on my Instagram starting here if you would rather have a brief summary or don’t have time to sit down to the ensuing novella (this is the longest report I’ve written by a wide margin, and I’ve written some long stuff). If you’ve fully exhausted your Covid19 Netflix watchlist and are in for a full binge reading session, there’s also a prequel trilogy on why I decided to do this in the first place, how that first attempt turned out, and what was different going into this second attempt.Read more
I don’t think there’s really anything I can say here that I didn’t say at this point last year before setting off on this adventure. In a way, the very fact that I failed at my first attempt at “The Grand Round” shows that it was a good challenge – one that forced me to learn, grow, and develop a better plan. If a grand challenge doesn’t teach us anything, doesn’t force us to improve ourselves or develop a better strategy, then was it really all that grand?Read more
I’ve gotta admit, I had no idea BBC Breakfast was such a big thing. Before the interview I thought it was going to be on the radio with one of the many regional BBC stations, not a nationally televised morning news show. I’m glad I managed to wake up in time for it after they moved it earlier at the last minute.
Update: Totally FKT, a film on the summer’s record breaking runs on the Pennine Way, is available on Vimeo (and also on Amazon Video).
I’ve made a bit of a habit of setting out to do things that I’m not sure are possible. Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record on the Pennine Way, England’s first national trail, fell squarely in that category – not just as something that I might not currently be capable of but as something that might not ever be within reach. I ended up besting his time by just 34 minutes, roughly equivalent to the ~30 seconds per hour margin I had when I finished Barkley.Read more
Like nearly everyone, my 2020 plans were pretty well wrecked by Covid19. I’m still hoping to cram in a couple of big challenges, though. I’ll be chasing a Pennine Way FKT and giving another attempt at my Grand Round project, barely a month apart. As alluded to in my previous post, I’ll be raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust through these efforts.Read more
Racism is evil and pervasive, deeply embedded in law and society. Black lives do matter, and things need to change. It should be that simple, and not any sort of political or controversial issue at all. On this, though, the already difficult task of discussing meaningful topics in social media “sound bites” has become an even more precarious endeavor. Long story short: I made a couple of lengthy posts that I put a significant amount of thought and effort into. Then, I had to hurriedly make a post on running and in an effort to cleverly switch topics for a moment I worded things poorly and failed pretty hard.Read more
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep up this blistering pace of one video per year but 2020 makes a massive 4 years straight. Here are some non-running ultrarunning things to think about. And some cows and a lawn mower in the background from the Kelly Farm where I’ve been now for over a month.
When Covid first really started escalating, with lockdowns, race cancellations, and other restrictions rapidly coming into place, I was at my family’s farm back in Tennessee just a few miles from Frozen Head. With Barkley canceled, I went out to Frozen Head for a “No Barkley Barkley” – 5 loops around the park, all on trail within daylight hours, completed within 60 hours. I wore flags on my pack for each of the countries that would have been represented at the race. Jim Matheny from WBIR came out to cover my finish and do a socially distanced interview afterwards for the segment below.
Edit: This post is from January 2020, and is entirely unrelated to events involving media at 2021 Barkley. Due to those events, and the need for some more clarity on the topic, I’ll do a post on media guidelines at Barkley sometime before the 2022 race. And to be clear, I don’t speak directly for the race or Laz and I’m not involved in any part of managing the race. I’m just someone who has a deep connection to both the park and the race and am passionate about protecting both.
Something that I’ve struggled with a great deal is the balance between why I do the adventures I do, and the exposure of them. The two are often times at odds with each other, yet I obviously contribute to or at least enable that exposure myself (here I am, posting on my blog).
A large part of that relates to personal exposure, which I’ve posted about before. But with events like Barkley and The Spine Race, which are in part so incredible and challenging because of their remoteness and sense of isolation, the topic has broader implications. I’ve always viewed it as a bit of a double edged sword, but I’ve never really been able to convince myself which side of that sword is sharper.Read more
The Spine Race was one of those rare experiences where I couldn’t have possibly imagined beforehand exactly what it would be like, but afterwards I couldn’t possibly imagine it any other way. Granted, I get to look at it through the rose-colored glasses of having achieved exactly what I set out to achieve. If I had come away with the win at some of my other recent races it assuredly would have shaped my recollection of the experience.
But as someone who analyzes data for a living, I’m quite practiced at forcing my own bias aside and looking at only the facts. The facts here are that this race is a truly unique adventure, well-organized with only the necessities organized, and with a group of people who care about every runner first to last being able to safely experience that adventure in full. Thank you to everyone who made that possible and who make the race what it is, from the other runners to the staff and safety teams and volunteers to the random people who showed up in the middle of the night to cheer, hand out food, or provide some brief company. Apologies if there was anyone along the route who didn’t get a more timely thank you and only saw me in “race-mode” or sleep-deprived zombie mode instead of my normal cheerful, chatty disposition. 😉Read more
2019 had a lot of changes. I moved to a different country to build a team at a new company while switching to full-time ultrarunning and racing on completely unfamiliar terrain. There was some success for sure, and plenty of things to celebrate, but also a number of times I fell short. Any good year should have a combination of those, and the best ratio probably varies by person, but I can’t help but look at the year largely as a stepping stone, a scouting expedition before returning in full force. That could seem like a negative view, but I view it as quite optimistic: the best is yet to come.Read more
I got a bit behind this year on posting podcasts and other interviews I did, so then I stopped trying entirely. I decided I’d try to pull together the ones I could find or remember and give a full run-down here. All of them hit a number of topics but the main focuses are Barkley and The Grand Round.Read more
I’ve long known what it’s like to have a home field advantage. At Barkley, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. The first time I ran it I was shocked to see how shocked people were by the terrain. In ultrarunning just the mential stress caused by misaligned expectations can often present a large problem, let alone the lack of proper preparation. Running in the cold is fine. Running in the heat is fine. Running in one when you expect the other (or both in one day) is often disastrous.
And so when Jim Rutherford picked me up to head to the Cheviot Goat Race, I thought I had an idea of what the race would be like. It would be wet, there would be some bogs, but I mean, it couldn’t be much worse than Paddy Buckley on the Grand Round, right? I’ve dealt with that stuff before. It would be fine. And with work having been overwhelmingly busy leading into the race, I just hadn’t been able to prioritize giving it any more thought than that.Read more
About a month ago I ran the Berlin Marathon just for the simple joy of running it. I’ve never been one to artificially manufacture joy, and there simply was none going into the New York City Marathon shortly after losing our dog. Doing something we love can not only be a conduit for joy, though, but also a weapon against pain and stress. So maybe the title of this should actually be “Running For Joy.” If we only do what makes us happy when we’re happy, well… chicken or egg? (speaking of which, half of this post ended up being about NYC food rather than the race 🤷♂️)
Sure, I shifted my goals a bit after a couple of weeks of poor training, sleeping, and eating, but sometimes we learn more and get greater meaning and satisfaction from a good result in poor conditions than from a great result in good conditions. My original plan for the race was to go for sub 2:30, the threshold that I’ve long considered a lifetime goal. Going into the race I adjusted that plan to sub 2:40. Coming away with a 2:35 was not only immensely satisfying but told me that when the timing is better I can definitely get that sub 2:30.Read more
For years I’ve been meaning to make a list of my favorite desserts, mainly for documentation so that I don’t forget anything and I can one day come up with my own creations (“normal” ones… not necessarily along the lines of the KrispyBo). While stressing about the condition of our dog for a day, I finally put this together in an attempt to distract myself.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten things and that people out there know better versions of some of the things listed here (and different things entirely!). I would love to hear those, and I will try to continually update this. There are only a few things on this list that I will defend in a fight to the death. I’ll let you guess which ones those are. 😋Read more
I don’t really process my thoughts all that well through verbal conversations. Most of the time inside my own head works just fine. That’s one reason I run – that’s thinkin’ time. But sometimes there’s too much to fit in there.
I wrote these thoughts out the night after our dog died. I didn’t write them out for anyone but myself. I’m not interested in a conversation; I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathy or anything else; I would actually very much rather not talk about it beyond just leaving this here and letting it go so I can move on. But over the past few years many of the high points of my life have been quite visible. With sample bias being one of my greatest enemies as a data scientist it seems appropriate that balance be provided to that, especially given how social media tends to paint an idealized picture where people have perfect lives and nothing ever goes wrong.Read more
Shortly after Kipchoge achieved his remarkable sub 2 run I shared a thought on Twitter that was not planned, fully formed, and I thought innocent enough (just the kind of things I thought Twitter should be good for).
It turns out that was a mistake, and most things said in only 280 characters can pretty much be taken whatever direction anyone wants.Read more
I wasn’t planning on writing a race report for the Berlin Marathon, and really, I’m still not going to. Ok sort of, but the main topic of this post is my experience of a weekend where I was running with no competitive goal, no time target, just running for the pure joy of running and experiencing a new place. It’s such a seemingly simple thing, but remarkably important and incredibly easy to lose sight of no matter what level of competition we’re at.Read more
All year there had been another mountain looming in the distance, some other challenge around the corner weighing on my mind. At the end of that road lay Tor Des Geants, a trek around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps covering about 205 miles and 80K feet of elevation gain. After getting my first DNF at Ronda dels Cims, I had gotten in a pretty good block of training and was eager to get out there and race. Besides, the last time I went to race in northern Italy I ended up with a rather unpleasant helicopter ride afterwards. So if I could avoid that, I was at least making progress.
The race was one of those types of experiences that will continue to grow in value to me over time, and was complete with all the extreme highs and lows that might be expected during such an event. It was also on the most beautiful course I’ve ever set foot on and was embraced by the villages and rifugios we traveled through in an amazing way. Yes, there were a few logistical issues I wish could have gone better, but that’s to be expected for an event this large and something that I’m sure will continue to improve.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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
Or Kellentry? Usexit? I don’t know, I’m not very good at this. I do know that I at least outlasted the other John Kelly in DC, but after five and a half years in the DC area (the longest I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home in TN), we’ll be moving on in April. That is, assuming our destination doesn’t implode on March 29. Sorry, 29 March (gotta get used to that).
If you don’t care about the why, or any other details, here’s the important info:
- When are we moving? April
- Where? Somewhere near Bristol, England
- Is it permanent? No, temporary while I build out the development team at our company
- Where to next? Not sure, but hopefully finally to a “permanent” spot where we can settle down and our kids can grow up, likely somewhere in the VA / NC / TN area
- Are you going to run races in Europe? Dang sure better believe it
- Why are you moving? Well, that’s what the rest of this post is for
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
Recap of some of the podcasts and other interviews from the year, with a bit of Barkley, a bit of triathlon, and some conversations on training and life.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.
When a group contacted me to write a piece for my home state’s biggest newspaper to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired on September 30, I was thrilled with the opportunity to be able to use my voice for an important cause.
Update: The fund was permanently reauthorized on March 12, 2018!
Ironman Arizona was a fitting end to my time in competitive triathlon. It was a caricature really, of all my races to that point: an absolute disaster of a swim, a solid bike that held things together, and a great run. I had no concrete goals before the race; just to enjoy the experience of racing as a professional and go out with a good effort. Given the course, I assumed I would come away with a PR (which I did! by 26 seconds). Otherwise, though, this was more of a celebration than a competition for me – the cap to a long year and both my professional debut and finale.
Thank you to everyone who helped me pursue and achieve what I did in triathlon, whether tangibly or in spirit. It was a fun challenge and journey, but definitely not one without its difficulties. I’m looking forward to the next chapter, the next book really. But first, here’s the last chapter of this one (with maybe an epilogue to come).
My last post was one of the more serious ones I’ve ever done. You might expect me to say that this one is not… but I don’t mess around with my junk food. See, I try to eat healthy most of the time. My normal diet is pretty clean, I actually pay attention to which nutrients I need and get, and I almost never eat fast food or drink anything other than water. So when I do indulge, it had sure better be good. I ain’t wastin’ my junk food eating on junk.
With that said, there is always an exploration vs exploitation tradeoff. In my quest to find the best, there must be some experiments along the way. If that experiment doesn’t result in something absolutely superb, then I will never waste my time or calories on it again. Mediocrity doesn’t cut it. Only the best.
Update: If you’re a triathlete and want to help do something about this problem to ensure that everyone gets a safe, fair race, please fill out Team EMJ’s survey.
Update #2: They’re actually doing something! Sometimes complaining works, or at least maybe helps a bit. 😉
My actual job is as a data scientist, so of course I have a need to try to look at the numbers and try to quantify things. A lot of variables play into how much drafting helps in a triathlon, but we can still look at some general data to get a broad idea of its effect. Read more
Kona was again an awesome experience overall: a great week before the race with Team EMJ, and a better week afterwards with Jessi. For the race itself, though, I’m honestly not 100% sure where to start. I made no secret that my goal was to return and make it on to the podium after falling just short in 2017, and that a year of training was focused on that. I managed a sub 9 hour finish, a time at Kona that I can be proud of by any measure, but I fell well short of the podium. I am incredibly fortunate to have even been able to pursue that goal, and oftentimes the pursuit of a goal can be more valuable and enjoyable than its achievement.
So I’ve had a lot of shifting and at times conflicting emotions since the race, and I’m not even sure that how I feel now is how I’ll feel next week. I don’t even know where this post is going to go exactly. I’m just going to transcribe my thoughts as best I can as they come to me. Some of those thoughts I’m going to compartmentalize into separate posts, though, as I want this post to be about my race itself rather than about larger issues within triathlon (Ironman specifically).