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.
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).
Lavaredo had a lot of firsts for me: first time in Italy (and Austria, after driving down from Munich), first time in an ultra that big and competitive, first time competing in an ultra between April and November, and first time in a race in anything that would be considered an alpine environment. I had an unforgettable experience and I think I ran a fairly smart race, but in the end it wasn’t my best outcome. Oh, and yeah, first time in a helicopter too.
Compared to the my recent novella on The Grand Round this will be a comic strip, complete with a nice punch line at the end (actually the punch line part is bigger than the race part). I need to move on and shift my focus to the two biggest races on my calendar for the year: Ronda dels Cims and Tor Des Geants.
I owe an enormous thank you to La Sportiva on this one, who not only sponsors me but sponsors the race. Without them that punch line may have been an absolute logistical disaster. It was also great to see a number of my teammates there from across the world; congratulations go to many of them for great performances (including Sophie Grant and Rachel Normand from here in the UK – 9th and 15th females).
Lavaredo was crammed into my schedule just a few weeks after the Grand Round and a few weeks before Ronda dels Cims. I wanted to run a smart, consistent race and not go out too hard.
After looking at recent results and considering the conditions this year I thought that I could still aim for around 14 hours and see if I could slip in to the top 10 (I nailed one part of that equation – 10th place ended up being 13:59). I had actually never finished outside the top 10 in an ultra, and while I recognized that I had also never been in an ultra with such incredible competitive depth, I figured I owed it to myself to at least give it a shot.
I found someone’s results from a previous year that I could use as a template: around 40th at the first checkpoint and then consistently picked people off to finish 9th. Perfecto.
One of the reasons I wanted to focus on ultras is because I personally just enjoy the environment and the culture more than triathlon. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the big event that some European ultras are made to be. I’ve gotta say, it was actually kind of cool (but any more would probably be too much for me). It was good to get the adrenaline going, but then within a few minutes you’re out of town, out of the crowds, and it’s just like any other ultra.
I will admit I may not have felt the same way if I was in the normal corral getting crushed by 2,000 other runners. Somehow I had enough ITRA points (things like Barkley and The Grand Round don’t get any points) to get into a reserved corral and had plenty of space. I even got to chat with Tim Tollefson and Gabe Joyes, two of those people who for me I feel like I know (from online interactions and knowing so many of the same people), but had never actually met.
Off Into the Night
At 11 PM we took off from Cortina. As planned, I started off slow. Then Caroline Cheverot passed me. Let me be clear, this wasn’t a reaction of oh I’m getting “chicked” I can’t let that happen. It was quite the opposite. It was a reaction of “there’s someone who knows the course and knows what they’re doing and is probably gunning for around the same time as me.” I slipped in behind and stayed within sight of her on the first climb. Then, for better or for worse I flew past her and a half dozen other people on the first descent.
I actually came in to the first split 3 minutes slower than my template, so all was good. Then after the aid station (all I picked up was water) I got some of the worst bloating and stomach cramps I’ve had in a race. I thought about trying to stop somewhere to force myself to poop or puke. My theory is that I overdid it a bit with eating the day of the race. Normally I sleep all night, wake up, have breakfast then run. With the night start I had a big breakfast then pretty much snacked all day.
In any case, I kept on, but could barely eat and had horrible stitches in both sides. Eventually the cramps went away but my stomach didn’t feel decent again until, well, the next day really. After that point I relied almost 100% on gel and water. I got down less than 1,000 calories during the nearly 16 hours of the race.
Even before the caloric deficit should have been a problem, though, I also just felt completely sapped of energy. Maybe it was the late start coupled with a few nights of poor sleep leading into it, maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was insufficient Grand Round recovery (probably a little of all of them), but it just felt like there was absolutely nothing there.
Caroline passed me back at mile 20 something, and shortly after that the worst thing happened. People started passing me on a big climb. Hills are for me in ultras what the run was to me in triathlon: that’s where I do my passing. But I had nothing. I couldn’t do anything other than watch them go; it was such a helpless feeling.
We got above treeline for the first time around mile 30, and after that climb the quitting thought honestly entered my head. But, I quit Barkley and Grand Round, I’ve never DNF’d a “normal” race, and as much as it might suck I was going to continue running on fumes all the way to the finish barring injury.
Here Comes the Sun
But at the top of that climb came the sunrise, and the first beautiful views from the top of the Dolomites. I also got a pep talk from Matteo from La Sportiva and he set my sights on what lay ahead: a nice long somewhat sort of almost technical descent.
Up to that point the race had basically been a series of gravel roads, and I completely felt like a fish out of water. The descent gave me some energy and confidence back, and after dropping about 10 spots over the previous 15 miles I stopped the bleeding and held position to the big support point “halfway” in (How to frustrate an ultrarunner? Put their drop bag at the “halfway” point, 5K past actually halfway.)
For the next few hours I was completely alone in the most remote and most technical section of the course (but still, really not technical). It was glorious, just a fun day in the mountains. It didn’t matter where anyone else was, I was back in my element.
Then came another long descent. Time to get back to this whole racing thing. I cruised down it, my legs continually seeming to gain strength. I’m nearly convinced at this point that my body takes about 50K to get warmed up. I was feeling strong and ready to make a final charge.
Then with 16 miles to go someone told me it was all downhill, and me, knowing there was a final long downhill stretch and being stupid enough to believe that person, let it rip a bit more before encountering a pretty good climb. When I got to the top I was excited again and thought thismust be the big final downhill. That pattern repeated itself no less than 6 times, a mental dagger every time.
When we finally did hit the last big downhill stretch (with about 8 miles left) I took off out of frustration more than anything. I flew down the mountain, the temperature continuing to rise as I arrived in the valley. I came back into town feeling pretty good and enjoyed my run through the chute.
Yay, a Helicopter Too?!
After finishing I sat down for a few minutes, and the hard effort, the heat, and the nausea I had battled for the last 15 hours all finally caught up with me. I was taken to the med tent, where they took my blood pressure and stuck an IV in me. Ok, I thought, that’s normal and it will probably help my recovery anyway.
After a bit, all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel and take a nap. I had just finished hard in a hot race after running all night; it seemed that being hot, nauseous, and sleepy were quite reasonable things. Then I actually did manage to puke. Perfect! I feel much better now!
But at some point they decided to take an EKG. I had no chest pain, and absolutely nothing other than the hot and sleepy thing (nausea gone now!). I also don’t speak Italian and had no idea what they were saying or doing. Next thing I know I’m in the back of an ambulance going to the local hospital.
They hooked me up to a better machine and some more people looked at it. At this point I’ve kind of figured out what’s going on and I try to explain to them that my EKG has certain abnormalities in it that are well-studied, perfectly normal, and nothing to be concerned about for an endurance athlete. Let me re-emphasize: I don’t speak Italian. At one point I even tried Spanish.
It comes to the point where they’re telling me I may have had a heart attack and I need to go via helicopter to a better hospital where a cardiologist can see me. I’m still 99% sure there is absolutely nothing wrong, but when “heart attack” is thrown around that 1% chance looms pretty large. So, off in the helicopter I go. My first ride in one! And over such a beautiful landscape! Except, I was strapped to a gurney and couldn’t see anything at all.
The cardiologist started doing an echocardiogram. It’s basically a sonogram of the heart, and the last time I’d seen one of those there was definitely an abnormality: two babies instead of one. By this time I had also managed to reach Jessi, and when the cardiologist left for a bit I called her. I’m an OCD data scientist, of course I have EKGs of myself stored on my computer. I also work in cyber security, of course sensitive medical documents are stored in a hidden encrypted folder with a 24 character passphrase and a keyfile. I walked Jessi through the process of unlocking it and sending me a previous EKG (great, now I’m going to have to change it all because the NSA was probably listening to our phone call 😛).
When the cardiologist walked back in I showed it to her. “Oh, it looks exactly the same. This is normal for you.” So there I was. No heart attack, but stuck in a hospital in who knows where. They still tried to wheel me in for a chest x-ray, but at that point I at least knew that no is still no in Italian. I had been scanned about 4 different ways and over a dozen needles had been stuck into me. Grazie, but I’m done.
I was wheeled into the recovery room, to await…. ok I have no idea what to do now. Fortunately the people at La Sportiva were on top of things. You know, the ones who actually speak Italian. They found an English speaking taxi driver who came into the hospital to tell me how to get myself out of there, and then drove me the 1.5 hours back to Cortina. At around midnight I was finally back in my hotel room and allowed to sleep.
It was an unbelievably frustrating experience, but let me be clear: I hold absolutely no ill feelings towards a single one of those doctors. On the contrary, I’m incredibly grateful that they did their jobs so well. It was kind of amazing to see a system in work where the utmost caution is taken in the patient’s best interest regardless of what it takes. I’ll admit I do feel a bit better knowing I got such a thorough exam after a race and checked out just fine. If anything, I feel a bit guilty that I wasn’t able to explain things a bit better due to the language barrier and that I used resources that I really didn’t need.
There is just one thing for me that is a problem, and is unforgivable really. My favorite post-race meal is pizza and ice cream. And there I was in freaking Italy for the first time ever, and my post-race meal consisted of some unidentifiable mush in a hospital recovery room. This injustice must be corrected. Tor Des Geants just became even more important…
Oh, about that race
My summary observations:
If you look at place, I actually ran a fairly good race: first checkpoint at 37th, then dropped to somewhere in the 40s during my low point, then on the 2nd half worked my way up to 32nd overall, 29th male (so I reiterate, Can a Woman Finish Barkley?).
I need to be more mindful of eating on race day for a night start
If I’m going to compete at events of that caliber, they definitely need and deserve more focus. Three weeks of maintenance mode isn’t enough. I do think I’m capable of top 10 at something like that, but I also think that if I’m going to focus on fewer things then I should probably choose things that I’m more well-suited for. The more elevation, technical terrain, miserable conditions, briar patches, navigation, weird old guys with a cigarette and a sea shell, etc. that are thrown in the better I can do.
So bring on Ronda and TDG, a bit more my style. 🙂
Gear and Nutrition
I wore the same thing the entire time despite the big swing in temperature and I ate pretty much only one thing, so this will be pretty simple. I have relationships with a number of the companies below, which you can see on my Partners page (and find a few discount codes).
For the food, it was just two flasks of my Raspberry / Peanut Butter Chocolate Hammer Gel mix, along with a couple of cups of fruit at later aid stations (kind of like Dole fruit cups, but Italian).
I again went with the XOSKIN double socks – toe socks with normal socks over top. I also used Run Goo on my feet again. I have absolutely no scientific data to back this decision up, but with that strategy now having resulted in absolutely perfect feet after both the 72 hours of continuous wetness of the Grand Round and the heat and fast descents of Lavaredo, it’s going to be what I do every, single, time.
I also used XOSKIN compression shorts and a form-fit short-sleeved shirt the entire time. Over the socks I wore La Sportiva Akasha with Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, and I accessorized myself with a UD Ultra Vest and a Petzl Actik Core (compact but stayed nice and bright for the full 6 hours of darkness).
I had a pair of Black Diamond poles because I really wanted something collapsible for this race, and they did quite well. They were just a little heavier than I’ve become accustomed to.
I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.
As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.
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.
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.
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. – John Wooden
This year my return to Barkley was a much different experience for me, but one that may have taught me as much as any of my previous three trips there. I witnessed some amazing performances in some unbelievable conditions, and had the honor of crewing for two of those athletes. Sometimes it’s not the completion of a goal itself, but the experience and the lessons learned in pursuing it that are the most valuable. Seeing close up the attitude and perspective that Jodi and Karine, Gary and Linda, and others had this weekend in the face of the tough conditions and the resulting “failure” was a true privilege, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me.
The weekend allowed me to see things from an entirely new perspective, experience what my own amazing support system has gone through the past few years, and reflect on how some incredible people handled adverse conditions and outcomes that were far from their goals. Thank you so much to Jodi and Gary for inviting me to be a part of it.
If you just want to find out what happened to Gary’s headlamps, click here.
Or if you’d rather just see the footage I grabbed while out there, head over to Youtube (thank you to James DeFilippi for the camera for the weekend).
I’ve put together some on-course footage, pictures, and commentary from my time crewing and acting as a random course checkpoint at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. The video and audio quality is pretty horrible, but this is what I got so it’s this or nothing. And maybe grainy, noisy footage is appropriate for “on-course” Barkley coverage.
The SCAR was a tough challenge, but one that I enjoyed every minute of. I came away from it with a whole new appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains, and barely snagged the unsupported fastest known time. The run traverses the length of the national park on the Appalachian Trail, a 72 mile stretch with close to 18K feet of gain and loss. Most of it is right along the border of the two states that mean the most to me: Tennessee, where I was born and raised along with 6 generations of Kellys before me, and North Carolina, where I went to college, met my wife, and where her family calls home.
I also once again owe her a huge thank you for dropping me off in the middle of nowhere before proceeding on her own the remaining 1.5 hours to my parents house with all 3 kids late at night. On the other end of the run David Abraham, part of my extended family, was incredibly kind in driving out and waiting around in the middle of nowhere for me to show up a bit later than anticipated. And without the awesome community of trail runners in the area I probably wouldn’t have even known about the SCAR, much less known enough to attempt it.
TWOT 100 was a great weekend retreat to the mountains, somehow relaxing yet at the same time one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I came in just under the wire (23:48) for a goal that I honestly had serious doubts about being able to do: almost entirely self-supported sub 24 on 112 miles of mostly rough trail with 30K ft of climbing. Congrats to John Fegyveresi and the other runners I got to share the experience with (and who had to deal with much worse conditions than me), and a huge thank you to RD Antoinette Landragin, founder and true legend Dennis “The Animal” Herr, and the volunteers for making an event like this possible. And of course my wife for making an event like that possible for me to do by taking on the kids solo this time for a couple of nights.
I was fortunate to have perfect weather in January and great company for my fastest known time attempt on the AT 4 State Challenge, the section of the Appalachian Trail that starts at the Pennsylvania border and travels through Maryland and West Virginia to the Virginia border. It was a beautiful stretch of trail with a rich heritage and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a day of running. Conrad Laskowski and Chris Roberts joined me for the day and while I hope they enjoyed it just as much, I owe them a huge thanks for coming out and providing the company, the support, and of course for making the logistics of getting back to the start afterwards easier. And as always, I owe my wife Jessi a huge thanks for providing the support back home for letting me get out for the day to try these crazy things in the first place. At the end I ended up with a new FKT in 6:39:51 and a new appreciation for some of the terrain I have in my own backyard.
Between the terrain, the landscape, the distance, and the travel, Bandera 100K was a pretty unique experience for me. I was incredibly fortunate to have John Sharp there to support me, and it was great to meet some new folks outside of the southeastern ultrarunning bubble that I’ve mostly lived in to this point. In the end, I was pretty happy with my result. I didn’t run the smartest race or stick to the plan as well as I should have, but I held on for top 10 and met my primary goals: getting a qualifier for Western States and for Spartathlon. One of these days, though, I’m going to figure out how to not go out too fast and how to not let myself get dehydrated. Maybe. At least mostly. Where’s the fun, though, if there aren’t a few hitches in the plan?
Lookout Mountain would be a great addition to anyone’s 50 miler list. The event and the course really typify what I love about trail and ultrarunning. It’s a great, low-key community of people putting on a well-organized race on a course with incredible trails and views. And it’s great knowing that the proceeds from the race are going back towards those trails. Thank you to Wild Trails and all the volunteers for such a great event.
I was thrilled to come away with the win against great competition. It turns out the race was also the RRCA Ultra National Championship, which is a pretty cool bonus (although let’s be real there are plenty of people in the country who can handily beat me in a 50 miler).
I also learned some great lessons, the biggest being to stop worrying about the details and just run! I caught a stomach bug the day before the race and absolutely none of my “all-important” pre-race preparations that I usually worry so much about went right. Sure, some of that stuff matters a little and given the choice I’d rather have it be right, but in the end, the cumulative training and experience built up through time and hard work are vastly more important than the final 24 hours. The issues before the race forced me to run one of the smartest races I’ve ever run and I may have actually ended off better from it.
I was done with Barkley posts, but this is one that I told quite a few people I would make and hopefully it will answer a number of the questions I’ve received. After this, though, I’m done for real. If you’d like to revisit anything else related to the 2017 Barkley you can find it at the Barkley Archive.
This post is meant to give a small glimpse into my Barkley strategy, gear, and nutrition choices this year. Parts of this might seem like plugs for my partners, but there’s a reason I work with these companies. They make great products that I’ve found are the best for me. If they weren’t, then I’d work with someone else and you’d see them here instead.
My cousin Joe has been a tremendous support over the course of my 3 years running Barkley. After this year, he wrote his own report and I thought I’d share a perspective of the race from someone there crewing and spectating. The crew put in an enormous amount of work themselves to be out there, take care of everything I need between loops, get back and forth between the camp and the fire tower, and to wait, wait, and wait around some more in the same weather conditions the runners have to deal with. I added the photos, but the words are Joe’s. Thank you again to friends, family, and the incredible work of Josh Patton Designs and Howie Stern Photography for the photos.
For three years I obsessively chased my white whale through the very Tennessee mountains where I grew up. In 2015 I failed after 3 loops, a harsh introduction to Barkley where I had been doomed by a poor nutrition strategy. In 2016 I failed just after starting the 5th loop, done in by navigational errors that led to sleep deprivation. Those taught me valuables lessons, though, and I came into this year’s race more prepared, with a better mindset, and with the same incredible support from my wife, family, and friends, as well as some outstanding companies (Hammer Nutrition, Ultimate Direction, Every Man Jack, Chopt).
I’m hoping to get to my full race report in the next week, but I wanted to go ahead and get a quick recap and some thoughts out. The past few days have been pretty crazy, and it’s still kind of hard to believe. I owe a huge thank you to my family, awesome crew, and companies that supported me. I needed all of their incredible support and commitment to get me to that gate a 5th time. Having 30 minutes might seem like a nice cushion, but just 8 minutes more per transition, or just 30 seconds more per book, and I would’ve been over.
I originally signed up for The Wild Oak Trail (TWOT) 100 as practice for Barkley. As I learned more about the race, though, I became quite excited about it in its own right. While I stuck to my original plan of using it primarily as part of Barkley training, that excitement was justified. It was a really fun race that’s actually about 112 miles with 30K ft of climbing on a gorgeous trail in Virginia. I met some great people, had no major problems during the race, and came away with a new course record.
A huge thanks goes to Antoinette Landragin and the volunteers that made this exactly the kind of race I love: low key but well organized and on some great trail with great people. Also thank you to Antoinette and John Daniel for the pictures.
Hellgate was an awesome race, and actually my first “normal” ultra over the 50 mile mark. It was a bit colder than I’d hoped for, but otherwise was a great night (and morning) in beautiful mountains and a chance to meet some more incredible people in the ultrarunning community. This is a race that I’ll definitely be back to at some point, and can definitely see it as being one of the primary races I focus on in the future.
As always the community and race organizers were to thank for making the race so enjoyable; without that I’d probably just stick to trail running on my own and wouldn’t do these things. Thank you in particular to Scott Livingston for some pictures from the race, as I actually didn’t get any myself. And of course without my wife’s support and her making it possible for me to shirk dad duties for a day, I wouldn’t be able to do these things at all.
JFK 50 is America’s oldest ultra, local for me, and it was on my birthday this year… how could I not sign up? It was also my first big, well-known ultra and a great opportunity to get out there and knock the rust off of my trail running legs after my triathlon season ended in October. I enjoyed the race, it turned out to be a beautiful day (at least while I was on the course), and for the cherry on top I got to share the experience with my dad while he was in town.
I ended up in 8th, something I didn’t think I had a shot at given the conditions, and Jim Walmsley broke the record in a 54 year old race by over 13 minutes.
A Chinese version of this race report translated by Larson Zhang can be viewed here.
I arrived at Frozen Head two days before the race with a great deal of optimism. The weather looked perfect, I had trained well, and I knew that a solid group of veterans would be there including Jared Campbell. I also felt great about course navigation. I could visualize in my head the route to almost every book. The descent to book 2 was a little hazy for me, but I would assuredly still be with a group during that portion on the first loop. Otherwise I felt I could lead or go it alone if necessary, something I was never quite confident enough to do the previous year. I wanted 5 loops, and I felt good about my chances.
In the weeks leading up to the Barkley I eagerly anticipated the start of the race, but at the same time I had not been so nervous about something in years. The Barkley was more than just a race to me; it was personal. I grew up across the street from the course at the bottom of Chimney Top. My family had been on that land next to their namesake Kelly Mountain for 200 years. Those mountains are in my blood, and they were about to get a chance to reclaim some of it. Just as my background gave me enormous motivation, though, it also gave me trepidation. I could handle my own likely failure, but I was the home team and I wanted to represent the community well.