2019 Ronda dels Cims, A Mountain Too Far

2019 Ronda dels Cims, A Mountain Too Far

I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was indestructible, but I also didn’t know where my breaking point was. Over the past two years I’ve had a pretty heavy race schedule, with an ultra, long FKT attempt, or iron distance triathlon about every six weeks. And for the most part they went pretty well, great even. Sure, I was just hanging on through some of them (most recently, Lavaredo) knowing that I wasn’t in the best condition for them, but I had never in my life DNF’d a “normal” race (i.e. Barkley and The Grand Round excluded).

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2019 Lavaredo 120K, or How I Took My First Helicopter Ride

2019 Lavaredo 120K, or How I Took My First Helicopter Ride

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.

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The Grand Round – A Fun Run

The Grand Round – A Fun Run

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.

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Seeking Grand Challenges

Seeking Grand Challenges

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.

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2019 Barkley Marathons

2019 Barkley Marathons

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.

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2019 Barkley Marathons Training

2019 Barkley Marathons Training

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.

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Look How Tough I Am!

Look How Tough I Am!

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.

I thought I had plenty of time to take a picture, before realizing I was going to have to nearly run to stay right behind him and make sure he didn’t fall backwards.
We were coming back up from the fishing hole on the Obed River that I used to go to as a kid with my family. I carried him down, he wanted to go up himself…

So the general topic of this post, at least, is the trend in endurance sports of glorifying pain, needlessly disregarding sensible safety precautions, and trying to look like the biggest, hardest “badass” instead of just going out there for the personal challenge and the experience. Some people probably are going to have problems with this or get offended by it, but I feel like I need to say it, especially with people out there putting their lives at risk for nothing more than taking a cool selfie.

“I was urinating dark dirt brown”

Again, what someone else chooses to do to themselves is up to them and I really try to not single people out in any sort of negative light, but it’s hard to broach this subject without mentioning “the hardest man alive” and I do have a problem with this kind of stuff being passed off as motivational or as an example to others. For the context around the title of this section, see the excerpt from his blog posted here. (I’m not a reddit user myself but this is what came up when I Googled that anecdote). If you have more time on your hands you can also listen to his interview on the Joe Rogan podcast.

The guy is tough, no question. He has an amazing life story, has accomplished some unbelievably incredible things, has done great work for charity, and has no doubt inspired a lot of people. That’s all awesome. But I don’t view unnecessarily putting yourself at serious risk of major health complications or even death as a positive example and I don’t want anything I do to influence someone in that way. He was in real need of medical attention and continued on, making it even worse, for the sake of a race. And frankly, not even an “important” one. Some things are worth it, some are not.

That’s especially the case when the risk is primarily caused by lack of proper preparation. I’ve mentioned before that I’m all about jumping in the deep end and seeing if I can swim, but when I start to sink and someone throws me a life preserver I’m not going to say “no thanks let me enjoy the pain of water filling my lungs.” I’m going to get out and use the knowledge I just gained to know what I need to do the next time. Even when risking your life might be worth it, like in actual war, you’ve gotta know when to cut your losses.

For me, the pleasure has never been in the pain; it’s been in overcoming the obstacles that cause the pain. This is a perception I find myself coming up against constantly, with Barkley being viewed as a “masochistic” race. And yes, I do voluntarily put myself through and force myself to push past a lot of pain. There’s just a line, and for me that line is when I’m creating a high risk of permanent or long term health consequences.

This is something I haven’t told many people, but after IM Mont-Tremblant, where I was pushing for the age group win and my first sub 9 hour Ironman, I peed red. Blood red. It was like Kool-Aid. Did I stand there and laugh and say “oh man, look how tough I am!”? Nope. It scared the absolute @#%& out of me like few things ever have. And it gave me serious pause as to whether I should be doing what I was doing.

I told the doctor in the med tent, and she had me wait around until I could use the bathroom again. Fortunately it was clear the next time and she said it was just dehydration. If it had been red again, or brown, good chance I wouldn’t still be at it, at least not at the same level. My health, and my ability to grow old and be there for my kids, is far more important than finishing some race in some certain time. And yeah, it’s a real fine line to walk. I want to find what I’m capable of and inspire my kids and others, showing them what you can accomplish if you really set your mind to it and work for it, but without going too far.

This was the best part of IM Mont-Tremblant week, not winning another cheap metal Ironman plaque.

Amelia Boone has also put her body through some incredibly tough things and accomplished some amazing feats. She’s a 4 time world champion in obstacle course racing, has been called the “Queen of Pain,” and even with her consistent success in OCR she wanted to branch into ultrarunning to continue challenging herself and pushing her boundaries. I also have a great deal of respect for her and consider her a friend. She knows that some risks are worth it and that sometimes you have to back off, e.g. by focusing on health instead of running Barkley with a fractured heel and pushing further past the breaking point (pun not originally intended, but I do love a good pun… sorry Amelia 🙂). She isn’t afraid to share that with people and expose that she’s not, in fact, invincible. Note: to be clear, nothing in this post is Amelia’s thought or opinion; I’m just using her as an involuntary example.

Then why do I do it?

There are quite a few reasons. And sure, one of them is because I’ve always been super competitive and love having something I can compete at now that my stellar grad school intramural softball and flag football career is over. I could easily find something for that competitive urge that doesn’t involve continuously pushing my body to the brink, though (anyone up for a game of ping-pong?).

I don’t recall ever looking like this after playing World of Warcraft. Not even after camping the Time-Lost Proto-Drake for weeks on end. Photo: Leon Lutz

The main reason is that I love to discover new things about myself: most of all new strengths and new things I never thought I was capable of, but also what my weaknesses are (hi swimming, my name is John). That translates to so many other areas of my life, ones that matter much more than some race through the mountains in Tennessee, and I hope translates to other people’s lives as well.

I’ve had the great joy of being able to do that through an activity that I also love: running aimlessly (randomly, if you will) through forests and mountains. So I get to kill two birds with one stone, and I hope that everyone is able to discover something that allows them to do that: whether it’s running, analyzing data and writing code (oops, that one’s me too), music, reading, traveling, or any of the other countless hobbies out there.

At the end of the day, that’s all I am: an overly competitive guy doing the hobby I love who has had the good fortune of discovering that I’m also rather good at it. I’m not a badass, or a stud, or a hero, or a legend, or a warrior. I appreciate the sentiment, and I know people mean well, but to be honest I just feel a little awkward whenever anyone calls me those things (and what do we then call people who actually are those things?). In fairness, though, taking a compliment in any form has never exactly been one of my strengths.

Boom! Dominated that carny game at Winter Wonderland! Totally badass.

But whether you’re a proponent of those terms or not, I think the key here is that I do these things out of internal motivation, not to try to show people how tough I am. I greatly appreciate the words of encouragement I receive and I’m really, truly amazed and grateful that people can take motivation and inspiration from something I do (that’s one reason I have this blog in the first place), but otherwise I wouldn’t care if people even knew that I run.

And if you want to call me something, then John will do just fine. Or for a select few, Dad. Or, since I’m moving to a country where they still hand out crowns just for coming out of the right womb, I guess King of Frozen Head will also do. 😉

Badass
Photo: Annie Wells, 1997 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Spot News Photography
Hero
Stud

The Fresh Prince of Barkley

I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. The whole moving to the UK thing hasn’t left much time for writing blog posts. On the running side, though, here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to in the past month.

I did this as a fun project and challenge on my home turf, not really as anything related to Barkley. It was a personal challenge, and I chose to share in hopes that it would motivate others to set their own big challenges, or to come visit the park to challenge some of the records. I think it’s safe to say, though, that Brett’s record isn’t going anywhere. Probably ever. Plus, no one will ever run that same course again… it totally wouldn’t trigger the segment on Strava.

Lessons Learned from my first 200 Miler

I still need to write up my full race report from Franklins 200, but I did go ahead and put together some thoughts on lessons learned from the race. You can find them over on the Ultimate Direction blog:

How to Cope with Your First 200 Mile Race

No, actually, have many solid plans. And don’t be afraid to adapt! The first two lessons actually lead to this one. When an issue emerges, know what to do.

2019 Franklins 200 Miler

2019 Franklins 200 Miler

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.

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2018 Recap, 2019 Goals

2018 Recap, 2019 Goals

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.

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So Long, and Thanks For All the Backpacks

So Long, and Thanks For All the Backpacks

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.

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Protecting Local Public Lands

Protecting Local Public Lands

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.

Op ed link: https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2018/12/12/land-and-water-conservation-fund-needs-congress-renew-now-opinion/2207625002/

This Triathlete Will Make His Pro Debut at Ironman Arizona—And Then Retire

I thought I’d be one year and done in triathlon, but the sport and the challenge of trying something different sucked me in and resulted in a great, fun few years. Unfortunately, though, time is finite. It’s time to spend the last years of my prime (for endurance sports) focusing on the thing I love even more and am best at. But first, one last race, as a pro, at Ironman Arizona. Sarah Wassner Flynn did a great write up for Triathlete Magazine on my journey and my race this weekend.

This Triathlete Will Make His Pro Debut at Ironman Arizona-And Then Retire – Triathlete

When it comes to racing as a professional triathlete, John Kelly’s triathlon career will be one and done. John Kelly is a standout age-grouper triathlete who has had a very impressive 2018: multiple podium finishes, an 8:58 Ironman PR, and a world championship title.

 

Running Dad Interview

Apparently Jeremy Sanders (Running Dad) and I ran a race together a few years ago when I was just starting back to running and before either of us knew who the other was. I was happy to answer some questions from him and then actually meet him for real at Miner’s Lady 8 Hour over the weekend. He’s a great guy and I’ll look forward to our next time on the trails together.

http://www.runningdad.com/featured/running-dad-john-kelly/

Can a Woman Finish Barkley?

Can a Woman Finish Barkley?

A large number of condolences went to extremely strong women in 2018, so much so that laz dubbed it the ‘year of the woman.’ Unfortunately some of those strong women didn’t make it to the starting line for one reason or another, but there were still some very good contenders in the field this year. Quite a big deal has been made over the years about the lack of a woman finisher at Barkley, and laz loves to get people (and especially talented women) riled up by saying a woman can’t finish.

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Training for Ultra Episode 38

It’s always good to catch up with Rob. In part of this episode we discuss my 2018 so far: Bandera, AT 4 State Challenge, TWOT 100, SCAR, and my crewing experience at Barkley.

Episode 38 – Amy Leedham Interview w/ John Kelly Update

Had a great time interviewing Amy Leedham.  She’s a gifted trail runner and continues to improve.  Also had a chance to catch up with John Kelly to hear about his 2018 races along with crewing the Barkley Marathons for Gary Robbins.

 

Everyday Running Legends Podcast

It was great to chat with Brodie not just about my 2017 Barkley, but about my full experience with the race going back to my first attempt in 2015 and some of my background that led me to it.

The Incredible Barkley finisher John Kelly

This episode is extraordinary. I am very blessed to have on John Kelly who is the 2017 Barkley marathon finisher. He has become the 15th individual to ever complete this infamous 160km race and we have the opportunity to relive his mental struggles, his defeats and of course, his victory!

 

WASLAT Podcast – 2018 Barkley

Quick chat with David Clark discussing this year’s Barkley Marathons results, some of the brutal conditions faced out there, and some interesting questions on how hypothetical changes would affect Barkley’s difficulty.

WASLAT 3.31.2018 Barkley Marathons with John Kelly, Greg Ellis talks about hip replacement. by We Are Superman Podcast/ Lactic Acid Trip

From David Clark’s radio show “WeAreSuperman’s Lactic Acid Trip” on #AM1300XtraSports: It’s Barkley Marathons Week and in studio with David is John Kelly, one of just a handful of finishers in the history of this iconic and insane race. The two recap this year’s Barkley that once again didn’t produce a single finisher.

 

2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

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).

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2018 Barkley Race Footage

2018 Barkley Race Footage

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.  

 

La Barkley sans pitie

This one was nearly a year in the making, starting with the incredible photos that Alexis Berg took at the 2017 Barkley Marathons and then adding interviews with me, Gary, and laz. The editing and production here is incredible, and the result is a 20 minute film with portions that get me to relive the experience more than anything else I’ve seen to this point. (English with French subtitles)

La Barkley sans pitié

La course la plus difficile du monde se déroule chaque année dans les forêts du Tennessee. Vous allez comprendre pourquoi en regardant le formidable documentaire vidéo, ” La Barkley sans pitié “. Une production @lequipeExplore

 

2015 Barkley Post Loop 3 Video

2015 Barkley Post Loop 3 Video

No. No I’m not running Barkley this year. Yes, I’ll be crewing (plus some other stuff). And yes, Gary is one person I’ll be crewing for. But there’s another Canadian that I actually committed to first. And no, it’s not *just* about the maple syrup. I’ve been waiting three years to be able to pay Jodi and Karine back for all the help they gave me in 2015 during my first attempt – before Barkley was widely known and before I had absolutely any idea whatsoever what I was doing. After Jamil and I completed a Fun Run, I crashed pretty hard. The people in this video feverishly trying to help me when I’m at my lowest of lows are my wife and dad, and then two people I had never even met before the race: Jodi and Karine. A lot like me last year, Jodi is a bit of an unknown, but anyone who knows Barkley history knows what he’s capable of. I’m looking forward to helping him reach that potential.

Video: Keith Knipling

Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) Unsupported FKT

Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) Unsupported FKT

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.

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2018 TWOT 100

2018 TWOT 100

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.

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AT 4 State Challenge FKT

AT 4 State Challenge FKT

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.

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Endurance Junkie Podcast #93

Great discussion with Peter on my background, ultras, Barkley, Kona, and future goals.

John Kelly: Ultrarunner & Barkley Marathons Finisher – EJP 93

John Kelly is an ultrarunner with a triathlon habit. In April 2017, John became only the 15th person in history to finish the infamous Barkley Marathons. He finished in a time of 59h30m33s – only 27 seconds before the 60-hour race cut-off.

 

2018 Bandera 100K

2018 Bandera 100K

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?

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2017 Recap, 2018 Goals

2017 Recap, 2018 Goals

2017 Recap

Onward! And upward? Or maybe sideways at least?

I don’t know that I’ll be able to top this one in 2018. Photo: Thomas Gathnam

As far as racing goes, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to top 2017. After working towards a number of goals for the past few years, they all seemed to converge at once. I raced at Kona (and had a pretty good race to boot). I started the year with my first overall win in any race of any form since Kindergarten (TWOT 100), and then I finished the year with another, actually getting to break the tape for the first time (Lookout Mountain 50 Miler).

Kona was a pretty incredible experience, even if the big crowds and hype isn’t really my scene.

TWOT was exactly my kind of scene: low key with a small group of great people. Photo: John Daniel

Two of my races ended up resulting in national championships (Miami Man Triathlon and Lookout Mountain 50 Miler). They’re really titles in name only, as I wasn’t actually competing against all the best in the nation, but maybe they can at least cover for those state titles I never could get in high school.

Despite a bike wreck and some clerical issues, the USAT Long Course National Championship was a great experience, and I came away as the top amateur and top American. Photo: Kristin Simpson

I had been aiming for this for two years, and after nearly getting derailed the week of the race I can’t think of a better way to have closed out the year. Photo: Jessi Kelly

Then of course there was Barkley. Barkley was my Super Bowl. My World Series, World Cup, green jacket, ok you get the idea. It had been my focus for years, and most other races I had done were merely training for Barkley. Finishing was an achievement for me that I really don’t know if I’ll ever surpass athletically.

Sometimes pictures really do speak 1,000 words, and this photo makes me feel my experience more than anything I could ever say. Photo: Alexis Berg

More than that, though, the journey to finishing Barkley taught me invaluable lessons that extend well past the bounds of athletic achievements that are admittedly somewhat arbitrary and in the big picture rather inconsequential. I came away a stronger, smarter, and better person from the experience (which would have been true even without the finish), and that ability to take on and reach goals with seemingly assured failure will apply to pursuits in all areas of my life.

Forgetting pants and working in a bike kit and dress shirt on the first day your new cohort of interns starts might seem like an inevitable failure, but we pulled through on that one and had a great summer. Photo: Michael Brett

In addition to the unbelievable support I received from my wife and family, I was also fortunate to become more a part of the ultrarunning community: some of the most supportive, giving, and fun people there are. I’ve made incredible friendships with people who have done amazing things, and essentially everyone I’ve met is someone I would enjoy hanging out with.

People like this are what makes ultrarunning even better than the mountains and forests alone. Photo: Kendra Miller

I was able to find a similar group of people with Team Every Man Jack, and enjoy the benefits of teammates who truly want everyone to achieve the best result they’re capable of. In the meantime I got to learn, oftentimes the hard way, how to navigate the world of social media and sponsorships.

Looking forward to another great year of racing with these guys. Photo: Talbot Cox

2017 Results

Date Race Place Time
Dec 16, 2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler 1 7:27
Nov 12, 2017 Long Course National Championship 2 4:23
Oct 14, 2017 Kona Ironman World Championship 60 9:13
Sep 10, 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship 99 4:25
Jul 23, 2017 Ironman Lake Placid 18 9:25
Jun 18, 2017 Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 5 4:45
May 21, 2017 Columbia Triathlon
Apr 1, 2017 Barkley Marathons 1 59:30
Feb 10, 2017 TWOT 100 1 26:35 (CR)

 

2018 Goals

So where does that leave me for 2018? That’s a good question. I’m down in San Antonio right now, with my first race of the year tomorrow at Bandera 100K. I’m honestly just here to get a Western States and Spartathlon qualifier, and don’t really have any intention of doing much more at this one. Even if I did, there a good number of people here a good deal faster than me (men and women) and I hear there are zero briar patches or hills so steep you can reach straight forward and touch them where I can make up ground on those people.

I will be back at TWOT 100 in February, with the goal of lowering my course record to sub 24 hours. It’s a pretty big stretch goal, but it’s one I’m excited about and right there in my zone of difficulty that will keep me motivated. And it also has those steep hills I need. And I’m out of prize apple butter.

Need more apple butter. Photo: Antoinette Landragin

I’d also like to go for a few fastest known times this winter, possibly the Maryland 4 State Challenge and/or the Benton MacKaye Trail. Those will be pretty dependent on weather, family plans, and work, though.

In April I’m doing the London Marathon, which will actually be my first marathon not dressed in costume in nearly four years. I’m excited to see what I can do now, but at the same time I’m not going to build my training around that.

The last time I ran a serious, standalone marathon was the 2014 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. Photo: Gary Kelly

Then, my final season of competitive triathlon begins. After this year, I’m going to ultras full time. There are a lot of ultra goals I have that would happen during what has been my triathlon season. I also feel like there won’t be much left for me to pursue in terms of goals in triathlon, at least not enough to get me to keep subjecting myself to swimming. Doing different triathlons doesn’t excite me the same way that doing different ultras does. The races just don’t, and can’t, have the same level of uniqueness.

Ironman Lake Placid was an awesome, scenic course. But for me it still can’t approach the beauty of the trails. Photo: Patrick Kelly

With this being my last year of triathlon, though, I want to make sure I come out of it knowing that I reached my potential, and being completely satisfied with the efforts I put in to it. So throughout these next few months I’m going to try to do something that I haven’t done the past few years: continue to work on my bike and swim.

I’ve already joined a Masters swimming group, and have continued to do my bike commutes the last couple of months. Last year I was 2 minutes off my age group podium at Kona, after coming out of the water in 854th place. Originally I only planned on doing Kona that once, but now the goal is to go back one more time and see what I can do if I learn how to swim and strengthen my bike a bit.

Hopefully I can make it back here and next time only a few hundred or so of these people will come out of the water ahead of me. Photo: Talbot Cox

I’ll be going for an early season Kona Qualifier at IM Boulder at the beginning of June, a time at which in years past I would have only recently gotten back in the pool and on the bike after dedicating the winter to Barkley training. If I don’t qualify at Boulder I’ll probably take one more shot at a later season race.

In the middle of the season I have the awesome opportunity to go represent Team USA at the amateur Long Course World Championships in Denmark. I’m pretty excited about putting on the Team USA kit and seeing what I can do.

Then after Kona (if I make it there), I might do one final “victory lap” in triathlon by grabbing my pro card and racing as a pro at one last race. It’s one of those things that would be cool to look back on when I’m 85, and I don’t want to be disappointed at having the opportunity and not ever taking it.

Then, then I burn my goggles and wetsuit. Ok no, I’ll probably at least sell the wetsuit. And I might do a recreational triathlon here and there in the future, but I’m definitely never training for the swim again. Maybe I’ll do an occasional competitive duathlon (if I can find one that’s long enough) as I do enjoy biking and feel like I can keep up my fitness there without it adversely affecting my ultra training.

Unless I’m here to play Marco Polo or Sharks and Minnows with my kids, in about 10 months I’m done with you pool.

But otherwise, it will be all ultras all the time. I’m already excited about some of the ideas I have for 2019. A lot can happen in a year, though, and who even knows where I’ll be at the time. So for now, those will just remain as ideas lurking in the back of my mind.

Good luck to everyone with your 2018 goals! Reach far, don’t be afraid of failure, and enjoy the experience not just the outcome. Even if 2018 race goals aren’t reached, the pursuit of them should leave you better from it come 2019, and that should be the main goal above all.

As for me, I truly might not be able to top my personal 2017 outcomes, but I can guarantee at least two things: 1) I will continue to push my boundaries and never regress in terms of challenges and continuous improvement, and 2) I will seek to help others reach their goals, as the sum of outcomes across many will always be able to exceed anyone’s individual outcomes.

Current Confirmed 2018 Schedule

Date Race
Jan 6, 2018 Bandera 100K
Feb 17, 2018 TWOT 100M
Apr 22, 2018 London Marathon
May 19, 2018 General Smallwood Triathlon
Jun 10, 2018 Ironman Boulder
Jun 24, 2018 Columbia Triathlon
Jul 14, 2018 ITU Long Course World Championship

 

2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

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.

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Territorio Trail – La Mistica de Barkley

I spoke with Neisa and Andrew from Territorio Trail on a beautiful day down at the reflecting pool in DC. I’m a little disappointed that my Spanish (my college minor) is too rusty for me to have an actual conversation in it, but probably better for most people here that it’s in English. 😉 They do an intro of me at about 41:30 (in Spanish), and then after a commercial / music break my interview (in English) starts at about 47 minutes.

Territorio Trail 22 de noviembre de 2017. John Kelly. Gran Trail Collserola. Mónica Aguilera. Marató dels Dements. Gema Quiroga. Yaiza Miñana. Dani Osanz. Manuel Martos. – Territorio Trail Media

JOHN KELLY. LA MISTICA DE BARKLEY MARATHONS. John Kelly llegó a Frozen Head el abril pasado como un perfecto desconocido. 59 horas y media después inscribió su nombre en la historia de los ultras convirtiéndose en finisher de la Barkley Marathons. Repasaremos con Kelly su trayectoria, en la que destaca la variedad de pruebas en …

The NOW Podcast

Antoine Jolicoeur Desroches is a pro triathlete in Quebec, but I spent a good deal of the time talking to him about Barkley as well. I might do a race up his way next year, and if so hope we cross paths.

John Kelly – Barkley Marathon Winner & Speedy Triathlete by thenowpodcast

John Kelly is an ultra runner and triathlete. He won the prestigious and legendary Barkley Marathon and had the second fastest Age Group run split at the Ironman World Championship. http://www.randomforestrunner.com

 

Triathlete Magazine – Showdown: The Barkley Marathons vs. Ironman Kona

To be fair, this year’s Barkley involved a bit of (inadvertent) swimming as well. I enjoyed my chat with Sarah Barker for triathlete magazine, and appreciate the great job she did making sure things were accurate!

Showdown: The Barkley Marathons vs. Ironman Kona | Triathlete.com

John Kelly has a pretty strong mental game. This past April the 32-year-old data scientist became only the 15th person ever to finish the Barkley marathons-approximately 130 miles of thrashing through Tennessee wilderness- within the 60-hour cutoff. Exhausted and sleep-deprived at the finish, Kelly had the wherewithal to offer a plausible explanation for why he was wearing a plastic Walmart bag ala shrug.

 

Publicity, Sponsorships, and the Social Media Quagmire

Publicity, Sponsorships, and the Social Media Quagmire

Update: Thanks everyone for the great feedback, whether here or somewhere else! Please continue to provide it at any time. There are a couple of things I wanted to mention that arose from that feedback. 1) In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, any social media post I make specifically for a sponsor or any recommendation I make for a sponsor’s product will be hashtagged with #sponsoredpost. Sometimes I might still tag a sponsor on an otherwise normal post, but the litmus test will be me asking myself (and honestly answering) “would I have made this post if it weren’t for a sponsor relationship?” 2) I’m of course open to supporting great causes. If anyone has one in mind please feel free to message me.

Let me start this post with this: I have no idea what I’m doing. I majored in electrical and computer engineering, the one thing at NC State where they required us to take both a public speaking and a writing class because they thoroughly expected us to be completely socially inept and incapable of basic communication. So I lack authority on this topic almost to the point of it being comical that I’m writing about it, but I have learned quite a bit and put a good deal of thought into this over the past year or so. I wanted to pass along those thoughts and my experience. Hopefully it might be useful for anyone in a similar situation, or even interesting for anyone who is not. Discussion, feedback, comments, advice, etc. are all welcome and appreciated.

I’ve actually been meaning to make this post for quite some time, but wanted to be sure I could put real thought into it. The usual priorities (family, work, training… sometimes sleeping), and of course making the very posts that I’m going to discuss in this post, didn’t leave time for doing that. In the meantime, I’ve seen other perspectives on this topic covering a wide spectrum (Bobby Geronimo’s scathing post and Dakota Jones’ satirical take both come to mind).

This post isn’t about what other people are doing, though; it’s not my place to say what other people should or shouldn’t be doing. One of the people I’ve looked up to and admired for years is Jared Campbell, who I think has a rather minimalist approach to social media and publicity. I also have a great deal of respect for Jamil Coury, one of the people mentioned in Bobby Geronimo’s post. He has an immense love for the sport, is living that out daily, and a lot of people get inspiration from that. I also of course owe him a great deal myself for two loops of navigation at my initial Barkley attempt in 2015.

But again, this isn’t about other people. This post is just about the path that I’ve taken, for now, and how I ended up on it. At times I feel like the punk band that signed with a record label, but so far I don’t regret where I am.

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The National – Running Wild

They say save the best for last. There have been a lot of good articles so I’m not sure if this is best, but it’s definitely great and the last 2017 Barkley article to my knowledge.

For the record, though, I’ve never focused training on Barkley year-round. I haven’t even focused training on running year round. I’ve focused on Barkley for 6 month chunks, which is something I believe every finisher has done at a minimum.

Running Wild

On June 11, 1977, when James Earl Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and was at large amid Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, Gov. Ray Blanton preached calm. In the prison’s 81 years of operation, he told The Washington Post, no one had ever permanently escaped.

 

Esquire Magazine – The Masochist’s Marathon

This is a long-awaited feature on the 2017 Barkley Marathons in Esquire. The author, George Pendle, was a pleasure to speak with and is an extremely nice guy who I know wanted to to portray the race as accurately as possible. Overall, it’s a great article. With today’s editing and sensationalized headlines, though, it should be no surprise what appears on the first page and the title that was chosen.

“Masochist’s Marathon” implies pleasure in the pain itself. The pleasure is in overcoming the obstacles that cause the pain. Despite an impressive amount of fact-checking, I believe the article also misquotes me just a bit (I don’t think I’ve said “daddy” since I was 3) to further cast me as the local yokel dark horse who somehow managed to finish (no one who knew anything about the race considered me a dark horse). But that doesn’t really matter, and the article is a very entertaining read. To paraphrase (not quote) laz, the world at large can never truly know what it’s like out there, and those that do (including myself) know what we did and why we did it.

This Is the Most Hellish Ultramarathon in the World

The world’s top ultrarunners fight to compete in the Barkley Marathons, an ever-shifting race designed by a madman to break their spirits through 100 miles of hellish Appalachian mountains. So far, only 14 people have completed it. A man is begging on the side of a Tennessee mountain.

 

The Goldilocks Difficulty

The Goldilocks Difficulty

A couple of weeks ago I posted Failing with Purpose. I had some great feedback, questions, and discussion from that, and have been meaning to post a follow up for a while now. So here it is, finally. Also related: Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K.

The main question that arose out of the previous post was, “what is just the right amount of difficulty?” I advocated for setting stretch goals where failure is a likely outcome. I still believe that more benefit can be realized by falling short of a stretch goal than by overachieving on an easy one, but just sending yourself on fool’s errands isn’t very productive. There’s a tl;dr at the bottom of the post if you’d rather skip to the bullet point version.

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Failing with Purpose

Failing with Purpose

Note: This post generated some great discussion, which led to The Goldilocks Difficulty as a follow-up post. Also related: Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K.

Background

This isn’t a Western States post, but it’s one that it inspired. This also steals almost entirely from a talk I gave a couple of months back for my high school’s honors night (if you really want to see the video, it’s at the bottom). I hadn’t planned on posting it, but with some of the discussion I’ve seen this week I felt like I should.

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Blue Ridge Outdoors – Heartbreak at the Barkley Marathons

A nice little feature done by Josh Patton, one of the talented photographers who was at Barkley.

Heartbreak at Barkley Marathon

The Barkley Marathon starts with the race director blowing on a conch shell and lighting a cigarette, and it ends with either the Easy Button or Taps. It brags that it has a near complete failure rate. In its three decades of existence, only 15 runners have been able to defeat the clock, the mountains, and the briars.

 

Endurance News – John Kelly becomes the 15th finisher at the Barkley Marathons

A feature in Hammer Nutrition’s Endurance News magazine on the 2017 Barkley Marathons, obviously with a bit more info on some of the fuel I used during the race.

John Kelly becomes the 15th finisher at the Barkley Marathons!

BY ENDURANCE NEWS STAFF On April 1st, 2017, Hammer Nutrition sponsored athlete John Kelly left the start line on his third attempt at the 100 plus mile, 60 hour ultramarathon trail race, the Barkley Marathons. On April 3rd, at 59:30 in with just 30 minutes to spare, Kelly became the race’s 15th Finisher since 1986.

 

2017 Barkley Strategy, Gear, & Nutrition

2017 Barkley Strategy, Gear, & Nutrition

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.

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POD Podcast 064

This podcast was pretty unique amongst the post-Barkley interviews, and definitely the most relaxed one I did. It was a lot of fun to touch on some things that I hadn’t really talked about before.

POD 064 Interview with Barkley Marathon Finisher John Kelly

In this episode, Craig and Jeremy chat with Barkley Marathon finisher John Kelly. The Barkley Marathon started back in 1995. This ultramarathon trail race held in Tennessee annually is brutal as it must be completed within the 60 hour time limit.

The Fat Black Podcast #212

Great conversation with Kristian Manietta on training, setting goals, and overcoming mental challenges in endurance sports. This one really isn’t a Barkley podcast or an audio race report, and dove into things that are much more broadly relatable.

FB #212 – John Kelly

This week I get to virtually sit down with John Kelly. The 15th finisher at the Barkley Marathon – which has been going for way more years than finishers of the event. It’s really the end point of ultra running. If you haven’t watched the Netflix doco do it.

2017 Barkley Crew Report from Joe Kelly

2017 Barkley Crew Report from Joe Kelly

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.

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Slate’s Hang Up and Listen – A Barkley Marathons follow-up

That time when two people in DC disagreed but then actually discussed like civilized human beings. Not all Barkley views are rainbows & unicorns, but enjoyed the chat! The Barkley portion starts at 34:52. The original segment in question was on the April 17 episode at 58:25.

Is Nike’s Upcoming Attempt to Break the Two-Hour Marathon a Marketing Gimmick?

Slate ‘s sports podcast on the NBA playoffs, breaking the two-hour marathon, and a Barkley Marathons follow-up. Listen to Hang Up and Listen with Stefan Fatsis and Greg Howard by clicking the arrow on the audio player below: In this week’s episode of ‘s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis and special guest Greg Howard of the New York Times are joined by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz to talk about a slew of storylines in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Pace the Nation Podcast Episode 102

I went to a road running store in my cycling kit to talk ultras. Maybe we can all get along.

Episode 102 – Charles Barkley (John Kelly) | Pacers Running

We are joined by local runner John Kelly (@RndmForestRunnr) who just became the 15th person to ever finish the Barkley Marathons. John talks about the event and its history, and gives us a recap of his race. We also talk about his support crew, how he finds time to train for ultras and triathlons, google, …