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.

Wait, you’re doing Barkley again?

I avoided making this public as much as possible, because honestly I didn’t want to deal with any distractions or expectations as I was training. I had a very limited amount of time to put towards it and that time needed to be 100% focused on the training itself, not answering questions about the training, or whether I felt I was ready, what my plans were, etc.

I also didn’t want any expectations or feedback to affect my mindset. I wanted to be 100% sure that I was doing it because I wanted to, and that that remained true as the race drew near and the time crunch grew. I didn’t want any sort of external pressure to influence my decision, my training, or my race. And in line with the original reason the Barkley entrant list isn’t made public, if things got to be too much and it didn’t work out then I wanted to be able to drop without even having to announce it.

Yes, I’m sure there were plenty of people who had their suspicions, especially those following me on Strava. That’s fine, and like many things Barkley related I think having some uncertainty and guessing is part of the excitement and intrigue. But please just know that for the most part I’m extremely transparent about my plans. My schedule is here, and so are my goals for the year. If there is something that I’m not putting out there, it’s probably because I want it that way.

So if that’s the case for anything in the future then please, grant me the space I feel I need in order to focus and put in the kind of performance that is probably the reason people are interested in whether I’m doing it in the first place.

Within minutes of posting this, I will be fully disconnected until after the race.

But why?

This is maybe the harder question to answer, or at least in a way to achieve understanding (and no, it’s not to prove to myself or anyone else how tough I am). I’ve experienced the race from all sorts of different angles now: the anxious and clueless newcomer in 2015, the confident but still pretty anxious veteran in 2016, the calm and eager yet still tense “expert” in 2017, and the crew and observer in 2018. The role that was still missing was the relaxed and pressure-free alumnus.

That’s what this is: a no pressure trip into the mountains that I love, but with that challenge that I’m constantly seeking. With Barkley changing every year it’s always a new challenge, and I’m also a different person compared to what I was two years ago. I definitely want to see if I’m still capable of a finish and to see what else I can learn about myself. Nothing that I’ve done since then has really placed me right at that edge of my limits and held me there. Sure, I’ve hit my limits in other ways and I’ve fallen short of some of my goals, but not in this way where I’m forced to stare my limitations right in the face and see if I can figure out a way around them, right then and right there.

It is a truly unique experience, and I’m constantly longing for that type of challenge and the opportunity to overcome it. The fact that I get to do it while running around and exploring my home mountains, and while fully disconnecting from the other worries of work and every day life, just makes it that much sweeter. So I’ll be out there, and you’d better believe I’ll be going for a finish. But no matter what I’m going to enjoy it, and relish the opportunity to try. Even if I fail, it will not have been a wasted endeavor.

These are still the mountains that my family has called home for over 200 years.

About that training

Right, back to the actual topic of this post. I followed most of the same principles that I did in my 2017 Barkley training, I just was forced to do it in a much more disorganized and on-the-fly fashion. Leading into the 2017 race I finished my triathlon season in early October at 2016 Ironman Maryland, the twins were born in late October, and then my Barkley training began in November, with JFK 50 and Hellgate 100K+ to close out the year.

My 2017 Barkley training from January up to the race

This year, I had my triathlon career finale (and pro triathlon debut) in mid November at Ironman Arizona, and then in December took it pretty easy and ate lots of cheesecake. I hadn’t had a good down period since after 2017 Barkley and I felt it was something I physically and mentally needed. There also wouldn’t have really been much choice in the matter since in my new job something like 80% of new business deals start on January 1st, which makes December just oh so jolly and fun.

So I ramped my training back up in January, but again with a much less predictable schedule this year I stuck firmly by the principle that the best kind of training is the training that you can actually do. Any miles are better than no miles. I didn’t have my daily 16 mile trail commute to or from DC (although I did do it a few times for old time’s sake), and due to travel I was only actually home for 4 or 5 weekends January through March where I could plan big workouts.

But one enormous benefit I’ve found of having experience is that I don’t have to think about or plan my workouts as far in advance. If you tell me, “ok, you have one free hour starting… now!” then I’m going to lace up my shoes and make the best of every minute. And in a way I was able to make good use of some of the travel as well, like starting the year with my wife’s family at the beach and building back up my mileage on the sand to minimize the impact of the increased volume on my joints.

I still had two of the stalwarts from my 2017 training: the incline treadmill (which I particularly loved because it showed up as quite the confusing workout on Strava) and repeats on my tiny 95 foot hill near my house. I ended up spending 17 hours on the dreadmill for 45K feet of climbing over 65 miles, and 14 hours on my hill for 330 repeats, 33 miles, and 31K feet of climbing and descent. Since I’ve now left the area, it looks like my career total on that tiny hill will end at 2,084 repeats.

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My biggest day on that hill was only 80 repeats as opposed to 125 two years ago, but I put that the evening before another big day: the Farm to Founders 50K. For years I’ve explored the entirety of the Rock Creek trail system stretching all the way from DC to rural farmland in Olney, MD. I had always wanted to run its full length, and after mapping it out it turned out to be almost right at 50K. I put the word out to see if anyone wanted to join, and we had a great day! There wasn’t a lot of elevation gain to it, but I still think that getting that kind of volume in at a reasonable pace is a piece of training that must still be maintained for Barkley and is often overlooked in the name of all vert all the time.

Farm to Founders 50K – John Kelly’s 31.6 mi run

John K. ran 31.6 mi on Feb 23, 2019.

The other piece of my travel that made it easy to turn lemons into lemonade was a couple of trips to TN to take care of some of the moving logistics. I actually ended up getting “stuck” here for a few weeks leading up to the race due to some delays in my family’s visas getting processed, and got some great mileage in at Frozen Head and some of the surrounding mountains. I also was able to finally complete my challenge of collecting all of the Strava segments in Frozen Head that I (or other internet sleuths) could find. I set about this entirely as a fun, personal challenge, and I hope it helps draw people to the park to come after some of the records, or encourages people to make their own challenges to go after.

I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Jamil for insinuating in this that I’d be doing Barkley this year…
For anyone curious as to where “the throne” is, it’s just below switchback #11 on the trail heading up Bird Mountain from the yellow gate

But overall, I was quite surprised (just now actually, while writing this) to find that I actually put in more running hours before Barkley this year than I did in 2017. I didn’t have as much elevation gain or quite as many miles, and I also didn’t have the added swim / bike cross training (but somehow the calories Garmin calculated were nearly identical?). All of that was actually a bit of a head scratcher for me at first, until I remembered: of course, Franklins 200!

My training for 2019 Barkley from January up to the race

Nearly 1/3 of my training time this year was spent at the Franklins 200 miler. In 2017 I had TWOT 100, and Franklins this year served in much the same role but perhaps in an even larger way. After a year off from Barkley having another 60ish hour race was not only incredibly valuable for the physical training but also for the experience, the mental rehearsal, and the gut check on my gear and nutrition plan.

Franklins 200 Miler – John Kelly’s 209.0 mi run

Race distance was about 203, actual distance for me was probably about 204 after a little out and back bonus mileage a few of us added at the beginning. GPS seems to have been consistently spottiest climbing / descending the big peak (how bout that 3:34 mile?!

But of course, no Barkley training would be complete for me without the Mar Lu Marathon! I headed back up the the ridge I love to hate for one last go before we left the area. This workout has been the capstone to my Barkley training every year that I’ve done it, and nets me nearly 14K feet of climbing and descent in a bit over 26.2 miles with 25 repeats on a powerline cut. In total, I’ve run up and down that hill 292 times (so over 300 if you count the times I’ve biked up and down it 😉).

Mar Lu Marathon – John Kelly’s 27.0 mi run

John K. ran 27.0 mi on Mar 3, 2019.

Overall, I honestly don’t really think that I’m in as good of shape as I was in 2017. I’m also not as focused (but that also means not as distracted / stressed, which could be a good thing). I am more experienced, though, and once out there I’ll be just as determined as ever. As an engineer, the fun part to me of these kinds of challenges, and to life in general really, is that it’s an incredibly complex optimization problem. It’s impossible to maximize every single input at once. This year I have my inputs tuned a bit differently, and we’ll find out soon what kind of output they produce!

Bonus: My Barkley Entry Essay

People always seem to want some peek into the supposedly mysterious Barkley entry process, so I thought I’d share my entry essay from this year.

Why I should be allowed to return to The Barkley Marathons 
by John Kelly

After I graduated high school I went to Panama City with a group of friends. While there, I agreed to buy a pack of cigarettes (I was 18 at the time) for a 17 year old in exchange for teaching us how to use a skim board. And I messed it up. I bought the wrong type.

To this day, that is still the only time I have ever purchased cigarettes. Illegal, and a failure. Running Barkley again will not only properly punish me for my heinous crime, it will allow me to get it right this time. One pack of Camels. Menthols, right? 😉

Spoiler alert: I messed it up again. I got Camel Blues (apparently the light version of Camels). But then I went back and finally got it right I think. Third time really seems to be the charm for me.

4 thoughts on “2019 Barkley Marathons Training

  • 2019-03-28 at 5:15 PM

    Excited for you. All the best while you’re ‘out there’

  • 2019-03-28 at 5:46 PM

    Good luck with your run! I like the idea of the Barkley marathons. It is such an unknown. Good on you for challenging yourself. In life it is often easy to continue to do things which we find achievable. But I think we learn more about ourselves when we take on something that we have no idea how it will play out. all the training in the world won’t help on the day if you feel sick, twist an ankle or just can’t take another step. But you are setting a great example to your children by just doing it. It doesn’t matter whether or not you finish as I think the trying is what matters the most. I look forward to your race report.

    • 2019-04-01 at 12:24 PM

      Thank you very much. It is definitely an unknown, and I got to discover quite a bit while out there.


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