Still Seeking Grand Challenges

I don’t think there’s really anything I can say here that I didn’t say at this point last year before setting off on this adventure. In a way, the very fact that I failed at my first attempt at “The Grand Round” shows that it was a good challenge – one that forced me to learn, grow, and develop a better plan. If a grand challenge doesn’t teach us anything, doesn’t force us to improve ourselves or develop a better strategy, then was it really all that grand?

Sometimes those lessons can be learned on the fly, or anticipated and learned beforehand. But something that involves none of that, that has no risk of failure and can be accomplished on a whim – that isn’t a challenge, it’s just a task. Last year I did fail. I learned a great deal, and I almost immediately started formulating my new plan.

The basic concept and the stats are the same: I’ll be doing the UK’s big three fell running rounds consecutively, riding my bike between them. This is roughly 185 miles of running with 84K feet of elevation gain over 113 summits, plus over 400 miles of biking. If you’re just here for the tracker, it’s at the link below. The schedule shown on the tracker is currently largely notional, especially until the start time is 100% confirmed.

Live Tracking

Grand Round 2020 – John Kelly – Live Event Tracking

The Hartley Slam

The first big change actually makes things a bit harder: I’m starting it just a month after finishing my run on the Pennine Way that broke Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record. This effort will be part 2 of 2 in The Hartley Slam (or parts 2, 3, and 4 depending on how you look at it). I’m feeling pretty good, though, and confident that I’ll be in a solid spot in terms of recovery and fitness to take this on.

My fundraiser for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is still ongoing as part of this, and if you’re able I would greatly appreciate any contributions at the link below (if you’re not UK based it will handle the currency conversion for you). This was a great source of encouragement in the low points on the Pennine Way, and I’m sure they will be here as well.

The Hartley Slam

John Kelly is fundraising for The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. Donate on JustGiving

The Grand Round 2.0

Maybe let’s move the goal posts slightly closer

There are a couple of changes that make things a bit easier: the overall time goal / schedule and support on the bike.

First, I’ve upped my goal of 100 hours to 120 hours. The main goal all along was to do all 3 rounds in under 24 hours each, and I’m definitely sticking to that. If I’m successful, it will still be the shortest span that anyone has ever completed all 3 in under 24 hours. The extra overall time is mainly to allow more sleeping, and 120 hours is a nice even 24 hours each for the 3 rounds and 2 bike portions.

My primary reason for stopping last year was that I had gotten so sleep deprived that biking up narrow Scottish mountain highways was far beyond my threshold for acceptable physical risk. The bike portions themselves shouldn’t take me anywhere close to 24 hours, but I plan on getting significant sleep before, after, and if necessary during each one.

Second, I plan on doing a bit of drafting on the bike. As a former triathlete who saw rampant cheating in non draft legal races, I was repulsed by the idea last year and set out to take on the bike portion solo. Beyond the performance benefit, though, this is also a matter of safety (especially at night): multiple cyclists are more visible than one.

Before last year I also wasn’t too sure about pacers carrying my gear for me on the rounds. I now have a much better understanding and appreciation of the fell running community’s collective efforts and culture of support for the rounds. If I’m receiving that support on the run, it seems appropriate to on the bike. There’s no such thing as a partially supported / partially unsupported record. Either it’s supported, or it’s not.

Also, I do hope that one day someone else might decide that this or something similar is a fun idea that they’d like to try themselves. I don’t want that person to have had to spend years working their way up the triathlon ladder to get an expensive aerodynamic bike setup. Drafting largely negates the benefit provided by my super bike to where it’s a more level playing field for someone who has a more reasonable and affordable bike.

We need a better plan

Step 1: don’t go charging out into a massive storm with torrential rain and gale force winds. Last year I did that twice, on both Paddy Buckley and Bob Graham. I hadn’t yet had an introduction to the extremes of British mountain weather, or to the effect it can have on running conditions. Well, now I know. I won’t sit around waiting for perfect conditions (I have a tight deadline, and perfect conditions for a 5 day stretch where I’m going seems impossible anyway), but I have a slight amount of flex in the start date so that I don’t charge out right into the heart of a storm. Right now the forecast has taken a decidedly bad turn for all of next week, and I can’t delay by a huge amount to avoid all of it, but as long as it’s just showers rather than storms it should be alright.

Video: Andy Blackett

Step 2: let’s revisit that sleep thing. I’ve already mentioned the additional sleep I plan on getting during the challenge, but I’m also going to do a bit better beforehand. Last year I slept (or tried to) in a room above a pub and woke at the crack of dawn (around 4 AM) to try to maximize daylight. I was already sleep deprived when I started. This year I’m all about maximizing sleep, and will get a solid night’s rest before waking and starting at a quite reasonable hour.

Step 3: slow down, there’s a really long ways to go. I charged out of the gate on the Paddy Buckley last year on pace for something like a 19 hour round. I’m gonna aim for around 23 this year. Even 23:59 would do just fine. I already know that I can do Paddy Buckley and Bob Graham back to back under 24 hours, even in horrible weather, so it’s all about trying as best I can to conserve myself for the Charlie Ramsay Round. This goes back again to extending the schedule to give myself 24 hours for each portion – no need to try to bank extra time on the rounds.

I hope to see much more of the sun than this 30 minutes or so I saw last year on the very first climb. I just don’t plan on starting that first climb at this hour or this pace. Photo: Chris Webb

Step 4: choose a better bike route. Last year I wasn’t very familiar with British roads and I chose to play it safe, choosing a route that stuck to the back roads. On one stretch between Runcorn and Preston I was averaging 10 mph from winding through every village, roundabout, and traffic control. This year I’ll be taking a slightly modified version of what Ross Malpass used for his National Three Peaks record. Also, I’ll be avoiding Runcorn entirely. I plan on biking to the Queensway tunnel in Liverpool, grabbing a nap until it opens to cyclists, then heading through. I’ll be cutting off about 13 miles, a bit of climbing, a lot of those village roads, and I won’t have to worry about the bridge being closed and having to wait for a bus across the river like last year. It does mean there will be more cycling at night, though, for which my combined bike lighting availability of close to 3,000 lumens should be quite sufficient. 😅

Every portion of this has been scrutinized and re-planned.

Finally, apply the experience I’ve gained and the lessons I’ve learned in taking on challenges of this magnitude. Since last year I’ve completed Tor Des Geants, won the Spine, and set a (short-lived) Pennine Way record. All of these are multi-day challenges with vastly different conditions and obstacles. I know much better how to manage myself for those types of distances, and what to expect when I push beyond that 60 hour mark. There are a lot of variables and a lot of unknowns going into the Grand Round, but I can at least go into it much more confident this year that I know my own mind and body and how to best use them to maximize my chance of success.

27 thoughts on “Still Seeking Grand Challenges

  • August 11, 2020 at 12:22 pm
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    Wishing you absolutely the best of luck John. We’re really looking forward to following this.

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    • August 11, 2020 at 12:28 pm
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      Thank you, hopefully it’ll give a solid 5 days of dot watching!

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    • August 11, 2020 at 2:14 pm
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      Every bit of change you mention here seems to make a lot of sense and be very well-thought-out, and we wouldn’t expect any less from you! Good luck out there!

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      • August 11, 2020 at 4:08 pm
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        Thank you, hopefully I’ve got it all sorted this time! Or, sorted enough at least. 🙂

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  • August 11, 2020 at 2:09 pm
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    Whatever the level, the possibility of failure is essential. Another thoughtful post and inspiring goal. Good luck with it, I’ll be cheering you on in awed amazement

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  • August 11, 2020 at 3:26 pm
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    The best of luck John, please be extra careful on our roads. Some real ignorant drivers about!

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  • August 11, 2020 at 4:56 pm
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    Best of luck to you! I wanted to say I really appreciate that not only do you not settle for a “task” but that you write about it as well. Not many others do both, and I think that you are exceptional. Thank you.

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  • August 12, 2020 at 3:02 am
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    Look forward to watching along and perhaps even cheering you on somewhere along the way..

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  • August 12, 2020 at 3:01 pm
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    The very best of luck John, you have many supporters on both sides of the Atlantic who will be cheering you on every step of the way. Really hoping that you’ve solved your stomach issues from your PW record?

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  • August 13, 2020 at 6:40 am
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    Good luck John. It’s an insane challenge. Hope the British weather doesn’t defeat you.

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    • August 13, 2020 at 9:06 am
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      Thanks John. It might be an obstacle but it won’t defeat me alone.

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  • August 21, 2020 at 4:53 pm
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    Congratulations John!
    This is an incredible achievement!!

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  • August 21, 2020 at 6:34 pm
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    Unbelievable!!!!!!

    I just made a donation to celebrate your finish of The Grand Round. Furthermore, you’ve inspired me to run the further distance I’ve yet to run (slightly less than you just ran).

    Keep going you are headed in the right direction!

    CHEERS!

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    • August 23, 2020 at 4:10 pm
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      Thanks very much, and all the best for your own challenge!

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  • August 25, 2020 at 3:28 am
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    Congrats ! Finished my own first ultra this Saturday AND documented it immediately inspired by your blog. I can literally see inspiration ripple further as I speak. Thank you, John. Keep at it.

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    • August 25, 2020 at 1:36 pm
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      Congrats on your first ultra, that’s great! Glad you decided to document it too – it will be something you’ll love to look back at.

      Reply

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