I’m a very goal oriented person. I always have been, it will probably never change, and I’ve written so many posts about goals that I gave them their own page. For the most part, I consider it one of my greatest strengths. It’s helped me take on and overcome big challenges, spurred on by failure and unexpected obstacles. This is true not only in running, but also in my career and really life in general.
My main goal for this year, though, is to focus less on goals. Sure, I still firmly believe in success through failure of stretch goals, and I have some big ones for 2021 that I’ll pursue wholeheartedly, but I don’t want those to completely overwhelm everything else in my life. Writing this out helped me think through what concrete steps I could take, and I decided to post it in case it’s useful to anyone else who feels they’re in the same situation.
Failure through success
One difficulty from being a stubbornly focused and irrationally driven person is the potential to steamroll anyone with a much more reasonable mindset. I’ve worked hard on communication and on listening to the goals of my wife and others who share the same lane on life’s highway, but I must admit that so far it’s been my own goals that have had the larger gravitational force on those around me. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the unwavering support of my wife and family. “Hey, how about we move across the ocean with 3 pre-schoolers so I can build out the 4 person startup I just co-founded? Great, now that we’re here how about I bike and run around the whole country and we have a 4th kid during a global pandemic? Ok super, now next…”
The more easily overlooked difficulty is the risk of my goal-oriented mindset steamrolling me. I’ve realized that I have essentially lost the ability to just be – to just sit, and relax, and do nothing that makes progress towards one of those goals. It’s difficult for me to enjoy the day to day seemingly trivial experiences that make up the majority of life. This probably started as far back as grad school, when nearly every free minute that I wasn’t working I felt guilty that I wasn’t. It’s not how I want to live and not something that’s sustainable.
I want to enjoy every moment with my kids; I will never have them again. One day I want to be able to just sit, and do nothing, and be completely content and happy in it. Maybe I’ll actually read a book, or try out this Netflix and chill thing I keep hearing about.
Since leaving my nice safe corporate job with regular hours, I’ve been in leadership positions at startups and have had the incredible benefit of largely setting my own hours. I could show up mid morning in the office muddy from a run commute, or flex days around family trips and races.
But that benefit comes with a terrible curse: my work hours have no bounds on timing and duration. Saturday morning? Sure, why not. 2 AM? Of course, that’s when all my best thinking happens. It’s like grad school: there’s rarely a specific time when I absolutely must be working but even more rare is the time when I don’t feel I should be working.
One reason I love long crazy things in remote places is because they force me to pull the plug. “Yeah, about that email… I was off on a mountain with negative 2 bars of service and a dead battery.” It’s also one of the few things that can fully mentally detach me. When I’m worried about not getting lost, cold, hungry, or giving in to the dozen body parts yelling at me to stop… that TPS report somehow completely disappears from thought. The effect lingers as well – once back in the real world it takes a while before I’m fully reabsorbed.
So I plan on forcing that upon myself more. Certain days of the week, certain hours of the day: no phone, no computer, no anything where anyone can message me or pull my thoughts elsewhere.
Be in the moment
Disconnecting and being physically present is simple. Being mentally engaged is something altogether different. It’s easy to be somewhere or with someone yet be completely preoccupied by something else: a problem at work, something in the news, an upcoming goal, or the cat picture that random guy on Twitter just posted. All of those things have their time and place, and some of them might even be more important. But they’ll still be there later, and not every moment will be. “Hold on son, I can’t help with that right now because people just stormed the capitol building and I need to read these updates now before you go to bed or else it will be an even bigger disaster.”
I’m a master multi-tasker, which is a great way of saying I can do 4 things in an hour instead of 1 thing every 15 minutes. Sometimes that’s useful, but not everything can be spread out over that hour. Some moments, some of the best and most irretrievable, might only last 15 minutes.
Whatever it is I’m doing, it will have my attention. Wherever I am, there I will be.
Just say no
Of course there’s a limit to how much we can prioritize. There’s usually a choice between doing a few things well or many things poorly. I could target 50 races a year, but then I would never perform at my best. I plan on saying no to a lot more responsibilities, including podcasts, sponsor requests, and tasks at work.
I’ll still do podcasts, but I’ll likely stick with people I know or ones I’ve done before – not because I know them but because they know me. They’re more likely to have insightful non-repetitive questions.
I’ll still work with my sponsors, but I’m well beyond the point where I have any interest in essentially selling social media posts (alongside small pieces of my soul) for gear. My sponsor engagement will focus on product feedback and testing (hopefully using those products to succeed in some big challenges), and on leveraging our combined platforms for positive change within the sport and beyond. My posts will be personal and my own voice. That might mean my benefits aren’t as good, and I might miss some opportunities altogether, but it’s entirely worth it to me.
This doesn’t all mean that I’ll cut myself off or go live under a rock. There are many important and urgent issues right now and I hope that I can help in some small way with my time, resources, and skills. I might even make more non-running blog posts.
So I’ll aim for more, by doing fewer things. Opportunity costs are unavoidable.
Ignore the noise
The big choices are usually easy to recognize, but oftentimes it’s the little things that kill. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, and it can all add up to hours lost.
I’ve placed a great deal of emphasis on eliminating noise over the last 5 years. I work, I spend time with family, and I run. That’s basically it. I have no other hobbies, no social activities, I don’t watch TV, and I gave up video games years ago when the twins were born. My scrolling on social media is already extremely limited (sorry for all the Facebook birthdays I’ve missed), but I plan on restricting that even more. It won’t be my main news source, a chat room, or a distraction.
That doesn’t mean those choices are best for everyone. They might be terrible for some. But there is significant value in deciding what’s personally meaningful and truly of value.
I’ll continue my own usual social media posts for those who are interested or genuinely get something from them, but also for me. Like this one, they’re often very useful to me for gathering and articulating my own thoughts.
I’ll more carefully consider the value that everything brings and weigh its cost against the pursuit of my goals, the support of a good cause, or just sitting and relaxing – being truly in the moment, disconnecting to recharge, and enjoying the day to day experiences of life.
Building on 2020
I think many people would like to forget 2020, but often our bad times can form a strongest foundation. Focusing on the bright side, I was extremely fortunate in 2020. My family and I are in good health, we welcomed a daughter into the world, the startup I’m at actually grew, and I’ve spent more time at home with my family than ever.
But other than those few big events, life has been rather monotonous. Every day is the same and it’s easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, something I think a lot of people probably relate to at the moment. No matter when we get back to normal, or whether we ever fully get there, I hope I can be more intentional about enjoying those day to day moments.
I love winter running. For me, one of the few places that can compete with the view from the top of a mountain is a forest blanketed in snow. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is not only my favorite poem, it’s probably the only one I actually know by heart. When I worked in Washington, D.C. my greatest respite was my commute home from work. Anyone who has dealt with a D.C. commute is probably pretty confused, but I didn’t take the constantly jammed beltway or the over-crowded and prone-to-catch-fire metro. I left my office in Dupont Circle and in just over 2 miles I hit the trails in Rock Creek Park, which would take me the remaining 12 miles home.
My favorite time of year for this wasn’t when it was sunny and 90+ Fahrenheit with 90% humidity. It was when I was in the dark and cold, and the air was calm and crisp. Snow was a bonus, with thousands of tiny crystals glimmering in my headlamp’s beam on the ground and in the trees. It was magical, and peaceful, and I felt as if I had the whole place to myself.
As great as winter running is, it of course has its dangers. I want to be clear: this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive set of winter safety recommendations. It has some suggestions to hopefully add to your comfort and your enjoyment of winter conditions. Before venturing out, always be sure you have the proper experience, knowledge, and gear, and that you’re aware of all conditions you *might* face. Not what you’re likely to face, but might face with even just a tiny probability. Gradually work your way up from short days out to longer adventures. Learn from problems others have encountered and don’t be an idiot like I was on a November hike in Yosemite back in 2013. This is even more true this winter with emergency services in most places already pushed beyond their limit from Covid. Here in the UK, any winter adventures currently shouldn’t be overnight or involve travel from home.
Nature isn’t the only danger
I also recognize that the scene I describe in the first paragraph is one that unfortunately many women don’t feel they can safely enjoy. If one of my daughters were old enough to go out for a run, I can’t say I would feel very good about her doing it in Rock Creek Park at night. Without launching into an entirely different topic that I’m severely unqualified to speak about, I’ll only add two more things to that. First, if you’re a guy please be aware of these issues and listen to and support the women who face them. Second, if you face these issues yourself, please consider carrying mace. Not just for bears. I’d love for my daughters to one day think it’s the cool thing to do if they go off running through the woods at night.
Emergency avoidance > emergency preparedness (but do both)
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, and don’t even read anything else, let it be this: mountain rescue is not a safety net or a security blanket! Be sure you let someone know where you’re going, and carry some sort of tracking and communication device, but otherwise when you plan, prepare, and venture out, pretend that mountain rescue doesn’t exist. Your mindset must be that you’re on your own – there will be no one coming to get you and if you get in trouble you need to always know the quickest route out and be able to keep yourself warm and safe at least through the night. Then if you do experience an emergency situation and someone is able to come get you back to safety then you can be pleasantly surprised and appropriately overcome with relief and gratitude.
Now moving on to the actual topic of the post: finding greater joy and comfort in winter running. And this isn’t just about comfort, it’s also about performance and injury prevention.
The most obvious discomfort in winter: it’s cold. I’ve long been a fan of the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just inappropriate clothing.” In the past couple of years I’ve found that that’s not necessarily true. It’s not the temperature that causes the unavoidable problems, though. It’s poor visibility, immobilizing wind, or sloppy underfoot conditions. Subzero temps (on either scale), or light precipitation and wind… those can all be addressed by wearing the right kit.
Core is key
I used to think that I was really susceptible to cold hands. I’ve collected quite the variety of gloves to attempt to remedy this problem. It turns out, the problem was usually that I wasn’t protecting my core enough. If it’s not sufficiently warm then the body essentially says, “abandon the extremities, protect the vital organs!” Moreover, it’s using extra energy in that attempt to fall back and defend the keep. Running along with a cold chest might feel manageable, maybe even nice, but if the chest starts to become unbearably cold then we’ve stopped talking about comfort and now we’re back to the issue of safety.
Second to the core are the legs. I used to overlook these entirely. I even had a saying I used for years – “tights are for the teens” (as in degrees, Fahrenheit). I would happily run around in bare legs in freezing temperatures. I reconsidered first at the behest of my coach, David Roche, who penned the article I linked above about performance and injury prevention in cold weather. It turns out, muscles don’t like being cold. And leg muscles, well, they’re kind of important when running. I’ll now start covering up my legs when temperatures are just above freezing, and just like protecting my core it also helps with overall warmth extending to my extremities.
But the other stuff is important too
Protecting the core doesn’t mean you can run around in freezing temperatures with bare hands. I used to go with the minimal choice that was bearable for gloves. Having available fingers that can manage zippers, open food packaging, etc. is important. I’ve always been a fan of lightweight gloves with built-in mitten covers like the La Sportiva Trail Gloves. Those are still my go-tos for “chilly” temperatures, but when things get really cold I’m less shy about moving up to heftier gloves. I’ve found that my hands are happier and more nimble if they’re warm and cozy throughout the run but really cold for a minute when I rip the gloves off to use my fingers, rather than being constantly a little cold in lighter weight gloves that I never need to remove. I’m still a huge fan of the flexibility provided by over-mittens, though. Mittens will always be much warmer than gloves of comparable weight.
Feet are often overlooked. As ultrarunners, we’re used to dealing with all sorts of strange things going on with our feet. The gradual onset of frostbite is not something that should be casually ignored or battled through because we’re super tough, or something. Wool socks are a must, and it might be necessary to get shoes that are a size or two bigger to allow for multiple layers of socks. If feet are stuffed into shoes without enough room for blood flow and a bit of toe wiggling then extra socks can do more harm than good. Gore tex shoes and waterproof socks are also great for extreme conditions, not because they’ll necessarily keep your feet dry in all conditions, but because if your feet do get wet they’ll provide a bit of a wetsuit-like effect to keep your feet warm.
One mistake that’s easy to make is to judge what’s needed in a race or long day out based on what’s been needed in training. In ultrarunning nearly everything is magnified in races, but this is especially the case for cold weather. Generally we aren’t moving nearly as fast in a big mountain 100K as we are in an hour long training run. The slower we move, the colder we get. And the longer we’re out, the more that matters and progresses from a slight inconvenience to a major problem. It’s also a much worse situation than getting hot. If you’re hot you can always slow down or even stop, or go lie in a cool mountain stream for a few minutes. If you’re cold, and you’re fatigued or dehydrated, the solutions to those problems are in direct conflict. This is again why if you’re headed out solo into the mountains you absolutely need to have enough gear to stay warm even if you’re forced to stop moving completely.
Zippers are a modern marvel
Saying “dress in layers” is probably the most trite thing I could say in this post (albeit very important and true) and there are tons of resources detailing how to do this properly. I’m going to expand that a bit and say dress in layers with zippers. Conditions can change quite quickly in winter in the mountains, and there can be substantial differences even between two spots 10 meters apart. A long steep climb in the sun and protected from the wind can leave you wondering why you’re not in shorts and a t-shirt. Then once on the ridgeline getting hit by the wind with snow underfoot and clouds coming in overhead it can suddenly be dangerously cold.
On my Grand Round this past summer, I faced Storm Ellen in Scotland at a time when my body was completely drained and no longer capable of regulating its own temperature. I ended up getting decked out in 10 layers up top. All but my base layer had a zipper, and on some climbs I would unzip all of them about 3/4 of the way. Once up top, they were all zipped back up. Even a lot of shell pants / trousers have zippers on the side that can be used like this for temporary ventilation.
Cold isn’t the worst enemy, wet is
Avoiding over-heating isn’t critical due to real-time comfort; it’s due to sweat that can come back to do real harm later. If base layers are wet when it gets cold again, it’s going to be extremely difficult to stay warm and again an uncomfortable situation can very quickly turn into a dangerous one with hypothermia a real possibility. This is also why having a shell is so important in any sort of wet conditions – even if it’s just clag that can slowly be absorbed by an exposed inner layer. A good shell (or two) can create its own nice dry and warm micro-climate (nano-climate maybe?) around your body. Don’t wait until you feel cold to worry about rain, sweat, or anything else that can get you wet. Stay dry at all costs!
Be prepared to abandon ship
Being able to recognize an unacceptable level of risk is important across pretty much all decisions we make. Risk is basically the probability that something can happen times how bad it would be. The “how bad could it be” part of the equation is high if solo in the mountains in winter. The probability of something going wrong can change quickly, and when it does we need to recognize it immediately and escape. During these outings I’m constantly considering changes to internal and external conditions and forcing myself to answer the question, “is it worth it?” in terms of the most up to date risk / reward profile.
Always know the quickest and best exit from every spot along the route. GPS devices and phones are great, but those aren’t 100% reliable. Have a map and compass and a familiarity with the map before heading out. And always have a headlamp (or two or three)! With the shorter days it doesn’t take much for a run to get extended beyond dusk, and getting stuck out there as the temperatures drop even further can quickly get dangerous.
In the brief window when Wales was open to visitors before the Covid curve started flattening against the wrong axis in December, I went to the mountains for some winter solo fun. I was having a great day out when I face-planted into a bog. I was completely soaked through from head to toe. My hair was wet, all my inner layers were wet, my pack was wet (which is why it’s a good idea to put spare layers in ziplock bags). I had nothing dry left. I continued along for a bit just fine, but as evening approached the temperatures began to drop and the wind picked up. Cold + wet is dangerous; cold + wet + wind is the absolute nightmare scenario. I knew the situation would only get worse, and pulled out my map to find the quickest way off the tops and back down to the road. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to finish my planned run that day, but it will be there another day and now so will I.
It’s not just about body warmth
Food and water are always important for mountain running, and in winter they can be much trickier to manage. Food can be difficult to open with gloves or cold hands, and can freeze and be difficult to eat. Calories are another ingredient to staying warm, though. One thing I like to do is take the next thing I’m going to eat and stick it up my shirt sleeve, like a little oven to warm it up before enjoying.
Water is even more difficult. Many of the usual sources could be dry or frozen. Always plan ahead where to refill, and consider whether something to break through the ice might be necessary. Sometimes giving a forceful (and careful) heel kick to the edge of the ice can do the trick. If in doubt, carry extra water to ensure you don’t run out between viable sources. We might not be sweating as much as summer, but the dry air causes a lot more water to be lost through the skin and mouth. And don’t eat snow! You can bottle it and let it melt first, but don’t eat it directly – that will cause further dehydration.
Bottles, particularly valves, can also freeze. Having a shell that fits over your vest can usually take care of the problem. Another solution for moderate freezing conditions is to put a wool sock over the top of the bottle. Bonus: emergency pair of socks (or gloves)! Also try to alternate sips between bottles to keep the valves from freezing solid.
I made this mistake myself on my most recent winter excursion: an attempted solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round. Everything was going great, and it was an absolutely beautiful day and incredible experience, but I over-estimated the availability of water and slowly became dehydrated to the point that I had to stop with just one short section left.
For my recent failed solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round, below is what I took. Note that I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
XOSKIN wool toe socks
Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
La Sportiva Radial Pant
La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
La Sportiva Race Overgloves
Generic knit Santa hat
La Sportiva Beta Beanie
Janji neck warmer
Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0
Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 with Adventure Pocket (I really like the additional easily accessible storage a waist belt can add)
COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
Bob Graham Round Harvey map
Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
Backup pocket compass
Phone with OS Maps loaded
OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
Petzl Actik Core
Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
Extra in pack
First aid kit
Dry XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
La Sportiva Rook long sleeve
La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket
La Sportiva Merak soft shell jacket
Blizzard 3 Layer Survival Blanket (bulkier, but highly recommended over a standard Sol Bivvy for solo outings in true winter conditions)
I did a lot of podcasts in 2020. I guess without many races there weren’t as many people to talk to or things to talk about. In the future, I won’t be doing as many. I enjoyed these, and greatly appreciate the opportunity to do them and the time the hosts put into them, but too much time doing podcasts = not enough time to properly prepare for doing the things the podcasts are about. My main 2021 goal is to cut back a bit to focus on the priorities and have time to enjoy life’s day to day moments.
Matt and Ellie Green with Summit Fever Media were out chasing both me and Damian around the Pennine Way, and did an incredible job putting together this documentary. It was a pleasure to work with them and see the passion and work they put into capturing the story.
The film is available on Vimeo (linked below) or Amazon video. The free trailer is on Youtube (also linked below). My full written report can be found here: A New Pennine Way Record.
When I was first approached about making a film on my 2nd attempt at my Grand Round project, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. What if I failed again? Or got injured and had to stop on the very first round? This was a personal project, something I was passionate about doing for the adventure and individual challenge. As Covid emerged and escalated, it wasn’t clear that I would be able to do it at all much less whether there would be any available support for a film. In the end, I’m incredibly glad we moved forward with it and that Phil and Jon from PH Balance Photography came out to capture and share the experience. They did a wonderful job and this is something I will always cherish looking back on.
I’ve had the draft of this post open on my computer for over a week, the relentless cadence of the blinking cursor mocking me as I sat here idle, unable to figure out how to even start. Do I start with a simple summary, repeating the same old statistics on distance and elevation? Or maybe I should wax philosophical on one of the many things I wrestled with or discovered on this journey. The literal journey itself – the incredible places and landscapes I got to explore… surely a remark on that would be a suitable start. And of course I would be horribly remiss to not lead with a mention of the amazing support I received throughout, without which none of this would have been possible.
The truth is, none of those things alone would sufficiently reflect the experience I had. In fact I’ll go ahead and say that I’m incapable of putting it all into words even with a full write-up. So I’ll skip the whole synopsis bit and get right to it, with everything included in due course. You can find a recap of each section over on my Instagram starting here if you would rather have a brief summary or don’t have time to sit down to the ensuing novella (this is the longest report I’ve written by a wide margin, and I’ve written some long stuff). If you’ve fully exhausted your Covid19 Netflix watchlist and are in for a full binge reading session, there’s also a prequel trilogy on why I decided to do this in the first place, how that first attempt turned out, and what was different going into this second attempt.
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?
I’ve gotta admit, I had no idea BBC Breakfast was such a big thing. Before the interview I thought it was going to be on the radio with one of the many regional BBC stations, not a nationally televised morning news show. I’m glad I managed to wake up in time for it after they moved it earlier at the last minute.
Update: Totally FKT, a film on the summer’s record breaking runs on the Pennine Way, is available on Vimeo (and also on Amazon Video).
I’ve made a bit of a habit of setting out to do things that I’m not sure are possible. Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record on the Pennine Way, England’s first national trail, fell squarely in that category – not just as something that I might not currently be capable of but as something that might not ever be within reach. I ended up besting his time by just 34 minutes, roughly equivalent to the ~30 seconds per hour margin I had when I finished Barkley.
Like nearly everyone, my 2020 plans were pretty well wrecked by Covid19. I’m still hoping to cram in a couple of big challenges, though. I’ll be chasing a Pennine Way FKT and giving another attempt at my Grand Round project, barely a month apart. As alluded to in my previous post, I’ll be raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust through these efforts.
Racism is evil and pervasive, deeply embedded in law and society. Black lives do matter, and things need to change. It should be that simple, and not any sort of political or controversial issue at all. On this, though, the already difficult task of discussing meaningful topics in social media “sound bites” has become an even more precarious endeavor. Long story short: I made a couple of lengthy posts that I put a significant amount of thought and effort into. Then, I had to hurriedly make a post on running and in an effort to cleverly switch topics for a moment I worded things poorly and failed pretty hard.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep up this blistering pace of one video per year but 2020 makes a massive 4 years straight. Here are some non-running ultrarunning things to think about. And some cows and a lawn mower in the background from the Kelly Farm where I’ve been now for over a month.
When Covid first really started escalating, with lockdowns, race cancellations, and other restrictions rapidly coming into place, I was at my family’s farm back in Tennessee just a few miles from Frozen Head. With Barkley canceled, I went out to Frozen Head for a “No Barkley Barkley” – 5 loops around the park, all on trail within daylight hours, completed within 60 hours. I wore flags on my pack for each of the countries that would have been represented at the race. Jim Matheny from WBIR came out to cover my finish and do a socially distanced interview afterwards for the segment below.
Something that I’ve struggled with a great deal is the balance between why I do the adventures I do, and the exposure of them. The two are often times at odds with each other, yet I obviously contribute to or at least enable that exposure myself (here I am, posting on my blog).
A large part of that relates to personal exposure, which I’ve posted about before. But with events like Barkley and The Spine Race, which are in part so incredible and challenging because of their remoteness and sense of isolation, the topic has broader implications. I’ve always viewed it as a bit of a double edged sword, but I’ve never really been able to convince myself which side of that sword is sharper.
The Spine Race was one of those rare experiences where I couldn’t have possibly imagined beforehand exactly what it would be like, but afterwards I couldn’t possibly imagine it any other way. Granted, I get to look at it through the rose-colored glasses of having achieved exactly what I set out to achieve. If I had come away with the win at some of my other recent races it assuredly would have shaped my recollection of the experience.
But as someone who analyzes data for a living, I’m quite practiced at forcing my own bias aside and looking at only the facts. The facts here are that this race is a truly unique adventure, well-organized with only the necessities organized, and with a group of people who care about every runner first to last being able to safely experience that adventure in full. Thank you to everyone who made that possible and who make the race what it is, from the other runners to the staff and safety teams and volunteers to the random people who showed up in the middle of the night to cheer, hand out food, or provide some brief company. Apologies if there was anyone along the route who didn’t get a more timely thank you and only saw me in “race-mode” or sleep-deprived zombie mode instead of my normal cheerful, chatty disposition. 😉
2019 had a lot of changes. I moved to a different country to build a team at a new company while switching to full-time ultrarunning and racing on completely unfamiliar terrain. There was some success for sure, and plenty of things to celebrate, but also a number of times I fell short. Any good year should have a combination of those, and the best ratio probably varies by person, but I can’t help but look at the year largely as a stepping stone, a scouting expedition before returning in full force. That could seem like a negative view, but I view it as quite optimistic: the best is yet to come.
I got a bit behind this year on posting podcasts and other interviews I did, so then I stopped trying entirely. I decided I’d try to pull together the ones I could find or remember and give a full run-down here. All of them hit a number of topics but the main focuses are Barkley and The Grand Round.
I’ve long known what it’s like to have a home field advantage. At Barkley, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. The first time I ran it I was shocked to see how shocked people were by the terrain. In ultrarunning just the mential stress caused by misaligned expectations can often present a large problem, let alone the lack of proper preparation. Running in the cold is fine. Running in the heat is fine. Running in one when you expect the other (or both in one day) is often disastrous.
And so when Jim Rutherford picked me up to head to the Cheviot Goat Race, I thought I had an idea of what the race would be like. It would be wet, there would be some bogs, but I mean, it couldn’t be much worse than Paddy Buckley on the Grand Round, right? I’ve dealt with that stuff before. It would be fine. And with work having been overwhelmingly busy leading into the race, I just hadn’t been able to prioritize giving it any more thought than that.
About a month ago I ran the Berlin Marathon just for the simple joy of running it. I’ve never been one to artificially manufacture joy, and there simply was none going into the New York City Marathon shortly after losing our dog. Doing something we love can not only be a conduit for joy, though, but also a weapon against pain and stress. So maybe the title of this should actually be “Running For Joy.” If we only do what makes us happy when we’re happy, well… chicken or egg? (speaking of which, half of this post ended up being about NYC food rather than the race 🤷♂️)
Sure, I shifted my goals a bit after a couple of weeks of poor training, sleeping, and eating, but sometimes we learn more and get greater meaning and satisfaction from a good result in poor conditions than from a great result in good conditions. My original plan for the race was to go for sub 2:30, the threshold that I’ve long considered a lifetime goal. Going into the race I adjusted that plan to sub 2:40. Coming away with a 2:35 was not only immensely satisfying but told me that when the timing is better I can definitely get that sub 2:30.
For years I’ve been meaning to make a list of my favorite desserts, mainly for documentation so that I don’t forget anything and I can one day come up with my own creations (“normal” ones… not necessarily along the lines of the KrispyBo). While stressing about the condition of our dog for a day, I finally put this together in an attempt to distract myself.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten things and that people out there know better versions of some of the things listed here (and different things entirely!). I would love to hear those, and I will try to continually update this. There are only a few things on this list that I will defend in a fight to the death. I’ll let you guess which ones those are. 😋
I don’t really process my thoughts all that well through
verbal conversations. Most of the time inside my own head works just fine. That’s
one reason I run – that’s thinkin’ time. But sometimes there’s too much to fit
I wrote these thoughts out the night after our dog died. I didn’t write them out for anyone but myself. I’m not interested in a conversation; I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathy or anything else; I would actually very much rather not talk about it beyond just leaving this here and letting it go so I can move on. But over the past few years many of the high points of my life have been quite visible. With sample bias being one of my greatest enemies as a data scientist it seems appropriate that balance be provided to that, especially given how social media tends to paint an idealized picture where people have perfect lives and nothing ever goes wrong.
Shortly after Kipchoge achieved his remarkable sub 2 run I shared a thought on Twitter that was not planned, fully formed, and I thought innocent enough (just the kind of things I thought Twitter should be good for).
It turns out that was a mistake, and most things said in only 280 characters can pretty much be taken whatever direction anyone wants.
I wasn’t planning on writing a race report for the Berlin Marathon, and really, I’m still not going to. Ok sort of, but the main topic of this post is my experience of a weekend where I was running with no competitive goal, no time target, just running for the pure joy of running and experiencing a new place. It’s such a seemingly simple thing, but remarkably important and incredibly easy to lose sight of no matter what level of competition we’re at.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Or Kellentry? Usexit? I don’t know, I’m not very good at this. I do know that I at least outlasted the other John Kelly in DC, but after five and a half years in the DC area (the longest I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home in TN), we’ll be moving on in April. That is, assuming our destination doesn’t implode on March 29. Sorry, 29 March (gotta get used to that).
If you don’t care about the why, or any other details, here’s the important info:
When are we moving? April
Where? Somewhere near Bristol, England
Is it permanent? No, temporary while I build out the development team at our company
Where to next? Not sure, but hopefully finally to a “permanent” spot where we can settle down and our kids can grow up, likely somewhere in the VA / NC / TN area
Are you going to run races in Europe? Dang sure better believe it
Why are you moving? Well, that’s what the rest of this post is for
If you understand both references in the title of this post, then your invitation to the triathlon sci-fi geeks club should already be in the mail. Next week we’ll be re-enacting the Battle of Endor with TT bikes. It’s totally safe. Completely. (but be sure to sign those waivers… you know, just in case).
This will be my last “last” triathlon post. There were just a few things left unsaid, and a few things worth repeating, that I wanted to put into a proper farewell post. I’ll start with what I will and won’t miss, and finish with why I actually left. And no these lists aren’t comprehensive, just some of the highlights.
Unlike other John Kellys in DC, I’m not afraid to put my name on an op ed. Granted this one is, or should be, much less controversial. With so many high profile issues, a lot of smaller but important things can slip through the cracks, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Everyone knows about national parks, and yes they’re incredible, but it’s really the smaller, more local things that most of us get to experience on a more regular basis and that more directly impact our lives. A lot of those are at risk without the renewal of the LWCF.
When a group contacted me to write a piece for my home state’s biggest newspaper to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired on September 30, I was thrilled with the opportunity to be able to use my voice for an important cause.
Update: The fund was permanently reauthorized on March 12, 2018!
Ironman Arizona was a fitting end to my time in competitive triathlon. It was a caricature really, of all my races to that point: an absolute disaster of a swim, a solid bike that held things together, and a great run. I had no concrete goals before the race; just to enjoy the experience of racing as a professional and go out with a good effort. Given the course, I assumed I would come away with a PR (which I did! by 26 seconds). Otherwise, though, this was more of a celebration than a competition for me – the cap to a long year and both my professional debut and finale.
Thank you to everyone who helped me pursue and achieve what I did in triathlon, whether tangibly or in spirit. It was a fun challenge and journey, but definitely not one without its difficulties. I’m looking forward to the next chapter, the next book really. But first, here’s the last chapter of this one (with maybe an epilogue to come).
My last post was one of the more serious ones I’ve ever done. You might expect me to say that this one is not… but I don’t mess around with my junk food. See, I try to eat healthy most of the time. My normal diet is pretty clean, I actually pay attention to which nutrients I need and get, and I almost never eat fast food or drink anything other than water. So when I do indulge, it had sure better be good. I ain’t wastin’ my junk food eating on junk.
With that said, there is always an exploration vs exploitation tradeoff. In my quest to find the best, there must be some experiments along the way. If that experiment doesn’t result in something absolutely superb, then I will never waste my time or calories on it again. Mediocrity doesn’t cut it. Only the best.
My actual job is as a data scientist, so of course I have a need to try to look at the numbers and try to quantify things. A lot of variables play into how much drafting helps in a triathlon, but we can still look at some general data to get a broad idea of its effect. Read more →
Kona was again an awesome experience overall: a great week before the race with Team EMJ, and a better week afterwards with Jessi. For the race itself, though, I’m honestly not 100% sure where to start. I made no secret that my goal was to return and make it on to the podium after falling just short in 2017, and that a year of training was focused on that. I managed a sub 9 hour finish, a time at Kona that I can be proud of by any measure, but I fell well short of the podium. I am incredibly fortunate to have even been able to pursue that goal, and oftentimes the pursuit of a goal can be more valuable and enjoyable than its achievement.
So I’ve had a lot of shifting and at times conflicting emotions since the race, and I’m not even sure that how I feel now is how I’ll feel next week. I don’t even know where this post is going to go exactly. I’m just going to transcribe my thoughts as best I can as they come to me. Some of those thoughts I’m going to compartmentalize into separate posts, though, as I want this post to be about my race itself rather than about larger issues within triathlon (Ironman specifically).
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a full year now since I raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona. After coming away 1 minute and 42 seconds short of the podium I decided to come back and give it another shot, focusing much more of my year on triathlon-specific training. I arrived back on the big island this week, knowing that even if I come up short again that I took the shot and will never have to wonder “what if.” I owe a huge thank you to the team that supported me getting back here – my wife Jessi above all, and then all of our great Team EMJ sponsors. Gear matters a lot when seconds count, and I’m very fortunate that I’ll also never have to wonder “what if I’d had better support.”
Ironman Mont-Tremblant was special for a number of reasons: the maple syrup, the poutine, the awesome course and scenery, the people, my actual race. But the best part by far was that for the first time my entire family was there. The twins are too young to be able to remember it later on, but it was still awesome to have them all here and for my kids to get to see me do that while I still can. So it’s equally important to point out what it took to make that possible: my wife wrangling a 4 year old and 1 year old twins at an Ironman that required off-site parking and a shuttle system. I’m thrilled with my own performance, but actually probably fewer people have pulled off what she did. I also owe a huge thank you to my teammates and their families who offered to help in so many ways.
As for my race, I am thrilled to have pulled out a sub 9 on a difficult course (and my new favorite course), an age group win, and top 10 overall including the pros. This was just a great event in a great area, made better by being with family and teammates. Thank you to all the great people I met here as well who gave such amazing support and made this such a friendly and exciting atmosphere. Next up, Kona!
The ITU Long Course World Championship was an unforgettable experience and I can’t thank enough my wife and family and others who made it possible for me to come to Denmark to represent the USA. Standing on top of the podium with an American flag is definitely one of my proudest sporting moments. Sure, it’s an amateur age group win, and I’m not exactly very fond of triathlon age groups, but I’m still going to enjoy that it’s a world championship and a gold medal (ok, probably a nickel alloy with a goldish colored plating on it, but, close enough).
Coming out on top of my age group by just 32 seconds still feels a bit surreal, and on reflection I think it gives me a bit of early closure on triathlon – I feel I can walk away at the end of the year without regret, satisfied with the goals I’ve accomplished. I owe an enormous thank you to my wife and other family and friends, including my Team EMJ teammates and the companies that work with us, any of which could have easily made the difference of 32 seconds.
So much focus goes into getting to the finish line of a race, but the real journey is usually getting to the start. IM Boulder was much earlier in the year than I’ve ever done an Ironman, but the support of my family and my teammates got me to that starting line. The years of accumulated training and experience kicked in for that final 140.6 mile stretch.
On an incredibly hot and at times downright miserable day, I was thrilled (and honestly, relieved) in a way that I’ve been for few other races to make it all the way to that finish line Adversity breeds achievement, and everyone who made it to the finish line that day should be proud of it.
I also managed to accomplish my main goal in doing an early season race: securing my Kona slot with an age group win and 2nd overall amateur finish.
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.
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 are 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. 😉 Thank you to James DeFilippi for loaning me his camera for the weekend.
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).