I don’t feel like there’s a lot to say about my Tor Des Geants race itself, but the outcome is something that I think is worth sharing. It could happen to anyone doing these things and people need to be more aware of it.
The race is a 200+ mile lap around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps with around 110K feet of ascent, and this was my first time putting on an actual race bib since the Spine in January 2020. It’s the most beautiful course I’ve been on, has amazing local support, and the start/finish of Courmayeur has pizza and gelato around every corner. The Aosta Valley also isn’t just special for the mountains, or the food, but also the people. I cannot thank my Aostan crew enough for their support of a complete stranger who didn’t even speak their language, especially to Marlène Jorrioz who took on the role of crew chief. As with Wainwrights and Pennine Way, I’ll be sending them each a tiny token of appreciation through Trees Not Tees.
This is by far the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post on one of my adventures. It’s now nearly five months since my attempt at the Wainwrights. I don’t know that I have a lot to add beyond what I initially posted on social media, and a lot of this is copy/paste from that, but I at least wanted to collect it all here in one place if for nothing more than my own future reference (and planning 😉).
The Wainwrights are a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District described in the seven books that make up Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere around 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee this year in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes. It was also completed this year by Chris Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours fully unsupported (alone, carrying absolutely everything needed to finish from the start except water from natural sources).
I thought long and hard about that title. Ok it just came to me. I think I owe Rob Pope, one of my support runners, for the Star Wars theme inspiration. I wasn’t sure though if Damian and I were episodes I – III or IV – VI (Return of the Tennessean?). In any case I suppose Mike Cudahy and Mike Hartley were the original episodes and the only dark side here has been stomach ulcers and weather.
But since this is the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post for one of my runs, I should probably stop with the Star Wars digression and get to it.
Not so fast my friend
I doubt anyone in the UK will get the Lee Corso reference, but up front I wanted to clarify my final thoughts on the never-ending “record” vs. “FKT” debate. To be honest, I don’t really care. If the person hearing the term knows what it means, and the person using it doesn’t mean to offend, then I don’t care. Like when I slip up here and say “no pickles please” instead of “no gherkins” people generally just pause for a second, smile, and then get on with it. To me this one is like the relationship between squares and rectangles. All squares (records) are rectangles (FKTs) but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square. There are many routes where things haven’t been diligently recorded over the years, and the best that can be said is that something is literally the fastest *known* time. On the Pennine Way, and many of the established routes in the UK that are rich with history and tradition, things have been recorded and record is an entirely appropriate label. So generally I try to respect that tradition and use record when referring to the Pennine Way, but I couldn’t care less which term others choose to use.
A long brewing plan
It might seem that I returned to the Pennine Way just to attempt to reclaim the record. In all honesty, I knew I would likely return before I even finished my own run last year, sometime just before breaking Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record and 8 days before Damian Hall then broke mine. There are certain goals that take on extra meaning, where it’s not just can I do it but how well can I do it. They become benchmarks, for me and for others who seek the same challenge in the future. After some major gut issues last year I felt there was much more I could do.
But of course the record was added motivation. I had the usual competitive drive but also admittedly a simmering frustration from endless jokes after anything I did about how Damian was going to come do it better a week later. They were just harmless jokes, ones which I could have ignored, but instead I deliberately chose to let them grow into a little motivational chip on my shoulder. Damian is a great friend, person, and runner, but we’re also competitors. Every comment was a little poke in my side, and I had a picture from last year above my computer monitor as a reminder to get out for my run on those dreary winter days.
This year I decided to go north to south as Damian and Mike had done, getting the Cheviots & Cross Fell out of the way early. I also made a smarter schedule that would allow me to attack and pick up time in the middle portion of the run, I took steps to prevent a recurrence of my gut issues from last time, and my fitness was probably the best it’s ever been thanks to David Roche, the mutual coach of both me and Damian (but I had him first, kind of like the Pennine Way record 😂).
I arrived in Kirk Yetholm on Thursday evening with Nicki Lygo, my crew chief, full-time road support, and all-around Pennine Way guru. I had a full day to relax and prepare after the long trip. Friday evening we were joined by Jen Scotney, had an inspirational viewing of Totally FKT, and I went down for what I can only describe as a night of “could’ve been worse” sleep.
Conditions on Saturday were nearly perfect as I filled my belly with Scottish porridge and then started out from Kirk Yetholm with Jasmin Paris and Graham Nash at 9 AM on the biggest climb of the route, all the way up to The Cheviot. Last year the little out & back to the summit had seemed endless – at night in terrible weather at the end of the run. In Totally FKT you can hear me vent a bit of bleeped frustration as I slap the trig point on the summit. This time it was over before I knew it, & we made quick work of the entire Cheviots section. I even got to see some Cheviot goats, which had never made an appearance for me on all my previous trips up there. The only real setback was a bog attempting to steal my shoe – sucking it off my foot, my gaiter trying in vain to pull it out before its connector broke and the shoe snapped back down into the muck. It would have been fascinating to watch in slow motion.
My plan had been to go out slower than Damian, and not overtake him until a bit past 100 miles. But we had taken advantage of the good conditions and I was ahead. I felt good about the pace, but still the doubts crept in. Coming out of Byrness, led by Martin Wilson and Ed Hyland, places in my legs were already starting to hurt and feel a bit tight. Was this normal? I’ve done these things so many times yet that part always catches me off guard. I have over 200 miles to go, surely everything should still feel great? Oh, right, I’ve already run 50 miles on tough terrain. Yeah, I guess things are just gonna hurt. I was at least in a much better spot than Martin was used to seeing me in – he had joined me last year on the Pennine Way and my Grand Round during my absolute lowest of lows on each.
With Bill Johnson and Jayson Cavill joining for sections, we made our way through the boggy forests north of Hadrian’s Wall, had a nice run along the wall, and arrived at Greenhead where I took a seat for the first time. I was a bit over 11:12 and 64 miles into the run, about 40 minutes ahead of Damian’s pace and over an hour ahead of where I had planned to be at that point. Weather conditions had been great, but underfoot conditions were definitely a bit messier than I had hoped.
Tim Wiggins led us flawlessly through the quagmire known as Blenkinsopp Common while Graham Thomas tried to keep me fed and focused as night fell. The section between Blenkinsopp Common and Alston has a bit of a reputation as many people’s least favorite part of the whole route. For me, it reminds me of the fields I run around in Somerset. It’s like I’ve been training for that section ever since I moved to the UK. At Garrigill I had a seat again. This part had been planned – I wanted to get some significant calories in before the long climb over Cross Fell, and Sharon Dyson had prepared a nice buffet headlined by a burger.
I layered on extra clothes and set off with James Elson and Andy Blackett. I knew that the trek up The Corpse Road to Greg’s Hut would just be long mindless climbing, something I’ve discovered is one of my bigger strengths (thanks Rat Jaw!). I’ve still yet to be on Cross Fell in the day, or without clag, but this was the least bad conditions I’ve had up there. The wind wasn’t even bad. Coming down the other side into Dufton I hit 100 miles almost right at 19 hours as the new day arrived.
In my plan, this section is where I would take the record. I saw an opportunity over this stretch to gain a significant amount of time where both Damian and I had slowed down last year. I was over an hour ahead of my 58 hour 14 minute plan, but I had no intention this year of being content with a buffer. I was not just out to break a record; I was out to set one at the outer edge of my limits. There was also still plenty of time for disaster – bad weather, sleep issues, stomach problems – when at the edge for that long it doesn’t take very much at all to fall off.
So I stuck to the plan. The Cheviots and Cross Fell were already out of the way, and I was on my way home. I headed up High Cup Nick led by Tom Middleton and flanked by Julian Jamison, who I think is the first person outside my family who ever crewed me (2016 Barkley) and who happened to move from DC to the UK at about the same time as us. After a wet and slightly precarious descent next to Cauldron Snout and a scramble across the boulders alongside the River Tees, Mel Steventon joined to finish bringing us along the long flat path into Middleton (no relation to Tom 😉). We made good time, and as planned added a nice buffer on the record pace, but this is one section that I didn’t enjoy as much going north to south. The waterfalls along the River Tees and High Cup Nick are some of my favorite parts of the route, and the view in this direction wasn’t as enjoyable or lasting.
Last year I was in the depths of my ulcer-induced crisis at Middleton – wasting a good chunk of time attempting to nap, eat, and do everything I could to reset my body. This time I briefly had a seat, got some food down, and moved along. I set out with John Parkin and Elaine Bisson for the push to Tan Hill Inn. I considered Tan Hill to nearly be the midway point (in terms of time) going this direction, and if I could get there in good shape then I felt pretty confident that I could make it the rest of the way in time. Sabrina Verjee and Ben Turner joined for a solid pick-me-up at what is probably my least favorite part of the route: Sleightholme Moor. When I first encountered this section it was during the Spine Race in the middle of Storm Brendan. I felt like I was wading down a river, complete with an occasional stake in the ground acting as a buoy to keep me in the main channel, I mean path. Fortunately conditions were a bit better this time around, but altogether avoiding the mud and bogs was impossible.
Oftentimes in these things I feel a bit like I’m a baton and all the support is doing the actual work. At Tan Hill Inn I was handed off to Darren Moore, Matthew Beresford, and Matt Neale (with Zepp the Collie!): all a regular sight supporting people’s big adventures. Howard Dracup and Carmine De Grandis also joined as we pushed on to Thwaite and up Great Shunner Fell, the highest point remaining. We flew down the other side with sub 8 minute miles, which at that point felt like accelerating down the first big drop on a roller coaster. It was a nice smooth runnable descent, the kind you have to take advantage of. We arrived in Hardraw, 153 miles in, in under 31 hours. Last year, heading the other direction and just over 100 miles in, I was already starting to have issues and took my first nap. This year I still hadn’t slept and I moved on without sitting down.
Sam Booth, who would help get me through nearly half the remaining miles, led the way out while Forrest Gump afficionado and podcast host extraordinaire Rob Pope lifted my spirits with his Tennessee socks and seemingly endless positive energy. It would be needed, as the trek up from Hawes to the Cam High Road and down into Horton was the first really tough stretch I had. Sure, things hurt before that, and there had been difficult parts, but this was the first time I *really* struggled. The weather got rough, with rain and wind picking up before turning to hail. I tried to move faster to stay warm, but I was suddenly having significant pain in my feet.
At Horton I changed shoes. I had been in Jackals up to that point but I decided to switch into an oversized pair of Akasha with a special gel insole that I keep around to try to deal with foot swelling and pain that can occur this far into something. I was also glad to start the climb up Pen-y-ghent and give my feet a break from the pounding of the previous few miles. Martin Stone and Ross Jenkin (who just completed his amazing Big 4 at 40 challenge) joined us for the climb as a beautiful sunset provided our backdrop and rainbows shot up ahead of us.
I felt renewed, and we continued on over Fountains Fell, the last real climb until the home stretch. We arrived at Malham Tarn, 181 miles in, at 37 hours and 28 minutes. The plan had worked. Since Dufton I had been methodically chipping away at the record time, about 10 minutes at each checkpoint. I started the day at Dufton about an hour ahead and by the time I reached Malham Tarn I was 4 hours up with about 80 miles to go.
Weather so far had been not awful relative to some of what I’m used to. Underfoot conditions weren’t great, with plenty of muddy and boggy sections, and there were the stretches of heavy rain and hail, but most of the bad weather fell into the category of what I would call extremely annoying and uncomfortable but not limiting. This weather affects what most people likely will do, but not what they can do. Importantly, there had not been the strong southerly headwind I had feared.
But at that point I also hadn’t slept. Damian had already gotten a nap or two by then. Like a racecar driver deciding to get new tires early, those naps can pay dividends over that critical 2nd night when sleep deprivation really starts to be a major factor.
It wasn’t long after leaving Malham Tarn, where I had joked about an afternoon finish (sub 56 hours), that the sleep monsters began to attack. I felt myself drifting as we made our way through the precarious rocky terrain of Malham Cove, then began to stumble and stagger through the fields that largely make up the section between the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District.
For the remainder of the run James Ritchie and Suzy Whatmough would be swapping out alongside me, with Jim Graham providing additional road support. James and Suzy previously had the opposite of Martin Wilson’s experience with me: always seeing me early on before I decayed into the miserable wreck they were now witnessing.
By the time we reached Gargrave, I had decided to give in to a nap. I got some food down and requested 20 minutes. After 10 I woke up with throbbing legs and a shivering torso. Instead of getting a move on I spent another 20-30 minutes trying to warm up, my support crew bring me hot bags of water to shove in my jacket. I largely regret warming up there rather than trying to by moving on, but who knows. If I hadn’t have had that time to reset a bit then maybe I would have crashed and burned shortly after.
The stop did undoubtedly refresh me. My pace picked up and I was more energetic and alert. But the question is always whether it’s enough of a pick-up to make up for the time stopped – in this case needing a minute / mile faster for 45 miles to break even. Mark Rochester and Ben Cliff led me through the rest of the night, which I would describe in more detail if I remembered it in more detail. Just before dawn I stopped for one more nap, a much more efficient 10 minutes in Cowling just past the 200 mile mark at 43 hours.
The remainder of the run was constant highs and lows – often swinging back and forth by the minute. There were stretches where I felt like I was flying, followed shortly by me wondering what I was doing and questioning the life choices that had led me to do it. The climb up Stoodley Pike felt endless, but I was spurred on by another fount of seemingly endless positive energy: Danny Bent. With Danny singing and Dave Beales leading, we made our way to the White House pub.
Another band of heavy storms rolled in, and I knew I was in trouble when people started handing me my full waterproofs and good Gore-Tex layers. But, few things keep you awake better than hail in your face. My stomach also began to shut down. On the move I was relying nearly completely on my 8 month old daughter’s baby food squeeze pouches. At support points I was stopping just a bit to get in rice pudding and pot noodle.
The final stretch was a bit of a daze. My anchor leg support runners were Jamie Rutherford and Marcus Scotney, with Simon Bennett providing reinforcements through a storm going over Black Hill. On Bleaklow my mind had just enough bandwidth to fixate on and follow Marcus’s bright yellow shoes. I had slipped into that state where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was real or a dream, just that I was still controlling my actions.
I followed those shiny shoes past Kinder Downfall, over Kinder Scout, down Jacob’s Ladder, and through the fields leading down to The Old Nags Head pub in Edale. I turned the last corner, went through the last gate, and released my final reserves of adrenaline to cruise down to the finish where my family was waiting. I didn’t specifically plan the timing this way, but for the entire run I had the motivation of knowing that if I ran fast enough I’d finish at a reasonable hour and they would be there. 58 hours, 4 minutes, 53 seconds, for ~3.5 hours off the record and a finish just past 7 PM – even the pub’s kitchen was still open.
A collective record
Any record like this is a collective achievement, built on the efforts and imagination of the past, competition and support of the present, and the desire to leave a mark for the future. I would not have had the courage to go for sub 60 hours without Damian’s incredible run. I hope my record also drives someone to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have thought possible and that at some point in the future the time is lowered again. There is still time that can come off of it now, and in the future further improvements to the trail and to gear will leave people with advantages over us similar to what Damian and I had over earlier efforts.
Then of course nothing like this would be possible without incredible support. My wife Jessi is an absolute rock, supporting me and four kids during these adventures, my coach David Roche has gotten my fitness to a place I didn’t know existed for me, and my returning crew chief Nicki Lygo has selflessly given so much to my and other Pennine Way efforts and also helped me work out some of my gut issues. Jen Scotney and Sharon Dyson were also flawless road support throughout, and I had a small army of amazing support runners and a number of others who unexpectedly contributed valuable support along the way.
But could it have been faster?
At the outset I mentioned that my main goal was to see how well I could do it, to put down a time on this route that truly reflected my capabilities. I feel I did that this time. I’m not only thrilled with the outcome, I’m content with my performance. But of course that still didn’t keep me from analyzing it and picking everything apart. So, time to geek out a bit.
For something this long, a 58:04 finish pretty much nailed my 58:14 schedule (the schedule I shared on the OpenTracking page was slowed down to be just fast enough to beat the record). And, it was pretty consistent with the 57:59 schedule I originally made last year (which is the schedule David referenced in a Trail Runner Magazine article).
My basic approach for creating schedules for these types of challenges is to:
Map out the route with some nominal average level of effort applied to it (or better, find the data for an actual run on the route, like, say, maybe Damian’s run from last year 😉)
Upload it to Strava and let it calculate the GAP (grade adjusted pace)
Create an ideal curve with a smooth decay of my GAP, based on previous experience and top performances for similar lengths of time on a track (where there are many fewer variables to contend with)
Reverse Strava’s pace to GAP conversion from step 2 and apply it to my ideal GAP curve from step 3 to get my “ideal” split for each mile
Of course the process above isn’t perfect, and for routes like the Pennine Way in particular it’s problematic because GAP can’t account for underfoot conditions and weather, but in general it works pretty well for me and over distances this long the law of large numbers comes into play and errors mostly average out. And most importantly, I haven’t yet come up with a better method.
The chart above shows a few things. First, why my plan revolved around the middle section. The moving average of Damian’s pace (green line) had a significant uptick from around mile 85 to around mile 210. That’s where I felt I had the most to gain, and I would need to capitalize on that opportunity to hold on during Damian’s big surge over the final 20 miles.
Second, my actual pace (black line) was really close to my plan (dotted red line). At the beginning when conditions were good I was moving a bit faster (but still following the same trend). At the end, when conditions got bad and I just wanted to go to bed, I slipped a bit. The end result was finishing 10 minutes ahead of schedule after over 58 hours.
Lamb Hill Refuge Hut
Road after Padon Hill
Bellingham (Spine CP)
A689 west of Lambley
Middleton in Teesdale
Tan Hill Inn
Horton in Ribblesdale
Thornton In Craven
A58 White House pub
A57 Snake Pass
From the start to Greenhead I built up a buffer of a bit over an hour on my schedule, maintained that buffer until the stop at Gargrave (between Airton and Thornton In Craven), but then only got behind schedule a few times, the most being 12 minutes at Kinder Downfall.
But generally my schedules, while tending to err on the ambitious side, are for average conditions and reasonable allowances for breaks. Going back and looking over my data on Strava, I had about 2 hours total time stopped with 1.5 hours of that coming in the last ~70 miles starting with the 45 minute Gargrave stop.
So that sounds like a lot, but the question is always whether the benefit outweighs the time stopped. Coming into Gargrave I had dropped to ~13 min GAP (grade adjusted pace) and then coming out I was around 11:30 GAP. So I needed to retain that benefit for ~30 miles to make up for the stop at Gargrave. And who knows, if I hadn’t have had a bit of a reset there maybe I would have gone over the edge and irrecoverably imploded.
This all leads to the question: what could be done under ideal conditions? No mild hypothermia at Gargrave, less stopping, less mud, and better weather. If everything went perfectly, I think I could do ~56 hours. But the probability that things that went wrong would go right is now less than the probability that things that went right would go wrong. Part of the beauty of these challenges is that there are always marginal gains – perfection is nearly impossible.
And someone might decide to have a crack at it (I hope one day they do!) who is better than me – better fitness, better mentally, and better prepared. The Pennine Way might also keep getting more flagstones until the whole thing doesn’t have a single step in mud. Then we can again refer back to some of the best performances on the track for similar amounts of time. The American record for 48 hours on a track is ~11 minutes per mile, which is about 48 seconds better than my GAP, which translates to about 55 seconds better pace, which would give a time of 54:20. Increase the pace a bit due to the slightly longer duration, then decrease it a bit due to people who are better than the current American record, and we’ll call it even. I reference the American record just because that’s what I have the data for, and because expanding to the world record would include a certain seemingly untouchable outlier from Greece who would really skew the numbers here.
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Not much changed on my gear compared to last year. For shoes, I was in the La Sportiva Jackal up until I switched to my intentionally oversized Akasha in Horton. Both the Jackal and Akasha did very well and were well-suited for that terrain and distance. The Akasha has long been my general purpose go-to shoe for long distances, only starting to get pushed aside a bit when the Jackal was released last year.
I again wore a pair of XOSKIN toe socks with a pair of their non-toe socks over top. They were soaking wet for nearly the entire time, but never once did I even remove them. No blisters, no foot issues at all. This is a strategy that has been working for me for years now. As important as it is to avoid foot issues at these distances, I have no plans to change a thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I also had an XOSKIN long sleeve top on nearly the entire way, and a pair of their new XOUNDERWEAR liner briefs. No chafeage anywhere.
My feet were also no doubt helped by my Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, which stayed in place (despite one having front hook broken by a bog early on) and kept the dirt and grit from the bogs out of my shoes. I don’t see gaiters in the UK nearly as often as in the US, probably because there’s less sizable debris (rocks, sticks, etc.), but over that distance keeping even the small grit out is important. I also wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends. I used Ultimate Direction FK Poles, first just on the steeper sections and then more liberally near the end.
At night I used my lightweight and reliable Petzl Actik Core, which was perfect for these situations where I have frequent road support and support runners guiding the way. If solo, with tougher navigation, or needing light for longer stretches on a single battery, I would normally use a Petzl NAO+.
The periodic deluges required a bit of a rotation between my La Sportiva Run Jacket and Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket + Pants (trousers). For the worst of it, my crew threw my La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket at me, which is actually designed as a skimo jacket. It’s a great lightweight waterproof that provides a lot more protection than most running waterproofs (which are designed to be the bare minimum to meet most races’ kit requirements).
I used a COROS Vertix, which has proven to be an outstanding watch. I originally decided to try one because of its battery life, but its interface and other features have also been great for what I do. The navigation now includes waypoints, and it was quite nice to know how far (and how much climbing) before the next checkpoint. I did just have a bit of an issue at the beginning due to me trying to load my original full GPX route into it, which had over twice as many datapoints as most handheld GPS devices can handle. So I’ll remember to downsample those a bit in the future. It did need to be charged once along the way.
Nutrition required some changes from last year. It’s not that what I ate last year caused my stomach problems; that wasn’t the issue at all. But I found in training leading up to it that I had a bit of PTSD of the stomach (not at all trying to make light of actual PTSD, but I can think of no other way to aptly describe it). Like if you eat something and then get sick later, the thought of eating that food can make you queasy in the future even if it’s not what actually caused you to get sick. In my long training runs even the thought of pulling some of my previously tried and true foods out of my pack would make my stomach tighten up.
So I had quite the spread for this, with far more options than I would ever eat. I ate pretty well throughout, aiming for 250 – 300 calories an hour, although I do feel I started to get a bit light on calories over the final stretch. That’s one reason I stopped more often was to try to get some food down.
When I was packing things up my son pointed at something and said, “Dad, is that healthy food?” I kind of laughed and said that no, nothing here was healthy. But for endurance events of this length, these are the important criteria for food, in order:
Food that you’ll eat
Food that won’t keep you from eating later (i.e. won’t give you GI issues)
Food that won’t get squished or fall apart in a running vest
Food that has the optimal nutrient profile and will be converted to energy and absorbed in the scientifically proven quickest and most efficient way
As much as we’re all sold on #4, that doesn’t matter at all if it’s something that doesn’t meet criteria 1 and 2. And really, I think those same criteria apply outside of running as well. Except for #3. It’s hard enough to not be able to take ice cream on a run; I would never want to impose that rule on every day life.
My coach is big on recovery and time to adapt to big stimuli, so I had a week off. The usual recovery nemesis, DOMS, wasn’t that bad. Honestly I’ve had worse from marathons (running hard on asphalt for 26.2 miles hurts!). But edema / water retention always leaves my legs swollen like tree trunks for a week or so.
Systemic exhaustion and lack of energy are bad for ~1 week. Sudden “attacks” where gravity seems to increase by 10X, mentally it feels like I’ve been hit by a train, and there’s no choice but to lie down.
Sleep deprivation: I can’t just go sleep 30 hours. Clawing back sleep debt is gradual over 2+ weeks. I don’t sleep well the 1st night with the adrenaline, aching muscles, etc. Plus, life. I have a job and a family. A huge reason why this is my first blog post since January is that for me running is in addition to all those normal parts of life; a week after I posted about doing less in 2021 a lot happened that left me no choice but to do less in other areas. Life has its own highs and lows just like an ultra does.
Hunger. For 3-4 days my stomach instantly incinerates anything tossed into it. Day 1 by 2 PM I had eaten everything in the fridge that was supposed to feed our entire family for dinner. I also often get cotton mouth & tongue ulcers from multi-days. So I largely stick to soft foods (treacle pudding and ice cream in the pub at the finish, and of course a nice southern breakfast complete with sweet tea).
The “post-race blues.” These things really wreak havoc on hormones, plus even if successful there’s the mental shift of no longer having *the goal* – as if it had been pulling me forward but someone just cut the rope. It takes a while to mentally refocus.
By about 10 days later I had started easing back into running, feeling fairly normal and going about life as usual. I even finally got my first Covid vaccination two days after finishing (my coach’s response to whether that would be ok: “Generally the 1st dose has some mild inflammation, which for you right now is like throwing a cup of water in the ocean”).
At that point my sights were set on the next challenge, and part of the delay in getting this post finished was due to getting plans together for that.
The Full English
Last year I put together two big back to back adventures (The Pennine Way and The Grand Round) and called it The Hartley Slam in recognition of Mike Hartley’s incredible feats that helped pave the way for those and so many other big running challenges in the UK. Those challenges took me across Wales, England, and Scotland. This year, except for those first few miles of the Pennine Way in the Scottish Borders, I’m sticking to England for “The Full English.”
In mid July I’ll be setting off for an attempt at the Wainwrights, a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere above 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee recently in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes.
I’ve been planning this for close to a year now, and Sabrina has been unbelievably supportive throughout – not just in a “cool that sounds great” sort of way, but in going out of her way to actively support me and provide me with the information and guidance needed to have a good attempt. It’s likely she’ll be out there guiding me around on sections and has offered their house as a stop for a shower and nap if the timing is right. Yes, I also carried her stuff around for a few legs of one of her attempts, but between learning the route and getting a good final training stimulus before the Pennine Way that benefitted me as much as it did her. I should also note that I’m not the first to go after the Wainwrights and the Pennine Way in the same year. Sabrina did that already too, last year.
On one hand I’ve been blown away by her support, but on the other it simply exemplifies the fell running community I’ve gotten to be a part of while living here. I’ve also learned a great deal on the Wainwrights from Carol Morgan. For someone like me who doesn’t have the chance to make it to the Lakes very often, challenges like these would be impossible without others paving the way. There have been quite a few Wainwrights runs over the past year, some in pretty brutal conditions, and a recent unsupported completion (no help, no resupplies, starting with absolutely everything needed to finish except water from natural sources) by Christopher Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours.
As part of this challenge, I’ve decided to set up a fundraiser for Action Medical Research. I would have set this up before the Pennine Way, but going back to the whole lack of time thing, I never got around to it. The charity has been very supportive in helping me set things up, though. I’m thrilled to be working with them and to be able to contribute to their mission. Even the smallest donation helps, and while a far less important reason to donate it will also give me a nice boost through those inevitable lows when I’m wandering around the Lake District wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that one of my great passions is kids who have the cards stacked against them. Last year with the Hartley Slam I supported Blueprint for All (formerly Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust). They’re doing amazing work and I will continue to personally support them, but in doing these fundraisers I believe it’s as much about raising awareness and the follow-on benefits as it is the direct immediate donations. I hope in highlighting a few different charities that more people will see one that really resonates with them and drives them to be actively engaged and supportive indefinitely. It’s the whole give someone a fish vs. teach them to fish thing. I was actually made aware of Action Medical Research myself through Rod Tredgett and Raring to Row, a four person team rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Action Medical Research is another charity that fully resonates with me. While Blueprint for All helps young people who are socially or economically at a disadvantage, Action Medical Research helps kids who are medically at a disadvantage. They are the the leading UK-wide charity saving and changing children’s lives through medical research. They also remind me a bit of one of my favorite charities back in the US (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) and they contribute to a cause that’s near and dear to Nicki Lygo: ending Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I hope everyone can find a good cause that they’re as passionate about as Nicki is about this. For all her work supporting people like me and Damian on our crazy challenges, Nicki more than deserves some support herself.
Pennine Way podcasts
Well, as usual, what I thought would be a quick post largely copy / pasted from what I had already posted on social media turned into a rather lengthy endeavor. But if you still haven’t quite gotten enough of the Pennine Way, below are some podcasts I did after my run. I’ve made it one of my goals this year to do far fewer podcasts, taking the time to focus on other things (including the things that cause people to ask me to do podcasts in the first place). But the ones below are with people I always enjoy having a chat with, and who I know will ask the good questions.
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.
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.
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. 😉
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.
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.
You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometimes well you might find You get what you need
We’ve all at some point or another had those lyrics stuck in our head, and we’ve all probably had a number of situations where they were quite appropriate. I think a key word that really gets overlooked, though, is try. You don’t just sit there and have what you need fall into your lap.
Even by my standards this is really, really late for a race report. But that is in no way a commentary itself on the race, I’ve just been a bit busy with the whole moving to another country thing. It was an extremely well organized event with a great community and a challenging course that I came away from with quite a few lessons. Thank you to Rob Goyen, Trail Racing Over Texas, and the volunteers who put this race together, and also to Gina Fioroni, John Sharp, and Jaime Aparicio, my impromptu crew who turned out to be invaluable when things didn’t exactly go as I planned.
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. – John Wooden
This year my return to Barkley was a much different experience for me, but one that may have taught me as much as any of my previous three trips there. I witnessed some amazing performances in some unbelievable conditions, and had the honor of crewing for two of those athletes. Sometimes it’s not the completion of a goal itself, but the experience and the lessons learned in pursuing it that are the most valuable. Seeing close up the attitude and perspective that Jodi and Karine, Gary and Linda, and others had this weekend in the face of the tough conditions and the resulting “failure” was a true privilege, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me.
The weekend allowed me to see things from an entirely new perspective, experience what my own amazing support system has gone through the past few years, and reflect on how some incredible people handled adverse conditions and outcomes that were far from their goals. Thank you so much to Jodi and Gary for inviting me to be a part of it.
If you just want to find out what happened to Gary’s headlamps, click here.
Or if you’d rather just see the footage I grabbed while out there, head over to Youtube (thank you to James DeFilippi for the camera for the weekend).
I’ve put together some on-course footage, pictures, and commentary from my time crewing and acting as a random course checkpoint at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. The video and audio quality is pretty horrible, but this is what I got so it’s this or nothing. And maybe grainy, noisy footage is appropriate for “on-course” Barkley coverage.
The SCAR was a tough challenge, but one that I enjoyed every minute of. I came away from it with a whole new appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains, and barely snagged the unsupported fastest known time. The run traverses the length of the national park on the Appalachian Trail, a 72 mile stretch with close to 18K feet of gain and loss. Most of it is right along the border of the two states that mean the most to me: Tennessee, where I was born and raised along with 6 generations of Kellys before me, and North Carolina, where I went to college, met my wife, and where her family calls home.
I also once again owe her a huge thank you for dropping me off in the middle of nowhere before proceeding on her own the remaining 1.5 hours to my parents house with all 3 kids late at night. On the other end of the run David Abraham, part of my extended family, was incredibly kind in driving out and waiting around in the middle of nowhere for me to show up a bit later than anticipated. And without the awesome community of trail runners in the area I probably wouldn’t have even known about the SCAR, much less known enough to attempt it.
TWOT 100 was a great weekend retreat to the mountains, somehow relaxing yet at the same time one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I came in just under the wire (23:48) for a goal that I honestly had serious doubts about being able to do: almost entirely self-supported sub 24 on 112 miles of mostly rough trail with 30K ft of climbing. Congrats to John Fegyveresi and the other runners I got to share the experience with (and who had to deal with much worse conditions than me), and a huge thank you to RD Antoinette Landragin, founder and true legend Dennis “The Animal” Herr, and the volunteers for making an event like this possible. And of course my wife for making an event like that possible for me to do by taking on the kids solo this time for a couple of nights.
I was fortunate to have perfect weather in January and great company for my fastest known time attempt on the AT 4 State Challenge, the section of the Appalachian Trail that starts at the Pennsylvania border and travels through Maryland and West Virginia to the Virginia border. It was a beautiful stretch of trail with a rich heritage and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a day of running. Conrad Laskowski and Chris Roberts joined me for the day and while I hope they enjoyed it just as much, I owe them a huge thanks for coming out and providing the company, the support, and of course for making the logistics of getting back to the start afterwards easier. And as always, I owe my wife Jessi a huge thanks for providing the support back home for letting me get out for the day to try these crazy things in the first place. At the end I ended up with a new FKT in 6:39:51 and a new appreciation for some of the terrain I have in my own backyard.
Between the terrain, the landscape, the distance, and the travel, Bandera 100K was a pretty unique experience for me. I was incredibly fortunate to have John Sharp there to support me, and it was great to meet some new folks outside of the southeastern ultrarunning bubble that I’ve mostly lived in to this point. In the end, I was pretty happy with my result. I didn’t run the smartest race or stick to the plan as well as I should have, but I held on for top 10 and met my primary goals: getting a qualifier for Western States and for Spartathlon. One of these days, though, I’m going to figure out how to not go out too fast and how to not let myself get dehydrated. Maybe. At least mostly. Where’s the fun, though, if there aren’t a few hitches in the plan?
Lookout Mountain would be a great addition to anyone’s 50 miler list. The event and the course really typify what I love about trail and ultrarunning. It’s a great, low-key community of people putting on a well-organized race on a course with incredible trails and views. And it’s great knowing that the proceeds from the race are going back towards those trails. Thank you to Wild Trails and all the volunteers for such a great event.
I was thrilled to come away with the win against great competition. It turns out the race was also the RRCA Ultra National Championship, which is a pretty cool bonus (although let’s be real there are plenty of people in the country who can handily beat me in a 50 miler).
I also learned some great lessons, the biggest being to stop worrying about the details and just run! I caught a stomach bug the day before the race and absolutely none of my “all-important” pre-race preparations that I usually worry so much about went right. Sure, some of that stuff matters a little and given the choice I’d rather have it be right, but in the end, the cumulative training and experience built up through time and hard work are vastly more important than the final 24 hours. The issues before the race forced me to run one of the smartest races I’ve ever run and I may have actually ended off better from it.
I was done with Barkley posts, but this is one that I told quite a few people I would make and hopefully it will answer a number of the questions I’ve received. After this, though, I’m done for real. If you’d like to revisit anything else related to the 2017 Barkley you can find it at the Barkley Archive.
This post is meant to give a small glimpse into my Barkley strategy, gear, and nutrition choices this year. Parts of this might seem like plugs for my partners, but there’s a reason I work with these companies. They make great products that I’ve found are the best for me. If they weren’t, then I’d work with someone else and you’d see them here instead.
My cousin Joe has been a tremendous support over the course of my 3 years running Barkley. After this year, he wrote his own report and I thought I’d share a perspective of the race from someone there crewing and spectating. The crew put in an enormous amount of work themselves to be out there, take care of everything I need between loops, get back and forth between the camp and the fire tower, and to wait, wait, and wait around some more in the same weather conditions the runners have to deal with. I added the photos, but the words are Joe’s. Thank you again to friends, family, and the incredible work of Josh Patton Designs and Howie Stern Photography for the photos.
For three years I obsessively chased my white whale through the very Tennessee mountains where I grew up. In 2015 I failed after 3 loops, a harsh introduction to Barkley where I had been doomed by a poor nutrition strategy. In 2016 I failed just after starting the 5th loop, done in by navigational errors that led to sleep deprivation. Those taught me valuables lessons, though, and I came into this year’s race more prepared, with a better mindset, and with the same incredible support from my wife, family, and friends, as well as some outstanding companies (Hammer Nutrition, Ultimate Direction, Every Man Jack, Chopt).
I’m hoping to get to my full race report in the next week, but I wanted to go ahead and get a quick recap and some thoughts out. The past few days have been pretty crazy, and it’s still kind of hard to believe. I owe a huge thank you to my family, awesome crew, and companies that supported me. I needed all of their incredible support and commitment to get me to that gate a 5th time. Having 30 minutes might seem like a nice cushion, but just 8 minutes more per transition, or just 30 seconds more per book, and I would’ve been over.
I originally signed up for The Wild Oak Trail (TWOT) 100 as practice for Barkley. As I learned more about the race, though, I became quite excited about it in its own right. While I stuck to my original plan of using it primarily as part of Barkley training, that excitement was justified. It was a really fun race that’s actually about 112 miles with 30K ft of climbing on a gorgeous trail in Virginia. I met some great people, had no major problems during the race, and came away with a new course record.
A huge thanks goes to Antoinette Landragin and the volunteers that made this exactly the kind of race I love: low key but well organized and on some great trail with great people. Also thank you to Antoinette and John Daniel for the pictures.
Hellgate was an awesome race, and actually my first “normal” ultra over the 50 mile mark. It was a bit colder than I’d hoped for, but otherwise was a great night (and morning) in beautiful mountains and a chance to meet some more incredible people in the ultrarunning community. This is a race that I’ll definitely be back to at some point, and can definitely see it as being one of the primary races I focus on in the future.
As always the community and race organizers were to thank for making the race so enjoyable; without that I’d probably just stick to trail running on my own and wouldn’t do these things. Thank you in particular to Scott Livingston for some pictures from the race, as I actually didn’t get any myself. And of course without my wife’s support and her making it possible for me to shirk dad duties for a day, I wouldn’t be able to do these things at all.
JFK 50 is America’s oldest ultra, local for me, and it was on my birthday this year… how could I not sign up? It was also my first big, well-known ultra and a great opportunity to get out there and knock the rust off of my trail running legs after my triathlon season ended in October. I enjoyed the race, it turned out to be a beautiful day (at least while I was on the course), and for the cherry on top I got to share the experience with my dad while he was in town.
I ended up in 8th, something I didn’t think I had a shot at given the conditions, and Jim Walmsley broke the record in a 54 year old race by over 13 minutes.
A Chinese version of this race report translated by Larson Zhang can be viewed here.
I arrived at Frozen Head two days before the race with a great deal of optimism. The weather looked perfect, I had trained well, and I knew that a solid group of veterans would be there including Jared Campbell. I also felt great about course navigation. I could visualize in my head the route to almost every book. The descent to book 2 was a little hazy for me, but I would assuredly still be with a group during that portion on the first loop. Otherwise I felt I could lead or go it alone if necessary, something I was never quite confident enough to do the previous year. I wanted 5 loops, and I felt good about my chances.
In the weeks leading up to the Barkley I eagerly anticipated the start of the race, but at the same time I had not been so nervous about something in years. The Barkley was more than just a race to me; it was personal. I grew up across the street from the course at the bottom of Chimney Top. My family had been on that land next to their namesake Kelly Mountain for 200 years. Those mountains are in my blood, and they were about to get a chance to reclaim some of it. Just as my background gave me enormous motivation, though, it also gave me trepidation. I could handle my own likely failure, but I was the home team and I wanted to represent the community well.