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.