The 2021 No Goal Goal – Learn to Love Life’s Little Moments

The 2021 No Goal Goal – Learn to Love Life’s Little Moments

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…”

You said till death. That includes ultrarunning and international moves, right? Right…? Photo: Swank Photo Studio

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.

Disconnect

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.

Left: Office attire in 2013. Right: 2019. Right photo: Jim Rutherford

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.

Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? No? Perfect. Photo: Grant Bischof

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 was trying to take a picture of my son running in front of me, so it’s not *quite* as bad as it looks…
Photo: Dan Reichmann, MCRRC

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.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some great sponsors in ultrarunning, who value my input not only on gear but on corporate values and broader impacts. This will be my 5th year with La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction. Photo: PH Balance Photography

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’ve used running as a means of escape for years now, but lately I’ve found it extremely rewarding to focus a few times a week on using it as a time to consciously relax and let my mind drift rather than continuing to think about noise and distractions from the day. Photo: PH Balance Photography

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.

I was still able to complete 3 of the 4 running goals I had before the pandemic struck (win The Spine, break the Pennine Way record, and complete The Grand Round). The 4th was canceled (Barkley), but I did manage 5 loops around Frozen Head. To hear more about those, here are some 2020 podcasts. A lot of podcasts.

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’m still not sure if this picture is cute or frightening, but this is what 2021 looks like for us. Photo: Natalie Stephens Photography
Winter Running Fun – Comfort in the Cold & Solitude

Winter Running Fun – Comfort in the Cold & Solitude

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.

I’m really not sure why I loved this spot so much, but I almost always stopped here just to enjoy a few minutes of being there.

Winter Safety

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.

Beautiful, but I was also 30+ miles from the nearest open road, hadn’t seen human footprints in days, a blizzard was approaching, and this was before GPS and satellite communication devices were within the budget of someone fresh out of grad school.
I recently had to abandon a mid winter solo unsupported Bob Graham due to dehydration.

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.

Fortunately the dozens of eyes often reflecting my headlamp in the woods were just deer. Just really creepy deer.

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.

These days are absolutely worth it, but things can change in an instant.

Winter Comfort

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.

Cold snowy and sunny? Sounds like a perfect day. Photo: Lisa Bergerud
Maybe actually a bit warmer, but much less pleasant. And nothing is going to help me see here.

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.

I’ve always loved the strategy of tying my outermost shell around my waist – easily accessible and saves a lot of pack space. Just be careful it’s out of the way for any glissading. Photo: Lisa Bergerud

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.

Over-mittens are also great as a temporary measure to warm hands back up. Like say, after a dip in a bog.

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.

Speed matters

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.

I would not have been smiling in these conditions running at a slower pace. As soon as I stopped, I was really cold. Photo: Ally Beaven

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.

The difference in temperature in and out of the sun can be remarkable, and is also important to remember for underfoot conditions. Areas that melted in the sun can quickly refreeze into treacherous ice.

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.

On the final descent of The Grand Round I was like a Russian nesting doll stripping off all my layers. Photo: PH Balance Photography

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!

The Spine Race can often be more about staying dry than staying warm. Photo: Steve Ashworth

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.

Who wouldn’t want to see the sun set behind Scafell Pike on a clear winter’s evening? The person who doesn’t have a light to get down with, that’s who.

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.

An incredible day out quickly turned bad, and I headed down early.

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.

Well, that’s unfortunate. Beautiful, but unfortunate.

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.

Without sufficient water, I wasn’t even able to enjoy all my leftover Christmas treats.

Example kit

My kit list from last year’s Spine Race can be found at the bottom of my race report.

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.

  • Feet
    • La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
    • XOSKIN wool toe socks
    • Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
  • Legs
    • XOSKIN tights
    • La Sportiva Radial Pant
    • La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
  • Core
    • XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
    • La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
    • La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
  • Hands
    • La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
    • La Sportiva Race Overgloves
  • Head
    • Generic knit Santa hat
    • La Sportiva Beta Beanie
    • Janji neck warmer
  • Pack
    • 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)
  • Navigation
    • COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
    • Bob Graham Round Harvey map
    • Baseplate compass
    • Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
    • Backup pocket compass
    • Phone with OS Maps loaded
    • OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
  • Lights
    • Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
    • Petzl Actik Core
    • Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
  • Extra in pack
    • First aid kit
    • Kahtoola microspikes
    • 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)
    • Small battery recharger
Still Seeking Grand Challenges

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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?

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The Hartley Slam

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 😋

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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.

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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).

John Kelly on Twitter

Don’t get me wrong, what @EliudKipchoge did was incredible and historic, but why draw the line where it was w/ external aids? Why not downhill with a tailwind? Or on a treadmill with a harness that gives extra recoil to each stride (oh, right, the Vaporflys already do that).

It turns out that was a mistake, and most things said in only 280 characters can pretty much be taken whatever direction anyone wants.

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Running With Joy

Running With Joy

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.

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Seeking Grand Challenges

Seeking Grand Challenges

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.

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Look How Tough I Am!

Look How Tough I Am!

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.

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2018 Recap, 2019 Goals

2018 Recap, 2019 Goals

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!

If you want the really quick overview you can always just head over to the schedule / results page.

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Kelly Family Brentrance

Kelly Family Brentrance

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
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So Long, and Thanks For All the Backpacks

So Long, and Thanks For All the Backpacks

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.

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Protecting Local Public Lands

Protecting Local Public Lands

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.

Op ed link: https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2018/12/12/land-and-water-conservation-fund-needs-congress-renew-now-opinion/2207625002/

The Evolution of the KrispyBo

The Evolution of the KrispyBo

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.

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Tour de Kona – Ironman’s drafting problem

Tour de Kona – Ironman’s drafting problem

Update: If you’re a triathlete and want to help do something about this problem to ensure that everyone gets a safe, fair race, please fill out Team EMJ’s survey.

Update #2: They’re actually doing something! Sometimes complaining works, or at least maybe helps a bit. 😉

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

Triathlon – The Final Chapter

Triathlon – The Final Chapter

After a compressed winter ultrarunning season, with 3 races (Lookout Mountain, Bandera, and TWOT), 2 FKTs (AT 4 State and SCAR), and 1 weekend as the Barkley Marathons utility man, it’s time to fully switch into triathlon mode. Well, now that I’ve also had a little fun with a transition race at the London Marathon.

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Can a Woman Finish Barkley?

Can a Woman Finish Barkley?

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.

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2015 Barkley Post Loop 3 Video

2015 Barkley Post Loop 3 Video

No. No I’m not running Barkley this year. Yes, I’ll be crewing (plus some other stuff). And yes, Gary is one person I’ll be crewing for. But there’s another Canadian that I actually committed to first. And no, it’s not *just* about the maple syrup. I’ve been waiting three years to be able to pay Jodi and Karine back for all the help they gave me in 2015 during my first attempt – before Barkley was widely known and before I had absolutely any idea whatsoever what I was doing. After Jamil and I completed a Fun Run, I crashed pretty hard. The people in this video feverishly trying to help me when I’m at my lowest of lows are my wife and dad, and then two people I had never even met before the race: Jodi and Karine. A lot like me last year, Jodi is a bit of an unknown, but anyone who knows Barkley history knows what he’s capable of. I’m looking forward to helping him reach that potential.

Video: Keith Knipling

2017 Recap, 2018 Goals

2017 Recap, 2018 Goals

2017 Recap

Onward! And upward? Or maybe sideways at least?

I don’t know that I’ll be able to top this one in 2018. Photo: Thomas Gathnam

As far as racing goes, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to top 2017. After working towards a number of goals for the past few years, they all seemed to converge at once. I raced at Kona (and had a pretty good race to boot). I started the year with my first overall win in any race of any form since Kindergarten (TWOT 100), and then I finished the year with another, actually getting to break the tape for the first time (Lookout Mountain 50 Miler).

Kona was a pretty incredible experience, even if the big crowds and hype isn’t really my scene.

TWOT was exactly my kind of scene: low key with a small group of great people. Photo: John Daniel

Two of my races ended up resulting in national championships (Miami Man Triathlon and Lookout Mountain 50 Miler). They’re really titles in name only, as I wasn’t actually competing against all the best in the nation, but maybe they can at least cover for those state titles I never could get in high school.

Despite a bike wreck and some clerical issues, the USAT Long Course National Championship was a great experience, and I came away as the top amateur and top American. Photo: Kristin Simpson

I had been aiming for this for two years, and after nearly getting derailed the week of the race I can’t think of a better way to have closed out the year. Photo: Jessi Kelly

Then of course there was Barkley. Barkley was my Super Bowl. My World Series, World Cup, green jacket, ok you get the idea. It had been my focus for years, and most other races I had done were merely training for Barkley. Finishing was an achievement for me that I really don’t know if I’ll ever surpass athletically.

Sometimes pictures really do speak 1,000 words, and this photo makes me feel my experience more than anything I could ever say. Photo: Alexis Berg

More than that, though, the journey to finishing Barkley taught me invaluable lessons that extend well past the bounds of athletic achievements that are admittedly somewhat arbitrary and in the big picture rather inconsequential. I came away a stronger, smarter, and better person from the experience (which would have been true even without the finish), and that ability to take on and reach goals with seemingly assured failure will apply to pursuits in all areas of my life.

Forgetting pants and working in a bike kit and dress shirt on the first day your new cohort of interns starts might seem like an inevitable failure, but we pulled through on that one and had a great summer. Photo: Michael Brett

In addition to the unbelievable support I received from my wife and family, I was also fortunate to become more a part of the ultrarunning community: some of the most supportive, giving, and fun people there are. I’ve made incredible friendships with people who have done amazing things, and essentially everyone I’ve met is someone I would enjoy hanging out with.

People like this are what makes ultrarunning even better than the mountains and forests alone. Photo: Kendra Miller

I was able to find a similar group of people with Team Every Man Jack, and enjoy the benefits of teammates who truly want everyone to achieve the best result they’re capable of. In the meantime I got to learn, oftentimes the hard way, how to navigate the world of social media and sponsorships.

Looking forward to another great year of racing with these guys. Photo: Talbot Cox

2017 Results

Date Race Place Time
Dec 16, 2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler 1 7:27
Nov 12, 2017 Long Course National Championship 2 4:23
Oct 14, 2017 Kona Ironman World Championship 60 9:13
Sep 10, 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship 99 4:25
Jul 23, 2017 Ironman Lake Placid 18 9:25
Jun 18, 2017 Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 5 4:45
May 21, 2017 Columbia Triathlon
Apr 1, 2017 Barkley Marathons 1 59:30
Feb 10, 2017 TWOT 100 1 26:35 (CR)

 

2018 Goals

So where does that leave me for 2018? That’s a good question. I’m down in San Antonio right now, with my first race of the year tomorrow at Bandera 100K. I’m honestly just here to get a Western States and Spartathlon qualifier, and don’t really have any intention of doing much more at this one. Even if I did, there a good number of people here a good deal faster than me (men and women) and I hear there are zero briar patches or hills so steep you can reach straight forward and touch them where I can make up ground on those people.

I will be back at TWOT 100 in February, with the goal of lowering my course record to sub 24 hours. It’s a pretty big stretch goal, but it’s one I’m excited about and right there in my zone of difficulty that will keep me motivated. And it also has those steep hills I need. And I’m out of prize apple butter.

Need more apple butter. Photo: Antoinette Landragin

I’d also like to go for a few fastest known times this winter, possibly the Maryland 4 State Challenge and/or the Benton MacKaye Trail. Those will be pretty dependent on weather, family plans, and work, though.

In April I’m doing the London Marathon, which will actually be my first marathon not dressed in costume in nearly four years. I’m excited to see what I can do now, but at the same time I’m not going to build my training around that.

The last time I ran a serious, standalone marathon was the 2014 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. Photo: Gary Kelly

Then, my final season of competitive triathlon begins. After this year, I’m going to ultras full time. There are a lot of ultra goals I have that would happen during what has been my triathlon season. I also feel like there won’t be much left for me to pursue in terms of goals in triathlon, at least not enough to get me to keep subjecting myself to swimming. Doing different triathlons doesn’t excite me the same way that doing different ultras does. The races just don’t, and can’t, have the same level of uniqueness.

Ironman Lake Placid was an awesome, scenic course. But for me it still can’t approach the beauty of the trails. Photo: Patrick Kelly

With this being my last year of triathlon, though, I want to make sure I come out of it knowing that I reached my potential, and being completely satisfied with the efforts I put in to it. So throughout these next few months I’m going to try to do something that I haven’t done the past few years: continue to work on my bike and swim.

I’ve already joined a Masters swimming group, and have continued to do my bike commutes the last couple of months. Last year I was 2 minutes off my age group podium at Kona, after coming out of the water in 854th place. Originally I only planned on doing Kona that once, but now the goal is to go back one more time and see what I can do if I learn how to swim and strengthen my bike a bit.

Hopefully I can make it back here and next time only a few hundred or so of these people will come out of the water ahead of me. Photo: Talbot Cox

I’ll be going for an early season Kona Qualifier at IM Boulder at the beginning of June, a time at which in years past I would have only recently gotten back in the pool and on the bike after dedicating the winter to Barkley training. If I don’t qualify at Boulder I’ll probably take one more shot at a later season race.

In the middle of the season I have the awesome opportunity to go represent Team USA at the amateur Long Course World Championships in Denmark. I’m pretty excited about putting on the Team USA kit and seeing what I can do.

Then after Kona (if I make it there), I might do one final “victory lap” in triathlon by grabbing my pro card and racing as a pro at one last race. It’s one of those things that would be cool to look back on when I’m 85, and I don’t want to be disappointed at having the opportunity and not ever taking it.

Then, then I burn my goggles and wetsuit. Ok no, I’ll probably at least sell the wetsuit. And I might do a recreational triathlon here and there in the future, but I’m definitely never training for the swim again. Maybe I’ll do an occasional competitive duathlon (if I can find one that’s long enough) as I do enjoy biking and feel like I can keep up my fitness there without it adversely affecting my ultra training.

Unless I’m here to play Marco Polo or Sharks and Minnows with my kids, in about 10 months I’m done with you pool.

But otherwise, it will be all ultras all the time. I’m already excited about some of the ideas I have for 2019. A lot can happen in a year, though, and who even knows where I’ll be at the time. So for now, those will just remain as ideas lurking in the back of my mind.

Good luck to everyone with your 2018 goals! Reach far, don’t be afraid of failure, and enjoy the experience not just the outcome. Even if 2018 race goals aren’t reached, the pursuit of them should leave you better from it come 2019, and that should be the main goal above all.

As for me, I truly might not be able to top my personal 2017 outcomes, but I can guarantee at least two things: 1) I will continue to push my boundaries and never regress in terms of challenges and continuous improvement, and 2) I will seek to help others reach their goals, as the sum of outcomes across many will always be able to exceed anyone’s individual outcomes.

Current Confirmed 2018 Schedule

Date Race
Jan 6, 2018 Bandera 100K
Feb 17, 2018 TWOT 100M
Apr 22, 2018 London Marathon
May 19, 2018 General Smallwood Triathlon
Jun 10, 2018 Ironman Boulder
Jun 24, 2018 Columbia Triathlon
Jul 14, 2018 ITU Long Course World Championship

 

Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K

Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K

While the elite road runners of the world were at the New York City Marathon, and a lot of ultra runners were recovering from races like Javelina Jundred and Pinhoti 100, I ran a local 5K! The real performance of the day came from my 3 year old son, though, who crushed the one mile fun run. I originally signed up for the 5K because it was right after that and I thought, why not have my own fun run (by the normal definition, not the Barkley definition)?

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Publicity, Sponsorships, and the Social Media Quagmire

Publicity, Sponsorships, and the Social Media Quagmire

Update: Thanks everyone for the great feedback, whether here or somewhere else! Please continue to provide it at any time. There are a couple of things I wanted to mention that arose from that feedback. 1) In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, any social media post I make specifically for a sponsor or any recommendation I make for a sponsor’s product will be hashtagged with #sponsoredpost. Sometimes I might still tag a sponsor on an otherwise normal post, but the litmus test will be me asking myself (and honestly answering) “would I have made this post if it weren’t for a sponsor relationship?” 2) I’m of course open to supporting great causes. If anyone has one in mind please feel free to message me.

Let me start this post with this: I have no idea what I’m doing. I majored in electrical and computer engineering, the one thing at NC State where they required us to take both a public speaking and a writing class because they thoroughly expected us to be completely socially inept and incapable of basic communication. So I lack authority on this topic almost to the point of it being comical that I’m writing about it, but I have learned quite a bit and put a good deal of thought into this over the past year or so. I wanted to pass along those thoughts and my experience. Hopefully it might be useful for anyone in a similar situation, or even interesting for anyone who is not. Discussion, feedback, comments, advice, etc. are all welcome and appreciated.

I’ve actually been meaning to make this post for quite some time, but wanted to be sure I could put real thought into it. The usual priorities (family, work, training… sometimes sleeping), and of course making the very posts that I’m going to discuss in this post, didn’t leave time for doing that. In the meantime, I’ve seen other perspectives on this topic covering a wide spectrum (Bobby Geronimo’s scathing post and Dakota Jones’ satirical take both come to mind).

This post isn’t about what other people are doing, though; it’s not my place to say what other people should or shouldn’t be doing. One of the people I’ve looked up to and admired for years is Jared Campbell, who I think has a rather minimalist approach to social media and publicity. I also have a great deal of respect for Jamil Coury, one of the people mentioned in Bobby Geronimo’s post. He has an immense love for the sport, is living that out daily, and a lot of people get inspiration from that. I also of course owe him a great deal myself for two loops of navigation at my initial Barkley attempt in 2015.

But again, this isn’t about other people. This post is just about the path that I’ve taken, for now, and how I ended up on it. At times I feel like the punk band that signed with a record label, but so far I don’t regret where I am.

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The Goldilocks Difficulty

The Goldilocks Difficulty

A couple of weeks ago I posted Failing with Purpose. I had some great feedback, questions, and discussion from that, and have been meaning to post a follow up for a while now. So here it is, finally. Also related: Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K, Look How Tough I Am!.

The main question that arose out of the previous post was, “what is just the right amount of difficulty?” I advocated for setting stretch goals where failure is a likely outcome. I still believe that more benefit can be realized by falling short of a stretch goal than by overachieving on an easy one, but just sending yourself on fool’s errands isn’t very productive. There’s a tl;dr at the bottom of the post if you’d rather skip to the bullet point version.

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Failing with Purpose

Failing with Purpose

Note: This post generated some great discussion, which led to The Goldilocks Difficulty as a follow-up post. Also related: Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K, Look How Tough I Am!.

Background

This isn’t a Western States post, but it’s one that it inspired. This also steals almost entirely from a talk I gave a couple of months back for my high school’s honors night (if you really want to see the video, it’s at the bottom). I hadn’t planned on posting it, but with some of the discussion I’ve seen this week I felt like I should.

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2016 Recap, 2017 Goals

2016 Recap, 2017 Goals

My results have steadily improved since my Boston Qualifier at the 2014 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon, honestly far beyond what I originally thought I would be able to do. In 2016 I became 1 of 16 people to ever make it to the 5th loop at the Barkley Marathons, set a Guinness World Record for fastest marathon dressed as a videogame character, and finished 2nd overall at Ironman Maryland. This year I’ll be returning to Barkley and in triathlon I’ll be making a trip to Kona to race in the Ironman World Championship as part of Team Every Man Jack.

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Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass

This is a story from 2013 about how to make a bunch of bad decisions to put yourself in a pretty bad situation in the backcountry, but then I like to think it’s also a story about how to get back out of that bad situation. I was at that dangerous point where I knew enough to think that I knew what I was doing, but was not experienced enough to know how much I still had to learn. Bottom line: the wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place (as I hope it always will be) and Mother Nature is unsympathetic and dangerous. Don’t be an idiot, and before you venture out into that wilderness make sure you have the proper experience, preparation, and planning for all scenarios you could face. Then, have fun and enjoy the awe-inspiring landscapes and the incredible wildlife that we get to share them with.

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