Bog Wars Episode III – Sweet Teavenge on the Pennine Way

Bog Wars Episode III – Sweet Teavenge on the Pennine Way

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.

Y’all, I’m too tired to care what you call it. Photo: Nicki Lygo, after The Spine Race.

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.

Stuck to my wall: Mike Hartley, Damian, and myself after Damian’s record breaking run last year. Original photo: Nicki Lygo

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 😂).

Day 1

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.

I am not a morning person. Step 1 before 9 AM is figuring out how to put my shoes on. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

And let’s start the clock: how long until my feet are soaked and covered in mud? Photo: Jen Scotney
There aren’t many stretches with nice flagstones laid down like this, but there were even fewer back when Mike Hartley did it. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

This seems like about the right pace for 260 miles. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Hooray, bogs. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
I’ll never not be fascinated by the whole running along a wall built by the Roman Empire thing. The sheep seem impressed too. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Or walking along it because, well, those hills are steep. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Mandatory Sycamore Gap shot. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

My normal high calorie / savory food item is pizza. I feel like I owe this to the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle video games, where you’d grab a pizza and it would restore your life. Photo: Jen Scotney

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.

Day 2

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.

This is one part that going up is much more fun than going down. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Surprise! There’s more mud! Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

I think this might be the largest group I had been in since before Covid. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
This seems fine. Surely nothing will hurt in a little while from this descent. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Steve takes good pictures. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
It’s not a round; I don’t technically have to touch the summit marker. But it’s still oh so satisfying. Photo: Sam Booth
All downhill from here. Right? Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Day 3

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.

I’m not sleepy, you’re sleepy. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Ok, maybe I’m sleepy. Photo: Jen Scotney

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.

It’s a shame I had the label turned the wrong way here… surely I could’ve gotten a Sprite endorsement out of this. Photo: Jen Scotney

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.

I don’t recall running here. I remember it more as a slow motion uphill trudge. Photo: Dave Beales

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.

Alright this is getting way too complicated. Do I drink the stuff in here? I think I’m supposed to eat from this other thing? What do I do with the shiny pointy thing? And there’s some sort of covering we’re putting over the hurty things that I’m trying to run with? Photo: Jen Scotney
Hooray, rain. And hail. And bogs. The Pennine Way trifecta! (could use more wind though) Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Silver lining of everything already being wet? No need to find a dry crossing. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
It might not be possible to outrun the weather, but sometimes it is possible to climb above it. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Follow the shiny shoes. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Approaching Snake Pass. Video: Colin Green
Last support point at Snake Pass. Video: Colin Green
Or maybe I really did dream this last bit and none of what I’m saying here actually happened. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

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.

Pretty sure I didn’t dream this part. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Video: Colin Green
Video: Nicki Lygo

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.

I think this was the first big event since 2017 Barkley where my family was able to be at the finish. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
My impeccable road crew.
And my support runners (most pictures taken by Nicki Lygo, collage put together by Dave Beales)

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:

  1. 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 😉)
  2. Upload it to Strava and let it calculate the GAP (grade adjusted pace)
  3. 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)
  4. 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.

Moving averages by mile for actual, target, and Damian’s paces, plus the “ideal” GAP

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.

StopScheduled TimeActual TimeDH Time
Kirk Yetholm0:000:000:00
The Cheviot1:581:461:42
Lamb Hill Refuge Hut3:363:113:19
Byrness5:114:364:57
Road after Padon Hill6:455:596:26
Bellingham (Spine CP)8:057:037:47
Ladyhill9:288:269:17
Steele Rigg11:009:4810:41
Greenhead12:2011:1211:56
A689 west of Lambley13:5112:3313:26
Slaggyford14:4713:3214:22
Alston YHA16:0514:4615:37
Garrigill16:5315:3116:25
Cross Fell18:4017:2718:12
Dufton20:2219:0620:01
Cauldron Snout22:2321:1022:28
Middleton in Teesdale24:4323:3325:02
Blackton Lodge26:1425:0526:43
Tan Hill Inn28:3727:3129:21
Thwaite30:1429:1131:04
Hardraw32:1330:5333:11
Kidhow Gate33:5332:3335:17
Horton in Ribblesdale35:4034:2737:13
Pen-y-ghent36:3135:2238:11
Malham Tarn38:5137:2841:24
Airton39:5938:4542:45
Thornton In Craven41:4941:2445:07
Cowling43:3443:1447:02
Ponden Reservoir44:4644:5048:16
Widdop Rd46:1345:5649:43
A646 Charlestown47:2947:1151:00
A58 White House pub49:2148:5952:46
Standedge51:0150:4454:29
A635 Wessenden52:1752:0055:56
Torside54:1254:0158:13
A57 Snake Pass55:4555:4959:47
Kinder Downfall56:4756:5960:37
Edale58:1458:0461:34
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.

My GAP by mile (no moving average applied in this one). The stops can be seen here as spikes, with the big one at Gargrave, followed by the shorter nap at Cowling and then a possible chair nap at Widdop Rd. Otherwise, stops seemingly were held to < 5 minutes each but they were more frequent near the end.

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.

Gear

Note: I do have relationships with many of these companies. These can be found on my Partners page, along with some discount codes and affiliate links. If you consider purchasing anything I would greatly appreciate those links being used – if I’m lucky it might even provide enough to cover the costs of hosting this website.

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

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:

  1. Food that you’ll eat
  2. Food that won’t keep you from eating later (i.e. won’t give you GI issues)
  3. Food that won’t get squished or fall apart in a running vest
  4. 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.

The stash. There are over 100K calories pictured here.

Recovery

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).

Damian sent me this mug after my run, an incredibly thoughtful gift. And one from which I’ve only enjoyed “proper” tea. Promise. 😉

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.

Sabrina tagging a summit on an attempt back in April, a day before the weather turned into January.

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.

2020 Podcasts and Interviews

2020 Podcasts and Interviews

I did a lot of podcasts in 2020. I guess without many races there weren’t as many people to talk to or things to talk about. In the future, I won’t be doing as many. I enjoyed these, and greatly appreciate the opportunity to do them and the time the hosts put into them, but too much time doing podcasts = not enough time to properly prepare for doing the things the podcasts are about. My main 2021 goal is to cut back a bit to focus on the priorities and have time to enjoy life’s day to day moments.

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Totally FKT – Breaking the Pennine Way Record

Matt and Ellie Green with Summit Fever Media were out chasing both me and Damian around the Pennine Way, and did an incredible job putting together this documentary. It was a pleasure to work with them and see the passion and work they put into capturing the story.

The film is available on Vimeo (linked below) or Amazon video. The free trailer is on Youtube (also linked below). My full written report can be found here: A New Pennine Way Record.

Full film on Vimeo

Trailer:

The Grand Round Documentary

When I was first approached about making a film on my 2nd attempt at my Grand Round project, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. What if I failed again? Or got injured and had to stop on the very first round? This was a personal project, something I was passionate about doing for the adventure and individual challenge. As Covid emerged and escalated, it wasn’t clear that I would be able to do it at all much less whether there would be any available support for a film. In the end, I’m incredibly glad we moved forward with it and that Phil and Jon from PH Balance Photography came out to capture and share the experience. They did a wonderful job and this is something I will always cherish looking back on.

My full report on the adventure can be found here: The Grand Round 2.0.

Still Seeking Grand Challenges

Still Seeking Grand Challenges

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

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A New Pennine Way Record

A New Pennine Way Record

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.

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The Hartley Slam

The Hartley Slam

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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The No Barkley Barkley

When Covid first really started escalating, with lockdowns, race cancellations, and other restrictions rapidly coming into place, I was at my family’s farm back in Tennessee just a few miles from Frozen Head. With Barkley canceled, I went out to Frozen Head for a “No Barkley Barkley” – 5 loops around the park, all on trail within daylight hours, completed within 60 hours. I wore flags on my pack for each of the countries that would have been represented at the race. Jim Matheny from WBIR came out to cover my finish and do a socially distanced interview afterwards for the segment below.

2020 The Spine Race

2020 The Spine Race

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. 😉

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2019 Recap, 2020 Goals

2019 Recap, 2020 Goals

2019 had a lot of changes. I moved to a different country to build a team at a new company while switching to full-time ultrarunning and racing on completely unfamiliar terrain. There was some success for sure, and plenty of things to celebrate, but also a number of times I fell short. Any good year should have a combination of those, and the best ratio probably varies by person, but I can’t help but look at the year largely as a stepping stone, a scouting expedition before returning in full force. That could seem like a negative view, but I view it as quite optimistic: the best is yet to come.

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2019 Cheviot Goat Ultra

2019 Cheviot Goat Ultra

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.

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2019 Ronda dels Cims, A Mountain Too Far

2019 Ronda dels Cims, A Mountain Too Far

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).

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2019 Lavaredo 120K, or How I Took My First Helicopter Ride

2019 Lavaredo 120K, or How I Took My First Helicopter Ride

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.

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The Grand Round – A Fun Run

The Grand Round – A Fun Run

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.

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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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2019 Barkley Marathons

2019 Barkley Marathons

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.

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2019 Barkley Marathons Training

2019 Barkley Marathons Training

Training for Barkley is a bit of a conundrum as it is. There are so many variables involved in the race that it is impossible to optimize training for all of them. This year I had a couple more wrinkles thrown in: I was getting ready for a big move and trying to somewhat hide the fact that I was doing Barkley. At the same time, though, I had the benefit of more experience and more confidence under my belt, and a much different mindset approaching the race.

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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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2019 Franklins 200 Miler

2019 Franklins 200 Miler

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.

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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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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/

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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Barkley 2018 race footage

Some on-course footage, pictures, and commentary from my time crewing and acting as a random course checkpoint at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. The video and audio quality are pretty horrible, but this is what I got so it’s this or nothing. And maybe grainy, noisy footage is appropriate for “on-course” Barkley coverage. 😉 Thank you to James DeFilippi for loaning me his camera for the weekend.

2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

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).

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2018 Barkley Race Footage

2018 Barkley Race Footage

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.  

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La Barkley sans pitie

La Barkley sans pitie

This one was nearly a year in the making, starting with the incredible photos that Alexis Berg & Aurélien Delfosse took at the 2017 Barkley Marathons and then adding interviews with me, Gary, and laz. The editing and production here is incredible, and the result is a 20 minute film with portions that get me to relive the experience more than anything else I’ve seen to this point. (English with French subtitles)

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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

Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) Unsupported FKT

Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) Unsupported FKT

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.

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2018 TWOT 100

2018 TWOT 100

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.

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AT 4 State Challenge FKT

AT 4 State Challenge FKT

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.

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2018 Bandera 100K

2018 Bandera 100K

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?

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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

 

2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

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.

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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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2017 Barkley Strategy, Gear, & Nutrition

2017 Barkley Strategy, Gear, & Nutrition

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.

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2017 Barkley Crew Report from Joe Kelly

2017 Barkley Crew Report from Joe Kelly

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.

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SportsCenter Segment on the 2017 Barkley Marathons

I gave up dreams of being on SportsCenter about 20 years ago, and those dreams had me as a pitcher for the Texas Rangers. It was an awesome, fun experience getting to do this, and even the rundown they had on the side was perfect. LeBron’s birthday is shortly after mine so I get an annual reminder that I’m older than him. But here, he had to wait. 🙂

This was also the first time in my life I’d ever worn makeup. I figured I should make the best of it so Jessi and I went out on a date after it was recorded. I certainly looked better than a few days earlier at least.

The flag they showed next to my name during the clip was MD, but if you look closely that’s a TN flag t-shirt I have on.

Watch on Vimeo

RTBF – Immersion dans la “Barkley”, course à pieds la plus dure du monde

I have no idea what they’re saying, but this has some beautiful footage of the 2017 Barkley Marathons and the course. I admit that the drone annoyed me at one point, but I think that point was in getting the Rat Jaw shot that shows at about 7 minutes in, which is amazing. I felt like I was in the Game of Thrones intro.

Between this and multiple recent conversations through Google Translate I think I need to learn French!

Immersion dans la “Barkley”, course à pieds la plus dure du monde – Le Grand Format – 16/04/2017

(du 16/04/2017)

2017 Barkley Marathons Race Report

2017 Barkley Marathons Race Report

The White Whale of Tennessee

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).

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2017 Barkley Marathons Training

2017 Barkley Marathons Training

One of the first questions I normally get asked when people find out I’ve done / am doing the Barkley Marathons, is how I train for something like that. My training has evolved over the years, from 2015 when I had no idea what I was doing and just ran every hill I could find all the time at any time of day no matter the impact to personal life, to this year when I had a very set routine and fit my training around family and job rather than vice versa.

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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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