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Being Held to the Fire With John Kelly

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Herbert Krabel

By: Herbert Krabel

Herbert Krabel grew up in Southern Germany but now resides on the East Coast of the USA with his wife Amy and his 11-year old twin sons. He raced mountain bikes professionally in the early 90s and then explored triathlon for a few years. More recently he found a passion for trail running, unique ultra distance races and locations, and SwimRun. He also loves art, architecture and European chocolates.

37-year-old John Kelly loves a challenge, from long and unique endurance events to capturing big FKTs (Fastest Known Times), John is up to the task. Going into the 2023 Barkley Marathons he knew that his local course knowledge was a big asset but he was also happy to share his mountains and forests with people visiting from all corners of the globe. “I really enjoy that aspect [sharing it with people] of it but there is of course, as the race gets later on, there is a competitive element to it, and that is good fun as well.”   

After almost 48 hours of racing, John Kelly was the first runner to start the fifth loop, allowing him to choose his direction of travel – clockwise. French runner Aurélien Sanchez was only a few minutes behind the American, which meant he had to head out counterclockwise, but looked surprisingly quick on his feet after 50 hours of racing and took off on a mission. Soon after, Belgian Karel Sabbe (clockwise) and Brit Damian Hall (counterclockwise) also started their final tour of Frozen Head State Park. At this point the race was no longer against each other but rather against the clock, the course and the sleep deprivation. With the four remaining athletes on course, going in opposing directions, one would expect them to see each other, but that’s not how it panned out. Hall ended up getting lost and headed back to camp, and Sanchez and Kelly never met each other during those final hours on the trail due to an out and back section.

“Unfortunately, we missed each other on a steep out and back known as Leonard’s Buttslide. Both of us saw Karel though, so had a general idea of where we were. My main struggle at that point was staying awake and putting calories down. My legs were fine, and any pain just helped with the staying awake part,” said Kelly.

John Kelly flies downhill during the 2023 Barkley Marathons. PC: David Miller
John Kelly flies downhill during the 2023 Barkley Marathons. PC: David Miller

Aurélien Sanchez managed to get back to camp and the famed yellow gate first in a time of 58:23:12. Kelly was next finishing the 2023 Barkley Marathons in a time of 58:42:23, and with on six minutes to spare Karel Sabbe finished in 59:53:33. For only the second time in race history, three athletes managed to complete the course – a course, that often welcomes no finishers at all. Ending a six year dry spell for finishers, Kelly earned his second finish having been the last person to complete the race in 2017 making him only the third athlete to finish the Barkley Marathons more than once.

For Kelly this year was a much more satisfying finish, and he found himself not nearly as wrecked as he had been in 2017. “I had really been looking forward to seeing my family, who had just arrived for the finish. I also really tried to take it in and appreciate it this time – what I had experienced the previous 60 hours, the people who had been out there with me, and everything that had gone in to make it back there. In 2017 I was completely out of my mind, the conditions were horrible, and I was forced to have complete tunnel vision on just getting to the gate. This time I took in a beautiful sunset on the final climb, enjoyed a moment at the top, and had a nice stroll up to the gate.”

These events require more than just fitness and strength to be successful. Kelly an engineer and scientist credits his ability to not only solve the complex problems that come up in these races, but also his ability to look at and evaluate all the variables. Turns out to him, that is part of the fun! He is well aware that you can plan for some of the problems ahead of time, while for others he has to be able to think on his feet and adapt as those situations come. “It really makes the race a much more difficult thing to predict. It makes each experience different and new, even if you are doing the same race twice. The conditions could be different and the way sleep deprivation hits you could be different. It keeps it fresh, exciting and challenging.”

Earlier this year Kelly started the Bandera 100-kilometer race in Texas with the hopes of grabbing a Golden Ticket into Western States, but he did not have the race he wanted. Going into the race he made a few predictions – he expected that it would stay overcast, maybe even a bit cool, and that if it was wet it wouldn’t be anything like the wetness he’s dealt with the last few years while living in the UK. What he didn’t anticipate was how sticky the soil could be and found that by the end of loop one his shoes were like bricks, wrenching on his hamstrings. He switched out his shoes to ones with less aggressive lugs before starting the second loop, and even though the course started to dry the damage had already been done. While not his day, he moved up over the second half of the race from 11th to 7th place not good enough for a Golden Ticket and ending his chase for a berth into Western States for 2023.

“I don’t know if I could have been in a good spot after Bandera to really attack some of those races as some other people did. They came up short at Bandera and tried to go out to Black Canyon and that is a hard double. I am under no illusion that I am able to turn around and beat a field of that caliber. I would love to get into Western States and run it at least once to see what I am capable of there, but it is one of many targets. I am not going to wreck all my other targets in exchange for having possibly one more sub optimal shot at a Golden Ticket,” said Kelly 

No stranger to hard things, Kelly won the 2020 Montane Winter Spine race, a 268-mile ultra-endurance run on the Pennine Way in the Northern UK. True to ultrarunner form, he initially swore he would never do the race again – but now, wants to go back. The thought of going back is not driven by a feeling of missing out, but rather he’s excited to go test himself again. Acknowledging that the Spine race in particular for him was “absolute misery” the itch is back. He’ll admit that the absolute misery was mostly his own fault… His strategy for that race was to go out hard and race from the front and get everyone else to blow up – including himself. He was counting on being the last one to blow up, and while that is what happened it made the finish really rough. By the time he made it to Kirk Yetholm he wanted absolutely nothing to do with the race again. But he has since been back on the Pennine Way multiple times, in nicer conditions, and thinks he can now more fully appreciate the route, run it in a smarter way and get more enjoyment out of the entire race. 

John Kelly loves that ultrarunning forces him to confront his weaknesses and leverage his strengths to be the best he can. He loves the lessons that can be gleaned, that they are an opportunity to learn about himself growing during the hard experiences. Reflecting on one of those moments of growth Kelly describes a moment of the 2020 Spine race, “I am kind of locked in a bubble of multiple layers of clothing and jackets and battered by the elements on the outside, and only having 8 hours of daylight to be actually to see anything. It is really this pretty incredible experience of really being inside yourself and focused and isolated for that long to get through it.”

Kelly often gets asked to compare the Barkley Marathons to the Winter Spine race in the UK, and while he does not really care to compare the two unique events, he certainly has some thoughts about them and what he considers tough events. “What I kind of have always said is that Barkley holds you closer to the fire and the Spine holds you there for longer. But when we talk about toughness in general that to me is such a vague subjective term. Running a sub ten second 100-meter race is really tough and I will never be able to do that. Objectively speaking many things like that are harder and there are fewer humans on earth who can do it. But if you are talking about toughness in terms of mental willpower to get through the event then yeah Spine and Barkley are up there.”

John Kelly running in Boone, NC. PC: Cory Keen
John Kelly running in Boone, NC. PC: Cory Keen

In terms of the summer racing plans, he did not get into the Hard Rock 100-mile and wasn’t able to get a ticket into Western States Endurance Run, and so has a few FKTs he is thinking about. However, due to the heavy winter snowfall in California some of these routes will not be accessible for a long time making many of the FKT attempts he has his eyes on not feasible in the near term. Kelly is also planning to compete in the Tour de Geants, a 330-kilometer (205-mile) race in Italy, in September. 

Should those California FKT visions not come true he can always go back to his home turf and recapture some of the Strava segments that have been taken from him while he lived in the UK. “I love that. I am talking about a guy named Joe Jude on Strava, and he has taken a number of my Strava segments at Frozen Head and actually got the full route last summer. It was fun to see him progress from short meaningless segments to some of the longer more challenging ones to eventually progressing all the way to the full loop. That was neat to see.”  While maybe not as grand, Joe Jude – John Kelly is coming for you.


If you would like to learn more about John Kelly and what he’s discovered about himself and ultra endurance feats of strength between his 2017 and 2023 finishes at the Barkley Marathons check out the interview Dylan Bowman did on the Freetrail Podcast.

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