John Kelly

John Kelly

When you discovered the Barkley Marathons, what made you want to attempt it?

I discovered Barkley long before I got it into my mind to really attempt it. It always fascinated me, but I didn't think it was something that was actually possible for me. Then as I continued pushing my limits and improving, it became the natural endpoint for me. Barkley went from being a complete fantasy to being something that I absolutely had to attempt. It was the best way for me to find where the limits actually were. I also grew up right next to the course, and the opportunity to go find those limits in my own mountains and in front of my own community was a deeply meaningful goal for me.


Before becoming the 15th person to ever finish, had you attempted this race previously? If so, what were the results?

In my first attempt in 2015 I finished 3 loops, a "fun run." I was inexperienced and had a poor nutrition strategy. After 3 loops of trying to survive on nothing but energy bars and gels, my stomach completely locked up on me. In 2016 I had a severe navigation error at the very beginning of the race that had me fighting alone and from behind the entire race. I ended up finishing the 4th loop with 13 minutes to spare, then starting my 5th loop and immediately taking a nap about 100 yards from the start of the loop. I made it to the first book before giving in to sleep deprivation.


What was your training like running wise to prepare for this?

From January 1st until the race I put in 1,000 miles and did a quarter million feet of climbing. A lot of people train for Barkley with just elevation, but I believe it's important to also get in some actual running and even some speed work to build VO2max and lactate threshold. Like every other amateur athlete, I also trained how my time and circumstances allowed. Nearly all of my weekday training consisted of running to or from work. On weekends I did long sets of repeats on extremely short hills, or ran on a treadmill at 20% incline.


Did you add any weight training as well? If so, what did that training consist of?

I've done sporadic body weight exercises for a while: standard stuff like planks. This year I did add some weights once a week, mainly targeting quads, hamstrings, and core. At first I was doing it primarily to maintain some of my bike strength during my triathlon off-season, but I feel it did help improve my endurance and climbing strength as well. At the end of Barkley this year my legs were still doing great.


What's the weirdest or funniest thing that happened to you during the race?

 I don't know that anything that happened out there was really funny, at least not at the time, but the weirdest thing is just completely losing grasp of what's real. It's as if there's a line between sleep and awake, and as you approach that line it's difficult to tell which side you're actually on. Was I actually awake and experiencing those things, or was I asleep and just having a lucid dream? It took everything I could just to stay focused and remember that it was real and what I was doing.


There were stories of you falling asleep during the run, what happened and do you know how long you were asleep?

I slept a few times on the 5th loop. The first two times I found the most miserable spots I could, preferably cold and exposed, so that after 15 minutes my body would be forced to wake up. This worked quite well. Near the end of the loop I may or may not have had an "involuntary nap." I lost about 20 minutes and have no idea what happened during that time. My mind was entirely in a fog at that point and I'm not sure if I fell asleep or just forgot what I was doing for that time.


There was also mentions of you finding a beanie and plastic shopping bag on the route and you using them to stay warm. What made you take them and did they help in any way?

 I was cold, it was raining, and they were there. So I took them. The toboggan (beanie) was a huge help. It was thick and added warmth almost immediately. I was hoping the bag could act as a bit of a poncho. It may have worked a little for a short time, but the briars made quick work of it.


What was your fueling like throughout the race including supplements and regular foods/drinks?

I used Hammer fuels and supplements as my base: gels, bars, Fizz, Endurolytes, and some Perpeteum were used throughout the race. As I learned in my first year, though, some real food is also needed in a race that long. I had a whole spread of homemade options with me to ensure I would always have something that was appealing and effective.


Weather sounded like it changed a lot during the race. What type of weather do you experience and how bad did it get?

The fog at night on the first loop was unbelievable. Headlamps reflected right back in everyone's faces, and you could hardly see two feet in front of you. Then on the 4th loop we had pretty intense heat. The fog and the heat are the two weather conditions that there's really no way to fight through. They're going to slow you down. On the 5th loop it started raining pretty heavily and got a bit cold. We really had nearly the full variety of Barkley weather, and in the end I'm glad that I got a finish on a year where we did have those kinds of conditions.

After completing an extremely tough race like this, do you have anything planned or another race you want to do next?

I'm training for the Kona Ironman World Championship next. Over the course of that training I'll also assess what my next main goal is going to be, that one that really keeps me motivated and pushing further. There are a few races that are high on my list, and a few other challenges I'd like to take on as well.

Why do you think it's so tough for so many people to finish this race?

It's intentionally placed at the limit of what's possible. If more people finished, it wouldn't be at that limit. There are so many different variables and challenges, both physical and mental, that it's impossible for someone to rely on a single skill to finish.


Will you return next year and try to repeat the accomplishment? Why or why not?

Probably not. I have other goals to pursue and me and my family all need to recharge. Barkley is a huge commitment and the return on another finish isn't currently something that I could justify for next year.

Finally, what would you tell anyone who is interested in running this race and plans to attempt it?

Push yourself as far as you can. Don't be afraid of failure. Barkley is meant to find your absolute outermost limits, so to make the most of that, it's important to go into the race as close to those limits as possible. Those previous failures and low points are also tremendously useful in getting through those lowest of low point that Barkley will inevitably bring.

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