On Monday, John Kelly was finally resting in a fold-up chair. Besides the dark mud that painted his shins, he didn’t look like someone who’d just beaten the fastest known time (FKT) on Vermont’s Long Trail. He didn’t look like someone who hadn’t slept in four days. He didn’t even look particularly tired. He looked at home.
Surrounded by his wife and four kids, he managed an honest smile for a family picture. His short, dirty blonde hair was still neat enough for a business meeting.
Something about Kelly exudes decency but not necessarily athleticism. He wouldn’t be the first guy you’d choose in a game of pickup basketball. He’s got the look of a high school walk-on that earned his letterman jacket with brains, blood and sweat. But to get a proper picture of Kelly, you need to catch him in motion during the final hours of a nasty challenge.
If he were a tennis player, he’d come alive in the fifth set. In football, you’d give him the ball in the fourth quarter. John Kelly is clutch.
The Long Trail in Vermont is one of the most storied trails in the nation and was the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail. With 273 miles of roots, rocks and mud, and 66,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s one of the most respected FKTs on the East Coast. Look no further than the 2014 documentary of Nikki Kimball’s attempt, Finding Traction. The veteran ultrarunner breaks down into tears more than once. Kelly had prepared for all of the above, but it’s what you don’t prepare for that can derail your journey.
On day two, over 500 wildfires across Canada sent a shroud of ember-filled air into Vermont. Then came the rain. Lots of it. On the last two days of his run it poured, and the notorious Long Trail became a whole new beast. Rocks dipped beneath streams of running water like sharks in wait, and roots slickened as if covered in oil.
Then again, John Kelly embraces hard things—really hard things.
Ten years ago, he’d never run farther than 10k. He attempted his first marathon and fell apart. A year later, he qualified for Boston. Add in more marathons, some ultras for training and triathlons, and two years later, he was at the start line of a local race called the Barkley Marathons. That, in a nutshell, is John Kelly. His mind thrusts him into extreme, over-his-head difficulty. His body and his work ethic keep him in the game, but his heart is what sets him apart.
The next-to-last leg of the Long Trail proved to be one of the toughest nights out in a career of tough nights out. “I don’t know what it is with me,” he jokes, “but I attract storms. It gives me an authentic experience.” Around 1 a.m., severe weather rolled in. Rain came in sheets. The kind of rain where you look ahead and all you see is the light reflecting back at you. Kelly desperately wanted to sleep, but he knew if he laid down for a dirt nap, he’d quickly get dangerously cold.
Luckily, the sturdy log structure of Kid Gore Shelter was nearby, but a tenth of a mile off the trail. Kelly arrived at the shelter and his pacers placed a space blanket beneath him. He told them to wake him after 15 minutes—he got up in 14.
What had been a trail when he’d left was now a river. Water gushed off the mountain and ran over roots, thick as arms, deep into steep banks of mud. “There are things that slow you down,” Kelly says, “and there are things that make you think you’re going to slow down.” The fourth quarter had arrived. And there was no quit in John Kelly. Time to give him the ball.
In 2009, Jonathan Basham beat the Long Trail FKT by less than an hour. In 2021, Ben Feinsen shaved off just over an hour. Kelly, three months after his second finish at Barkley, dunked it by more than 7 hours, setting a formidable bar at 4 days, 4 hours and 25 minutes.
“There’s almost always an easy, comfortable option,” he recently wrote in a series of posts about lessons learned seeking grand challenges. “Not just in unreasonable long, entirely contrived challenges, but in stuff that matters: our personal lives, our careers, our relationships and the causes we support.” Kelly doesn’t choose those options.
On top of a career as a data scientist and fathering and mentoring four kids, the 38-year-old’s curiosity still thirsts to find out what he’s capable of. But he wonders what his kids think about what he does and plans to have a conversation with them in the future. He wants to see if they’re getting from it what he hopes. From the outside, it’s easy to say the answers are right in front of him.
After the FKT, Kelly was in Boston, walking on the street with his kids. He and his wife, Jessi, showed them the history of the nation as July 4th celebrations lingered into midweek. They passed Bunker Hill, the Old State House and Fenway Park. The Rangers were playing the Red Sox that night. His son wanted to go because dad loved the Rangers growing up and now, so does he.
One day during the FKT attempt, Kelly came to a crossing and plopped into a chair, exhausted. His son waded through pacers and crew to get his dad’s attention. He wanted to show him the progress he’d made in “The Legend of Zelda.” While other kids are playing the latest and greatest games, he downloaded the old version of Zelda on Nintendo Switch. He loves it because his dad loved it.
On the last day of the run, the sun finally shone down on Kelly. When he reached the southern trailhead, he posed quickly for a photo but for him, it wasn’t over. There was still a 3-mile hike back to the support vehicles. “Cruel and unusual punishment,” he says. Yet, he pushed on at the same pace he’d been moving at for days. He wasn’t going to walk it in. “For me, that was the finish line,” he said. “That’s where my family was.”