For this edition of Quick & Dirty, I chatted with John Kelly, the fifteenth ever finisher of the Barkley Marathons. To match the massive undertaking that is a Barkley finish, this chat is a bit longer than typical for the column, but Kelly’s approach and insight are fascinating. A hometown boy who grew up next to the race site, he is the first “local” to finish the race. (He currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works as a data scientist.) After a “fun run” finish in 2015 (60 miles, or three of the race’s five loops), and making it onto his fifth loop in 2016, Kelly finally came in under Barkley’s 60-hour finishing time limit this year. Tragically, Gary Robbins, whom Kelly spent the first four loops running with, just missed a finish after going off course a few miles from the end of his fifth loop.
Quick & Dirty: Before we chat about this year’s Barkley race, I want to talk a bit about your background and your journey to that race. You grew up in Tennessee, near the Barkley Marathons course, right?
John Kelly: Yeah, I’m originally from right there next to the course. I definitely spent some time in Frozen Head [State Park, the site of the race] and some time in the mountains surrounding the park. I had my fair share of exploring in those mountains.
Q&D: I saw that after running in high school, you had taken some time off while in college and grad school. What brought you back to running and then to ultramarathons?
JK: Well I was finishing up grad school, and for a long time I had wanted to know what I could do at the longer distances. I’d always been better the longer things got and the longer the course got. So near the end of grad school, I thought, I need to see what I’m capable of doing while I’m still capable of doing it. So I signed up for a marathon, with disastrous results. But things snowballed from there and I kept improving, kept pushing things farther.
And you know, my background was actually more in backpacking and thru-hikes and some multi-day trail runs on my own. I loved exploring the mountains and running trails, but I honestly didn’t really know there was this world of ultrarunning out there. As far as official ultra races go, I didn’t have a ton of experience leading to my first Barkley [in 2015].
Q&D: How did Barkley first come on your radar? Was that something you knew about from growing up near Frozen Head State Park?
JK: Yeah, I kind of knew about it. It’s a rural community and running isn’t much of a thing. I knew people came down to this park once a year and ran through it. But it wasn’t much more than that until I got into running myself and got a better understanding of what they were doing. At that point, [running] it was sort of a pipe dream—something cool to think about, but it would probably never happen.
But as I kept improving in my running and doing better than I expected myself to do, I thought maybe I should just give this [Barkley] a shot. So at that point, it went from something I dreamed about to something I’d actually do. And from that point forward, it became something I had to do. I had to get this done.
Q&D: What was the process of getting into the race that first year, since it is a limited field and requires an application?
JK: This was before the explosion in popularity due to the documentary [about the race], so there wasn’t quite the number of applicants that there are now. I had a strong hiking background and strong running credentials, but I didn’t consider myself the most experienced ultrarunner out there, so I didn’t know if I’d get in. I also had my academic credentials, and it’s surprising—the correlation between finishing Barkley and having an advanced academic degree is pretty high.
I do know and accept, that the home town card was kind of my trump card. The course is in the absolute middle of nowhere, and having someone from the area, much less from right next to the mountains, having any sort of legitimate credentials and wanting to do the race… the odds are astronomical. I don’t think I fully realized until after that first race how fortunate I was for that connection. Being from the middle of nowhere in east Tennessee doesn’t get you much in life, but it got me into Barkley.
Q&D: How did that 2015 race go for you?
JK: I was pretty inexperienced at the time and had no idea what I was doing, really. I just tried to find hills to train on. And going into the race, the thing that really did me in, is I thought I was going to live on gels and energy bars the whole time. But after 30 hours of that, your stomach says no more. I got through three loops, got the “Fun Run.” I could have gone out for a fourth loop, but I ate almost nothing the whole third loop. I was out of fuel and couldn’t get anything in the tank.
Q&D: After the Fun Run in 2015, were you satisfied? That’s a relatively rare accomplishment among Barkley starters and a significant feat in its own right. What was your perspective post-race and then looking forward?
JK: I was definitely proud of the accomplishment given my experience level. But at the same time, given that experience level, I thought to myself I can do much better than this. Originally, I had just planned on giving Barkley the one shot and seeing what I could do. But while I was satisfied with the result [in 2015], I wasn’t satisfied with the measurement of my own capability. I wanted to get a good measure of what I was capable of, and I felt like I hadn’t gotten a good measure of that. I thought that I could do better.
Q&D: Looking at the next year, 2016, was it pretty likely you’d get into the race since you’d finished the Fun Run in 2015?
JK: Yeah, I was pretty confident in getting in for 2016 given my experience. I tell people the only reliable predictor of success at Barkley is success at Barkley. So if you’ve had some previous level of success, it definitely helps your odds of getting in.
Q&D: Did you alter your approach for 2016? What were you able to improve on?
JK: I definitely had a much better nutrition strategy. I had a whole spread of things to eat out there. For the race, I knew what to expect. I knew how to approach the course, I had experienced crew there with me. I just had a better overall strategy and course knowledge.
Q&D: And you made it through four loops and headed out for a fifth that year, right?
JK: Right. I got one book on the fifth loop. I had made some navigation errors early on that set me pretty far back. I had been by myself for basically all four loops—the whole race. When I came in on my fourth loop, I only had 13 minutes before I had to get out for loop 5. My crew helped transition me quickly. I got back out there, but the sleep deprivation really got to me. I got out about 100 yards on the road there and then took a nap within site of the [start/finish] gate.
I got up and made it to the first book in pretty good time, but the sleep deprivation just hit me again. I was standing there looking at the descent, and next thing I knew, I was asleep again. I woke up and knew there wasn’t any way I could possibly finish in time. Beyond that, if I went down the other side of the mountain, I honestly didn’t know if I’d be able to make it out. If I’d be able to self-extract. So I decided to head back to camp, and just that trip back to camp was a struggle. It took me 5 hours to make it back. I was so far gone with the sleep that I was having a hard time distinguishing what was real from what was not. Was I dreaming or was this actually happening? Was this actually Barkley? It was quite the trip just going back down the mountain to camp.
Q&D: When did you decide to try the 2017 Barkley? Was that an immediate decision, or did it take some to decide that you wanted to come back?
JK: Yeah, that was pretty immediate. Coming so close, you feel like you’ve gotta get back and finish things up. After that race, Gary [Robbins] and I were the only two people who had made it to the fifth loop and not later finished the race. Other people had failed on loop five, but all of them had eventually come back and finished. Unfortunately, now Gary is the only person that is true for.
There was a little bit of hesitation about coming back, as my wife and I found out two weeks after the 2016 race that we were having twins. So there was a discussion there, but we decided to give it a go, see if I could get the training to work, try to be more time-efficient with it.
Q&D: Right. You have a family with three young kids and a full-time job as a data scientist. Can you take me through the time management and dedication that it took to train for this year’s race, what that looked like for you?
JK: My weekday training consisted almost entirely of commutes. That was time I would otherwise be wasting in a car or on the metro. It takes me a little longer to run home than it would on the metro, but that’s a free hour towards training every time I do it. On the weekends, I try to get up as early as possible and go do hill repeats. Or also, sometimes—and this was new this year—I would do one of my weekend days as an incline treadmill run. That allowed me to be home while the kids nap or play in the room next to me, and my wife could be free to do something else.
Q&D: Do you think the treadmill work you did this year made a difference in the race?
JK: Yeah, I think it did. I was a bit concerned about the downhills actually, as I didn’t get that from the treadmill of course. In previous races, it was my downhill muscles that gave out first on me. But everything actually worked pretty well. Physically, even at the end of the race this year, my muscles felt fine. Even on the last climb, I was still going strong on that.
Q&D: What was your mental approach heading into this race and overall, how did it play out?
JK: Mentally, strategically, and physically, I felt great going into this year’s race. I felt I had trained well, I learned a lot from previous years’ mistakes, and I had good strategy going in. I enjoyed the fact that I was, somehow yet again, the underdog. Despite having done four loops by myself the year before, there are a lot of top-end, elite guys in this race. That was cool. It took some pressure off me and gave me a little bit of extra motivation.
The one thing I was worried about was sleep, because I hadn’t slept well the night before the race the previous two years. That really hurt me last year. This year, I finally fell asleep and was in a nice, deep, sound sleep. And about 30 or 40 minutes after I fell asleep, Laz blew the conch [to signal the imminent race start], which was a 1:42 a.m. start. So that was rough, but that’s Barkley.
So we got out, and we expected to have a big group of strong runners at the start, at least through the first loop. But then we got up the first climb and there was just dense fog. The kind of fog where at night your headlamp is shining back in your face and you put your hand out in front of you and you can barely see your own hand. It caused absolute chaos.
Everyone was counting on me to navigate. I still feel awful. I screwed up the navigation in the fog. Everyone got separated, then everyone came back together, then got separated again. By the end of the loop, it was just me and Gary. We had expected to have this big group of guys, but it was already just me and Gary. We agreed to work together and from that point on we did. We navigated extremely well up until the fourth loop, and kind of made up a lot of the time we had lost in the fog in the first loop. We did make a couple mistakes on loop four that really ate into our time buffer though.
I had been thinking, “OK, we’ll have enough time. I’ll take a nap after loop four, and just have a disaster-free loop five and be good.” Instead, we got in from loop four, I didn’t have time for a nap, and I turned right back around and went out. I had a little bit of a time buffer, but not much. There’s definitely not time to waste.
Once again, I was just fighting sleep deprivation the entire way. Fortunately, I navigated really well and didn’t make any big mistakes there. It was just fighting a mental battle to stay focused—to remember what the task at hand was, and to stay alert. I voluntarily took two naps on the course, kind of finding spots that were miserable. I knew my body, after 10 or 15 minutes, would either be completely miserable or have to wake up. Toward the end of the loop, the rain started and the temperature dropped. I was cold, but that probably also helped keep me alert. I found the grocery bag poncho and orange hat going up Ratjaw and that helped a bit with warmth. But I kept navigating well, got to that final climb, got my final page. And at that point, I had an easy trail run back into camp.
But my mind was so far gone at that point that I blacked out a bit on that last peak. Twenty minutes just disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them. The whole way back down to the gate was just focused on the singular job: you have to touch to gate, you have all your pages, you just have to touch the gate. That’s the only thing I had on my mind. I had to stay focused on that to stay alert and make it back in.
Q&D: What did it feel like to finally touch the gate after five loops, to have done it all right, after three years of trying? What was that moment like for you?
JK: Just… a complete release. It was so incredible to feel that. For the first time in hours, I could finally let my mind think of something other than getting to the gate. It was so incredible for all of that to pay off. I had my family and the rest of the Barkley community there supporting me. To be honest, I wasn’t able to immediately fully process it because of my mental state at the time, but it’s definitely something I’ll never forget it.
Q&D: It seems like being successful at Barkley requires avoiding big mistakes and also on-trail problem solving when you encounter a situation you didn’t anticipate. How would you characterize the approach needed to finish the race?
JK: There are so many factors that contribute to a finish—so many skill sets and so many variables—that no one is going to be able to rely on a single skill. You can’t just be a fast runner and finish. You can’t just be a good navigator and finish. But of course the stronger you are in one of those, the more of a buffer you have in the other.
For Gary and I, we’re strong enough runners and we could move fast enough, that the name of the game basically was disaster avoidance with navigation. We felt like as long as we could avoid any big disasters, we could finish. We didn’t need to take any big risks that might save us time, but worst case, might cost us hours and kill our race. That’s why we worked together. When you’re out there, it’s so easy when you’re by yourself to have a mental lapse and go slightly off course or go down the wrong spur. By the time you figure it out, you’re in pretty bad shape. But if you have two people, the chance that both of you have the same mental lapse at the same moment is much smaller. Just having that second set of eyes there, a person to say, “Hey, where are you going, what are you doing?” is extremely valuable in avoiding those disasters.
Q&D: You seem to have a pretty analytical approach to race strategy and how to address problems on trail. Do you feel like your background as a scientist helps you in the race?
JK: Yeah, I definitely think so—just the ability to factor in as much as possible. You can never factor in all the variables. But being able to look ahead, and say, “If this happens I need to do this, and if this happens I need to do that. So given all these possible scenarios, here’s my best move right now.” It’s kind of like a chess match; being able to look six moves ahead to determine what your best move is right now. And again, so many successful Barkley people have been scientists and engineers. I think that’s due to being able to have this far-flung goal and fixate on it, to plow forward straight to it through any obstacles.
Q&D: What does it mean to you to be the first local to finish Barkley?
JK: It’s incredible. Really, the race has so much meaning to me because of that fact. Being able to see the community get excited about that, get involved and get inspired, and have that sense of pride that a local person finishes this race. I could win Western States or Hardrock or something, and to me personally, it wouldn’t mean as much as finishing this race.
Q&D: It’s probably way too early to think about this, but do you have any aims at a future Barkley run? Or do you just want to take it all in for now.
JK: I would never say never. Next year, at least, it’s probably out of the question. It’s a huge time commitment and sacrifice, not just for me, but for my family and particularly my life. The slight extra return you get from a second finish versus a first finish, I don’t know if I can justify that sacrifice right now. Instead of doing endless hill repeats on a Saturday morning, I want to have breakfast with my kids. I’m also looking forward to going and maybe crewing for someone, helping someone else with their Barkley experience, and being part of the camp. I’ve never actually experienced the camp because I’ve always been one of the last ones in. By the time I get in, everyone’s cleared out. So maybe in the future, but highly doubtful next year.
You can follow John’s adventures via his website. He is supported by Hammer Nutrition, Ultimate Direction, and Every Man Jack, among other brands.