Ultrarunner John Kelly on his own private Barkley Marathon

Usually, every late March to early April, the ultrarunning community is on high alert for news regarding the legendary Barkley Marathons. Reddit forums are filling with speculation as reports trickle in on the action from deep in the heart of the state of Tennessee where the race takes place. In the last few years, nobody has been able to finish the race, so things were set to be even more exciting in 2020. That is until the world changed. 

Now, the race has gone three straight years without a finisher. Back in 2017, ultrarunner, John Kelly claimed victory. He might know the area better than anyone, other than race founder Lazarus Lake, a.k.a. Gary Cantrell. Kelly basically grew up down the road from Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee. 

Although he lives and works in Britain, Kelly returned home recently and decided to spend his self-isolation in the rural Tennessee family farm since he was headed that way for the Barkley anyway. And, since he was prepared for the event, he decided to create his own, and post his story to his Instagram offering a unique take on the Barkley, his feelings towards it, as well as what is happening in the world with COVID-19. 

We thought it was a great idea, and decided to ask Kelly a bit more about it. 


A post shared by John Kelly (@randomforestrunner) on Mar 22, 2020 at 4:22am PDT


What inspired you to run your own Barkley circuit after the race was cancelled?

Barkley means quite a bit to a lot of people: people apply for years to get in and go through an immense amount of training, and even outside the actual participants it really connects a community of people who get excited about the race each year and love what it represents. I grew up right across the street from Frozen Head, where Barkley takes place and was here anyway, so it seemed like it would be a great thing to do to give some sort of substitute and a tiny sense of normalcy for it. Plus it was something great to focus my own training and current mental stresses towards.

What did you find most challenging about doing this yourself?

Any time doing a solo challenge keeping yourself mentally focused and motivated can be pretty challenging. 

Was it as gruelling as expected?

Again it's just something I kind of went out and did without any expectations, and doing these sorts of things I've found it's always better to take those sorts of difficulties as they come rather than spending time and energy thinking about them beforehand.

You remain the last known finisher of the race, way back in 2017. What made that race so special for you?

It's something I had worked towards for many years, and the course is right there in the tiny rural community that my family has been a part of for two centuries. 

How does the Barkley stand out in the world of ultrarunning?

The goal is for people to discover what their limit actually is, rather than just whether it's past some arbitrary bar set by the race. In that sense, the ones who don't get to achieve that goal are the ones who finish. 

When did you first move into this sport?

It was a gradual transition from a background of running and backpacking, starting actual races in 2015. 

And were you a competitive runner growing up/through college or did you pick it up later?

I was a decent runner in high school but didn't really do any running for a decade through college and grad school. 

What do you like about pushing your body to such great lengths?

That's how I discover what my true strengths and weaknesses are, and how I'm able to respond in difficult situations. That translates to real life. It's about the mind probably more so than the body. 

What is the key to your success?

Setting goals right at the edge of what's possible for me, and pursuing them relentlessly. It's impossible to not "succeed" when even a failure is an enormous learning experience.

And how have you been coping with the isolation? Everything going ok?

Honestly, it's not much of a big deal for me. I'm an introvert, I'm with my family, I'm fortunate to be able to work remotely, and throughout grad school and building startups, I've had quite a few long stretches of working remotely. But I also recognize that not everyone is so fortunate and I do have a lot of stress and worry about how some others and society as a whole will get along. I also really miss my dog now more than ever. We lost her in the fall.

What are you doing for training, besides running your own Barkley?

Nothing out of the ordinary. I'm currently on a farm in rural Tennessee, so no matter the circumstances I have plenty of room to run and never see a single soul.

What are you hoping the rest of your race schedule might look like later this year?

No idea at this point. I had some things planned that I was pretty excited about but will essentially just have to take things week by week right now. 




“The body achieves what the mind believes.”

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