Interview with John Kelly: COROS Pro Athlete Ambassador

Last updated: 23-Nov-20

By Dan Stinton

Anyone who keeps their eye on the ultrarunning scene won’t have failed to spot that throughout 2020, John Kelly has been romping around the hills and mountains of the UK bagging some astonishing records along the way. 

He started the year with a strong win at The Spine Race, but not too long after, the coronavirus began spreading across the globe meaning plans for the year had to change. Inspired by Mike Hartley’s fell running achievements, he devised “The Hartley Slam” whilst raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust who work “to create a fairer and more inclusive society in which everyone can succeed regardless of race, ethnicity or background”.

The Slam pulls together a few huge challenges, namely breaking the long-standing Pennine Way record (held by Mike Hartley since 1989) followed by The Grand Round: A tour of the “UK Big 3”; Bob Graham (England), Charlie Ramsay (Scotland) and Paddy Buckley (Wales) with the almost unthinkable addition of cycling between them.

Strapped to his wrist during these monstrous challenges has been a COROS VERTIX marking John joining the COROS Global Pro Athlete Team. Many of us, particularly from Europe, may not be familiar with the COROS brand, but they’re well known by trail and distance runners Stateside. Anything that can keep up with John Kelly must be worth a look! 

Northern Europe Market Manager for COROS, Ben Clark said: “We’re delighted to have John join our team, he has worked extremely hard to reach his ultra-running goals, as well as often completing them in a superbly unique way. I am really excited to see what John is able to accomplish when using our products going forward, as well as wishing him the best of luck as he welcomes a new addition to his family”.

Photo credit: Steve Ashworth for La Sportiva

RunUltra caught up with John over the now obligatory Zoom video call to find out a bit more about how his year has panned out.

Q. 2020 has been one of the strangest years for most of us. As the seriousness of the pandemic started to unfold how did it make you feel about your plans and training for the year? How did you decide on your new goals?

A: My plans had to change a bit before the pandemic because just after the Spine Race we found out we’d be welcoming an addition to our family in September. I initially had to shuffle plans around that, but the only thing that got cancelled was the Barkley Marathons, and that was just as the pandemic started ramping up, so there wasn’t really time to re-plan anything or think too much about it. It was just off the table. 

I was already back in Tennessee so I went out and did my own solo adventure in Frozen Head State Park with the available time and my fitness. Either fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, my fitness was quite good at the time and I’d have been ready for the Barkley.

After that I had the Pennine Way and the Grand Round planned, which I still managed to fit in but not on the original timetable that I had in mind. Originally, I’d planned to do the Pennine Way in August and the Grand Round in June, but as it turned out I had to do them both within a stretch from July 13th – August 21st.

Q. “The Hartley Slam” – What an amazing idea and you must be really pleased with the fantastic amount of money raised.

I was searching for someone to support in the UK as I felt it should be UK based as these were UK challenges. The Stephen Lawrence Foundation mission statement resonated with me and helping disadvantaged children is something I’ve been passionate about for quite a while, so I viewed this as a good opportunity to do that.

With these being solo challenges I wanted to connect it to something more meaningful, something that could bring some more good out of it and also, selfishly, something that could provide me with more motivation when I’m out there.

Q. The second part of the challenge was the Grand Round and having a DNF in 2019, what were the things you knew you needed to change to complete it?

I learnt a lot about the terrain and weather in particular on the first attempt and what a feasible schedule would be, what the best roads for cycling between the rounds are, what sort of kit I would need, my sleep schedule and my sleep strategy between the sections of route.

Of course, I didn’t go out on the first attempt intending or thinking that I would fail, I knew it was a possibility and, in my mind, a failed first attempt is the best possible recce you can have. If I’d gone out and spent that amount of time on training runs it wouldn’t have prepared me for the second year nearly as much.

Q. Had you done any of the rounds individually?

A. I’d done portions of the Bob Graham and Paddy Buckley so I had made it to those areas, but I hadn’t been able to make it to Scotland, but these are things I’d planned well before I made the move to the UK and I took on the first “Grand Round” less than two months after arriving.

To me that adds a bit of excitement with more unknowns but with my Barkley background I’m used to going into something without having full familiarity of the course.

Q. You’re now a pro-athlete ambassador for COROS, tell us more about your relationship with them? What sets them apart from the competition?

A. They sent me a watch, the COROS Vertix to try for the Pennine Way and the Grand Round, and of course I tested it before those. I’m not going to go out on something like that with kit that I don’t yet know and trust. It was something that really worked well for me.

The immediate most appealing thing to me is the battery life given the length of the things I do – not many other watches out there can go past a day on a single charge. That was a big point for me and I also found the interface intuitive and nice to use so it’s a good piece of kit that does what I need and I’m excited to see where else I go with it.

Q. With such a short period (almost exactly a month) completing the Pennine Way and starting the Grand Round, what did you do to recover?

A. With them being so close I’d switched the order of the two, so in that gap in between I focussed a lot on maintaining my aerobic endurance and building my bike fitness. To get those muscles and those neuromuscular connections back, whilst at the same time recovering from the impact forces of having just run 268 miles on the Pennine Way.

I did get a few good runs in but I think it was about two weeks before I went for my first run after the Pennine Way. I think I had a week completely off and then a week when I was just biking and then picked back up the running from there. The recovery strategy worked but having a longer period to recover would have been better.

That said, as 2020 goes, we make the best of the opportunities and timeline that we’re given. I was quite fortunate to be able to fit both of those things into a one month window between lockdown restrictions easing, and then us having a child and now lockdown restrictions coming back in to force.

Q. Your write-up of the Spine Race 2020 gives us so much insight into your thoughts and you clearly had a burning desire to win from the start.  How do you transfer that energy and passion to break records outside of a race situation?

A. It’s tough for me to be honest. Some people are natural time trial’ers, others are good racers. I’d put myself in the latter of those two categories. I very much feed off having my competition with me and being able to play the mental game that entails. Having others/competitors face the same conditions that I’m facing, and anticipating how they will respond to those conditions and how they respond to my own moves.

Going for a record on one of these challenges, your opponent is the current record holder. I couldn’t let myself be concerned with anything beyond that. I couldn’t let myself be concerned with who else might attempt it with Damian coming up the next week, my goal was to beat Mike Hartley’s time.

I don’t know if you ever played Mario Kart as a kid but they had the option where you had a “ghost driver” that could go around the track with you and that’s kind of what it feels like to me – I’ve got Mike Hartley’s “ghost” from 1989 out there running and I have to stay ahead of that. It’s difficult and demanding from the standpoint that it’s relentless – that cut-off is always moving forward regardless of the conditions, regardless of any trouble that I run into.

Whereas in a race situation they’re facing the same conditions you are, you always have in your mind they might stop to sleep, they might have stomach issues, all of these other variables. Whereas with a time trial, if you mess up, you’re done.

Q. Did you stay ahead of the ghost runner all the way?

A. Yes I did. I started off with a pretty aggressive schedule anticipating that things would go wrong. I would have to sleep, other things would come up that would eat into my buffer.  But I got going really well, then had some stomach issues and that ghost runner started gaining on me. I was able to maintain that gap to the point where I never really let myself think about the possibility that I wouldn’t break it. 

Going into the final section through the Cheviots I still felt pretty confident in my ability to move through that terrain in sufficient time.  I did what I needed to do to stay ahead whilst minimising the risk to myself in terms of completely falling off from exhaustion.

Photo credit: Lisa Bergerud

Q. What about Damian’s attempt the week after – how did you feel about that?

A. It was nerve-wracking. I think the best comparison I’ve come up with is it’s like watching one of your good friends go after an ex-girlfriend. In the end you’re happy for both of them, but it’s kind of weird.

Q. How do you balance the time to train for such big events and challenges around your busy family life, especially now with a new arrival?

A. A big part of it is quality over quantity. I’ve been working with David Roche for about a year and a half and he has also been coaching Damian for around a year I think. I run maybe 70 miles a week. Even for the types of distances I’m doing I’m not putting in Jim Walmsley type distances where you’re doing 140+ miles a week. I’m doing similar milage to a lot of ultrarunners or marathoners.

The other big piece of this is multitasking and as much as I can I run or bike everywhere. I hardly ever drive my car. When going to an office was still a thing, it meant for the past 5 years at least that most of my weekday miles have been my commute just running to and from the office, and that’s time that would otherwise be wasted.

Now, I run my son to school every morning whilst he rides his bike and then run back, so that’s my weekday running. It’s trying to combine it with things like that and eliminating the clutter and the noise as much as possible, like browsing the web or watching tv or whatever else.

Q. You’ve lived in the UK for a while (and we love your Twitter UK Thursday thoughts). Do you see any differences between the UK and USA ultra-running scene?

A. One personal difference to me has been the approach to some of these challenges. In the UK there seems much more sense of these being community efforts and community achievements which for the things I’ve done, the Pennine Way and the Grand Round, they very much are. In the US the self-supported and unsupported types of attempts are a bit more prevalent and most of what I’ve done back there. Otherwise here in the UK it’s a much smaller geographic area, everyone is part of one community.

In the US there is a bit more fragmentation between the East Coast runners and the West Coast runners and the Flagstaff runners, the South East runners and things like that. It’s also very different terrain and types of running between those areas as well.

Q. What food do you daydream about the most when running through the night?

A. That could vary a bit based on conditions, not only the weather conditions but where my own body is at. Your body gets very good at telling you what types of nutrients it needs: whether it needs carbs or salt or protein or whatever and you’ll get cravings for those things. I’ve had very extreme cravings for milkshake or pizza or a burger or sometimes just strange things that I never would have thought of.

Why would I want that, I’ve never had that while running, why would I want that while running but give it to me now. I would say my two most common are milkshakes or pizza, those are usually pretty safe bets for me.

Q. What do you do to stay injury free?

A. I think that comes back a lot to more reasonable training mileage, especially as I start to get older, but by ultrarunning standards I’m by no means old at this point. I’m still young in context but as far as my body is physiologically susceptible to injury, the southern US would say I’m no spring chicken anymore.

So just being aware of my own capabilities, my own limits, training within those limits and trying to take care of my body the best I can. The key word there is the best I can, I’m not a full-time professional athlete and sometimes I don’t eat well and I don’t sleep well. It’s being aware of all those things and how they add up and being able to adapt your training accordingly.

Q. What’s next?  Are you looking forward to a return to races or has this year sparked off ideas for any other challenges?

It’s very dependent on what we’re allowed to do and how things evolve as far as Covid goes. I have a few ideas for the winter if we’re able to get out and travel around this time, so maybe getting out to some of the rounds.

Then next year I’m trying to focus on things that minimise travel and minimise risk of Covid, so I’m looking at some of the individual challenges like getting back to the Pennine Way or the Wainwrights and things of that nature. A lot of that will be responding to the external environment and also responding to my own body in terms of how it adapts and recovers for these things.

It was fantastic to talk to John about his year and those valuable insights into mindset, training and recovery.  At RunUltra we’ll be keeping a close eye out for those potential winter rounds! 
You can read more about John at his website and the COROS Range on their website.

"Going for a record on one of these challenges, your opponent is the current record holder. I couldn’t let myself be concerned with anything beyond that. I couldn’t let myself be concerned with who else might attempt it with Damian coming up the next week, my goal was to beat Mike Hartley’s time."

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