In April 2017, John Kelly became the fifteenth person to complete the Barkley Marathons. I remember watching him approach the yellow gate that marks the finish, a torn plastic bag draped around his torso offering meagre protection against the roughness of this unforgiving corner of Tennessee.
But that wasn’t the story. In the same race, around 30 minutes later, Gary Robbins also finished the five laps of the Barkley Marathons – six seconds outside the 60-hour cut-off. After touching the gate, he collapsed to the ground and lay in a foetal position, murmuring about the navigational error that cost him a place among ultra-running immortals.
The name Gary Robbins was lodged in my consciousness. John Kelly? I forgot all about him.
Late last year Adrian Belton emailed to say he had been approached by someone who was looking to link the three classic 24-hour running rounds of Wales, England and Scotland in a continuous effort. I did not push Adrian for a name. I did not think such a feat possible. Back-to-back sub-24 hour rounds, with around 400 miles of cycling to connect the trio? Implausible, I reckoned. Adrian Belton should know. No-one has run the rounds in a faster period – over 29 days in 1989 when, by his own admission, he felt ‘invincible’.
Mike Hartley – a contemporary in Adrian Belton’s golden generation – was the first (and only) to seek to run the ‘Big 3‘ consecutively in 1990. He achieved sub-24 hour times on Ramsay’s Round and the Bob Graham, but the third round – the Paddy Buckley – took him more than 33 hours. While the slowdown (or the tipping point?) of round three was obvious, it has remained an unprecedented achievement. No-one had attempted to emulate Mike Hartley. To ask why might seem like a ridiculous question. The undertaking is phenomenally hard. That is indisputable. But then perceived difficulty should not be an excuse either.
Have there been better runners than Mike Hartley? Quite probably.
Do they share his drive, his ambition, his fearlessness, his audacity, his guts? This is a man who still holds the record for running the Pennine Way, after all. Perhaps not.
And then, earlier this year, two worlds collided. Adrian Belton’s mystery correspondence was revealed. It was John Kelly, he of Barkley fame, now living in Bristol. He unveiled his Grand Round.
‘I’m terrified,’ he wrote on his blog. ‘This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley, and I haven’t been this terrified of anything I’ve attempted since my very first attempt at Barkley.’
Terror. No wonder. The figures are terrifying.
‘I’ll be doing the three of them consecutively, aiming for under 24 hours for each, and riding my bike in between them with a goal total time of under 100 hours. That’s about 185 miles of running with 84K feet of elevation gain over 113 summits, plus over 400 miles of biking.’
I got in touch, offering to support John on a leg of his Ramsay’s Round. He added me to a WhatsApp group of pacers and supporters.
John, in time, will tell his story of the Grand Round. This is merely an outsider’s perspective. He completed the Paddy Buckley within 24 hours, but had already run into difficulties. The weather was capricious, even for late-May: after a glorious sunrise, hours and hours of rain and clag. There is nothing unusual in that. Many rounds have succeeded and failed in such circumstances. But most rounds end after 24 hours. This ’round’ had no definite ending.
He slept. He started cycling. His knee was hurting. The schedule was pushed back and back. I watched as his support for the Bob Graham seemed to unravel and then knit together again. Commitments were made, explanations given to loved ones, lives put on hold. He inspired us. We may have wanted to say, we we there. But really, we just wanted to be there.
John completed a weather-blasted, sub-24 hour Bob Graham. It was already a staggering achievement. Presumably, he went somewhere in Keswick and fell into a fitful sleep. Everything must have hurt – and he must have been wrangling with a colossal personal decision. We were ready for him. We would meet him at Glen Nevis youth hostel, we would run with him over the Mamores, as far as the eastern tip of Ramsay’s Round at Chno Dearg, across the formidable Lochaber Traverse to Ben Nevis. If he was moving, so would we.
He got on his bike. He was coming to Scotland.
The message came as I was running in the eastern Mounth, midway though a long solo effort around the route of the biennial Glenshee 9. I was on the summit of Tolmount when I felt my phone vibrate repeatedly – a flicker of reception in this wild plateau enabling a cascade of WhatsApp messages. They were commiserations. It was over. John could move no more.
I could. I continued west, across pathless mountainside to Cairn an Tuirc. The unbridled joy of movement. Perhaps one can only truly appreciate that sensation when – like John – they have moved so much, they can move no more.
Where does his achievement stand? The rounds have their fairy tales and their protagonists: Nicky Spinks, Martin Stone, Jasmin Paris, Adrian Belton, Roger Baumeister, Kilian Jornet, Jim Mann, Mike Hartley, Helene Diamantides and Billy Bland. And then, of course, there are the pioneers: Bob Graham, Charlie Ramsay, Paddy Buckley and Wendy Dodds.
It is not just what these men and women accomplished, it is that they set out to accomplish these things in the first place. There will always be a perceived success criteria, but arbitrary things should have arbitrary outcomes. Besides, hill running is not ruled by vacuous jargon like ‘success criteria’ and ‘outcomes’. For four days, John lived some weird, unfathomable, painful dream. And, in some way, failure elevates what he accomplished. That is why the name Gary Robbins, not John Kelly, had stayed in my mind. When success is achieved, there is always the question, could I have given more? There is no erring where there is failure. The answer is simply ‘no’. What the Grand Round – even two-thirds of it – reminds us of is the power of imagination. Such audacity is scary. But as John himself noted as he contemplated arbitrary failure: ‘I think having that kind of fear every once in a while is healthy.’
And that, ultimately, is what inspires us about our hill running heroes: not their ability to run fast or for a long time, but their imagination.
John Kelly? I won’t forget him.
Photo credit: Andy Simpson