By John Kelly
I’ve made a bit of a habit of setting out to do things that I’m not sure are possible. Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record on the Pennine Way, England’s first national trail, fell squarely in that category – not just as something that I might not currently be capable of but as something that might not ever be within reach. I ended up besting his time by just 34 minutes, roughly equivalent to the ~30 seconds per hour margin I had when I finished Barkley.
Given some of the unexpected “bonus” challenges I encountered along the way, this was without question the most demanding thing I’ve ever done, if not also the most difficult (more on my distinction between those later). Without unbelievable support every step of the way I wouldn’t have stood even the slightest chance.
This post is long, as many of mine are. It largely has two parts: my mental preparation for the attempt and the attempt itself. Feel free to skip either, as neither is really necessary for the other, but both address questions that I’ve had many times when doing something like this.
The Hartley Slam
This effort was part 1 of 2 in The Hartley Slam. Next up I’ll be re-attempting my Grand Round project. The exact dates for the Grand Round are still tentative, but I’ve decided I’d like to complete the full challenge from start to finish within 40 days. My time window is mainly limited by the due date of our child, but given the tendency of storms of biblical proportions to arrive whenever I do these things here I thought that the 40 days number was appropriate.
My fundraiser for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is still ongoing as part of this, and if you’re able and have not I would greatly appreciate any contributions at the link below (if you’re not UK based it will handle the currency conversion for you):
The Time to Beat
The Pennine Way record had stood since 1989 at 2 days, 17 hours, and 20 minutes. It was honestly not the time on the route itself that intimidated me the most, it was Mike’s extensive accomplishments and impressive times at other distances (e.g. 6:37 100K, 4:00 40 miles), as well as the number of strong runners who had fallen well short in the three decades since. Add to that the fact that Mike had nearly impossibly dry surface conditions for his attempt, and I had to wonder whether this was something I was capable of at all. Sure, in 30+ years I’m one of only 15 people to finish Barkley. Well, in 30+ years zero people had managed to run the Pennine Way faster than Mike Hartley. Not as many have attempted, but as a numbers person, those are still scary numbers.
To do this, I would have to use every tool at my disposal. I love how complex ultras are; how many variables there are to try to optimize. I believe the complexity is a big factor why I excel much more at longer distances. No one can simply outrun everyone else – competing requires both fitness and sound strategy. It’s mind plus matter. Normally, I would save most of my thoughts on the mental game until after recapping the run itself, but here I believe they’re critical in framing my experience, mindset, and how I responded to some of the challenges along the way.
This was more than just another goal; it was the most difficult and demanding thing I’ve done – a test of my true limits and a measuring stick to determine what other goals are in my field of view. Beyond that it was a potential step forward for our collective limits – it wasn’t just about me.
If you’d rather just read about the run itself skip over the “Mind” section and head straight to “Matter.”
Collective vs. Personal Achievements
Personal bests are one of the most powerful things in sports and beyond. They put the target just where it should be – slightly out of reach, the carrot on a stick. Competition is also a powerful motivator, to see where that best measures up against others. But then there’s a third category – collective bests. In ultrarunning these can be called records, or Fastest Known Times (FKTs) depending on preference. Given the historical preference here in the UK for “record” and the fact that Mike Hartley’s feat was well before anyone coined the term FKT, I’ll try to stick to the former.
I call these collective records both because of their requirements and their shared sense of progress and achievement. Again, there’s no possible way I could have broken this record without such great support at home, from road crew and pacers out there with me, and from my coach and others who have helped me reach this point. Even hearing of donations come in while I was out there was a huge boost.
Equally as important was Mike Hartley and those who supported him. Without that the record wouldn’t have existed or had significant meaning. This wasn’t some random, arbitrarily defined Strava record – it was something that many great runners had used as a measuring stick and that could help us see how far we’ve progressed in the sport.
Mike was thrilled to learn of my attempt and was out there in multiple places cheering me on. He was the first person to donate to my fundraiser. Soon others will attempt to break my record, and that’s fantastic (and someone who will attempt it very soon was the second person to donate to my fundraiser). Without those attempts the record would no longer hold meaning, and once it is broken my time will have served its purpose – to propel us further in what we know to be possible.
So it was with all of that in mind – the people supporting me, the fell running community, and everyone else eagerly watching to see what’s possible, that I drew extra motivation throughout my run. I was not running just for me.
The next attempt will be very, very soon from a good friend and extremely strong runner. We originally planned on racing at the same time in opposite directions, but unfortunately our calendars didn’t align. I’ve shared my thoughts and experience with this person as best I could, but his comment that really struck me the most was just “thank you for showing that this is possible.” That single response to me sums up everything that these collective achievements are about. If he breaks it then that’s great, I’ll have done my part in pushing things a little bit further. There’s also no one out there I would rather see break it.
We do also have a friendly wager on the outcome, though. Yes, he has the big advantage of knowing what time he needs to beat me. But this person is also a number of years older than me so if he does break it I still have plenty of time to get the last laugh.
Update: it’s now no secret that this person is Damian Hall.
Difficulty vs. Demand
The Hartley Slam is admittedly a pretty crazy endeavor. Most people I’ve spoken with assumed that I would view the Grand Round as the bigger challenge. In terms of overall demand and cumulative stress, it no doubt would be in most circumstances. But in terms of difficulty, the Pennine Way is what was most intimidating to me.
Which is more demanding: running a marathon or running 100 meters? Clearly the former. Which is more difficult: completing a marathon or running a sub 10 second 100 meters? No doubt it’s the latter.
The Pennine Way record and the Grand Round are both high on difficulty and demand. Originally I would have given the edge to the Pennine Way on difficulty and Grand Round on demand, and I would have questioned whether either would reach the top of my rankings of things I’ve done (where Barkley sat for difficulty and Spine sat for demand). Given some of the unique stomach problems I encountered on the Pennine Way and the time I had to beat, right now I would say it sits alone at the top both in terms of difficulty and demand. I hope that it remains that way, if I can avoid the same problems on the Grand Round.
So I went into the Pennine Way knowing it would demand an incredible amount, but that the difficulty might still prove to be too much. There wasn’t a competitor that I could wait to falter or try to outwit – like Barkley there would just be the cold relentless scythe of a cutoff time, edging closer with every mistake or stumble I made.
True vs. Perceived Limits
I truly believe that we are all capable of so much more than we believe we are. In most things, we are so far from the edge of our true limits that we’re not even within sight of where they are. We have no idea what they look like and our perception of them has little meaning. Seven years ago I decided to try a marathon, thinking it would be cool if I could qualify for Boston one day. That gradually snowballed to where I am now, extending myself slightly further each time I reached a goal.
But I’m not a big fan of the saying “you can do anything you set your mind to.” I’ll never be able to dunk a basketball, or run that sub 10 second 100 meters, or draw anything exceeding an average 8 year old’s level of artistic skill. True limits do exist, and I’m now at the point where I can’t help but wonder if I’m within sight of mine. On most previous goals the internal question for me has been “can I do this yet?” rather than “can I do this ever?”
The question on the Pennine Way took the latter form for me and so my mindset had even further urgency, to show myself not only that I’m still capable of more now but also still capable of reaching further in the future.
Plans vs. Dreams
Building on the topic of limits, it’s always fun going into something like this to think about what the absolute best possible outcome could be: all the external and internal conditions are absolutely perfect and the outcome equivalent of a lottery win happens. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about how a sub 50 hour Barkley could be pulled off on the most recent course – absolutely perfect weather and start time, not a minute lost to nav or sleep issues, and one of those times when everything feels spot on in terms of fitness, fuel, etc.
But it’s incredibly dangerous to make plans that actually reflect that dreamy vision. The outcome is either a lottery win or disaster. I try to constantly remind myself of the likelihood of things going wrong and to account for those in my plans. I believe many who have attempted the Pennine Way have underestimated the unanticipated difficulties the trail can bring and how much those can accumulate over such a long distance.
In an ultra, bad things almost always will happen. The longer the run, the more likely and the more numerous they will be. A good plan must take these into account, giving away some time to them and having responses ready for the most common possibilities to minimize that time given away. The best plan is not for what I want to happen – that is a dream. The best plan is the one that gets me as close as possible to that dream outcome given what is likely to happen.
So before committing to this goal I had to make sure I was being realistic, that I really did have a shot at it given likely obstacles. Failure can serve a purpose and sometimes it’s worth it to aim high despite the odds, but pursuing a record of this magnitude takes a lot of time and energy (not only from me but from many supporters). In this case I did not want to be involved in a Quixotic effort, and I especially did not want my supporters to be wasting their time in futility.
Schedules vs. Deadlines
Once I’ve decided it’s possible, the task shifts to maximizing my chances. I can’t anticipate every obstacle, but I can certainly anticipate that I won’t anticipate everything. I believe some people were a bit confused by the schedule posted with my tracker, with a goal finishing time nearly 5 and a half hours ahead of the record. As I slipped against that schedule, the concern was that I would inevitably keep slipping as is often the case in these long efforts.
My entire plan revolved around strategically letting that schedule slip, but never falling behind on a deadline. I created the schedule as the optimal scenario – if I needed no sleep and ran into no issues and never stopped along the way. That then gives me a buffer, or what I like to think of as my bank account. I need sleep? Make a withdrawal. I run into a tough stretch of weather? Save my effort level and make a withdrawal. Conditions are unbelievably good and I’m feeling great? I prefer for my starting to balance to already be the optimal scenario, but maybe I can actually make a deposit.
How does the data nerd arrive at that starting balance? Well, with data of course! I had the advantage of having just done nearly the same route for The Spine Race. I took my splits from that, removed outliers where I knew I had stopped to sleep or dealt with some other issue, and calculated the moving average of my actual and my grade-adjusted pace (GAP). Then I looked at some of the best ever 72 hour track performances, people like Yiannis Kouros and Joe Fejes, and saw how their pace changed over time without all the extra variables introduced by a trail run and unpredictable weather.
From that, my Spine results, and knowledge of how I’ve responded in the past (e.g. the worst stretch for me is usually from about 60% – 80% complete, when I’m fatigued but the finish isn’t yet within sight), I determined a curve for my optimal grade-adjusted and then actual pace over the course of the Pennine Way. I also owe a big thanks to Karl Shields for helping me get some of the necessary information to create this.
The orange and blue lines are my Spine actual pace and GAP, respectively. The yellow and gray lines are what I viewed as my optimal target pace and GAP for the record attempt.
One obvious issue with this is that to my knowledge no one has yet constructed a wind-adjusted or bog-adjusted pace. Many issues on the Spine and on the record attempt could not be captured by elevation profile and fatigue alone. But I chose not to let perfection be the enemy of good, and went with the best I could do. My hope is that unpredictable weather and underfoot conditions would change frequently enough that they would be handled by the moving average.
With that, I calculated that I had roughly 5 hours and 15 minutes starting in my bank account – the difference between my optimal schedule and the actual deadline. I felt pretty good about that, and would not hesitate to make a withdrawal at whatever time was needed to ward off the sleep monster or other issues before they became attempt-ending disasters.
Preparation vs. Panic
Given the magnitude of the endeavor, and being able to see it clearly after doing all of my planning and analysis, it would be quite easy to go into a bit of a panic mode on training and preparation. I did this the first year I got into Barkley, where I ran around like a clueless idiot just thinking “where’s a hill, I need to go run up a hill, all the hills, up and down all day!” My Barkley training obviously improved over the years, but still retained an element of trying to cram in everything possible.
The truth is nearly everyone, including myself, ain’t got time for that. If I were a full-time professional athlete then sure I would have higher volume, more strength and cross training, etc. But like most people I have a job and a family. Past a certain point the added stress and the anxiety from trying to cram it all in and do things perfectly does more harm than good. My training for this topped out at a bit over 70 miles run per week, with total time spent across everything training related at about 10 hours. It’s all on Strava, or as luck would have it my coach just put out an article on this very topic. Over the past few months my fitness has definitely been at a spot well above anything it’s been at before, and I’ve been itching to use it for something.
Preparations complete, and nerdy schedule in hand, I headed off to the Peak District the evening before starting. I managed to make a nav error before even arriving – heading to the wrong Cheshire Cheese Inn (who would have thought there would be two places with the same name so close together, and not even in Cheshire?).
Unfortunately this meant I wasn’t able to get the massive amount of sleep I had intended. For once, though, I viewed that as a “nice to have” rather than imperative. Usually I’m averaging 5 or 6 hours a night and have no choice but to try to “cram” (doesn’t actually work) right before. This time I had had a solid month averaging 8+ hours, something I hadn’t done since right before my Barkley finish.
Edale to Lothersdale
Road support – Nicki Lygo
Pacers – Tim Budd, David Beales, James Ritchie, Suzy Whatmough, Carol Morgan, Mark Rochester, Steve Rhodes, John Knapp
I got up in the morning ready to go. My plan was to wake up without an alarm, get a quick breakfast, and head to the start – minimizing any amount of sleep deprivation going into it (a huge mistake I made before starting my Grand Round attempt). I started rather casually right on schedule at 10 AM.
The first section was remarkably uneventful. It was wetter than I was hoping for, but the conditions were generally good, I was feeling good, and we cashed in a bit on those conditions. We arrived at Torside Reservoir in about 2.5 hours, half an hour up on my schedule.
The Torside reservoir had been a source of worry for me for months. They were doing work on the dam and there was a diversion of about 1.5 miles. I had considered an inflatable kayak, going to the reservoir inlet and trying to wade across, and even swimming across. Finally, after many hours on the phone, I had been able to get in touch with the foreman of the works. They were incredibly helpful and were happy to let us through on a route that went to the bottom of the dam and back up some stairs – effectively just adding 100 feet or so of climbing.
We continued on at a steady pace, but backed off more towards my original target. About 6 hours in the weather also really turned: wind, rain, and clag all picking up with quite a bit of sloppiness underfoot. It no longer made sense to spend extra effort when I wouldn’t get maximal return on it.
Slowly I also began to realize that my stomach wasn’t behaving as expected. I continued taking in my usual steady stream of calories, but nothing seemed to really be working its way through my system. Gradually the bloating and cramping feelings increased, turning their way towards nausea.
I wasn’t yet at any sort of deficit, and I physically and mentally still felt strong. Our pace was great and we had avoided the first big nav error I had made in the Spine. I knew I would need to address the stomach issue, though, or it could end in disaster. I decided at the first opportunity for toilets I would make my first actual stop.
We did get an an unbelievable surprise, though, that at least for a moment made me forget my discomfort. Just as we reached Top Withins, the inspiration for Wuthering Heights, we got a fly-by from two Chinooks. And in one of those true “what are the chances?” moments, someone was filming us just as it happened. It was pretty incredible, and they even circled around for a 2nd pass.
Lothersdale to Middleton
Road support: Nicki Lygo
Pacers: Sam Booth, Julian Jamison, Matt Neale, Darren Moore, James Elson, Ry Webb
That first opportunity came at Lothersdale, about 100 km and 11.5 hours in. I ran to the toilet, and for the first time sat down. I then tried to get some easy liquid calories in and rest just for a bit, hoping my stomach would reset. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling any better, but I was still in a good spot and knew I had a large climb that would allow my stomach to continue settling a bit.
My first time sitting down. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
So I continued on as night fell for the first time. Even with the stop I was ahead of schedule. I decided to back off more, banking my progress and hoping to prevent any damage. I went largely by feel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that my feel continued to match my target schedule checkpoint after checkpoint. I wasn’t gaining or losing ground.
We climbed Pen-y-Ghent just as twilight started to show on the horizon. If I hadn’t have been ahead of schedule we would have hit it right at sunrise, but it was still a beautiful sight.
Descending was a bit of a double edged sword for me – I could do it extremely effectively but it risked further unsettling my stomach. I knew I couldn’t afford to give away that “free” time though, and we set off on a solid pace descending towards Horton.
Unfortunately the sunrise didn’t bring the boost to my energy levels that I had hoped. We continued on at a solid pace, but I felt I was likely going to need to make my first big withdrawal from my bank account in the form of a nap. At Hardraw, after I had clocked what I believe to be my 100 mile personal best in 19:50 (I’ve never done a “fast” 100 miler ), I went straight down in the back of my car for a 20 minute nap.
I didn’t exactly have the highest energy levels on the Cam High Road. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
With my first nap complete we headed up Great Shunner Fell. I could feel the increased energy and mental clarity from the rest, but my gut was still no happier with me. I was still moving well and trying to take in even a tiny stream of gel and other basic calories, but it wasn’t enough to be sustainable and I still didn’t feel like it was actually going anywhere in my system. I felt like I was driving towards a cliff with nothing that I could do.
We made our way to Tan Hill Inn, where fortunately it was much more pleasant than during the Spine, when Winter Storm Brendan had arrived just as I approached. I got a nice boost from seeing some of the well-known names in fell running there to cheer me on, with the biggest boost from seeing none other than Mike Hartley himself.
We set off through Sleightholme, an area that in the Spine had been completely underwater – no discernible path anywhere and just occasional stakes rising up out of the water to offer some reassurance on direction. There’s no telling how much time I had spent thrashing about in there. Fortunately James was spot on with nav and ended up just sacrificing himself once when he stepped straight into a waist deep bog.
During the Spine these posts were basically buoys guiding me down a channel. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Fortunately I know the landing is firm since James already tested it. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
The gut issues had really started to catch up to me, though, and I could feel the issue beginning to propagate to my physical and mental energy. Ry was essentially hand feeding me 20 calories every 10-15 minutes to try to get something into me, but again I felt it go in and it just sat there, sloshing around and doing nothing.
Finally, just before arriving in Middleton, I had to do something. I forced myself to vomit – what came out was a disgusting undigested bile with seemingly everything that had gone in my mouth. I cleaned myself up and carried on, desperately hoping that I had cleared the slate and could restart at Middleton.
Intermission – Middleton
Road support – Nicki Lygo, Sharon Dyson, Kim and Jayson Cavill
I don’t believe I have any pictures from Middleton. I think people might have been scared to take any. I’ve heard the term “corpse-like” used. Mike was there again, as was Martin Stone, and while they were of course incredibly supportive at the time I’ve been told by a number of people since that in all honesty many at Middleton thought I was done.
I don’t say this in some sort of look how tough I am sort of way – I was never in any medical danger and I can say with 100% confidence that I would have much rather never sunk to that state. I highly recommend avoiding the situation at all costs. But something was wrong with my gut. Not in any of the usual sort of ways – like I ate too much, or went out too hard, or got dehydrated, etc. I had done things right. But nothing worked – not my usual food, not my backup, not my backup backup or other random things crew had. For around 20 hours there’s no way that I had been averaging even 100 cals / hr. For what I did get down, I’m not sure my body actually absorbed much of it.
Looking back, I think the only explanation is that I did have some sort of minor bug or an issue that was external to the run itself. I’m no doctor (ok I am, but not that type of doctor) so this is nothing more than conjecture, but after months in isolation I have to wonder if my body was a bit more susceptible to some of the prevalent but typically harmless bugs that are out there.
Fortunately, Kim and Jayson Cavill (my biggest Spine rival) were there with a luxurious roadside palace. I made a huge withdrawal from my bank account, the kind that I’m sure Lloyd’s would have sent me half a dozen fraud protection messages about. I went down for 40 minutes, hoping that would be long enough to reset things and then allow me to get some decent food down. It didn’t.
But I did get a few bites down, and sitting around wasn’t going to help anymore. I still had money in my bank account and I could still move, so I got moving.
Middleton to Garrigill
Road support – Nicki Lygo, Sharon Dyson
Pacers – James Elson, Ry Webb, Martin Wilson, Paul Wilson
The next part was at least my favorite part of the route. Up the River Tees, by the Low Force and High Force waterfalls, the climb up Cauldron Snout, and then finally the arrival at High Cup Nick before descending into Dufton.
The portion of this section I don’t enjoy (I would enjoy it if not annoyed by the time it takes) is the boulder scrambling along the river just before climbing Cauldron Snout. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
But then Cauldron Snout never disappoints. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
One thing that had kept me focused and moving along was the accuracy with which my pace continued to match my target schedule. As I had continued to feel worse and worse, and the gut problem grew, and I could feel myself slowing down, I continued to move between checkpoints on time. My bank account was only shrinking when I stopped. With nearly unbelievable accuracy my actual degradation was matching my predicted degradation, so despite how I felt I knew I was still in it.
Do I know I can do it? No. But if I stop moving and ignore my plan then I know I won’t. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Many people have asked me if I ever thought I wasn’t going to make it. Honestly the thought never entered my mind. To be clear, I was constantly unsure. Never once did I know I was going to make it, but I also never thought that I wasn’t going to. I had done the work beforehand to plan out what I needed to do.
All I could do was keep moving from point to point on that plan. I was always looking ahead to the next checkpoint and focusing on not losing time against that portion of the schedule. If I had tried to look all the way to the end, it would have been simply overwhelming. My mind had no bandwidth for that and it could serve no useful purpose. Wasted thinking is wasted energy.
I arrived in Dufton in decidedly better shape than I had been in at Middleton, but I still was not getting many calories in and I now faced Cross Fell, the biggest climb of the route. And Cross Fell wasn’t shy about being Cross Fell – it was windy, rainy, cold, claggy, had nearly zero visibility… really the only change compared to the Spine was the lack of snow.
But the weather and the climb turned out to not be my biggest concerns – despite the conditions I had an unwelcome visit from the sleep monster. When I do these types of events my sleepiness manifests itself in one of three ways:
I’m sleep deprived, I know I’m sleep deprived, and I should feel sleep deprived, but I’m somehow completely wired awake.
Wow I’m tired, this really sucks, but I can keep moving. Maybe a bit of caffeine will help.
If I blink too long I’ll faceplant on my next step and pass out wherever I happen to be. There is nothing that will solve this other than sleep. I’ll try caffeine, and yelling at myself, and singing made up words to made up songs, and slapping myself across the face, but nothing on earth would be as wonderful as sleep.
I have yet to figure out why and when these phases happen. They’re not sequential, they can randomly jump from one to either of the others, and they’re not controlled by any stimuli. I do know there are certain hours of each day where I’m more susceptible to phase 3, but really the only reliable way I’ve found to snap myself out of phase 3 is to give in and close my eyes for 10-15 minutes. As far as ultrarunning goes, I don’t know if there’s anything I wish I could figure out more than how to avoid phase 3.
As I descended down the corpse road towards Garrigill I tried every trick I could to delay the inevitable onset of sleep. Ry continued to hand feed me a trickle of calories as my mind slipped away, but I half considered having him run ahead to see if the support vehicle could drive up the corpse road a bit. I envisioned flying into it full speed on the descent and crashing face first onto a mattress.
Garrigill to Byrness
Road support – Nicki Lygo, Sharon Dyson
Pacers – Martin Wilson, Jayson Cavill, Brian Melia, Elaine Bisson, Raj Madhas
At the bottom of the descent, Sharon Dyson awaited with another roadside palace. I decided to once again make a huge withdrawal and nap for 40 minutes, much bigger than planned. But now the risk equation had flipped – earlier on if I didn’t sleep enough I might crash and fall apart, now if I did get sizable sleep then I might be able to make it to the end on that single charge.
When I woke up I sat up and almost immediately stepped outside. I doubled over and started one of those gut wrenching vomit sessions that emptied out absolutely everything and left me dry heaving in tears for five minutes wondering if it was ever going to end.
When it was over, I finally had a clean slate. Whatever was wrong with me was likely still wrong, but I now had the opportunity to completely reframe my fueling based on that knowledge.
I looked down at my schedule. I was still in it; my account was not overdrawn. I didn’t want to use much more, though, to keep some for last minute emergencies. We continued on towards Alston at a good pace, where Ry finished up the longest pacer shift – about 17 hours long (exceeded of course by Nicki’s road support shift of, well, 64 hours and 46 minutes… plus driving me back to Edale).
Ry was replaced by Jayson Cavill. The next section is the one that he had completely chased me down on in the Spine, and there was no one I would rather have with me to get through the endless bog of Blenkinsopp Common and on to Hadrian’s Wall.
Unfortunately I wasn’t out of the woods on the sleep. I knew this was a time of day that was high risk for me, and was the same time that had resulted in me napping at Hardraw the previous day. I had to give in to shake it, even if just for 10 minutes.
What followed was a moment that for me I don’t think will ever be surpassed in terms of seeming like divine intervention in running. I saw a tiny rock outcropping and told Martin and Jayson that I was going to go nap under it for 10 minutes (I’m not sure why – it was wet underneath, and wet everywhere, and I was soaked through already). I started going towards it, when Jayson came back around the corner and said “hey there’s this guy up here with a tent who says you can sleep in it.” I went 10 meters further up the trail and there it was: a trailside palace. I fell into it face first with my feet hanging out the front.
Jayson hit all the right spots on all the right walls. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
When I woke up it was back on. Jayson led us with unbelievable accuracy along the boggy, indiscernible route and on to Greenhead. There the baton handed off to Brian and Elaine, who had the responsibility of getting me through what has traditionally been the toughest section for me – the next to the last.
Off to the races along the wall. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
The great thing, though, is that it started with something I had really been looking forward to – Hadrian’s Wall. In the Spine this part had been at night, and my mind had been in a complete fog. I had returned since to visit some sections with my family, but I greatly looked forward to redemption on this portion of the Pennine Way. I also hit 200 miles on this section with another personal best – 47:49.
Unfortunately the portion past Hadrian’s Wall is a bit of a slog for me. It seems to stretch on endlessly, through nondescript rolling moorland and overgrown boggy forest paths. The one highlight is Horneystead Farm. I resisted the urge to stop, but I got a welcome boost from my favorite sight along the trail. I will not stop for you, but I will stop for your dog. Or for your kid.
We made it to Bellingham without losing much time on the schedule. I looked ahead to Byrness, though, and estimated that I had made a bit of an error in my estimate in getting there. I had to move. I asked Nicki to be prepared for a quick nap at any road crossing, in case phase 3 of sleep deprivation reared its ugly head again.
Just before Padon Hill, it hit. I asked for a 20 minute nap. Nicki gave me 10. When I woke up she put on her serious face and said I could still do it, but that I needed to push. I immediately responded with, “why?” I trusted my schedule, and I trusted my legs going over the Cheviots. I just needed to stay awake, and somehow manage to get some calories here and there.
But probably moreso than the nap, Nicki’s warning snapped my mind back into focus. It was the Spine equivalent of seeing Jayson at Bellingham. The scythe of the cutoff time was in sight and still in relentless pursuit. I subconsciously tapped into my emergency reserves and began moving forward with the same resolve – fueled by desire yet dispassionately robotic.
Byrness to Kirk Yetholm
Road support – Nicki Lygo
Pacers – Howard Dracup, Max Wilkinson, John Knapp, Bob Neill
I arrived at Byrness ahead of schedule. Nicki had wanted at minimum 8 hours; I gave her closer to 9. We quickly went over the forecast, what needed to be done, and I refueled as best I could.
Last support point. Photo: Summit Fever Media
Howard and Max took over as we started the climb into the Cheviots. John and Bob would meet us in the hills with more water. Bob is the person I had run from in the Cheviots during the Spine, thinking his headtorch was Jayson in pursuit. I thought it was fitting to have him repeat that as part of the actual plan.
The initial climb went well. As mentioned before, I had faith in my legs. The biggest risk in my mind at that point was in re-entering phase 3 of sleep deprivation. As we moved over the first few miles I could see Howard and Max’s confidence grow as they saw me push along.
Their confidence grew enough that they were ok with a quick 10 minute nap at hut 1 when we were joined by John Knapp. If I had been close to not making it, or had been racing with someone right on my heels, I wouldn’t have stopped there. But I viewed it as a bit of an insurance policy. Unfortunately I didn’t get any sleep, though, and the time was not productive. I had to keep moving.
The next stretch was probably my least favorite of the course. I was given some beautiful sights as the sun went down, but after going 240+ miles somehow those 15 miles from about 20 down to 5 seem to be absolutely endless.
Suddenly, though (and probably just in time for it to no longer matter), my stomach had come back to life. It still felt nauseous, like I would hurl with one wrong bite, but it was actually hungry. It was growling. And it was like my body had suddenly realized what I had done to it and how little I had given it to do it with. I would eat a slice of pizza, and nothing would happen. It was like it just dropped down my throat and was instantly incinerated. My stomach continued growling as if nothing were there. Another. Same thing. Nothing would satiate it. But still the nausea was there, and this close to the finish I dared not over-consume.
We turned to do the out and back up the Cheviot, just as Mike Hartley had done. What had before seemed like a quick trip again seemed to stretch on endlessly. The weather again turned nasty – clag and rain and wind and almost zero visibility especially with a fading battery in my light. The end was within my reach, but it stubbornly would not let me grab it.
Somewhere on the Cheviot. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Finally, we reached the top. I gave it a good slap and turned to descend, hopefully out of the clag. I made one last decision to eliminate risk and quickly stopped in hut 2, just long enough to get a few calories and ensure gear was sorted for the final climb and the long descent into Kirk Yetholm. I had about 2 miles uphill, then 5 down.
One last tactical stop. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
Coming out of hut 2 in the Spine, my goal was to survive. Here, it was to use everything I had left to make it in as quickly as possible. In both cases, though, The Schill (the final climb) was every bit as annoying as its name sounds.
When I finally reached the top, I let loose. In the Spine I had been hobbling – blisters, a sprained ankle, other foot problems… I almost needed to crawl those last 5 miles. Here, I started sprinting past pacers. I was going on pure adrenaline. I paid for it at the bottom, where the increased intensity had reignited my nausea and it gave me one last dry heave for good measure before an unbelievably annoying rise in the road just before the finish. But it was worth it. I was there. From there I truly could crawl and still make it.
I should probably wait a while before doing the Pennine Way again, lest my wife get jealous of this wall. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
I touched the wall 64 hours and 46 minutes after leaving The Old Nags Head in Edale. I had actually done it, beating Mike Hartley’s time by 34 minutes.
I had also actually been looking forward to my plant pot seat at the finish, but I wasn’t sure if it would be there. In a cruel twist it was there, but only to taunt me. It had a plant in it of all things. Those extra few feet down to the ground were beyond laborious. It still amazes me how much our bodies can be pushed, but the second it knows things are over, it’s done. Sorry, recovery time has started. All muscles will be out of the office for the next 3 days.
Photo: Steve Ashworth Media
After getting to an actual seat, though, I honestly did feel much better than after the Spine. I was exhausted, sleep deprived, and my muscles were shot, but nothing hurt. Nothing felt like an injury, and there were no issues with my feet. I was already considering my position for the Grand Round, and I felt good about it.
But of course, it didn’t happen if it’s not on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/3769775433.
Beyond Kirk Yetholm (for now)
So what now? Well the obvious answer is The Grand Round, and the completion of The Hartley Slam. It will by no means be easy, but I’m feeling pretty good with where I am on it at the moment. I’ll focus on building my bike fitness while recovering from the running impact.
There have been the usual days in recovery where I feel like I’ve been hit by a train and gravity suddenly is 10x and I can’t peel myself off a mattress, but I’m beyond thrilled to come away from this with nothing that concerns me injury wise. Not even a little niggle. The biggest thing is that it took a couple of days still for me to regain my normal appetite and for sweet things to have any sort of appeal (for those familiar with the KrispyBo, you’ll recognize what a perplexing issue this is).
Beyond that? Who knows. I can’t say I won’t be back on the Pennine Way, but I think I do need a break from it. There are a lot of things I want to do, limited time to do them in, and as mentioned earlier something like this takes a huge chunk out of you physically and mentally, and in terms of schedule.
I am happy with my time on the route, but I can’t 100% say I’m content with it. I know I can do better, and for some of these routes that I really personally connect to, I’m not content to just do “good enough.” Without the puzzling gut issues, I could have certainly done better on this one. With better weather I could have done better. But the opposite side of that also applies: the weather could have been worse, I could have sprained my ankle early on like in the Spine, or I could have found myself facing one of the many other potential attempt-ending issues. The beauty of things this long is it’s almost never perfect; there’s always some amount of room to improve.
If we go back and look at my target pace vs. actual, I really did quite well. You can see in the chart below were I started a bit better than target, fell right onto target as the gut issues emerged around Lothersdale, and then fell a bit behind when I started napping at Middleton (since this is a moving average the naps are dispersed across many miles rather than appearing as single large spikes). In total I slept about 2 hours, most of which I view as having been vital but in different circumstances I think I could do less.
The blue line is the target GAP, with the orange the actual. The gray is the target pace, with the yellow the actual.
So I could do better. I would love to do better. The dreamer in me, rather than the planner, loves the magic of that 60 hour threshold. But that would take absolutely perfect internal and external conditions, and I have to ask myself whether the risk / reward is good enough compared to other things that I can do.
But there again, if the record gets snatched away from me within days of posting this, then all bets are off.
This might be the simplest gear and nutrition section I’ve ever done. Please note that I do have relationships with many of these companies. These can be found on my Partners page, along with some discount codes and affiliate links. If you consider purchasing anything I would greatly appreciate those links being used – if I’m lucky it might even provide enough to cover the costs of hosting this website.
For shoes, I was in the new La Sportiva Jackal the entire time. They were amazingly comfortable and did very well on the terrain. I did use the heel-lock-loop lacing technique to prevent any slipping, which ended up rubbing a bit of a raw spot on the front of my ankle, but not enough to bother me during the run. If I had added some preventative tape there as I did on my achilles I’m sure it would have been fine. I’ll continue using these for any long runs that aren’t overly technical, for the most part replacing where I would have previously used the Akasha.
Perhaps the most amazing gear performance from this was my socks. I wore two pairs – a pair of XOSKIN toe socks with a pair of their non-toe socks over top. Never once did I even remove the socks. 260 miles and nearly 65 hours of being soaking wet and running through bogs, and I never even took them off much less changed them. I ended up with two small toe blisters, neither of which I felt while running.
My feet were also no doubt helped by my Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, which stayed in place the entire time and kept the dirt and grit from the bogs out of my shoes. I don’t see gaiters in the UK nearly as often as in the US, probably because there’s less sizable debris (rocks, sticks, etc.), but over that distance keeping even the small grit out is important.
I also wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends that my pacers didn’t carry. On the few occasions that I used poles, I had Ultimate Direction FK Poles (collapsible).
I used a Coros Vertix that was loaned to me for the attempt. I mainly used it because of its battery life, but I did charge it just a bit once along the way. I’m not entirely sure that it would have died without a charge given the tendency of many of these things to lose charge non-linearly, but it said it had about 30% remaining and I had closer to around 40% left on the run. Still, that was a big improvement over other options, and maybe a bit more optimization could have gotten it all the way (HR sensor was turned off, but I know with some watches even what is being displayed can affect battery life). The nav seemed to work quite well, without any of the issues of trying to cut corners like I’ve had other devices do.
Nutrition is obviously an interesting topic on this run. I don’t blame my nutrition for what happened to my gut, but rather for managing to somehow keep me going once things did go so far south. I have never in my life experienced anything like that, and I hope I never again do. Of course nearly every ultrarunner has encountered gut issues before, but the intensity and duration of this was unbelievable. Seemingly every step of the ~50 hours from Lothersdale to hut 1 in the Cheviots was a battle against nausea, and I see no possible way I got down more than 100 cals / hr over that stretch.
I started out at the very beginning with my usual strategy of Hammer gel flasks plus a bottle of Perpeteum leaving each support point (Hammer is now available in the UK), supplemented with a variety of homemade and store bought normal food.
When things were at their worst, I was down to essentially just taking small sips from my flask of Hammer gel, my pacers correctly pointing out that it was the easiest calories and the most efficient in terms of converting what little I could get down into energy. Fortunately this is exactly what Hammer targets – the quickest absorbing and longest lasting fuel without the added sugars that might taste good but can exacerbate stomach issues and uneven energy levels.
I also relied on Hammer’s Endurolytes to keep my salt levels balanced, and Endurance BCAA+ and Anti-fatigue Caps to keep me going over the long haul.
And there’s a movie!
I’m not shy about my mixed feelings on media for these types of things, but I can say without hesitation that Matt and Ellie Green at Summit Fever Media and Steve Ashworth do everything in absolutely the right way. On top of that, they produce great stuff. I was thrilled to work with them on a film they’re producing on the Pennine Way record and I’m eagerly anticipating its release already before I even know the outcome of Damian’s attempt.
To help cover production costs the film is available for pre-order here: https://summitfevermedia.com/pennine-way-fkt, with November 2020 as download date!
The post John Kelly Crushes the 31 Year Old Pennine Way FKT appeared first on The Ultimate Direction Buzz.