John Kelly says Wainwrights new speed record was never about the record – iRunFar
If you ask the current Lake District record holder, England’s peak 214 Wainwrights Roundhe’ll tell you that breaking the record – by a captivating 12-hour margin – has nothing to do with the record.
John Kelly, an American who has been living in England for a few years, is a family man and a professional. He’s a data scientist by day, an all-hours father of four, and in a way, an accomplished ultrarunner in spare seconds. He is now also the fastest person to run the punishing Wainwrights Round, at five days, 12 hours, 14 minutes and 42 seconds (unofficially as of this writing).
According to him, the record was never the explicit goal.
“I’m more satisfied with a performance that I know is the best but is not an FKT [fastest known time], rather than the other way around,” Kelly said. “I had it the other way – where I barely got an FKT, but in the end I’m like, ‘Wow, I could have raced better.’ I am less happy with this result.
Call the Wainwrights record the best of both worlds.
My interview with Kelly is only in its first few seconds, but I’m about to find that measuring progress quantitatively and qualitatively is a common refrain for the 37-year-old. You might expect it from a man who describes his job as “looking at series of numbers and identifying patterns.” Or of the 15th finisher in the history of the notorious Barkley Marathons.
The suffering experienced as a motivation
Kelly used every tool in the motivation box to secure the Wainwrights Round speed record on May 7. The route requires about 360 miles of travel and some 123,000 feet of elevation gain, according to stats Kelly’s watch gathered during his effort. In England’s Lake District, the 214 peaks range from 3,209 feet (Scafell Pike) to 950 feet (Castle Crag). The effort begins and ends at the historic Moot Hall in Keswick, Cumbria, England.
He said low morale was common throughout the 132-hour effort.
“You hit so many low points on a race like this,” he said. “You have to trust that you can get out of this. The cumulative benefit of my experience for races like these has been learning over and over again that it doesn’t always get worse.
“It’s especially important as you push the distance longer and longer and the lows you hit get deeper and deeper,” he added.
For Kelly, using her past experiences to contextualize the present is vital. Remembering past races helps him interpret his current state. He can use the technique to measure everything from suffering to remaining distance.
“Knowing that I’ve been through worse than now and come out the other side helps me think, ‘OK, I can do this too,'” he said. “I also tend to break things down into units that are more familiar to me.”
For example, Kelly often thinks of race or segment distances in terms of Barkley Marathons loops. And he methodically marks the half distances.
“I’m going to split it in half. If you start at 100, you reach 50 and say, “Oh, I’m halfway there. Then you hit [the next] 25, and you get there much sooner than you hit 50. So as you get more and more tired and get closer to the end, the distances that boost your progress also get smaller.
Past Efforts and Successes Through Support
To succeed this year, Kelly would rely on the Wainwrights’ experience and simultaneously attempt to crush it. In July 2021, hot, humid weather conspired to turn his feet to mud halfway through his first Wainwrights attempt.
The Wainwrights generally feature awful weather. The reigning women’s record holder and former overall record holder is Kelly’s teammate at La Sportiva Sabrina Verjee. She aborted a May 2021 attempt due to unseasonably cold weather, later securing the record (five days, 23 hours and 49 minutes).
Kelly supported Verjee in the failed effort. He claimed that the help of a strong community is essential to the success of a sustained racing goal like the Wainwrights Round.
“Getting a support team you trust 100% is huge,” he said. “Especially people on the road who can manage things like support runners to make sure there’s nothing you have to think about other than carrying on – one foot in front of the other.”
So he graciously credited his success this year to his team, calling himself “the witness” in a relay of crew and support riders. He also described the Wainwright pioneers that predated his efforts.
“I view records like this as collective and team efforts. There’s absolutely no way I would have done this without the support team I had,” he said. “There’s no way I would have done it without Sabrina’s success. Or without what Paul Tierney and Steve Birkinshaw and Joss Naylor before she managed to plan, refine and push this path every year.
Passing the baton in the Wainwrights
Kelly pointed to a running heritage that appears to date back to 1981 when Chris Bland managed to reach the top of all the Wainrights in a week.
The set of Lake District peaks had first been compiled by Alfred Wainwright in his 1950s book Illustrated Guides to the Lakeland Fells. In 1987, Joss Naylor set the long-standing record for the lap, which he completed in seven days, one hour and 25 minutes.
Steve Birkinshaw then refined the route through a massive planning and orientation effort and in 2014 reset the record to six days, 13 hours and one minute, before Paul Tierney reduced it further in 2019, to six days, six hours and five minutes. .
The Lake District is almost entirely free-access, so you can run wherever you want; Running is not synonymous with running. So, in theory, determining a route means exhausting all inferior possibilities of getting between points A and B.
“That’s what makes running so cool to me,” Kelly said. “When the task is, ‘I have to go from this peak to this other peak’, and how you do it is entirely up to you, finding the best route between 214 peaks is an extremely complex task. But it [Birkinshaw] did, and he created a great route.
Ultimately, Kelly wants her new record to inspire runners to enjoy it – is that the right word for a tough endeavor like this? – the route as he did. Rather than an inert criterion, he wants the new standard to be a catalyst for activity.
“I wanted to go out there and leave the best possible performance on the course,” he concluded. “The weather I posted is hopefully a great reference for other people to aim and plan for, but hopefully it won’t put people off trying.
“It’s a great course. I hope people will come out and take advantage of it and aim for what is best for them personally.
Call for comments
This is the perfect time to leave your congratulations to John Kelly and his support team in the comments section!