Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 31 - John Kelly - FAILURE IS FEEDBACK - Part 1 of 3

I've discovered quite a bit about myself in terms of weaknesses and strengths that I have, really pushing yourself right to that brink. You know, it magnifies all of your strengths and weaknesses, things that I would have never otherwise noticed become just absolutely plain as day.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 31 - John Kelly - FAILURE IS FEEDBACK - Part 1 of 3

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“I've discovered quite a bit about myself in terms of weaknesses and strengths that I have, really pushing yourself right to that brink. You know, it magnifies all of your strengths and weaknesses, things that I would have never otherwise noticed become just absolutely plain as day.” This episode of the Smart Athlete Podcast is brought to you by Solpri, Skincare for Athletes. Whether you're in the gym, on the mats, on the road or in the pool, we protect your skin so you're more comfortable in your own body. To learn more, go to JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast, I'm your host, Jesse Funk. Today, my guest has a pretty cool list of credentials. He's one of only 15 people to have ever finished the Barkley marathons. The S is important on that, don't think it's just one marathon. He's a Guinness world record holder for the fastest marathon, dress as a video game character, we're definitely gonna talk about that. Funny enough, he made sure to have me include he as a slow swim on record and a sub nine-hour Ironman. He's also the 2018-19 long course age group world champion. He’s a chief analytics officer at Envelop Risk, which we're going to definitely get into some of the data analytics and data science here later, and he's a father of three. Welcome to the show, John Kelly. JOHN: Thanks for having me. JESSE: John, you got a lot going on. So, I think we're going to take probably a whole time trying to unpack what's going on with you. JOHN: All right. JESSE: So, can you give me a little bit of background. I mean, you seem like you predominantly do ultras, I think I read you have, relatively speaking, retired with triathlon. How do you get from triathlon to ultras? Or how do you really get in ultra at all? I always ask that of people just, most people don't look at 100 mile race and say, yeah, that's something I want to do. And as you know the starting line is not going to be near as packed as even just a regular marathon. JOHN: Yeah. So, I mean, I think for most people, it's a bit of a snowball effect. And it definitely was for me as far as racing these types of things. You know, I'd always wanted to see what I could do in a marathon. And finishing up grad school, I just went ahead and signed up for one without having really ran a race much for 10 years. And I did that, it didn't go too well. But gradually, I just said yeah, I can go faster and then it became I can go farther. And then eventually I kind of discovered that people actually go have these long races on trails. I spent a good deal of my time backpacking and doing through hiking and kind of running myself on the trails, and I never knew that this whole world existed. So, that was pretty exciting to find and now once I got going in it, it just-- so a great challenge and a great community and even at worst on your worst race, it's a fun day out in the mountains. JESSE: So, I mean, what's the train of thought there? Is it like, well, I did a marathon, I can go a little bit longer and you just-- Is it a gradual step or do you go for a marathoning to say, oh, heck like I’m just gonna go the whole way? JOHN: Yeah. So, I think different approaches work best for different people. I've kind of been always one of those just dive right in, see how well I can do and then I can kind of calibrate my goals from there. So, I said, I came out of grad school, the longest I'd ever raised was a 10K, which was a decade earlier and I signed up for a marathon. About a year after that I decided I wanted to try triathlon. So, I signed up for an Ironman. And I actually started applying to Barkley before I had done an official ultra. Like I said, I'd done a lot of kind of backpacking and what people call fat ass runs, but nothing in the way of an official ultra. JESSE: Okay, so it’s just like almost a natural kind of hopping from one thing to another in terms of being exposed to it and then thinking, okay, let's give it like try not worrying too much about it's daunting or anything like that just like, yeah, we'll figure it out. JOHN: Yeah, and I mean, for me, it's a quicker way of kind of getting to your potential. Rather than just taking baby steps, I can use that first, what is likely to be a massive failure to kind of figure out where I am. And from there, then I can start to adjust and kind of make realistic goals and expectations, accepting I'm going to fall on my face the first time. JESSE: Right. I kind of have a similar philosophy. So, I run a couple of businesses and so anytime I'm doing something new, whether it be a new product or completely new venture, I'm like yeah, I’m gonna screw up like I just accept that something's gonna go wrong no matter how well you plan like, something will go wrong. And as you as long as you plan that something's gonna go wrong, it's not a surprise and then you just adjust from there. Do you feel like that's just a matter of being really, really analytically minded for you that that kind of mindset comes along or is it something you developed? JOHN: I think it's kind of two different things. There's a risk-taking side of it, but then also just the enjoyment of a challenge, of seeing a challenge as an opportunity. And I think that having sort of an academic or sorry, analytical or engineering, type mindset, those two things are correlated a good bit. Like when you look at people who have had success at Barkley, most of them have this kind of background and some form of science or engineering. So, it's just this mindset that I'm going to set a goal and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get there. JESSE: So, tell me a little bit about Barkley, so for the people watching YouTube or listening, can you kind of give explain what the races and then tell me a little bit what's going on out there. JOHN: So, it's a race and Tennessee right near where I grew up, and you have 60 hours to finish. It’s five loops through through the mountains, mostly off trail entirely unmarked course. It's it's around 70,000 feet of climbing over the course the race now and probably around 130 miles. He says that it's 100, but everyone knows that that's off by a pretty large amount. So, only 15 people, including myself have had finished the race and it's one of those where the cutoff is and the difficulty of the race are set just where it's right at that edge of a few what's humanly possible. JESSE: So, I had kind of some curiosities about the race is. Is the course the same every year or is it redesigned every year? JOHN: No, he changes it, sometimes by varied amounts. I’ve have done it four times now, and in those years, there have been some years where he made some changes, just to be sure no one perfectly need the course. But you can kind of debate whether how much harder those changes made the course. And other years where typically after someone finishes he adds notable difficulty to the course. If you seen the documentary, three people finished that year, the following year, two people finished and then the year after that he added a section that you know, most people estimate for the leaders would add about 40 minutes per lead. So, about three hours total over the course of the race. JESSE: I mean so what's the allure I guess since you’ve done it four times? What's the allure for you have I mean a constantly changing course? I think for some people, we would think okay, I want to know the course I want to know, kind of what I'm getting myself into, as far as how difficult it’s going to be, how long it actually is, since that's up for debate. Why go back to a race story you have not entirely known expectations of what's going to happen? JOHN: I mean, that's part of the challenge and part of the excitement. A big allure of sport, I think is the sort of the uncertainty in it of not knowing the outcome, that's why we play the game. So, having that out there really adds a significant amount of uncertainty to it, even more so than you would find in an ultra culture or any endurance type event. And for me, that adds to the challenge and it makes it sort of like a puzzle to solve. Which again, kind of coming from this engineering and analytical mindset is quite fun. JESSE: So, clearly, I would say, I mean, you're not going out there and just freewheeling it. You do some kind of preparation. And you know, as you complete the loops, I know you can kind of stop in. I think you have support with you to kind of check in on your health and make sure you're ready to go for another lap. What kind of prep for you goes into getting ready for essentially the unknown? JOHN: Yeah. I mean, you're definitely not going to go out there and just wing it. You want to prepare yourself as best as possible. And again, the race is up to where it's just right at the edge of what is possible under the assumption that you have prepared yourself properly so if you haven't prepared yourself then there's no way. Again, kind of referring back to the documentary, John ?? 12:15> the guy that finished third that year, I have little doubt that at that time he could have drawn you a full topographic map of a ?? 12:25> where the race takes place. He had studied it so well, and newest so precisely by memory. So, there's a great deal of studying maps, studying race reports from both successes and failures in the past, and training yourself both physically and mentally, for that type of challenge. JESSE: I’m kinda wondering, I read that in the last two years, there's been nobody that completed. Kind of wondering, do you think it's the race director’s goal to have nobody ever complete it from here on out or what's the motivation for holding the race for him, do you think? JOHN: No, he definitely wants it to be right at that edge around 1% which he's had so far. And so as people get better at preparation, has this sort of collective knowledge of the area, of the course of the best strategies to finish, as gear improves, as training improves, nutrition, lighting, all of these things that have really added to what people are able to do out there. That's sort of offset by the difficulties to the course. So, the goal isn't to-- the goal is to keep it at the same relative level of difficulty as all of these things happen. And so that's an interesting thing to me with kind of the big recent discussion on like the vapor flies and the other things that are happening ?? 14:19> that give this enormous performance benefit. And, of course, going back to my triathlon background, that's an arms race in terms of technology, and aerodynamics on the bike and everything else. So, people are taking advantage of these things to keep getting faster. Whereas Barkley essentially nullifies that argument by just becoming a proportionate amount more difficult. JESSE: Right, yeah, it’s his own arms race in a way where he's correcting for any kind of advantage that might be had via preparation or equipment. JOHN: Right. And I guess the other aspect of that is he wants it to be where if someone does finish, they've given everything and he’ll even say that the ones that finish are the ones that kind of get robbed of finding out what your limit is because that's the goal to have it be just hard enough to where everyone can go out there and find what their true limit is. JESSE: I mean, it sounds like more of a philosophical journey via running which I can empathize with, certainly. So, I mean, what do you learn from failure since-- I mean, the whole idea is that 99% of people that go out there are not going to I’ll say succeed depending on how you define success. What do you learn from failure by going out there at all? JOHN: Yeah, so that's a great question. And I think everyone takes away slightly different lessons from that. For myself, I've discovered quite a bit about myself in terms of weaknesses and strengths that I have, really pushing yourself right to that brink. You know, it magnifies all of your strengths and weaknesses, things that I would have never otherwise noticed become just absolutely plain as day. And then when I take those back through life, some problem that matters that a bit more than running circles through the woods, I'm able to apply those lessons. So, it's not just about learning lessons of how to succeed better at the race next time. That's definitely been the case. Both my first two failures at the race, I learned things that helped me succeed the third time. But there's definitely more that you take away from it than what you learn by just going out and achieving success on the first go. Go to Part 2 Go to Part 3

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