Finishing the World's Toughest Endurance Events: A Guide to Resilience with John Kelly

Boomer Anderson
July 22, 2020
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John Kelly holds a spot in the Guinness World Book of Records, is a Chief Technology Officer, and is the 15th person to finish the Barkley Marathons. John shares stories on how he trained for the Montane Spine Race, surviving the Barkley, and how he still has time for family at the end of the day.

Who is John Kelly?

John Kelly is an ultrarunning data scientist, father of three with a former triathlon habit. He is the Chief Technology Officer of Envelop Risk, and to support his ability to do that day job with a clear mind he runs, bikes, and hikes. He also used to be a pretty serious water skier and World of Warcraft player.

John has been running most of his life. In high school he was a good, but not a great runner. During college and grad school, John essentially took a full decade off from the sport. After grad school, he rediscovered his love of the mountains on a road trip out west that included hiking the John Muir Trail with his incredible wife Jessi.

John ended up running the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon, and it was an absolute disaster. It was his first race in 10 years, his longest race by 20 miles, and his training had been horribly insufficient. Of course, immediately after that, John said, “I think I can do better” and signed up for another.

John has always been a math and computer person who enjoys finding patterns and automating complex processes. An opportunity at a startup, where there was less bureaucracy and John would have more influence over research and applications, was something he couldn’t walk away from. In the summer of 2015, around the same time that he got serious about ultrarunning and triathlons, as he made the jump to become the Director of Analytics at QxBranch, a data analytics startup in downtown DC. That startup partnered with a company in the UK to create another startup, Envelop Risk, that could better deliver that product to customers and insurance partners.


[3:30] Setting a world record

[7:30] The appeal of data science

[9:55] Returning to running

[15:44] Thriving at the Barkley Marathons

[22:30] How ultra resilience transfers to everyday life

[30:06] The biggest mistakes people make with marathons

[36:15] John’s training regimen

[43:50] Sleep optimization for performance endurance

[49:45] Use data in the training

[55:38] Maintaining work-life balance


The Barkley Marathons Documentary

Barkley Marathons

Upper Kelly Camp

David Roche -Training For Busy Athletes

Garmin Forerunner 945

The Bible

Episode Transcript

Boomer Anderson: [00:00:00]Welcome to Decoding Superhuman. This show is a deep dive into obsessions withhealth performance, and how to elevate the human experience. I explore thelatest tools, science and technology with experts in various fields of humanoptimization. This is your host Boomer Anderson. Enjoy the journey.

Today on the podcast, we're talking the Barkley marathonssetting world records life as a CTO and work life balance with John Kelly. Youguys know that I am a huge fan of minimum effective dose exercise. This means Iuse devices like the flex beam, be strong and Carol to get all of my workoutsdone in just a very little amount of time.

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Show's come a long way, but I remember those episodes very,very fondly. Let's move on with the conversation. John Kelly is the 15th personever to finish the Barkley marathons. When you have time, head on over toNetflix and watch the documentary in your understand, just how amazing that is.He's also finished the spine.

He has a family with multiple kids and he's a CTO by day.Just how does he do it? Well, that's the subject of today's podcast. We get an,a work life balance training and how John gems all of this into his day inBristol. You can check out the show notes. this one, but let's get onto this absolutely thrillingconversation with the 15th person ever to finish the Barkley marathons.  John Kelly.

John, welcome to the show.

John Kelly: [00:03:27]Thanks for having me on forward to.

Boomer Anderson: [00:03:30]So I want to start things off because you set set a world record, a Guinnessworld book of records for running the fastest marathon in a costume. What wasthe costume? And what made you decide to try to do this?

John Kelly: [00:03:46]So it was fastest dressed as a video game character, which is oddly specific,uh, get the Guinness website.

There's a, there are actually quite a few, uh, oddlyspecific, uh, marathon records. They kind of make an event out of it at a few.I think, uh, the London marathon, Berlin and Toronto, they actually go outthere and there. People sitting all sorts of them. Um, and so this is somethingthat I had the Boston marathon, which had been, uh, a long time goal of mine.

It's actually the reason I got back into running, uh, aftergrad school. Uh, but it happened that when I was able to get into it and run,it was two weeks after the Barclay marathons. And so I thought to myself, well,I'm, I'm clearly not going to. Get a personal best time or anything here. Whatcan I do?

That's that's still going to be fun. Uh, still going to giveme a bit of a challenge. And so I got to looking and, uh, found all of theserecords out there and, uh, the video game one, uh, really, uh, appealed, uh, tothe nerd in me and specifically, uh, The legend of Zelda is the one that Ialways loved growing up.

So I dressed up in a tunic, like link, which most peoplethought was legless or an elf or something else, and went out there and ran theBoston marathon.

Boomer Anderson: [00:05:15]Excellent. And before we get into Barkley marathons and your marathon career, Iwas reading a bit about your background and you have an interesting.

Well, I wouldn't say it's interesting because it links alittle bit to my grandparents in some ways, but your, you mentioned yourgrandparents had significant influence on you and kind of who you became as aperson. Do you mind going into that a little bit?

John Kelly: [00:05:43]Yeah. So I, I think I do have a fairly, uh, unique background and, uh, the, thetwo sides of my family, uh, are, are very different.

Uh, so, uh, it's, it's best. It's kind of a,  looking at my grandfather's with, with one ofthem. Uh, had a, uh, PhD, uh, and nuclear physics, uh, from MIT, he studiedunder a Nobel Laureate, uh, moved to Tennessee to work at one of the nationallabs is there, uh, and the, the other one graduated from eighth grade andworked in the coal mines and a prison guard and everything else that was neededto.

Uh, make ends meet and support his family, uh, out there andkind of the through rural Appalachian, uh, type setting. And so, um, I'mequally proud of both of those. So it's, I've learned a lot, uh, from bothgrowing up, um, both in terms of my intellectual curiosity and hard work. And Ithink also. Uh, always kinda trying to, to keep an open mind and being able tosee things from multiple, multiple perspectives.

Uh, I was surrounded by these very differing perspectives,uh, the, the entire time that I was growing up and, and was always searchingfor the merit and in both of them. And typically there. There always was, uh,something to take away from, from both sides.

Boomer Anderson: [00:07:21]And I love the fact that you said Appalachian because you and I were discussingbeforehand, my parents live there now, and it's just, it's refreshing to hearsomebody pronounce it the, the local way, um, would love, how did you come intodata science then that.

John Kelly: [00:07:45]You know, I kind of just ended up that way on my path through school, uh, thatI, I don't know that data science was officially a term yet. Uh, yeah. Yeah,definitely. I guess I just walked into it. Uh, so I majored in electrical andcomputer engineering, uh, and. My, my research, uh, for my master's and, andfor my PhD.

Uh, really leveraged a lot of machine learning. So it wasdoing a lot of, uh, predictive modeling, uh, specifically in healthcare. Sobeing able to, uh, predict which, uh, rehabilitation techniques would be bestfor a particular patient or, uh, Decoding neural signals to control prostheticswith, with a brain computer interface.

And so it's, it was really those particular applications,um, that drew me, uh, into machine learning. And at the time machine learningwas just a tool, uh, for, uh, what I wanted to get done and what was reallyclose for Lee related, uh, to my work. And. Uh, computer engineering andsoftware. Uh, and then from there, I kind of that became the platform and, andrather than, uh, the application determining which tool I needed to use, thetool opened me up to this whole huge range of other applications.

And I guess that's where I really became a, a. Datascientist and started applying that to healthcare and defense and finance andcyber risk and insurance and everything else. Hmm.

Boomer Anderson: [00:09:34]You mentioned. And when we were speaking earlier that getting back and, youknow, you had this break from running and then you got back into it.

I believe through the Marine Corps marathon. What made youdecide, Hey, I want to come back to running. What was the motivation there?

John Kelly: [00:09:55]So it was, as I was finishing up my PhD and. I had always wanted to see what Icould do at longer distances. You know, I ran track and cross country in highschool and I always did better.

Uh, the longer the distances were. Uh, but I felt like theykind of never were long enough for me to really maximize my potential. And so I,I wanted to see what I could do in a marathon. And as I was finishing. Gradschool. It was just kind of one of those moments in life where you're thinkingabout where you are.

And I thought, you know, if I'm going to see what I can do,I need to do it now. You know, I'm not going to be young forever. And so I, um,I, that spring as I was finishing, I, I signed up for the Marine Corps marathonin the fall and, uh, went from there. And was it. You hear about these peoplegetting kind of almost addicted did to these types of races.

Was it for you more or less? Like, Hey, I really enjoy this.I'm going to keep doing it. Was it that addiction type feeling or was thereanother reason why you decided to continue on and on? It was, it was really asnowball effect. Um, and that, you know, I, I did the Marine Corps marathon. I,it didn't go all that well for me, I pretty much, uh, just hobbled the lasteight miles.

Uh, and after the race, I kind of looked at it and I said,you know, I didn't prepare for this properly. I, I didn't train the way Ineeded to, if my goal here is to find out what I'm capable of. Uh, I, Icompletely failed at that goal. Uh, so I need to try this again. I need totrain better and really see what I can do here.

And, um, I did that a couple more times and then, uh,eventually kind of figured out that, Hey, um, I'm not all that bad at this. Seewhat my limits really are. Uh, and, um, I still haven't quite satisfied that interms of seeing what I can do.

Boomer Anderson: [00:12:11]So at what point did you say, like, Hey, I want to do the Barkley marathons.

I want to do the spine race. What point did you say theseare? Targets of mine?

John Kelly: [00:12:22]So the Barkley is, is something that had interested me for awhile, uh, goingback to before I started running again. Um, and you know, when I first reallylearned about it, uh, in any amount of detail, I said, wow, that's, that's kindof cool.

Uh, and it's, it's also right across the street from where Igrew up. That's awesome. Um, but you know, that. That'll never happen. I'llnever do something like that. And again, it was just kind of this progressiveas I, um, got back into running and as I started doing better and better, itjust kind of grew as this little idea in my mind.

Well, you know, maybe I could do this. Maybe, maybe I shouldgive it a shot and see what happens. And so I, I was able to get in and, uh,that's. Again, things kind of snowballed from there. And I discovered the, uh,really unique aspects of those types of challenges where you're out there atyour, but not only your physical, but your mental limit for hours and sometimesdays on end.

And that's where I think, uh, I'm, I'm really able to, togrow, uh, both as an athlete and a person and learn stuff about myself that otherwise.It would never be in a situation, uh, to learn. Uh, so, you know, I, again, Icontinued from there, the Barclay, the spine, uh, toward his yacht, uh, otherraces like that.

It's um, yeah. You know, that, that aspect of the challenge.And then on top of it, I get to explore a lot of really cool, uh, places, uh,in a short amount of time, which, you know, time is something I don't have alot of.

Boomer Anderson: [00:14:11]And wow, you're opening yourself up to a lot of questions there. Uh, the snowballeffect. In building into the Barkley.

What did that look like in terms of both training, but alsoin sequence, if you will, because were you working with a coach at all? Are wekind of figuring this all out?

John Kelly: [00:14:33]I was definitely figuring it all out myself and, and that first year inBarkley, I, I had no idea what I was doing, uh, when I. Got into the race.

This, this was before the big original Netflix documentary.So it wasn't, uh, as popular, well known as it is now. Um, but when I got in, Iwas still a bit surprised. Uh, and I kind of just said, well, what do I do now?I need to find a Hill. Where's the Hill. I'm going to go run up that Hill. Andlike every Hill I could find, I looked on Google maps for all of the steepestgradients near where I lived and just went and ran up and down Hills, uh, everychance I could.

Uh, and it, it wasn't the best in terms of, uh, timeefficiency. It wasn't the best in terms of training. Um, but you know, it wasa. It was a step in that direction. And a lot of that, a lot of my progressionhas been, uh, increasing my, my own efficiency, uh, in training as I've gonethrough this.

Boomer Anderson: [00:15:44]For those who are listening to this and are wondering what the Barkleymarathons are, aside from the Netflix documentary, which we'll of course linkto in the show notes, how would you describe it for people?

John Kelly: [00:15:56]Uh, so it is. Well, the, the literal description is you have 60 hours. Uh, itis tagged as a 100 mile race, but everyone will say it's closer to 130. Um,there's a total of about 70,000 feet of climbing. It's all off trail. Well,Mostly off trail, it's all unmarked. Um, you're dealing with, with briars andwhether that can swing from, uh, freezing to, you know, over 27 Celsius, 80Fahrenheit, uh, within a 12 hour, uh, timeframe.

Uh, and it's, you don't even know the full course, uh, untilthe evening before the race. Uh, so it's, it's a huge mental and physicalchallenge. Only 15 people have finished. I'm coming up on. 30 years now, um, Iguess a little over 30 years. Uh, and it's it, it really pushes you to you'reabsolutely edge. And the, I think the biggest thing about it is there's so manythings, uh, that can potentially go wrong.

So many variables that it's impossible. Uh, to fully plan itout beforehand. It's impossible, uh, to perfect yourself in every single area.And the races is going to find your weakness. Uh, and it's, it's going to tryto beat you there.

Boomer Anderson: [00:17:38]you mentioned that as sort of the literal description, how would you describeit if you were just kind of shooting the shit with friends, so to speak?

John Kelly: [00:17:48]Yeah, I got into to that a little bit there, the, the end of that description.Um, but you know, I would just sum it up as a challenge that, uh, is, is goingto be, uh, mentally and physically at your edge. And, and really, uh, it it'sone where. You're probably going to fail. And one of those, you know, kind oflike the really old school video games where, where you can't ever beat it, thegoal was just to see how many points you can get.

How, how far can you get, uh, before that the aliens takeover the earth or whatever, and you, you lose the game. Uh, so for, for mostpeople, that's the objective and that's. Why it's there to give people anopportunity to really see where their limit is. Um, because you know, if it'ssomething that, you know, you're going to finish, um, you know, when you finishit, You don't really know how could I have gone farther?

Could I've done better. Uh, and the race director has reallysaid that the people that lose at Barkley are the people that finish becausethey're the ones that don't get to discover where their limit is and what theirkind of outer edge of possibility is.

Boomer Anderson: [00:19:04]You were the 15th person to finish the Barkley marathons.

Correct? That's amazing. Congratulations. But that wasn'tthe first time you tried doing it?

John Kelly: [00:19:16]No, no, it was, it was the third, uh,

Boomer Anderson: [00:19:21]I want to explore some of those failures and kind of mental learnings. If youdon't mind, I'm sure what, because something like this, which you can't planfor. And so few people finish, you obviously know going into it that there's ahell of a lot of adversity.

What is that? What did that adversity show up as to you?

John Kelly: [00:19:45]So it was a different experience for me, uh, every year, uh, the first year,uh, you know, I was, I was very much. The new person who had no idea what I wasdoing, uh, scared out of my mind, a stress to the point that I, my legs werecramping going up the very first climb, uh, just, just from nerves. Uh, and youknow, my, my inexperience came through, um, that first time, uh, largely in, inkind of, uh, I guess the.

Kind of standard issues you face and doing a distance thatlong. I, I didn't eat properly. Uh, I wasn't taking care of my feet. And, andsome of the other issues that you get from being out there longer, uh, thesecond year, uh, so that first year I made it three loops, uh, out of five, thesecond year I made it, uh, four loops at a five and I started my fifth.

Um, I. I got, um, caught in some briers early in the raceand separated from the lead group. And so, uh, that year more than any,probably even more so than I, uh, the year I finished was, uh, such a personaljourney, uh, that I was out there by myself the entire time. Constantly havingto overcome, uh, all of these, uh, mental obstacles, uh, by myself and in termsof motivation in terms of navigation.

Um, and so that was a huge learning experience for me. Uh,and in the end, Uh, some of those got to me, I made some navigation mistakesand, uh, ended up just essentially not having time to sleep, um, and gettingtoo far behind on the crock to really, uh, be able to, to keep up with thecutoff. Uh, and, and so, you know, I failed, uh, due to those issues.

Uh, but again, That one is, as far as life lessons andthings I've learned coming away from the race. That that was probably thebiggest year for me.

Boomer Anderson: [00:22:06]And how do these things translate these lessons? If you will translate intoyour. I guess because your work in personal life is you're out there. And Ithink there's a subset of people listening to this who have actually done amarathon or a triathlon, let's say, but there's many people listening to thiswho haven't experienced any of that.

What are some of the lessons that you take away and maybebring into your personal life with your family?

John Kelly: [00:22:36]Yeah, so, you know, some, I mentioned. Earlier, uh, doing these sorts of thingsreally pushes me, uh, to a place, uh, where all of my strengths. And myweaknesses are magnified. Um, things that would go completely unnoticeable, uh,and normal everyday situations, they become massive.

Uh, and it's this situation that, that puts you at thoselimits, but it really, when you think about it, it's a low consequencesituation. You know, it's not life or death. It's not my family's wellbeing.It's. Well, okay, I'm going to finish or not finish this race. Uh, so it's,it's really this perfect situation where you're able to test these things, uh,without a huge amount of consequence.

Uh, and, and some of the things that I've learned justdirectly apply to work, apply to family, uh, in particular, probably thebiggest one is, uh, in ultras I've learned, uh, I, I kinda tend to aboutproblems. Grow to, to an emergency, uh, before I really take a big correctiveaction, you know, I've been out there and let my hunger get to a bad spot.

I've been out there and let my, my temperature I've letmyself get too cold. Uh, even as I felt myself get cold, I would think, no, no,I, I can just make it to the next stage station. I can make it back to camp.And then before I know it, I'm out there freezing and starving and, uh, it, ittakes hours straight.

To recover from that. And, you know, um, so a lot of these,these types of things, I just otherwise wouldn't notice, uh, and unless puttingmyself, uh, at those. Those limits. Um, another one is being able to pushthrough a lot of these immense obstacles, uh, that I face out there and, andI'm really able to focus and drive for that singular goal to fixate on that.

But I also kind of have a. A threshold, um, that I've foundwhere I just, I, I flip where it's fixated. I'm going to get there. Absolutely.No matter what. And then all of a sudden I get over that threshold and it justall changes to panic. You know, I'm not going to get there. I can't finish. Whyam I even doing this?

What's quit. It's it's all over. And, and kind ofrecognizing, uh, that I, I have a tendency to do that. Um, And knowing how toprevent myself from getting to that point and kind of knowing how to pullmyself back over the edge. If I do get there again, as it's valuable in theraces. Uh, but, but even more so in life.

Boomer Anderson: [00:25:30]How do you, uh, I mean, the cause of getting to that threshold for you andlet's take the races, just an example. Is that just because of pace or is itbecause of a number of different factors, um, when you're going through a race,like what causes you to get to that point where it's complete panic?

John Kelly: [00:25:49]Uh, yeah. So for the. The ultra is, uh, the, the things I do, uh, yeah, again,there there's so many variables, it's normally a combination of those. Sowhether I'm chasing a cutoff at Barkley or whether I'm, I'm chasing a time goalor a place, uh, at another race, uh it's, it's not only pace, but it's, it'sknowing. Uh, what do I need to do, uh, to take care of myself?

Maybe I, I can maintain the pace, but I, I haven't sleptenough. And I know that I'm going to have to stop and sweep, or I haven't beeneating enough. So I know that if I can't fix the problem, um, I'm going tocrash an hour from now. Or maybe there's something starting to divide on myfeet that I know is going to slow me down.

Uh, so it's, it's not only looking at, at what is my currentpace, what is in the moment, uh, but kind of projecting some of these smallthings forward and, and seeing, uh, what kind of shape I think I'm going to bein, in an hour or in 10 hours. And, uh, sometimes that, that can be helpfulbecause I can kind of.

Take corrective action. Uh, but sometimes it's also kind of.Need bus, uh, useless panicking. I would say where I'm looking at things that Ihave absolutely no control over, uh, and it's, it's simply a waste of time andenergy, uh, to. To focus on those when, when there are other aspects of myrace, uh, that I do have some control over that.

I might be able to spend that energy on instead.

Boomer Anderson: [00:27:32]And speaking of sleep, you have an area of the Barkley marathon that marathonsdoes named after you. I believe. Is that right?

John Kelly: [00:27:40]Yeah. Yeah. So that, that was that, that second year, um, where again, I gotreally B um, behind on time and wasn't able to get enough sleep.

And so through the races, you have 12 hours per week. And soyou have to start your next floop, um, before the end of that 12 hours. And soI, I came in for my fourth week with, I think like 13 minutes despair, uh, So Ihad to start my fifth loop, uh, within that 13 minutes. And so my crew got mygear switched out and got me back on my feet and I made it to the gate, uh, tostart my fifth loop with just a few minutes to spare.

Uh, and so I started the loop and went about a hundredmeters, uh, up the, uh, away from the start there and just kind of. Took a fewsteps to the side of the trail and, and took a nap. Cause I technically I'dstarted my loop. Uh, so I was allowed to sleep. Um, and so yeah, they they'vedesignated the upper Kelly camp.

Boomer Anderson: [00:28:52]Um, what's the most difficult race you've ever done? Is it the Barclay or is itsomething else?

John Kelly: [00:28:59]Yeah, in terms of, of difficulty  of, uh,meeting the goal, uh, that definitely Barkley, uh, so I, you know, a lot ofpeople have asked me that this year in particular, after I did the spine of, ofcomparing the two, uh, and the best way of I've had of comparing them is that,uh, Barkley pushes you closer to the edge.

It kind of holds you closer to the fire, uh, but spine holdsyou there for a longer, uh, the, the race is a bit longer. Um, the conditionsare a bit, um, more uniformly, bad, uh, throughout the race. Whereas the, thebig aspect of Barkley is, uh, how, how much the conditions fluctuate and howunpredictable they are.

Uh, So Barkley really the entire time it's, it's a Razor'sedge is as far as whether you're going to be able to finish or not. And anylittle slip up any mistake can put you on the wrong side of that edge.

Boomer Anderson: [00:30:06]Um, what do you think people do wrong when they're attempting these feeds?Cause you've Al you're.

The last person to finish the Barkley. What do you think,where do you think people go wrong with this?

John Kelly: [00:30:21]Interestingly, I think it's the two biggest are probably complete opposites,uh, where you have some people that, that look at it and, and kind of take itfor granted and think, Oh yeah, well, I'm going to go do that.

And, you know, Oh, go run up and down some Hills and, andI'll finish, you know, I've, I've done tough Mudders and I've done iron mansand whatever else. And, and this is just, you know, a harder version of that.Right. Um, and, and so they, they don't, uh, And, and even a lot of experiencedultra runners. That's, that's another aspect of the race they think, Oh, it'sTennessee, how bad can the Hills be?

Uh, I'm from Colorado. Um, and so, you know, it's, it's kindof a lack of, um, Good preparation and taking things for granted, uh, and just,uh, assuming things aren't, aren't going to be as bad as they are. And then theother side of that I think are, are the people that, uh, rather than sellingthe challenge short, um, they sell themselves short and they don't.

Real realize what they can do. Uh, if. Uh, they really putthe, the time and dedication and to doing it. So again, this, this is somethingthat, yeah, I failed at, uh, twice a B before finishing, uh, and, and, youknow, it was three years of really Ruben Atlas work and focusing on that as myone singular goal. And if you had asked me, uh, you know, just.

Four years before I finished. If I was gonna finish Barkley,I would have thought that was the most ludicrous idea ever by no chance.Absolutely no way. Like, look at me. I was a mediocre runner in high school.Like this is something that only 1% of the best ultra runners out there finish.Like, no, there's no way.

Um, and so I think people really don't. Mmm. Don't realizewhat their limits are. We're, we're all capable of more than we think. Uh, ifwe put the time and dedication into it and are happy with that, uh, slow, butconstant progression, uh, rather than, uh, again, just saying, um, you know,I'm going to do Barclay and go run up and down some Hills and.

Spend a few months focusing on it, if even that and, andfinish

Boomer Anderson: [00:33:08]One of the questions

I asked you on email was about injuries because I've onlydone a marathon. Right. And I got pretty significantly hurt granted. It was myown fault. I tried to do exactly what you just advised not to do, which is doit too fast. And just say like, Hey, it's only 26.2 miles. Right. Um, What isthe main cause of injuries.

And because you look at sort of the ultra world and peoplefrom outside of it, say like, Hey, there's a lot of injury potential here. Idon't want to do it. What do you say to those people and how do you keepyourself as injury free as possible?

John Kelly: [00:33:46]Uh, so it's, it's again, just kind of gradually pushing your limits.

Um, Pushing the edge outwards rather than, uh, jumping overthe edge entirely. Uh, so with any of these things, it very much requires agradual buildup. And in terms of, uh, training volume and training intensity,uh, and really listening to your body, uh, you know, when, when a small thing.When a small thing starts to go wrong.

Um, whether in training or race kind of. Trying to thinkabout, well, why, why is this happening? It could be the issue here, uh, andtrying to take corrective action early, rather than letting it progress, uh, tosomething that that is, uh, going to just go up and, and, you know, it allaround taking care of, of your body and in terms of, uh, eating enough and, uh,fueling properly and, and sleeping enough, which, uh, that's.

That's probably my biggest weakness.

Boomer Anderson: [00:34:58]Um, in terms of just during your training or during your, um, preparation, isthat right?

John Kelly: [00:35:06]Yeah, just, uh, during, during life in general. Um, so it's with, with work andwith family and, and everything else. Um, um, I'm not able to, to train with.The volume, uh, the, I, otherwise who want to, and I'm not able to sweep the,the amount that I would otherwise want to.

And so it's all kind of, to me and a giant optimizationproblem of, of trying to balance all of these things and, uh, doing the bestthat I can, um, without letting. Any single one of them kind of become theoverwhelming dominant force that just a. It crushes the rest of the thingsgoing on in my life.

Boomer Anderson: [00:35:58]John, you mentioned the O word.

So I got really excited when you said optimization problem.And so at this point, it's kind of a choose your own path. So do we want to godown sleep or training first? Which do you, which you prefer?

John Kelly: [00:36:12]Um, I'm good with, with either of those,

Boomer Anderson: [00:36:15]let's talk a little bit about your training because if you've looked at this asan optimization problem. And you know, people are probably wondering how thehell do you prepare for a hundred mile race? What is your weekly trainingvolume look like? Or maybe even daily considering you're also a CTO. So prettybusy guy in your father. Um, What does training look like for you?

All right. So about a year ago, I decided to run the longestsingle distance I've ever run in my entire life. It doesn't measure up to whatJohn's done, but for me, it was quite an accomplishment that was the Brusselsmarathon and nutrition. Wasn't a priority for me. I decided to fuel the entirerace on ketone esters.

And that was just because there wasn't a good, low carbalternative out there. The guys at resilient nutrition have now solved that forme. Their first product, long range fuel comes with not only what they describeas beyond nut butter, energy, dense food, but also nutrients to support you inyour endurance endeavors.

I use it both when I'm running here in the sticks, so tospeak in the Netherlands, but also as I'm going through my cognitive athletedays where I spend way too much time in Microsoft Excel. If you want to trythis out, head on over to resilient, you can plug in the codeboomer and that will solve all of your endurance nutrition woes.

Let's get back to this conversation with John Kelly.

John Kelly: [00:37:56]Um, so before lockdown, I would have said that the biggest single thing for me,uh, over the past, really. Five plus years now has been run commutes or bycommutes when I was doing triathlon, um, You know, pretty much all of myweekday miles, uh, in that time span have, have been as my commute.

And so it's been about taking time that I would otherwisewaste, uh, sitting in a bus or a car or on a train, uh, and actually getting myworkout in it's free, uh, for me. And in terms of time, Uh, now that I've beenworking from home for a few months, uh, that's not as much of a factor, but Iobviously don't have commute time at all to worry about.

Um, and so it's, it's really been a lot about that and aboutrealizing that the best training is the training that I can do. And I mentionedwhen I first. Did Barkley. Um, and, uh, I wasn't the most efficient with it andI was thinking, well, I need to go find a Hill and go run up all the Hills.And, uh, you know, I would drive to Hills that were a ways away from my housejust to get a better Hill.

But, you know, if I have a two hour time for training and Iwaste half of that driving to a Hill, you know, I'm much better off. Trainingfor two hours maybe doing a run. Um, that's, that's not quite as optimal andnot on quite as optimal of terrain, but, but getting, um, more of it in, uh, soit's, that part has really just been, uh, getting as efficient as possible, uh,with every single bit of, of time that I have.

Boomer Anderson: [00:39:52]And so the commute, just for people wondering, like how far is your commutewhen you're doing these commute runs?

John Kelly: [00:40:01]Um, so right now, uh, the shortest, uh, route for me, uh, to our office, whichstill exists, um, vacant at the moment, but it's there it's, it's about 10kids. Um, so that, that works well for me that I do it in both directions.

Uh, when I worked in Washington, DC, uh, the commute was,uh, Closer to around 15 miles. And so I would, I would do that in onedirection. Uh, and then I would take the train, the Metro, um, going the otherway, which, you know, isn't quite as good cause then I'm still wasting a goodamount of time sitting on the train.

Um, but it, you know, it's, it's worked quite well. And Iwould say the, the other thing is I'm relative to what a lot of, um, Ultrarunners that do the sorts of things I do. Um, I'm, I'm quite low on trainingvolume. Uh, I might do, um, eight to 10 hours a week, maybe 70 to 80 miles. Andyou see a lot of people out there that are doing 120 to 140 miles.

Uh, and, and for me, that's, that's a, uh, again, um, youknow, I don't have time to do that much volume and B I'm really in this for,uh, the long run and to see that steady long yeah. Term growth, uh, withoutinjury, uh, rather than trying to kind of rapidly shoot up and. Burnout or, orget myself injured. Um, and, and that's, that's one reason also that I have, Imentioned earlier that when I started out, it was all on my own, but, but now Ido have a coach, um, and that's, that's been a huge benefit and optimizing thattime, uh, and, and really a huge stress relief.

And just if nothing else, not having to clan my training outmyself and worry about if I'm doing enough or doing it right. It's just. Thereit is on the schedule. Okay. I'll go get that done. Check, move on with my day.

Boomer Anderson: [00:42:12]Right. And the just outs or something like that. Um, what is your accessorywork look like?

Do you do much accessory work aside from the runs, thebikes, et cetera.

John Kelly: [00:42:23]Um, so there are some kind of, I guess at home things I can do, I, I never goto the gym or anything. I simply don't. Have time for that. It's, it's anotherone of those things where I'm limited on the training volume I can do in thefirst place.

And while I view that stuff as valuable for me, I haven'tyet hit the point of diminishing returns where, um, it would be more valuablethan simply spending more time running. Um, And so that for me, that sort ofstuff is limited to, you know, while I'm at my computer on a conference call,can I do some lunches or do some foam roller or, um, do something else?

Not my coach has this, um, kind of 10 minutes. Uh, the thinghe calls mountain legs. My coach is David Roach. I think you can find theworkout on. The trail runner website, um, that it's, it's just some reverselunges and some stairsteps basically that you can do on a table or a chair oranything else. Uh, and so those sorts of things that, again, that I can sort oflike my run commute, I can do these things without it actually costing me, uh,any time.

Cause. I'm doing them at the same time. I'd have to be doingsomething else anyway.

Boomer Anderson: [00:43:50]So stacking habits, so to speak has allowed you to be able to do these thingsand solve for that optimization. But. You mentioned earlier about sleep. Whatdoes that look like for you?

John Kelly: [00:44:04]Uh, so that, that can fluctuate quite a bit.

I go through stretches where I had one, uh, just like lastweek, actually, um, where I'm probably averaging four to five hours a night,um, that are just, uh, you know, kinda, kind of. French time at work, or I needto get, uh, something finished or, or something working, uh, that I'm, I'mdeveloping on the software side.

And, uh, things can, can really head South, uh, in thosesituations. Uh, you know, I, I. Try to intentionally kind of clear things outwell enough in advance before any of my big races to where I can have, uh, acouple of weeks of solid eight plus hour sleep. It doesn't always happen thatway, but I have figured out the hard way that if you have one of those badstretches of squeak, it's not something where you can just like sweep for 12hours one night and suddenly you're fine.

It takes your body awhile. Uh, to recover from that. Andparticularly these things I do that are multi day and sleep deprivation is abig aspect of them. Uh, it simply doesn't work that way. So, you know, in anideal world I would be getting nine plus. Um, but I. I can't. So I, I make dowith what I can

Boomer Anderson: [00:45:29]Do you think some of the aspects of the work you've done in the startup worldand having these deadlines that cause you to get four to five hours of sleepper night feed into your ability to succeed in these races?

John Kelly: [00:45:43]I think that they very much feed into each other. Um, and you know, there,there have been times where I've been sitting up late at night. Doing somethingfor work that, you know, absolutely had to get done, uh, and, uh, said tomyself, come on you, you finished Parkway, Cheryl, you can finish this and getthis code working.

Um, and that, that has, has been a huge benefit there. Andthen also, yeah, I think in the races, just, um, You know, I never recommend topeople that they do sweep deprivation training, um, for races because generallyit's, um, causes more harm than, than it does. Good. But I think just havingexperience in. Being in that mental state and knowing how my body responds, howmy mind responds, uh, how I react to caffeine and for how long, um, is, issomething, uh, that has benefited me.

Quite heavily in those races. And also my squeak strategy.If it's useful for me to take a 15 minute power naps versus taking longerperiods of squeak, that's something that I've definitely learned and adapted asI've done these. These two or three day continuous races.

Boomer Anderson: [00:47:11]Was the resilience and the mindset in order to finish one of these things, hasthat built over time or were there specific things that you did to just drillthat into your mind?

John Kelly: [00:47:23]It's definitely built over time and it's, it's one of the biggest things I tryto convey to people who are getting started. Um, and. You know, unfortunately,I don't know. It's one of those things that I don't think you can fully graspuntil you do experience it. Um, And this was told to me, uh, when I was first startingultra running, I believe by, by David Horton.

Uh, and, and it's that things don't always get worse. Uh,you will be out there and an ultra and it will seem like you are justabsolutely done. You are, you are plummeting. You're about to crash and hitrock bottom and there's there's. No way that you can come back. There's,there's, you're just on a steep one way to a trajectory down.

Um, but then if you keep pushing, you'll, you'll come backfrom that and you might not come all the way back. Um, you know, for, fortechnical people, I like to think of the, um, you're your state and an ultra isbeing kind of a decane sinusoid um, that, you know, there, there are all thesepeaks and valleys that.

The overall trend is in a downward direction, but there's,um, still a lot of ups and downs in it. And so. That is something that isincredibly and, you know, it's, it's in startups too, you know, one, onesecond. You're on top of the world and the next second things look byeverything's crashing and burning.

Boomer Anderson: [00:48:56]I work with a few of those. So I know that feeling pretty well.

John Kelly: [00:49:00]Yeah. It's, it's one thing to remember that and, and to. Consciously thinkthat, but it's an entirely different thing to have actually gone through thoseexperiences and be able to specifically recall where you have been in a similarspot before pulled out of it. And things are more powerful when you're in ahorrible spot than having been in a horrible spot before and come back from it.

Boomer Anderson: [00:49:32]I want to go back to the data and not data science, because we know that that'sreally trendy right now, but how do you use data within your training? Causeyou the old problem right. Optimization? Um, I just am fascinated by the factthat you're able to do this and with very minimal training volume, what, howhave you used data to just. Get your head around that. Okay.

John Kelly: [00:50:01]So looking back at, at each of my years, doing Barkley I've, I definitely dohave spreadsheets where I look at, you know, the, the elevation I did per weekand the mileage I did per week. And I even tried to do some fancy metrics like.Volume of oxygen consumed in my workouts per week.

Cause it's kind of a balance between mileage versuselevation, uh, in some of those workouts. Uh, I, I also have some rather fancyspreadsheets to try to, um, predict paces, uh, particularly, uh, for some ofthese kind of solo challenges that I do in trying to optimize my, um, pace. Uh,for given terrain, because really you don't want to keep a constant pace.

You want to keep a constant effort level, uh, which is gonnamake your pace vary quite a bit. Um, when you're going through some of this,this tough terrain, um, So I, you know, I, I don't know though that I've, I'velooked as much at my own data, um, as people might suspect in large part,because I, I realized that training is, is really and in of one.

Um, and it's just, there's so many variables out there thatit's almost impossible to get a data set large enough, uh, to conclusively say,um, Which, which variables are having the biggest effect. And so that's, that'swhere I really rely on my coaches knowledge and my coach having a much biggerdata set to refer to than just my own.

And, and knowing that it, you know, you look at someone likeyou saying, bolt the fastest. Human to ever live and, you know, surely histraining was perfect. But again, you go back to that end of one perspective,and who's to say that he wouldn't have them even faster. Had he trained slightlydifferently and there's really no way of knowing.

Right. And that's, that's something I try to do and work,uh, as well as to not draw too many conclusions from the data, I can't, uh,have conflicts in those conclusions. So I really look at a lot of that stuff.Um, In terms of planning and in terms of, of curiosity, but without letting itreally, uh, define my, my training and my goals, uh, with any sort of hardboundaries.

Boomer Anderson: [00:52:40]I'm not sure if you've ever tried this, but I've tried to map out the datapoints that would go into like the perfect day for, for work, for instance. AndI agree with you, there's just so many variables that it could be verydaunting, but also, you know, it's not something you could directly passport onto other people because we're all individuals.

Um, it's pretty crazy, uh, on the. Just on the data front.What metrics have you found actually useful in terms of collecting?

John Kelly: [00:53:11]Uh, so one thing I, I do look at, um, Is is my resting heart. Right. Uh, youknow, I've, I've got the little wrist based heart rate monitor on my watch,which I don't trust enough when I'm actually running to do much with it.

Um, Don't trust the precision of, of the risk based heartrate for that sort of thing. Um, but I do use it for, uh, resting heart ratebefore I had this watch. First thing I would do when I woke up in the morningwas just check my pulse before I got out of bed. Uh, and that can be quitevaluable, uh, in terms of, of looking at, uh, Whether I'm over-training, uh,whether I'm overstressed, uh, in, in life in general, if my resting heart rateis starting to, uh, get elevated and stay elevated, then I might need to backoff on training, or I might need to, uh, give myself a bit more of a break, abit more of a rest.

Um, Other things that, that I try to keep an eye on is, um,is weight seeing if there's not any huge fluctuations there that might be, uh,indicative of it really being dehydrated or being under fueled or, uh, anythingof that nature. So losing weight rather than gaining right. Uh, well, it, it,it depends on, on where you are.

Um, but yeah, yeah. Trying to, uh, really see if there'snothing unexpected, I guess, would be the best way of putting it something thatmy body is doing, that I did not intend for it to do. Um, and then the, theother big they're, they're, they're largely qualitative, um, in, in looking atwhen I'm getting tired.

Okay. What points during the day do I find myself feelinglike I could take a nap or where I need some caffeine? Um, and you know, we allhave sort of our low energy times, uh, during the day. Um, but if I'm startingto see myself hit some lows at other points, uh, then, then that could, uh,again, the, the indicative of a larger problem.

Boomer Anderson: [00:55:37]Balance, you're doing a lot, John. How do you keep the family happy or is, isyour wife just an absolute Saint? Um, it could be both.

John Kelly: [00:55:50]Yeah, definitely both. Um, and so I would say that, uh, one big aspect of that,again goes back, uh, to the, uh, efficiency in my training, uh, whether it's arun commute or whether it's timing things, uh, while the kids are down for anap or doing a treadmill run late at night, uh, once they're asleep, Uh, Iwould say early in the morning before they get up, but, um, I'm just not amorning person.

Try to stay up till 2:00 AM, then get up at six. Um, sotrying to fit things around that, uh, rather than, than vice versa is, is huge.And also making them aware of the plans, um, both, uh, in, in terms of mytraining and in terms of work, when something comes up, that is, uh, A bigdeadline or that it's going to take some, some extra effort kind of, you know,being upfront of, Hey, this is coming, uh, rather than just letting them getbroadsided by it and training front that's that's also where we're having acoach shoes, uh, kind of.

Planning these things out ahead of time has been yeah.Useful because I've given my wife access to my training plan and she can evenlook and see like, Oh, here's what he's going to be running. And how long, uh,on this day. Uh, so yeah, again, just making them, um, knowledgeable of things.Uh, planning around that rather than vice versa.

And when possible, making them a part of the plan, uh, whenin particular, when I was trapped on training and headlong bike rides, but thisstill applies with long runs, uh, I might, uh, bike or run to some destination.Uh, and then my family would meet me there and we could have a fun day, uh, atwhatever that place is.

Boomer Anderson: [00:57:59]So it sounds like communication and integration almost were absolutely key. Andfor people out there that are struggling with, is there any, just maybecommunication is the advice you would give them, but any sort of key takeawaysyou would give for people that are saying, Hey, I want to do an iron man, butyou know, the programming's three hours a day, any sort of key takeaways youwant to give.

John Kelly: [00:58:25]Yeah. So again, communication, uh, would be the biggest, uh, and. And havingfamily be a part of that planning. Uh, and then the other would be, uh,flexibility. And again, going back to the, the best training is the trainingthat you can do. And even if you map out a plan, you may not be able to fit itin perfectly.

Um, but still, uh, you know, if, if you had a 10 mile orunplanned and you only have time for five miles, Go out there and run fivemiles, but don't just throw your hands up and say up plans ruined. Um, yes, Iwon't do any. Today. And so again, do do whatever, uh, you can do, uh, in, inwhatever, uh, plan with communication and then be flexible when your plans, uh,maybe don't quite work out.

Boomer Anderson: [00:59:31]John, this has been an incredible conversation. I want to just transition nowinto the final four questions, uh, which we can take as rapid fire. You canelaborate as much as you want, uh, but what's your for somebody who has a lotgoing on, what's your top trick for enhancing focus.

John Kelly: [00:59:56]I would say, uh, thinking, breaking things down into, uh, short term achievablemilestones, uh, that the carrot on a stick thing really does work. Uh, youknow, when I, whether it's something at work. Uh, like reaching a series, afundraise, or it's something like finishing Barkley I'm, I'm never standingthere at the starting line saying, well, I've got to do all this.

There's there's no way. And you know, it breaking it up towhere it's one achievable milestone at a time, you know, at Barkley it's not, Ihave to run for 60 hours and go through all this it's I have to make it to thetop of that Hill. And then I get to that. I have to make it to the top of thenext Hill.

And so, uh, kind of relentless forward progress. And whilehaving that overall bigger goal in the back of your head, uh, also have these,these smaller, short term achievable things that you can really latch onto andsee yourself, uh, tangibly progressing towards.

Boomer Anderson: [01:01:09]What excites you most about the health world right now?

John Kelly: [01:01:13]Yeah. I think that you know who our conversation on, on data or where you're inand how I use it for training while I don't necessarily, um, use every datapoint that's out there. I think that there's a lot of exciting, uh, technology.Uh that's that's coming from it and, uh, I kind of build up of technology orsorry of, of data and research around this data that is really going to inform,uh, the best thing, things for us as individuals.

And we're, we're always seeing, you know, for. That decade.Well, my entire life I've seen studies come out that say, well, this thing isgreat for your health. And then the next week something will come out. Well,actually it's bad for your health. And you know, you look into it farther andreally it's the case.

Well, it's good for your health if this and this and thisapply to you, but it's bad for your health, if this and this and this. And soreally pulling these things. Together, um, with your own personal phenotypicand, um, genotypic information, um, Is going to inform our personal wellbeingand what is truly best for us, uh, in terms of diet and exercise and everythingelse, um, that, that can really optimize our own wellbeing, uh, rather thanjust having to rely on.

Generic advice for the entire population goes w when itcomes down to we are, we are all very much, uh, individual w when it comes toour health, couldn't put it better myself.

Boomer Anderson: [01:03:05]I'm going to interject another question in here, just on, as a follow on, onthat. Um, Favorite piece of technology that you use for either training or inyour everyday life, just to stay healthier if you're willing to share it.

John Kelly: [01:03:20]I mean, I, I kind of, you know, made a, a knock on the heart rate monitorearlier while I'm exercising, but it would still definitely be my watch that,uh, you know, is, is not only keeping track of my runs. It's keeping track ofmy sleep.

Boomer Anderson: [01:03:36]It's is it a garment or something else?

John Kelly: [01:03:39]Yeah. So it's a four at Garmin, four runner nine 45.

Okay. Um, so most of the things that I need to look at thatis a, it keeps it all in one place. Even my. My scale that I have connects tomy, my garment profiles. So being able to pull that all into one spot, onedashboard where I can look at it is, uh, you know, when you're short on time,that's, that's immensely helpful rather than having to check. 15 differentplaces for all of these things.

Boomer Anderson: [01:04:14]I do think Garmin's done the best in terms of creating, trying to create that dashboard.I don't think it's perfect yet, but maybe, maybe you built one yourselfactually, um, favorite or sorry, a book which has most impacted your life andhow you show up in it.

John Kelly: [01:04:33]Uh, so, you know, for, for recent times, uh, this is a kind of a difficult oneto answer because frankly, I don't really have time to read books, start tofinish, uh, at the moment, but looking back over the entirety of my life, Ithink I'd be hard pressed to say anything other than the Bible. I mean, justlooking at where I grew up and how I grew up and whether it was.

Uh, the book directly itself, or just indirectly again, thelessons that I was taught growing up and how it shaped my, uh, family life andmy social interactions. Uh it's uh, definitely would not have, uh, gone alongthe same path without that. Um, and, and I think that that would again be. Betrue for most people, uh, where I'm from, whether again, yeah, it's, it'ssomething that they, uh, directly have, have, uh, looked at or not.

And, and otherwise I would have to say, um, you know,probably my own own dissertation, not that I've ever read the entire thing,but, but again, in terms of actual impact on my life, uh, and, and what wentinto it and what came out of it, That's that's a huge chunk.

Boomer Anderson: [01:05:55]Where can people find out more about you?

John Kelly: [01:05:58]Uh, so my blog

Boomer Anderson: [01:05:59]is

John Kelly: [01:06:03]Uh, it's a bit of a play on words between the machine learning random forestalgorithm and the fact that I go run through random forest. Um, most of mysocial media handles, uh, are. The same or a variant on that, uh, for if I haveto truncate it. Uh, but if, if people had to, my blog, uh, has links to my socialmedia and any other information I have out there.

Boomer Anderson: [01:06:30]Amazing. John, thank you so much for taking the time and it's been an absolutepleasure and learning experience for me. So thank you again.

John Kelly: [01:06:39]Thanks very much. Enjoyed it

Boomer Anderson: [01:06:41]to all the superhumans listening they're out there. Have an absolutely Epicday. All right now that conversation is amazing to me. On many levels, you getto see how somebody like John just leverages his life so that he's able toaccomplish his goals.

The show notes for that one are at decodingsuperhuman.comslash John Kelly. That's K E L L Y. And if you liked the episodes, share it onthe social medias. Tag decoding superhuman. And I'd love to hear from you. Sosend an email to or leave a rating on Applepodcast, because that certainly helps get the word out about the show.

The show notes again for this one and have an absolutely Epic day.


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