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Kelly’s Pennine Way FKT Attempt and Grand Slam; Bold, Bonkers and Brilliant

Rob Howard / 14.07.2020
John Kelly after winning this year’s Spine Race
John Kelly after winning this year’s Spine Race / © Spine Race/Mick Kenyon

American ultra runner John Kelly is setting out to explore the hills of the UK in a big way this summer – starting with an attempt on the Pennine Way record, which has stood for 3 decades. (Skip to the end for an update on the outcome.)

Kelly, who now lives in the UK, is a Barkley Marathons finisher (2017) and won The Spine Race in January this year in a new men’s course record of 3 days 15 hours 53 minutes.  That race follows the Pennine Way National Trail in winter conditions and right now he is back on that trail again, in summer conditions, and chasing an FKT (Fastest Known Time).

The long established record was set by fell running legend Mike Hartley and stands at 2 days 17 hours 20 minutes for the 268 mile route. That was in 1989 and his time has withstood all challenges to date.  Given the improvements in training, nutrition, running science and support for ultra running since then, it shows just what an incredible achievement it was, and what a tough time it will be for Kelly to beat.  (Other attempts on the record are also planned later this year.)

Kelly is running South to North, the same direction as The Spine Race, though the route for the record is slightly different and takes in Cheviot Summit, while Hartley ran North to South.  Hartley didn’t stop to sleep at all, while Kelly plans to take power naps along the way.

Incredibly, Kelly has bigger plans to follow on from the Pennine Way attempt, and once again they are following in Mike Hartley’s footsteps.

A month after finishing on the Pennine Way he will set off on another attempt at ‘The Grand Round’. This is a combination of the three ‘big rounds’ in Wales, England and Scotland, any one of which is a cherished and hard won achievement for mountain runners who aim to complete in 24 hours.

In 1990 Hartley combined The Paddy Buckley Round in Wales (61 miles over 47 summits in Snowdonia), with The Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District (74 miles over 42 peaks) and The Ramsay Round in Scotland (58 miles over 24 summits including Ben Nevis).  He completed them in a total time of 3 days 14 hours 20 minutes, with the driving time in between included.

Last year Kelly attempted this Grand Round, but added in cycling between the rounds. He wanted to complete each in under 24 hours, and achieve a total time under 100 hours for the whole journey. That’s for 185 miles of mountain running, 113 summits, 84,000’ of ascent and 400 miles of cycling.  At the time he wrote in his blog; “I’m terrified. This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley.”

He didn’t succeed in hitting his targets, and the attempt did not go to plan. Despite bad weather he completed 24 hour rounds in Wales and England, but never made it to Scotland for the Ramsay Round.

This year, with many lessons learned, he will try again, following on from his Pennine Way Run, in what he is calling ‘The Hartley Slam’.  It’s a bold, bonkers and brilliant plan, and he is raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, who support disadvantaged young people.

You can donate via his Just Giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/hartleyslam and watch his tracker on the Pennine Way FKT at http://live.opentracking.co.uk/johnpennine20/

You can also read more about his achievements on his website and blog at https://randomforestrunner.com/

[Ed:  John succeeded despite constant stomach issues throughout the run. He completed the run in 2 days 16 hrs and 40 mins an improvement of approx 34 mins over the previous record set by Mike Hartley which had stood since 1989.]

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