Ultra runner John Kelly completes his ‘Grand Round’
It seems that a record-breaking run on the 268-mile Pennine Way is not enough for John Kelly. Just weeks later, the Bristol-based US athlete set off on what he has called the Grand Round.
The goal was to complete the UK’s three “big rounds” – the Paddy Buckley Round in Wales, the Bob Graham Round in England and the Charlie Ramsay Round in Scotland – non-stop and by cycling between each.
The stats are:
Paddy Buckley Round: 47 summits, 61 miles (98km) and 28,000ft (8535m) of ascent.
Bob Graham Round: 42 fells, 66 miles (106km) with 26,900 feet (8200m) of ascent.
Ramsay Round: 24 summits, 58 miles (93km) with 28,500 feet (8686m) of ascent.
The Grand Round included: 185 miles of running with 25,440m of elevation gain over 113 summits, plus more than 400 miles of biking.
The Grand Round also represented unfinished business for John, who is married with three young children, after he failed to finish last summer. Fatigue got the better of him on the bike ride to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.
But on August 21, 2020, he pulled off the incredible feat in a total time of 130 hours 43 minutes and 10 seconds. He ran two of the three rounds in under 24 hours.
The 35-year-old said: “It felt like a big triumph, especially when I reached the summit of Ben Nevis near the end of the Charlie Ramsay Round. I think that reaching that point felt even better than when I finished.”
A huge challenge
John is no stranger to long-distance running events. To list only two, he was this year’s winner of the Montane Spine Race and in 2017, he became only the 15th person to complete the legendary Barkley Marathons.
The fact that John didn’t complete the challenge in 2019, is also testament to the huge scale of the Grand Round.
John said: “Last year I fell short, making it through the Paddy Buckley Round and Bob Graham Round before stopping on the way to Scotland for the Charlie Ramsay Round.
“In a way, the very fact that I failed at my first attempt shows that it was a good challenge – one that forced me to learn, grow and develop a better plan.
“If a grand challenge doesn’t teach us anything, doesn’t force us to improve ourselves or develop a better strategy, then was it really all that grand?”
It is the first time that anyone has completed the challenge. In 1990, Mike Hartley set a time for the UK’s three big rounds of three days, 14 hours and 20 minutes, including travelling time between the routes. He did three rounds consecutively but used a motor vehicle between the route.
Hartley also held the record for the Pennine Way run for more than 30 years.
John’s 2020 goals condensed
John had always planned to attempt a Pennine Way record run and the Grand Round this year. He just hadn’t planned for lockdown.
He said: “Without the Covid-19 lockdown, I would have done the Grand Round in June and the Pennine Way in August.
“My wife and I are expecting another baby in September so there has always been a window of opportunity. I doubt I was 100 per cent recovered for the Grand Round after the Pennine Way but I decided just do it anyway.”
The Grand Round: Highs and lows
John described the weather for the Grand Round, which he started on August 16, as “a little bit of everything”. He said: “It was nice conditions when I started on the Paddy Buckley but it sort of deteriorated from there.
“Through the Bob Graham the weather worsened, especially on leg four, and then we had a storm for the Ramsay Round.
“It is difficult to predict a five-day weather window in the UK. In the end, you can only control the things you can control and that is not the weather.”
He completed the Paddy Buckley in 22:07, then cycled to the start of the Bob Graham Round in Keswick in the Lake District.
Again, he ran under 24 hours for the Bob Graham Round in 23:40.
The bike ride to Scotland was tough due to tiredness, a strong wind and rain. John said: “It felt quite long and I was cycling through the night, which made it harder. There was also a road closure so I had to make some adjustments to my route.”
It was during the Ramsay round that John started to fall off his hoped-for pace. He said: “I had hoped to do a sub-24 hour for all three rounds but sore tendons in my leg, which I’d first felt during the Bob Graham Round, worsened.
“I was basically limping because of the pain, especially going downhill. The descent from Ben Nevis was particularly bad and I was slow. I had to hop down.”
His final time for the Ramsay Round was 34:43.
Over the 5.5 days, John slept very little. He said: “I slept for a short while before and after each bike section, and also here and there on the running sections, but it’s never as much as I would want.
“I probably had about 30 to 60 minutes during the Paddy Buckley and maybe three hours during the Bob Graham. I slept more during the Ramsay Round but I have not yet totalled the amount of time I slept so I am not sure how much I slept overall.
“It wasn’t a lot but it’s something I am used to because of previous races and challenges.”
There were plenty of highlights for John, however. He said: “There was a lot of lovely scenery, especially when the weather was fine. There was an absolutely gorgeous sunset on Craig Wen on the Paddy Buckley. It was an incredible view.
“The first few hours of the Ramsay Round were beautiful, too. There were gorgeous views through the Mamores.
“It was also great to see so much of the UK in one relatively short outing. I ran and cycled through different landscapes.”
‘It’s the people that make these challenges’
John said the challenge was also memorable because of the people who came to support him. “It’s always a highlight to see friends and supporters,” he said. He was very grateful for a Glasgow cyclist, Jack Peasgood, who stepped in at the last moment when another cyclist had to pull out.
John said: “Jack was a great and we cycled from Inverbeg on Loch Lomond through the night to Fort William.”
John is happy with his finish of the Grand Round. He said: “I like big challenges. I like running and I enjoy a good bike ride, so the Grand Round combined my passions.
“There are places where I could have improved my time and but it was still a success. There is a lot that needs to come together to do something like this, before and during. There is a lot of time spent training and planning. There is a lot that can happen over a long challenge, too.
“I believe that the time can be improved on and I think it is possible to do each round in under 24 hours.”
Read more about John Kelly: randomforestrunner.com