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John Kelly sets new Wainwrights running record

Written by Fiona

May 17 2022

Ultra runner John Kelly set a new record of five days, 12 hours and 14 minutes to reach all 214 Wainwright fells in the UK’s Lake District this month. The American, who has been living in Britain for several years, completed the 320-mile (515km) challenge with a total ascent of 36,000m (118,000ft)

The previous record was held by Sabrina Verjee in five days, 23 hours and 49 minutes.

The Wainwrights are all the peaks in Alfred Wainwright’s seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Many people take decades to bag them all.

John, 37, said: “There were many tough times on the Wainwrights round but I had the support of a great team. I would not have been able to do it without all of them.

“I also thought a lot about my family and I was looking forward to seeing them at the end. It felt fantastic when I finally got back to Moot Hall in Keswick.”

Tough times on the hills. Credit: Steve Ashworth
A team effort. Credit: Steve Ashworth

John’s strategy for the Wainwrights round

A veteran of ultra distance challenges, John knows that so many things can go wrong and many outwith the runner’s control.

John decided not to race anyone else’s time. He said: “I started this round hoping to do the best I could. I wasn’t focused on comparison times of other people and I just wanted to do a good time for me.

“There are so many things that can go wrong with a challenge of this distance and many are outwith my control, so I just focused on running at a pace I felt I could maintain.

“To be honest, it was a team effort. I could not have done it without the support on the fells and on the road. Everything was there when I needed it and I was able to trust in everyone. It went very well.”

The weather is notoriously fickle in the Lake District. John said: “The ideal conditions are when it is cool rather than warm. You want dry and cool weather ideally.

“I was fortunate for most of the Wainwrights round although there were some were some rough weather moments, which did make it hard at times.

“In particular, it was wet and cold as we ran over Blencathra, which is one of the most northerly hills.

“I pushed hard here because I wanted it to be over, so I could feel warm again. That took a lot out of me and I had to rest for longer than I had wanted to when we next met the road support crew.”

While John is familiar with the terrain of the Wainwrights, the accumulative distance and elevation took its toll as the days went by.

He said: “There were some big climbs and I remember one being especially very hard. It was on fourth day, going up The Nab and towards Patterdale. It was super steep and grassy and I was feeling mentally and physically drained. It was hard to keep going but my team did a lot to keep me motivated.

“Thinking about my family also helped me. I was looking forward to seeing my wife and kids at the finish. I thought a lot about them.”

He slept for only around six hours in total over the five days. He said: “I slept 45 minutes on the first night, then two to 2.5 hours on the middle nights and 45 minutes on the last night.

“I had a couple of 10 to 15 minute naps on the last day as well. I have never experienced the hallucinations that other people talk about but I could easily go to sleep while on my feet.

“I was grateful to my support runners for keeping me awake. They would chat to me to keep me awake. I also tried to sing to myself at tines just to fight the desire ot go to sleep. Sleep deprivation is very tough.”

There were many highlights on the Wainwrights round. He said: “There were many beautiful views on the round.

“I will never forget when we were going up Skiddaw, for example. We had an unbelievable view of a gorgeous sunset and a temperature inversion.

“Towards the end, I remember looking about me, in every direction, and I was in the middle of it all. I thought to myself, I’ve been there and there and there. It was such an incredible feeling to be in the middle of such a beautiful place.”

John Kelly at the Crinkle Crags “bad step”. Credit: Steve Ashworth

John’s training and nutrition for a Wainwrights round

John is a married with three children – an eight year old, twins aged five and a baby – and he works as a data scientist, so time is precious. He reveals that he makes the most of his commute to the office for run training.

He said: “I run about 70 miles a week and I do not have time for cross or strength training. I use my week-day commute for running and do some longer back-to-back training days when I can. I have one rest day each week.

“I trust my coach David Roche and I do what I can for training around work and family.”

John has been plagued with stomach issues during some of his other challenges in recent years.

Stomach problems ended one of his earlier attempts at the Barkley Marathons, although he has been a finisher, which few runners can claim. In 2017, he became one of only 15 runners to finish in the history of the US event.

In July 2020, he faced stomach issues, as well as poor weather, while setting a new record for the 261-mile Pennine Way.

The record was broken eight days later by Damian Hall. Last year, John returned to the Pennine Way to set another new record.

John previously attempted to break the Wainwrights round record in July 2021 but foot problems and high temperatures ended the bid early. 

John, who is known as Random Forest Runner on Twitter, told me that prior to the record-breaking Wainwright round, he focused on his nutrition strategy.

He said: “I’d been suffering with gastrointestinal problems while running and also outside of running, too.  I had some medical tests but there has been no specific diagnosis.

“I needed to find a way to overcome the issues and my GP prescribed PPIs [Proton pump inhibitors] with the aim of reducing the amount of acid made by the stomach. This seems to have been helpful.

“I also aimed to eat small amounts and often. Ideally, this was to be 300 calories each hour but broken down into 75 calories every 15 to 20 minutes. I never really achieved this but it was the target.”

  • Half the calories came from Tailwind dissolved in water.
  • A quarter of the calories came from Supernatural Fuel pouches, that John likens to “baby food”.
  • The final quarter of calories were supplied by “anything small that I craved at the time, such as chocolate or crisps,” said John.

Then at each support stop, John chose different foods to consume, such as pizza and pasta. He said: “I tried not to overdo what I was eating and to stick to a plan of small amounts and often.

“I was delighted during this run that things went really well. There were only a few times when I had slight stomach issues and some cramps and I will be going back over these to think about what might have caused them.

“However, on the whole, I was thankfully free of the previous stomach and nausea issues.”

A place in Wainwrights running history

  • In 1985, Alan Heaton set a record for running all 214 Wainwrights in 9 days, 16 hours and 42 minutes.
  • In 1987, Joss Naylor set a new record of 7 days, an hour and 25 minutes.
  • Steve Birkinshaw broke this record in 2014 in a time of 6 days, 12 hours, 58 minutes
  • In 2019, I wrote about Paul Tierney breaking Steve Birkinshaw’s Wainwrights running record in 6 days, 6 hours and 5 minutes.
  • In 2021, Sabrina Verjee set a new record of 5 days, 23 hours, 49 minutes.
  • Now John Kelly as set the fastest time of 5 days, 12 hours, 14 minutes.

John, who moves to North Carolina with his family at the end of the month, described his new record on the Wainwrights round as “incredible”. He added: “It was very tough at times so it was fantastic when the finish finally came.”

He said he will miss all the different areas of Britain for exploring, the accessibility to fell paths and public rights of way, the people and the food. His next challenge is Hard Rock 100 in Colorado.

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