Outside Running with John Kelly

In 2017, U.S. ultra runner John Kelly became the 15th person in history to finish the infamous Barkley Marathon, arguably one of the toughest races in existence. He then went on to win the Road Runners Club of America National Ultra Championship, his category at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships and the Franklins 200 mile race in Texas. Since John’s move to the UK in 2019 he has won the gruelling 268 mile Spine race, beaten Mike Hartley’s 31 year old Pennine Way record and completed what he termed ‘The Grand Round’, consisting of the Paddy Buckley round in Wales, the Bob Graham round in England and the Ramsay round in Scotland whilst cycling between them; a total of 185 miles on foot, with 83,460ft of elevation and over 400 miles of cycling. The man is a machine. Somehow, he also summoned the energy to talk to us about frogs, cyber attacks and tomatoes:

Where did you grow up, and what was it like there? I grew up in rural east Tennessee, on farmland my family has been on for over 200 years that’s right at the base of the mountains where the infamous Barkley Marathons takes place. It was a much simpler life than what I have now, and one I often miss. There were great people and great adventures around every corner.

What’s your earliest childhood memory? Unfortunately our earliest distinct memory is often imprinted in our brains by some trauma, and mine is sitting in the emergency room the night my grandpa died and our preacher’s wife giving me a stuffed frog to try to comfort me. But my earliest abstract memories are filled with riding bikes through the woods, fishing on the river, and walking through the mountains.

What one personal trait or habit would you most like to change? I’m a perfectionist, and I’m never content doing nothing. It’s driven me to some great things, but it’s also consumed me to the point that I’ve missed out on other opportunities and on simple joys from everyday life.

How would your family describe you? Driven, determined (i.e. stubborn), loyal.

We looked up your day job; apparently you work in artificial intelligence-driven cyber risk modeling. What on earth is that, please? We use algorithms to model losses companies might incur from cyber attacks, and then use those models to appropriately price insurance to cover cyber attacks.

What book, film or person has had the biggest impact on you? Most of the time the fork in the road that’s closest to the start of our journey has the biggest impact on where we end up, and I had the good fortune of having great parents who largely influenced who I am.

What makes you grumpy? Besides waking up? When I order food that doesn’t include tomatoes anywhere in the description, and then it comes with tomatoes like it’s just some assumed default. I hate tomatoes. 

What’s your favourite meal, and which person (real, fictional, alive or dead) would you share it with?
Big Ed’s Pizza. Classic pepperoni. If we’re including fictional it would seem appropriate to share my pizza with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Aside from running, what are you passionate about? Kids. My own of course, but also helping those that start out with the cards stacked against them.

What do you miss from back home? Bojangles’ and Little Debbie Cakes.

If you weren’t a runner (or a cyber risk modeler) what would you be? I would still be a dad and a husband, and I would still be an explorer – whether it be exploring the wilderness or science.

Photographs courtesy of Phil Hill @the_phbalance

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