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‘Frenemies’ – John Kelly and Damian Hall looking to put on a show at vintage Winter Spine Race

Jonathan Turner
News Director
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His last appearance at the Montane Winter Spine Race saw him emerge a clear-cut winner but John Kelly says there’s much more to come as he returns to ‘Britain’s most brutal race’.

The American ultrarunning icon added another significant feat to his palmeres last year when he finished the Barkley Marathons for a second time.

And now the stars have aligned for a return to the UK, with a bank of knowledge about the Pennine Way acquired since that previous Spine Race start in 2020.

Lessons learned

Kelly was a relative rookie on the terrain back then but after a spell living in the UK during which he and good friend Damian Hall swapped Pennine Way records, he heads into this year’s stacked renewal full of confidence.

Speaking to Will Roberts on the official pre-race podcast, which is embedded below, Kelly said: “My first run at the Spine was back in 2020 just before the world shut down. I want to get back and achieve a better personal outcome and see what I can do with those lessons learned.

“I’d hardly seen the Pennine Way before then and I got lost for significant chunks of time – a significant number of times.

“But I’ll be cracking 1,000 miles on the Pennine Way with this race if things go to plan. I want to go back and see what I can do given those lessons I’ve learned since in many different areas.

“I’m looking forward to getting back and being back on that terrain, in that community, back with some good competition this year as well.”

Competition makes it more meaningful

Despite that relative inexperience last time, Kelly still finished more than 12 hours ahead of his nearest challenger in the shape of multiple winner Eoin Keith, who lines up again this time – indeed nine of the last 10 winners will be on the start line and that’s something Kelly is relishing.

He added: “Having some form of competition there makes it much more meaningful and also helps drive you towards those personal goals. It’s a big motivating factor knowing that someone’s either next to me, breathing down my neck or out in front of me.

“Damian and others for sure. At this stage in my career, you need people to compete against. Coming back for a winter stroll across the Pennine Way in January [without them] wouldn’t have as much value for me.

As well as their Pennine Way battles, Kelly and Hall of course locked horns to great effect at the Barkley Marathons last year and it’s Hall who heads into the Spine Race as the defending men’s champion.

Chatting to Roberts on the same podcast he said: “I’m really excited. Is it worse to know what’s coming or better not to? Which one is easier on the mind?

I get classic ultrarunner’s amnesia – I can’t really remember any discomfort or pain from my previous four starts.

Damian Hall

“So mostly positive, joyful excitement – who doesn’t love a good soggy bog!

“A few other ‘frenemies’ have jumped in lately so it’s really exciting. It sounds like to me it’s the most exciting race we’ve had on the men’s side. But I often forget I’m competing – maybe I’d be better at this stuff if I trying and focus a bit more!”

John Kelly Damian Hall Barkley Marathons 2023 loop two photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram
Kelly and Hall at the 2023 Barkley Marathons [Photo credit: Davidmillerphotography_ on Instagram]
Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  

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