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Celebration and heartbreak at the Barkley Marathons finish

Morgan County native John Kelly is now the 15th person to ever successfully complete the 100-mile mega marathon since it began in the mid-1980s.

On Monday afternoon, John Kelly joined one of the world's most elite running groups by finishing the 2017 Barkley Marathons. 

The insane course is a 100 mile race up and down the steep cliffs of Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County. Runners have just 60 hours to complete five 20-mile loops and collect pages from books placed at checkpoints along the way.

With a time of 59 hours and 30 minutes, Kelly, who grew up in Morgan County and later ran track and cross country at Oak Ridge High School, became only the 15th person to successfully complete the monster course since it began in the mid-1980s. Kelly now lives in Washington D.C. with his wife and three children, with his larger family still rooted in East Tennessee.

Each year, the race starts sometime between midnight and noon  – but runners do not learn the exact start time of the race until one hour before it begins. 

This year, the race started at 1:40 a.m. on Saturday.

"When you're that tired, you can go to sleep pretty much anywhere," Kelly told WBIR 10News. "I specifically chose places to sleep that were rather miserable, because I didn't trust the alarm on the cheap watches they gave us."

Kelly said the race was as much of a physical challenge as a mental one. 

"Barkley is very much an internal thing," he said. "You're not doing it for some accolade, you're doing it because you want to see what your limits are. You want to push them and see what you can do."

This year's ending was especially heartbreaking as runner Gary Robbins made it to the finish just six seconds over the 60 hour time limit. 

Video from Canadian Running Magazine showed Robbins reach the finish and immediately collapse.

Runners have to collect pages from books hidden along the course to prove they have traveled the distance. While Robbins had all the pages to prove he made it to the checkpoints, he finished the course in the wrong direction after he said he took a wrong turn in the fog and went down the opposite trial. 

According to the marathon founder Gary Cantrell, Robbins ran off course in the final moments of the race. Cantrell said Robbins later caught the mistake but did not have time to correct course. As a result, Cantrell said Robbins technically only ran 98 miles out of the required 100, although he did tag the final gate six seconds after the finish time. 

Many runners turned to social media after the race to congratulate Kelly and send well wishes to Robbins. 


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