One of the favourites to win this year’s Barkley Marathons – the notorious 100-miler with a 60-hour limit and deemed the world’s toughest race – unexpectedly dropped out after running two of the five 20-mile loops this past weekend.

“Long story short: I quit,” wrote John Kelly on Twitter. “I was good on time, felt strong, conditions were (relatively) good. But I know what 5 loops takes and realised I don’t have that motivation any more. And I was no longer having fun.”

The ultramarathon trail race takes place each year in Tennessee in the United States, with a total elevation gain equivalent to climbing Mount Everest twice from sea level – all while dealing with forbidding temperatures that range from freezing to boiling, navigating unmarked trails on a course that is only made public the day before the race, and enduring an onslaught of thorny saw briars.

Hundreds of runners apply for the 35 to 40 slots available each year. In the 33 years since the race started in 1986, only fifteen people have finished.

Why such a high attrition rate? As Gary Cantrell, the race director and founder, put it to The New York Times, “The Barkley is a problem. All the other big races are set up for you to succeed. The Barkley is set up for you to fail.”

Kelly, who works a day job as a data scientist, was the fifteenth finisher, having been the winner and sole finisher of the race in 2017. In a sense, the Barkley is a perfectly designed race for him. Just as Cantrell describes the event as a problem to be solved, so Kelly sees training as a puzzle to be cracked.

“Training is an optimisation problem with a complex set of constraints, unique to everyone,” he wrote in essay featured in the recently-published Training for the Uphill Athlete, by Steve House, Scott Johnston, and Kílian Jornet.

“The race that eats its young”

But 2019 was not just not Kelly’s year. Nor was it for anyone else, as not a single participant finished the entire race this year. Only five runners completed three laps, and nobody managed four.

Tomokazu Ihara, a finisher of this year’s Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge – meaning he completed the 298-km course in under 60 hours – was one of the five runners who completed three loops. He managed to do so within 40 hours, earning the title of a “fun run” finisher.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Case of Canada and Nicky Spinks of the UK – considered to be the top women contenders this year – completed the first 20-mile loop together but dropped out in lap two as temperatures plunged.

Case is the president and founder of the NGO Free to Run, which uses sports to empower women and girls in conflict areas. The Hong Kong-based charity RUN, which supports refugees through outdoor activities including running, was formerly part of Free to Run before spinning off as a sole entity in 2018.

One thing stood out in particular from Kelly’s tweet - this his focus on fun. He could have continued. He felt strong. The conditions were good, by Barkley standards. And yet he was no longer having fun. So he quit. Simple as that.

To some, Kelly’s decision to quit may seem blasé. Critics might think: What, you’re going to quit just because you don’t feel like it, in a race that you know is going to be hellish? That won’t get you anywhere. Where’s the grit and perseverance?

But Kelly, as a multi-year veteran of the Barkley – as he puts it, he was “the anxious and clueless newcomer in 2015, the confident but still pretty anxious veteran in 2016, the calm and eager yet still tense ‘expert’ in 2017, and the crew and observer in 2018”– fully owned his race experience.

He knew exactly what motivated him – to have fun out there – and when he wasn’t having fun, he stopped.

It takes a lot of trust and confidence in your own judgement to know when to call it a day, especially when your gauge is something as subjective as “fun.” The self-knowledge Kelly demonstrated in his ability to draw a line in the sand when he realised he was no longer having fun is highly admirable and something that no doubt many trail runners would want to emulate.

In the same book, Training for the Uphill Athlete, the American trail runner Clare Gallagher shares her thinking on always being conscious of your why. “Don’t Fort to Pack the Why,” she had titled her piece.

As Gallagher puts it, her motivations for running great long distances her morphed throughout the years.

“My why began as a mixed curiosity of, Can I do this? Plus, I really want to run in the Golden Triangle. Eventually it got to, Why not try a 100-miler? combined with, Well, I have nothing else going for me right now,” she wrote.

For Kelly, the why is a simple one: fun.