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Damian Hall vs. John Kelly: the running rivalry we didn’t know we needed

The two fell running champions are good friends, but they've left enough room between them for a lighthearted rivalry

Photo by: Twitter/DrLygo

Eliud Kipchoge versus Kenenisa Bekele, Roger Federer against Rafael Nadal, Team Canada versus Team USA. Sports are fuelled by rivalries, and even if athletes are friends off the track, court or rink, they drop the niceties when it’s time to compete. After American ultrarunner John Kelly had his Pennine Way fastest known time (FKT) taken away from him by Britain’s Damian Hall just a week after he, Kelly, originally ran it, a new fell running rivalry was born. The two have taken some good-natured jabs at each other over social media since Hall finished his successful attempt on the Pennine Way FKT, and it’s showing us that the Kelly-Hall rivalry is the matchup we didn’t know we needed – until now.

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PREPARATION . I’ve never prepared for anything as thoroughly as I did for my Pennine Way Bimble. . I’ve been working with the amazing @addiedoesstuff for nine months. I was nervous, because I’d be self-coached for two years, one my best ever, one less satisfactory. It just seemed smart to get some objective guidance – and to hopefully be a better coach for my own clients too. David has been incredible. He’s put a spring in my stride, but also filled me with belief. Thank you man x . Soon-to-be world-famous author and massive fascia-ist @shane.benzie (The Lost Art Of Running is out this month) must be the world’s most patient man. He’s been working on my technique ever since my second ultramarathon. And we’re still working on it… . My friend, sports dietician and influencer (🤣) @r_mcgregor has been helping me with science-based nutrition advice almost since the beginning too and came up with some key nuggets again this time. . I’ve been trying to be a bit less skinny, by working with @strengthforendurance for about nine months now and I really feel the benefits. A pull-up bar was a much better buy than the treadmill I also panic bought during lockdown. . Dr Josie Perry (Performance in Mind) really helped clarify a few things for me, gave me some new strategies and basically helped me feel calm, happy and even a little bit confident before kick off. . I’ve suffered from cramp before, but not this time, thanks to @precisionhydration. We all sweat differently, so a sweat test with precise results and bespoke hydration/electrolyte plan really seemed to work. . @vwcv_uk_media very kindly lent us an ace van too. . But thanks above all to @inov_8 and Tomax Technology. I could not have done this without their support. . 📸 @davemacfarlane / @inov_8 . #PWFKTea #HappyRunner #ElasticRunner #WellFuelledRunner #StrongerRunner #MentallyStrongerRunner #StillASweatyRunner #thepostwhereyouthankallyoursponsorsrunner #inov8 #TomaxTechnology #SunGod #Suunto #bimble #stufflikethat

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The Pennine Way 

The Pennine Way is a 431K route through the U.K. It starts in Edale, a town near Manchester, and heads north into Scotland to finish in Kirk Yetholm. Before Kelly, the last finisher of the Barkley Marathons, broke the route record in mid-July, the FKT had stood since 1989, when British fell runner Mike Hartley covered the distance in two days, 17 hours and 20 minutes. Kelly broke Hartley’s record, but just barely, finishing in two days, 16 hours and 40 minutes, eking out a new FKT by 40 minutes. Kelly didn’t get to enjoy his record for long, and just nine days later, Hall smashed the FKT on July 25 when he finished the route in two days, 13 hours and 34 minutes.  

RELATED: John Kelly tackles his first big UK trail quest

The Kelly-Hall rivalry 

Kelly and Hall are friends, but there’s definitely a competitive streak between them. After his run, Hall posted on Instagram to apologize to Kelly for stealing his FKT. It was a nice post, and there was certainly some sincerity involved (at one point, Hall writes that he’s one of Kelly’s biggest fans), but we can’t help but think Hall’s taking a subtle jab at his friend. Kelly responded to Hall with an Instagram post of his own, writing about the “fair temptress the Pennine Way” that “came between” the two of them. 

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Oh, for simpler times. Back when @ultra_damo was pulling me and my bum knee around the Paddy Buckley Round through my first British mountain storm, discussing US vs UK snack foods. Back before that fair temptress the Pennine Way came between us.
I've been in absolute awe, at times to the point of feeling embarrassed, of the support I've received & of how much I've been embraced by the fell running community in the UK. Damian is a big part of that. Self-reliance is highly valued where I come from, but I couldn't even imagine attempting half of what I've done here, including my Pennine Way run, without that support. Thank you to everyone for that.
Watching Damian's tracker did feel a bit like watching a friend go after an ex – in the end you're happy they're both happy, but it feels weird. Damian I appreciate your post & your empathy, and I'm not gonna lie – yes I do wish I could have held it just a *bit* longer, but I can assure you that you have nothing to be sorry for. This is how we planned it – to push each other to do something neither of us knew was possible.
Without being challenged or targeted, records mean nothing – they do not inspire, they do not cultivate progress, & unless we are to become complacent & say that we have already reached our collective peak then they say nothing about the limits of human potential. My record served its purpose. I'm happy it did & there's no one I would have rather seen it go down to. But happy does not equal content. I'm not content without knowing I've pushed things as far as I'm capable. No one with the competitive drive required to do these things would be, and I almost view it as a responsibility to use the gifts I've been given.
Damian thank you again for redefining what's possible & setting such an incredible goal to aim for, and for your sportsmanship in doing so. I am not conquered, though, and if you'd like to visit my throne you can find it 11 switchbacks up a trail from a yellow gate in the mountains of Tennessee. 😉 As for now, it's time to come full circle to that crazy Grand Round idea I had when I first arrived on this island. 🏃🚴⛰️🌧️💨 Photo: @jameselsonator

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“Watching Damian’s tracker did feel a bit like watching a friend go after an ex — in the end you’re happy they’re both happy, but it feels weird,” Kelly continued. He added a shot of his own, referencing his Barkley Marathons finish, saying, “If you’d like to visit my throne you can find it 11 switchbacks up a trail from a yellow gate in the mountains of Tennessee.” 

RELATED: Pennine Way FKT changes hands for second time in under two weeks

Ultimately, the two are clearly good friends, and while there’s no bad blood between them, they definitely drive one another to be the best athletes possible, and that’s what rivalries are all about. Hopefully the two will face off again, whether it’s on another FKT or in a real race.

As for Kelly, the Pennine Way was just Part One of his summer plans. Next up for the Barkley Marathons finisher is a 297K run called the Grand Round. Kelly named this Pennine-Grand Round double the Hartley Slam, after the aforementioned Mike Hartley. He’s set to tackle the Grand Round later in August, and who knows, maybe Hall will give it a shot once Kelly’s finished, just like he did last time.