It’s 4:30 p.m. as Kelly strides into Winfield, the halfway point.
It took three hours to climb Mount Hope and another hour-and-a-half to descend the steep, rocky slope on the other side. Now that he’s finished, the 50 miles weren’t as awful as he’d expected. But his intention to quit is strong.
Mike Wilkinson, Kelly’s pacer, is the first of his crew to reach him. He’s eager to get out on the trail after waiting all day for the opportunity.
Joe, Kelly’s older brother, is right behind him. They ask about Clemence. But Kelly tells them that he had to leave Clemence behind.
“I’m done,” Kelly says to Joe.
“You can’t be serious,” Joe says.
“Don’t even think of talking me out of it,” says Kelly, rummaging through his bag for food and squatting to untie his shoes.
“Let me ask you something,” says Joe. “You eating?”
“Yeah,” says Kelly.
“And are you urinating? You keeping down fluid?”
“Yeah, I haven’t had that problem.”
“Look around, Tim,” says Joe. “You’re squatting, while everyone else is laid out. You can’t seriously be that hurt. You can’t give up now.”
Kelly lifts his head, and suddenly, he realizes Joe is right.
“I had this false conviction of feeling accomplished,” says Kelly, looking back on it. “Everything that’s supposed to go wrong in those races at that point wasn’t going wrong with me. I had so much more strength than I thought I had.”
So he changes his shoes and arms himself with a headlamp. He keeps his trekking poles and refills the water bottles on his hips. A few minutes later, Wilkinson is at his side, pacing him out of town.
About a half-mile up on the road, Kelly spots Clemence. He’s made it down the mountain safely on his own. Kelly runs up and the two give each other a high-five, but Clemence is clearly hurt. He’s hobbling, trying to keep pressure off of his left foot.
“I’m done,” he says. “I’m dropping out.”
Still, he made it this far.
“I’m proud of you,” says Kelly.
As he makes his way up Mount Hope again, Kelly cuts the time it took to get up the other side in half, keeping a 15-minute mile.
“He actually started getting stronger almost with each step,” recalls Wilkinson. “He was passing people that had come in a long time before he did into Winfield.”
Their pace is so quick that the summit comes unexpectedly. Kelly makes it over the pass and starts to bomb downhill. At this pace, Kelly will arrive in Leadville by 6 a.m., a full four hours before the cutoff.
He enters Twin Lakes around 8:15 p.m. The statistics are in his favor: Only 15 percent of runners who reach this point don’t reach the finish.
As they come out of Twin Lakes and begin winding through the woods at the base of Mount Elbert, the sun is starting to set. They switch their headlights on and stay close to another pair of runners. Kelly studies the runner in front of him, observing his footfalls and following his every move all the way to the aid station at mile 61, where a water tank sits in a small clearing.
They take a moment’s pause to fill their water bottles. Rather than follow the pair they’d trekked the last few miles with, Kelly leads the way, passing a few other runners until he and Wilkinson are alone in the dark.
After 2 miles, there’s a slight twinge in the muscle of Kelly’s right knee. It’s small enough that he hopes it’s nothing more than soreness you’d get after tackling downhills at a fast pace.
But it sparks a tiny alarm. In July, he was forced to drop out of the Buckeye Trail 50K when he pulled a hamstring in the same knee just miles from the finish line. But he keeps his injury from Wilkinson, dead set on finishing what he came to Colorado to accomplish.
Very quickly, the small pain in Kelly’s knee begins to spread. It starts sporadically, and then begins to pulse every time his foot impacts the ground.
Wilkinson asks why he’s slowing down.
“I’m tired,” Kelly responds, not wanting to admit to the pain.
So he walks for a minute, then runs for two. Walks for 30 seconds, then runs for three more minutes.
Each time, Wilkinson offers encouragement. “Hey, let’s try running again,” he says.
As the inclines and downhills feel steeper
approaching the next aid station at mile 69, the pain in Kelly’s leg spikes as well. He’s limping as he pulls in at 10:48 p.m.
The temperature is starting to drop. Kelly throws on a jacket, pants and gloves. For about 10 minutes he sits quietly in a chair, leg straight, eating salted potatoes, thinking of how he’s going to strategize his way out of this one. But when he stands, he can barely bend his leg.
“I just assumed my leg was tight from sitting that long,” says Kelly.
He hopes it will loosen up over the next half mile. So they head out once more.
But Kelly quickly struggles to keep his momentum, stopping every 10 minutes to readjust. The road leading out of the aid station is nothing but dry dirt. As crews pass on their way to the next aid station, the air is filled with dust that doesn’t settle.
Kelly starts to lean on Wilkinson for support, falling against him.
“Let’s just get you to the next aid station,” Wilkinson says as a mantra. “Let’s just get you to the next aid station.”
Two miles from Outward Bound, they’re greeted with a line of cars and a makeshift medical station. Volunteers check Kelly and tape up the knee. But as they head back out on the road, the tape swiftly falls off. A quarter-mile later, Kelly slows to a walk.
“I think I’m done, Mike,” he says. “My leg isn’t getting any better. It’s not loosening up.”
“Let’s just get you to Outward Bound,” he says. “They’ll get you the right tape, and we’ll see if that makes a difference.”
Three-quarters of a mile later Kelly stops again. Outward Bound is just out of reach on the other side of a field pocked with holes. Crossing it means risking serious injury to his leg.
He’s just more than 25 miles from the finish.
“Can you call Joe?” Kelly asks.
“You know if I call your brother and he picks you up, you’re disqualified,” says Wilkinson.
“Yeah, I know,” says Kelly, slumping to the ground. “Just call him. Please.”
A few minutes later, crew member John Neff arrives. He gets out, walks over to Kelly and puts a hand on his back for support. A few seconds later, Joe pulls up in his car, bathing Kelly in the glare of his headlights.
He doesn’t get out, though. Instead, Clemence steps from the passenger’s side. Kelly stands up as Clemence makes his way toward him, limping barefoot in the dirt. His foot is too swollen to keep his running shoes on.
“I know how you’re feeling” Clemence says.
“I can’t run anymore,” says Kelly.
“Well,” says Clemence, shrugging his shoulders. “We gave it all we had.”
The 6 a.m. skies over Edgewater Park rage with the remnants of Hurricane Patricia. Looking out toward Lake Erie, it’s hard to discern where water meets sky. The horizon is lost in varying shades of pitch as a slow and steady rain makes the sand hard to navigate.
None of it phases Kelly or the nine other runners following him in an exercise that takes them across the beach, up the steep hill toward the pavilion, back down the hill and around the bend toward the parking lot before doing it all over again. They have 25 minutes to do this.
“Just keep going for as long as you can,” he shouts. “You’ve got this! Don’t stop!”
Clemence follows closely, keeping good time.
After they returned from Leadville two months ago, Clemence discovered there was a fractured bone at the base of his right heel. He was off his feet for weeks, but he’s fully recovered now with a renewed sense of self.
“My horizon for what I’m capable of has expanded,” he says.
Kelly stops at the pavilion on his third lap and takes off two layers of clothing, stripping down to shorts and a T-shirt. He isn’t concerned with catching up with the others. He has all the time in the world now that he’s back from Colorado.
Only 319 of 650 runners finished the race at Leadville.
“When I went to Leadville, I had this mentality that it was going to be a closure to a lot of things,” says Kelly. “Really it ended up becoming a whole new chapter.”
He seems calmer now, less reserved, more determined to get out and move. It’s why he’s here in the wind and the rain working with Clemence on their Run Wild CLE concept, the kind of movement that pushes people to step outside of themselves and challenge their boundaries.
“Josh is the epitome of our whole Run Wild CLE movement,” says Kelly. “Do your own thing. Be your own person.”
Their social movement began in the midst of their training as a means of keeping themselves accountable with blog posts written by Kelly and videos created through Bumble Media, a company Clemence started during college. It was also a platform that helped them raise money for their Leadville trip by selling T-shirts bearing a logo of the city’s skyline with a tree towering out of a building to rise above the Terminal Tower. Now that they’ve returned, they’ve expanded their products to caps and tank tops to raise money for free community runs and workouts designed to inspire people to be fearless and free.
“It’s no longer about us and our journey,” says Kelly. “It’s about community, about getting people in Cleveland together and just being you and doing your thing.”
Workouts take place on the first and last Wednesday morning of every month and rotate between locations throughout the city from Edgewater to Lakewood’s new five-tiered Solstice Steps along the shoreline.
While they push themselves in the midst of a howling storm, Kelly’s lone trail shoe sits vigilant under the pavilion. It’s a Run Wild tradition where those who want can donate to charities, such as Bright Pink, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and the City Mission, when they meet.
For Kelly and Clemence, it’s just another step toward a return trip to Leadville next year.
“It took that extreme undertaking to realize the mental and physical strength I didn’t know I had,” Kelly says. “I think I’ll carry that for the rest of my life."