For most people, the idea of running a marathon is something they dismiss as a crazy idea or admire from a cheering section alongside the course. In fact, less than one percent of the U.S. population has completed one.
For others, like Dorchester resident Katy Kelly, that 26.2-mile finish line wasn’t quite far enough.
Kelly, an accomplished former professional athlete and coach, has been running for more than 30 years and has completed 13 full marathons. But in 2021, she found herself wanting a new challenge. That’s when she discovered ultramarathons.
A goal-oriented person, Kelly started looking into longer distances like 50K and 100-mile races.
“Ultramarathoning is not your average recreational sport,” said Kelly. “It takes a certain type of individual and mindset.”
She isn’t one to back down to any type of challenge, especially when it comes to athletics. She completed her first 50-mile race in June of 2021 in New Hampshire and immediately fell in love with the thrill of ultra-distance running.
In marathon running, runners often talk about “breaking through the wall.” It’s the point in the race where you have to overcome the pain and rely on mental toughness, adrenaline, and cheering fans to help carry you to the end. In ultramarathons, the entire race can be a “wall.”
“You’re just embracing the pain the entire time,” said Kelly. “You can be out there for hours by yourself. You don’t have the fanfare in the deep woods and mountains. You have to find your own inner strength and motivation.”
As she crossed her first 100-mile finish line 23 hours and 16 minutes later, there was no grand finale. In fact, she had to go and find the race director, who had gone to sleep in his car and let him know she’d finished.
“I like to tap into my potential and my limits both physically and mentally,” she said.
Her secret to keeping one foot in front of the other? The power of positive thinking. “I just stick to self-talk, self-motivation. I keep saying, “You came here to finish, so keep going.”
Running for that many miles undoubtedly takes a serious toll on runners’ bodies.
“Your quads are shredded to pieces. You are sore and aching all over,” said Kelly. “Your mind wants to focus on the pain, the broken toenails, but your body can keep going.”
She recalls being at mile 99 when the battery on her headlamp began to fade. It was dark, she was exhausted and she tripped, landing flat on her back in a pile of mud.
“I just laid there looking up at the stars,” said Kelly. She eventually picked herself up and started walking it off. The sound of an animal moving in the nearby woods refocused her mind and she took off running again.
“It just goes to show you, it isn’t the muscle fatigue that stops you, it really is the mental fatigue.”
But Kelly, wife of Dorchester native Eddie Kelly and a mother of two has a secret weapon that helps carry her through the times she struggles to keep going.
Kelly’s son Tommy has been a cancer survivor since age five. During his treatment at the Jimmy Fund Clinic in 2014, Tommy made his mother a blue star to celebrate her participation in the Boston Marathon. Nearly ten years later, she still carries it with her on every endurance race.
“When the going gets tough, I reach in my pocket and I feel for that star,” said Kelly. “Then I say nope – nothing’s gonna stop me. And I just keep going.”
Kelly says while her family may not understand the appeal of ultramarathoning, the love, and support she gets from her husband and children is a huge source of her strength and motivation.
“My daughter Maggie is always there when I walk in with a limp and asks me what I need,” she said. “She is so kind and caring.”
And if the race is within a three-hour drive, she knows her husband will be there waiting at the finish line.
“It gives me more determination because I know my best friend and spiritual rock will be there. I look forward to that embrace at the end,” said Kelly.
Finding time to train for a marathon, let alone a race that could take 24 hours to complete, is enough to deter most people from even thinking about signing up. But for Kelly, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“I work full-time, so once the kids were off to school, I would go and do a 12-mile run and then go out in the evening and do another six to eight miles,” said Kelly.
Kelly, who runs an average of five to 10 events per year, says she got away from tracking her miles and pace after injuries started to slow her down.
“It can take away the joy of what you’re doing when you’re too focused on the pace,” said Kelly, adding that she has no idea how many lifetime miles she’s run. For her, it’s about setting a goal and completing the mission.
“When people hear about my running, they are kind of in awe. But because I’ve been training, I see it from a different perspective. I reached my goal and attained what I wanted to – what I worked for,” she said.
Kelly believes everyone has some kind of God-given talent. Ultramarathoning has helped her tap into her own potential while showcasing the impact hard work can have.
“Whatever my kids do in life, I hope what resonates is that they dream big, work hard, and go to everything with confidence and determination,” said Kelly. “Because there are going to be bumps in the road – there are going to be challenges. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Kelly’s Dot Favorites
Favorite place to go for a run? Pope John Paul Park
Favorite place to carb-load? A cinnamon scone from Greenhills Bakery
Favorite place for a pint? Eire Pub