Jessica Kelley Goes Wild


I first got to know Jessica Kelley in 2013 when she was a coach with Cycle University, and was the liaison with the Cascade Bicycle Club’s High Performance Cycling team. At the time she probably thought of herself as a triathlete, and as you can see in the video below, she certainly looked like one. She loves to give me a hard time whenever I wear a sleeveless cycling jersey (although common in the triathlete world, they are considered a fashion faux pas by hard core road cyclists).

Since then, Jessica has progressed from triathlons to what she calls “adventure ‘runs'” that are longer than a marathon distance, mostly done solo, not formally organized by a race or event promoter, in the wilderness, and link multiple trails into a long loop or point-to-point route.

It’s impossible to not dance while trail running with Mount Baker in the background. Credit Tom Kelley

Unfortunately, while we were working on this post she broke her ankle during an attempt of an UltraPedestrian Challenge route called Spider on Steroids, which early in the route crosses Spider Gap, east and north of Stevens Pass.

But, as an indication of Jessica’s strong determination, she slowly hiked and butt-scooted the 6.5 miles back to the start, aided by her husband Tom in the final 3.5 miles. Read about it here, and bookmark her blog for her ongoing trip reports.

Here is short video interview with Jessica (up to about 3:10) during a 2013 training ride to Washington Pass:

What role did fitness and outdoor activities play for you when you were younger?

I grew up in Wisconsin, and was NOT very active at all. In high school I was voted “Has the Most Fun on Weekends,” which meant that I drank a lot and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Kind of sad, looking back on it. Despite not being particularly outdoorsy or active as a kid, at the age of 10 I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, and stuck with that career path into my early 30s. Oddly enough, focusing on marine biology is what led me to hiking, which ultimately led to other endurance sports. I went on my first hike when I was living in Hawaii for a summer internship, and then spent lots of time exploring the chaparral-covered hills behind UC Santa Barbara while all the other marine bio majors were out surfing Campus Point.

The last time we chatted in 2013 you were coaching triathletes at Cycle University and prepping for the Norseman Xtreme “ultra” triathlon. What has been your progression through different sports since then?

Since 2013, I’ve left Cycle U and started my own coaching business called Evergreen Endurance Coaching. My progression has not been linear by any means, and continues to take unexpected twists and turns. Hiking and biking were definitely my first two loves, and provided the base – physiologically and metaphorically – for my involvement in endurance sports. I remember in 2005 my husband (then boyfriend) told me that people actually rode their bikes from Seattle to Portland. It seemed inconceivable to me at first, so completing STP in 2006 felt like one of my first real athletic achievements. After that, I got into triathlon and quickly became pretty serious for a few years, by which I mean that I took racing very seriously – not that I was necessarily achieving serious results. I then focused on bike racing for a couple years, but realized I was missing the trails that first got me outside so many years ago.

In 2013, I decided to start spending more time in the mountains. On a whim, I also applied for an ambassadorship with blueseventy that included a free entry into 2013 Norseman. I got in, which I truly didn’t expect: I literally said “oh s#*t!” when I received the notification letter. In 2013 I was (almost) accidentally back in the triathlon world even though I was feeling more motivated to be on trails. I knew that Norseman involved some trail running at the end, and I’d heard it was a somewhat grass-roots race, so I was hopeful it wouldn’t be quite as intense as my previous triathlon races. It turned out Norseman is a big production, with cameras, drones, and crowds. I felt a lot of self-induced pressure to train well, race well, and make blueseventy proud.

By the time I returned from Norway, I just wanted to be alone in the woods. So that is what I did, and I’ve not really left since then. If anything, I just keep going further and further afield. I started with organized 50ks, then on to unsupported adventures in the Cascades and Olympics, then unsupported runs and races in extreme cold. My next step is honing my off-trail skills in unfamiliar terrain over multiple days, so that I can start to do some real exploring.

You really are getting into that next phase of adventure “runs.” How do you identify projects that are meaningful objectives?

I spend a lot of my free time looking at maps and reading trip reports to learn more about areas I haven’t explored. You know how some people have to block Facebook so they get their work done? I have to block I want to know what every nook and cranny of the wilderness holds; I want to see all the sights; I want to know all the mountains and valleys. To me, an interesting objective is one that includes an area that I haven’t yet explored, with the promise of spectacular scenery – be that big trees, mountain views, or rushing rivers. I also much prefer loops and traverses to out-and-backs, because they require more creativity in terms of route-design, they elegantly illustrate how the backcountry is connected, and I don’t spend half my time on a route I’ve already done. To me, the best objective is a stunningly scenic loop in a relatively unknown area. Even better if it requires multiple forms of human-powered transportation to complete the route.

Biking to a trailhead before a long day of running and hiking. Jessica often bikes to link trails or with her car before and after an adventure.

How do you balance life as a mom and wife with pursuing activities that involve overnight runs and hikes, as well as operating a coaching business?

I am very efficient, for better or worse. I plan and schedule everything, and make lists like nobody’s business. I remember when I finally realized/admitted that anticipation of an activity is half the fun for me. I love doing the research and figuring out all the logistics, whether it’s for a backcountry adventure or an afternoon with my kiddo. It genuinely makes me happy to plan things out. As a bonus, it also makes life go a lot more smoothly when you’ve thought through everything ahead of time. Of course, I recognize that there is danger in always thinking ahead and not being present, so lately I’ve also been working on appreciating each moment as it happens: the smile on my daughter’s face, or a big hug from my husband, or the splash of cold creek water on a hot day. Half of the fun is planning and anticipating. The other half is the experience itself.

Above the marine layer on the summit of McClellan Butte.

You do most of these adventures solo. Since you have a family, how do you try to moderate risk?

I do most of my trips solo, and yes, I’m always thinking about risk mitigation. My brother didn’t call me “Colonel Cautious” as a kid for nothing. I carry most of the 10 Essentials with me on every trip (I say “most of” because I don’t just carry them blindly. I think through everything I’m bringing before I go, to keep my load light and manageable. For instance, I’ll leave sun protection behind when I’m planning a wooded route in the Pacific Northwest in winter.) I carry a paper map in addition to GPS. I check weather obsessively. I do lots of research on each route and don’t hesitate to ask questions from others who have been there before me. I tend to avoid technical terrain without a buddy, and sometimes even when I have a buddy. I tell my husband exactly where I am going, oftentimes including a detailed map of my planned route (especially when the route involves multiple trails). I carry an InReach satellite messenger with me on every trip, so that he can track me and I can communicate with him or with Search and Rescue (SAR) if something goes wrong. And when I finish every outing, I send him a quick text message so he knows I made it back safe and sound.

What kinds of clients do you coach?

I coach all different types of athletes, from people looking to run their first 5k, to folks trying to race a faster Ironman, to those who want to complete a 100-miler or beyond. I even have some long-time athletes that don’t always have a specific event in mind, but we’ve worked together for years now because they know I’ll help them stay consistently fit and active over time.

Frozen selfie at -20 degrees during a foot-propelled Iditasport 200.

What is next in your progression?

My overall goal is to continue to learn skills that allow me to explore remote terrain and move through the wilderness more efficiently. I spent the last couple winters doing winter footraces, which involved hiking on snow for many hours while pulling a heavy sled. As you might guess, this an incredibly inefficient mode of snow-travel. I’m excited to become a legitimate skier, and look forward to ditching the “slowshoes” and ski touring all of the amazing terrain here in WA. In addition, I recently bought a packraft, and can’t wait to incorporate that into my adventures as well. Packrafting opens up so many new drainages, and possibilities for loops and traverses! In general, I find it really exciting to use multiple means of human-powered transportation to explore wild landscapes.

Here’s wishing Jessica a speedy recovery so she can get back to doing what she loves and inspiring others who also want to go wild.

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