Skip to main content

Kelly Agnew’s Story Goes Down the Toilet

He was in many ways the ultramarathoning ideal: a distance-running latecomer with an inspirational story, a slew of wins and an edge that seemed to square with a community that embraces outcasts. Then his story started to unravel, beginning in an outhouse and ending in a courthouse.

Even under less damning circumstances, Kelly Agnew would have drawn extra attention at the start-finish line of Across the Years. The annual race takes place over the New Year’s period, with runners pushing themselves to complete as many laps as possible across a span of one, two, three or six days, circling the 1.05-mile track at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., where the Dodgers and White Sox train. And Agnew was dominant at these grueling events. He was a four-time reigning ATY champ, having conquered the past three two-day versions of the race (twice topping 200 miles), plus the one-day format the previous year. As the calendar turned to 2018, the 44-year-old was eyeing yet another victory in the shorter distance. As always, he elected to run on the final of six start days, so he knew how far he had to go to win.

Agnew’s story was inspirational. Eight years earlier, he was just another overweight guy approaching middle age. Then he saw a photo of himself on a beach. He caught the running bug, ran his first 5K and in 2011 completed the iconic Leadville 100, climbing some 12,000 feet into the Rockies. By the time of the ’17–18 Across the Years, he had sponsors and more than 10 wins in ultramarathons—any race over marathon length—under his belt. On one runner forum, Agnew boasted that Bart Yasso, the de facto mayor of U.S. marathons, had urged him to write a memoir about his rapid transformation from couch potato to subelite ultrarunner, so that others might follow in his footsteps.

dCOVultramarathon_V

With a grizzled beard and a crooked, toothy grin to match his offbeat story, Agnew had quickly become a familiar and well-liked figure on the ultrarunning scene, befriending runners and race directors alike. He was quick with a quip, the first to arrive at races and the last to leave, lingering to drink a PBR and swap stories. He was thrilled to find a community that shared his love for pizza and beer (“One of the best parts of running a lot of ultras is the fact that I get to eat like a frat boy,” he enthused), and that embraced anyone who pushed past their limits. “The most amazing thing about trail running is the people,” Agnew wrote on his blog, Slowly Slipping Into Pain. “All of my best friends I met on the trail, and they will be my friends forever, bonded together by a common love and respect for our sport and the fantastic lifestyle it provides.”

Agnew had posted on Facebook that he was going to do special things at Across the Years, but in reality he’d been in a serious running funk the past 18 months. He won a few 24-hour loop races, a format that had become his specialty, but those victories, he wrote, were “joyless.” His passion was gone. He raced less frequently and barely wrote on his blog anymore. In one of his few 2017 posts, he said that excessive miles—some 300 a month—had led him to “total burnout.” The solution, he concluded: “Worry less about overall performance. Worry less about everything.”

First, though, he wanted to get one more win at Across the Years, so at 9 a.m. on January 2, 2018, he set out around the track at Camelback Ranch, locking into his usual routine. He liked to go out hard, building a large lead on the competition, crushing other runners’ hopes. He’d queue up music on his iPod, tackle a nagging life problem or craft in his head a blog entry about the race. Anything to let his mind take over and engage his legs in autopilot. And for the first couple hours the race went well as he racked up the miles.

Meanwhile, Mike Melton, ATY’s official timer, tracked his data, watching Agnew closely every time he completed a lap.

Melton had been warned: Pay close attention to the reigning champion.

***

“I want to live a life so epic, so unimaginable,” Kelly Agnew wrote in 2015, “that when I'm an old man in a nursing home, sharing my story with others . . . they'll all think I'm lying.”

Growing up in East Wenatchee, Wash., a small, middle-class town about 150 miles east of Seattle, Agnew’s life was not exactly epic. A middle child, small and introverted, he tended to get lost in the mix, according to one high school classmate, and he seemed to struggle finding his place in it all. But he was good with his hands and had a sharp, practical mind; he fixed up ’50s Chevys with his father and found work after high school as a loader operator at a sand and gravel company. One contemporary of Agnew’s remembers him as a quiet, hard-working kid who stayed out of trouble, “never able to fit into any box.”

To his running friends, though, Agnew would describe a bit of a harsher experience, claiming that he often got into fights and earned suspensions for telling teachers and administrators to “f--- off.” He also claimed that classmates remembered him as “the dude that married his hot blond English teacher”—and, indeed, after first marrying his high school girlfriend, Agnew dated and then wed his former English teacher. But that, too, had a bitter end. By the middle of 2003, he had two sons and two divorces.

Life turned around for him, he’d say, when he met Jo Amoriell. Jo was living on a military base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., married to a Marine; Kelly was working a mining job nearby, still on marriage No. 2. They initiated divorce proceedings within three weeks of one another, Kelly proposed that Thanksgiving, and they married in Tombstone, Ariz., a year later.

“I had a lot of beautiful women in my life and I don’t know why they were there, because I didn’t treat ’em very good,” Agnew later told one friend. “But Jo stuck with me and saw something in me that was beyond what others did.”

Kelly bought Jo a Hummer and, he told people, breast enhancements. They got each other’s names tattooed on their necks and went on adult-themed holidays together at the Hedonism resorts in Jamaica, drinking naked all day poolside and mixing with other couples at night. (In what appeared to be their profile on the Adult Travel Forum website, Jo described herself and Kelly as “avid swingers” and outlined their approach to the lifestyle: “We are NOT pushy people and we NEVER make others feel uncomfortable. We're not animals and we will not attempt to jump your bones simply because you're there. HONEST!!”) In the mid-2000s they relocated to Naples, Fla., which Jo called “Paradise.” And in 2012 they bought two more homes: one outside Philadelphia; the other in Ogden, Utah, where they moved so Kelly could join the burgeoning trail and ultrarunning scene.

Agnew crosses the 91-mile mark in the Hardrock 100, which traverses the San Juan Mountains in Silverton, Col., in July 2016.

Agnew crosses the 91-mile mark in the Hardrock 100, which traverses the San Juan Mountains in Silverton, Col., in July 2016.

Agnew was hooked on his new hobby, and Jo was always along for the adventure, Stateside or overseas, working as her husband’s crew chief. In fact, her whole life came to be “centered around supporting Kelly,” says one of Agnew’s work mentors, Bob Carter. Routinely she would stay up more than 24 hours straight to support him in races, meeting him at every aid station, doing anything she could to help. And the fruits of that partnership were proudly displayed in a special room in the Agnews’ home in Utah, where Kelly kept every pair of shoes he’d worn in a 100-mile race, each sealed in an indexed plastic tote bag. Above those, across an entire wall, was a long row of buckles, the standard reward for anyone who finished an ultra, each one matched with a custom belt. Without Jo, Agnew would often say, none of this would be possible.

Jo and running, he wrote, were the “two obsessions in my life,” and they seemed to be matched perfectly.

***

When Kelly Agnew started running ultras, in 2011, he found himself in what was still a rather niche sport, with scant sponsorship money and few stars. For many, though, that was part of the appeal. With small fields of runners, the only bar to entry was the desire to cover unthinkably punishing distances. No one beyond the very best marathoners could compete alongside Eliud Kipchoge—but sign up for an ultra and you could easily end up in the dust of a legend like Scott Jurek. If you could hang, if you had the heart, you were immediately one of them.

Based on race data, ultrarunners tend to skew older. At the USATF 100-Mile Championship in February, for example, the average entrant’s age was 49. A more holistic look at the field, though, according to a wide array of runners and race directors consulted for this story, reveals a disproportionate number of people whose tough life experiences have given them the inner fortitude—or scarred them with the masochistic tendencies—to push their bodies to the brink. One runner calls the ultra community “the island of misfit toys,” full of people who’ve struggled with addiction, eating disorders, abusive relationships or other kinds of trauma. The phrase “I started running to save my life” is commonly thrown around.

“Some are running towards happiness,” says Maria Walton, the partner of the late barefoot runner Micah True and a friend of the Agnews’. Others, she says, “are running away from pain.”

Racers in the Leadville 100, across the Rockies, run toward happiness—or toward pain, says Walton.

Racers in the Leadville 100, across the Rockies, run toward happiness—or toward pain, says Walton.

For many, running an ultra is an almost meditative pursuit, endless hours spent putting one foot in front of the other. And for Agnew, these extremes matched the epic life he imagined. He wrote passionately about the “friendship, nature, love, support and the amazing sense of freedom that we feel when we run in the mountains.” He fed off the camaraderie he encountered on the trail and loved seeing deer, buffalo, antelope and mountain lions on his runs. When eventually he grew too old for it all, he mused, he would “reflect on the amazing people I met, experiences we shared and places we left our footprints.”

Passionate as he was, it still came as a surprise among Agnew’s East Coast friends when in 2013, a year after moving to Utah, Agnew started taking down ultras. They’d known him as a passionate, late convert to running who would draw up elaborate race plans for himself and Jo to follow—but he’d never come close to winning. Sure, he was now training at altitude in the Wasatch mountains. And he had the strength and support of a hardcore running community to lean on. But could that really account for such a radical improvement?

***

As a runner, the image Kelly Agnew fostered for himself was that of a badass who would not be reined in. “I say the s--- that everybody else is thinking,” he wrote in one online forum. “I’m not running for political office.”

In August 2011, after competing in the New York City Triathlon, he titled a blog post “Swim, Bike, Run … Midgets!” and wrote alongside a race photo of a little person: “Anybody that knows me knows I love midgets. . . . But you simply can't beat a midget triathlete on a little midget bike.” When John Young, the pictured triathlete, later called out Agnew in a story on Huffington Post, Agnew basked in the controversy, even thanking Young for boosting his blog traffic. (Agnew was uninvited from future NYC Triathlons.)

Agnew after the 2016 Hardrock 100, where he placed 68th.

Agnew after the 2016 Hardrock 100, where he placed 68th.

One old running buddy, Lindsay Lauck, met Agnew through the Happy Utah Mountain Runners (HUMRs) trail-running group, and they bonded at first over vegetarianism and tattoos. (Among Agnew’s tats: one of himself running, on his arm.) Lauck and her then husband would socialize with Kelly and Jo, but ultimately she grew tired of Agnew’s polarizing behavior. He was “mean to a lot of people,” she says, and picked fights with other runners. The final straw, she says, came at an after-race party in February 2014, at a Utah bar. Everyone was drinking, Kelly swigging from a whiskey bottle, when Jo pointed out to her husband a woman whose thong underwear was exposed. “He thinks they’re hot,” Jo said.

“Those things are so uncomfortable,” Lauck responded. “It’s boy shorts for me.”

As Lauck was leaving the bar, she says, Agnew cornered her. “Kelly grabbed onto me, tightly, one hand on the back of my head, his face against my ear. He shouted over the bar music: ‘I can’t stop thinking about you, and those f------ boy-short panties are gonna be running through my head all f------ night.’ ” Lauck says Agnew shoved her away and disappeared back to Jo, who later begged Lauck not to let the incident ruin their friendship. According to Lauck, Jo cried, “This just keeps happening! He does this over and over and I keep losing all my friends.”

After Lauck related the incident to the founder of the HUMRs, Agnew, who had recently been voted HUMR of the Year, was expelled from the group for “behavior unbecoming.” (Neither Kelly nor Jo responded to multiple requests to comment for this story.) Lauck, meanwhile, says the run-in, which she also shared with her then husband, sent her into a tailspin, fearful of retaliation. She started carrying pepper spray and found herself too scared to sign up for races, where she might encounter her harasser.

In the workplace, too, Agnew had a reputation for bad behavior. At Preferred Sands, a frac sand and proppant company where he served as a senior exec from 2008 to ’13 (from offices in Philadelphia and Salt Lake City), former colleagues recall him repeatedly hitting on younger female employees. If a coworker was receptive to his advances, according to people he worked alongside, Agnew would bring her along as he zig-zagged the country on business. Years later, people he worked alongside characterize him as someone who vastly overstated his experience to get his job, who took credit for others’ accomplishments and who protected his power by demoting or firing colleagues more qualified than him. “He caused so much damage to so many people with his stories and his manipulative ways,” says one former senior manager at Preferred Sands. “Anybody he saw as a threat, he found some way to cause them harm.”

When Agnew left the company at the end of 2013, he told running friends that he’d been laid off due to cutbacks and that he was “treated like s--- on the way out.” Asked about the circumstances of Agnew’s exit, the CEO of Preferred Sands at the time (since departed) says he was unaware of the details. Fellow employees, however, remember that as Agnew was leaving they were informed that expense claims would from then on be vetted much more stringently."

Agnew, meanwhile, moved on to another job in Utah, at a foundry company called D&L Supply.

***

In July 2012, shortly before Agnew left the East Coast, he ran the Vermont 100, one fifth of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and one of the oldest ultra races in the U.S. On his blog, he reported his finish time as 23:52:00. The official results, though, show him as a DNF. Did not finish.

In reality, he’d been quietly disqualified, a fact that was later disclosed by a former friend, Bob Bodkin. Agnew had struggled during the race, and he told people he wasn’t feeling well. But when Bodkin—who'd been well ahead of Agnew—crossed the finish line, he learned that Agnew had somehow passed him. Later, a commenter posting as “BB” on the website MarathonInvestigation.com reported that Agnew had missed multiple checkpoints and posted unrealistic splits in Vermont. “BB” noted that friends subsequently referred to cheating as “pulling a ‘Kelly’ move.”

HCM, a jersey-sponsor nonprofit for which Agnew (at the start-finish line of the Javelina 100) raised money, parted ways with the runner in 2012, around the time he moved to Utah.

HCM, a jersey-sponsor nonprofit for which Agnew (at the start-finish line of the Javelina 100) raised money, parted ways with the runner in 2012, around the time he moved to Utah.

Danny Widerburg tells a similar story. In April 2014 he ran the Zion 100 in Utah and posted one of his best finishes, 25:36:15. He recalls that at one point he was hours ahead of Agnew, whom he is certain never passed him—but when he reached the finish line, there was Agnew, looking showered and fresh, with a beer in his hand. “Hey, when did you drop [out]?” Widerburg asked.

“Oh, I finished about an hour ago,” came the reply from Agnew, who said he’d been “on fire.” (Widerburg says he remembers seeing the Agnews’ truck parked near the 70-mile point, at the start of a loop section.)

Again, one year later, at the same race, Widerburg says he and Agnew were running together around mile 10 when Agnew stopped for a bathroom break. The next thing Widerburg knew, Agnew, who he never saw pass, was an hour ahead of him.

To Widerburg, such behavior wasn’t worth making noise about. Agnew, after all, was far from the podium at Zion, where he was finishing six hours behind the top places. But others were less forgiving. Davy Crockett, a respected ultra veteran and once a running friend of Agnew’s, remembers competing in the 2015 Monument Valley 100, in Utah, when Agnew overtook him by making up a four-mile difference over steep, unforgiving terrain in a remarkable 40 minutes. Crockett believed the only way that was possible was if Agnew had skipped an entire out-and-back section. After that, he paid close attention to Agnew at races.

Crockett observed that on loop courses Agnew would sometimes disappear, often claiming an injury, but then he would keep logging laps. At night, when headlamps make runners impossible to miss, he would seem to come out of nowhere; by morning he tended to have a large lead over the field. Crockett looked at Agnew’s running résumé and found he was almost unbeatable in loop races—routinely winning, often breaking course records—while on linear routes, where cheating was much more difficult, he was average at best.

Javelina Jundred 158

Crockett tried to catch Agnew in the act and at one race says he found Agnew hiding in a tent near the start-finish area, sitting out a lap. At another loop race, one of Crockett’s sons captured Agnew on video wandering from his truck to the timing mat at the start-finish line, logging a lap, then returning to the vehicle.

“I knew he was doing this over and over again,” says Crockett. “I felt lonely for quite a while, knowing I had this information and trying to figure out what I should do with it. I didn’t want to publicly out and shame him. But I wanted him to stop.”