We may all agree, some of our warmest memories come from when we are gathered around a table, nourishing our next adventure while reminiscing trail moments with our community. Those of us who have met and shared time with trail runner and chef Kelly Bailey Newlon know she is the perfect cultivator of that inclusive, welcoming, and refueling experience for the body and the heart.
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Kelly is the owner and lead chef of Real Athlete Diets (RAD), a catering company specializing in healthful, satiating, and delicious food for endurance athletes.
“I’m a friend and a chef, which is probably why we feel really approachable to people,” says Kelly. “We create a safe place around the table, for breaking bread together, for enjoying food and not judging. We don’t focus on fads. For us, food is food, exciting and fun. If I can help keep people excited about food and not the heavy parts of it, [their relationship with it] happens in such an exciting way.”
After more than two decades as a chef, Kelly founded RAD five years ago with a focus on feeding the outdoor industry and endurance athletes, particularly in the ultrarunning and trail running space, given Kelly’s lifelong love for running. To help support the venture, Kelly’s husband, Morgan Newlon, temporarily left his role at Exxcel Outdoors, the parent company to Kelty, Sierra Designs, Ultimate Direction, and other outdoor brands. That kickoff year, Kelly cooked and Morgan delivered meals to individual athletes and the pair together catered gatherings for outdoor-industry companies and retailers. In the years since, RAD has phased out of cooking for individuals and into organizing the food for larger events including Timothy Olson’s Run Mindful Retreats, athlete summits for brands like Altra Running and Salomon, and Gina Lucrezi’s Trail Sisters meet-ups.
RAD was born organically—and in a somewhat comical nature.
Seven years prior, Kelly and Morgan moved to Colorado from Virginia, on a whim. They felt a desire to be challenged in a fresh way. Morgan had formerly lived in the Centennial State, and they both wondered what life would be like out West in the mountains. They put a for-sale sign on the condo—and it sold that week. They quickly loaded a moving van, didn’t have jobs lined up, and opted to ski for a month upon arrival. Soon, Morgan got a job with Exxcel Outdoors, where he still works today, while Kelly taught full-time at a culinary school. She was also employed by AIM House, where she worked on a team that included dietitians and therapists who taught post-addiction adolescents how to cook and cultivate a healthy relationship with food. This was a stressful role added to a jam-packed schedule. On the side, she also cooked for friends as they trained for endurance events. The lattermost she loved doing the most.
“I was about to drive home one day from work and a friend who was training for an Ironman called to ask if I could feed her for the next few months. I usually don’t say no, but I was pushed to the edge. It was all really stressful,” recalls Kelly. Afterward, on that seven-minute drive home, up a side canyon on the periphery of Boulder, she had an epiphany.
“I thought, I’m going to feed professional endurance athletes. Why isn’t anyone doing this? But, you have to know what you’re doing in the food industry and be vetted in the endurance-sports community, too,” says Kelly.
She parked at home, busted in the front door, and excitedly shared the news with Morgan: she was starting this business and needed him to be her business partner. “Out of nowhere, I said, the name is going to be… RAD, which stands for Real… Athlete… Diets,” she laughs in our interview. “He was always using the word ‘rad.’ I wanted to hook him.”
Albeit a plunge to start a new company, Kelly had the right ingredients with her background as both a chef and a runner.
Her earliest running memory was a race during field day in elementary school. “It was on a crappy cinder track. I loved the feeling of running so much that I ran over to my parents on the side of the track and told them I was going to be a runner. It’s been with me ever since,” says Kelly. She was five years old. She grew up mostly in Indiana, and in junior high, she joined cross country and track.
In track, she focused on the 400-meter race. “I’d sometimes jump into the 100 meters, because running fast felt so good, and also the 4×400-meter relay. I loved running hard. I was known as the one who puked at the end of every race, because I’d run so hard. It was really a test of my patience when I started running [longer distances on] trails, because I had to learn the techniques of breathing, pacing, and paying attention to the trail. It’s different than getting let out of the gate,” she says. “It was also a lesson in humility for why running takes so much longer on trails. I was a 3:15 marathoner. I’d do a trail marathon and be like, ‘Why did this take 4.5 hours?’”
Kelly says that her interest in the culinary arts developed at the same young age. At age five, she says, “I had decided firmly that: 1. I wanted to be a runner, and 2. I wanted to be a chef.” Later on, her first restaurant job was at one owned by two graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. Kelly says, “I became obsessed with being taught by professional chef instructors who were the best of the best at this particular school.” It was perhaps only a matter of time, then, that Kelly moved to New York City at age 21 to attend the Culinary Institute of America herself. She explains, “This changed my life for the good in layers of ways. I am eternally grateful for the time I spent there.”
In her move, New York’s Catskill Mountains became her new backyard. “The trails in the woods were rugged, raw, and textured—I really loved that. There were stream crossings and you constantly had to pay attention to your feet and jump over things. I’d never been exposed to this, and it really lit me up. I knew this was my jam,” she says.
As her career accelerated in the restaurant industry, trail running progressively became an outlet for stress. After graduation, she worked at a winery in New York. Then, she was offered a position as a pastry chef in Virginia, working for Marcel Desaulniers of The Trellis Restaurant. Kelly and her then husband, who she’d met in school, moved there. “I worked at 1 a.m., which was oddly conducive to training for ultramarathons, because if you can stay up all night long, it helps. I’d train after work. I had an easier time running through the night than my friends, because I was used to it,” says Kelly. She lived a couple of hours away from good trails, so she’d run races a couple of times each month, which ranged from 10 miles and up. This included a life-shifting ultra: the 125-kilometer Canadian Death Race in 2005.
“Things were not good with my [past] husband. He was an addict and it was a hard relationship. I thought, I need to get my shit together. My life is not safe. So, I signed up for the [Canadian Death Race]. When it was done, I didn’t have anything left but the truth. I came out of those mountains and knew what to do. Two days later, I told my husband that I wanted a divorce. I wasn’t going to spend my life in a dangerous relationship,” she says.
That huge change, at age 35, catalyzed an even deeper relationship with ultrarunning. She was excited to learn more. She was racing a lot and in constant need of outdoor things, so she frequented an outdoor store where Morgan was the assistant manager. A few months later, she started a conversation with Morgan, and eventually, some more months after that, she asked Morgan out on “her last first date. I said, ‘I felt like you wanted to go out with me, why didn’t you ask me out?’ He said, ‘I didn’t know you were ready.’ He was waiting for me,” she says.
Morgan most loves cycling, but at the time the two met, he was additionally training for multi-day adventure races. “Morgan helped introduce me to cycling more. It was a big part of our relationship then and I still have a couple of bikes but my biggest goal is to not fall over when I’m clipped in. He’s a good off-the-couch runner, climber, and athlete. If I’m ever lost in the woods, I’d want to be with Morgan because he understands navigation,” she laughs.
Now, they live in their dream home on the periphery of Boulder with views of Longs Peak, Estes Cone, and Twin Sisters Peaks. Kelly can run out her door on the trails, which she does about four days a week. With her heart here at home, she’s not as inclined to sign up for as many races as she used to. That said, she’s excited to mix things up with the 2020 Moab Red Hot 33k and the Chuckanut 50k. “My big thing is to stay healthy for life, to stay mobile and moving. It doesn’t have to be a race. My goal could be to climb a certain number of mountains or run the Boulder Skyline,” she says.
During cold weather, she’ll do a warm-up mile in her outdoor apparel on the treadmill first before jetting outside. She reserves one set of shoes for screws in the tread–her traction on the icy roads outside the door in winter. She has an inherent need to get outside and move, to balance the busyness of life and her mental health.
“Depression can be a difficult part of my life. Having trails right there brings peace and quiet to my brain and brings that anxiety down. The trail helps shake the day off and gets me focused. There’s one trail in particular that I love that’s constantly filled with columbines, raspberry bushes, and visual treats that keep me engaged,” says Kelly.
Helping others find their own inner peace is a natural role she tends to fill in her work and relationships with endurance athletes.
Over the years, “I’ve worked with so many people who have eating issues and disorders. I don’t know if I’ve known a woman who hasn’t had one. I myself have had a hard time with food. If people want to talk to me about it, they come to me. Athletes I’ve worked with will ask me things. The minute we start preaching about how we should or should not eat, that’s when people feel uncomfortable with food,” she says and adds, “Though I’m not a dietician, nutritionist, or therapist, I’ve taken continuing hours of education on those things. But it’s not my job, so it’s not my official role.”
Her running-and-food co-mingled career is set to evolve and keep challenging her.
In the year ahead, Kelly will live in a van for two months from June to July to cook for a professional athlete who will attempt a new fastest known time on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). (The athlete’s identity cannot be disclosed at this time.) She says, “I’m so excited, but it’s also a hard project. How do I procure the best ingredients I can on the PCT? I want something that also challenges me, so this will be good.”
There’s no doubt, we can’t wait to see where and how Kelly serves next. We all feel lucky to break bread with her.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Calling all Kelly Bailey Newlon stories! Kindly leave a comment to share your story of running trails or sharing meals with Kelly.