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John Kelley's marathon: same race, different pace

The Baltimore Sun

MYSTIC, Conn. -- -- The golden boy of half a century ago is bronzed in mid-stride on the Hall of Fame plaque mounted on his kitchen wall. "It's like another lifetime," observes the greatest American marathoner of his generation.

The man known for decades hereabouts as John "The Younger" Kelley is 76 now, and though he's wearing running shoes when a visitor turns up, he has long since lost his interest in finish lines. "I don't race," says Kelley, who won the Boston Marathon 50 years ago this month and will be grand marshal for the 111th running a week from today. "I have no interest in racing."

Not that he can't remember nearly every competitive step he took along a hardtop career that spanned five decades, took him to two Olympic Games and included nearly three dozen jaunts from Hopkinton to Boston. "I think 34," reckons Kelley, whose first was in 1949 and last in 1992. "Which is a confession of an inability to learn."

He was a shy Connecticut schoolteacher who ran because he never quite could bring himself to stop. "I had a love-hate relationship with it," Kelley confesses. "I was driven to do it."

Once he cracked the top five at Boston as a Boston University student in 1953, Kelley became "America's Only Hope" against the flood of Finns and Japanese who put a hammerlock on the title for the best part of a decade. John A. Kelley had been the people's choice for 20 years. Then arrived John J., his surrogate son, to shoulder both the honor and burden. "By a fillip of teasing fate, I bore the monarch's name," wrote Kelley, who eventually gave up explaining to strangers that Younger and Elder were unrelated.

It was Kelley's father who first brought up the similarity to him. "There's a fellow up in Massachusetts who has our name," he'd informed his son, "and he's a great marathoner." So on Labor Day in 1947, a 16-year-old Kelley came up from New London, Conn., for a 10-mile handicap race in Littleton, Mass., where the elder Kelley, then 40, was the marquee name.

"My feet were all bloody at seven miles and they hauled me into the meat wagon," Kelley recalls. "I'm sitting there soaked in sweat and blood and tears thinking, 'My God, what did I do?' "

Later he heard his father's voice, urging him to get up and meet someone. "I looked up and saw these bandy legs and it was Johnny," Kelley says. " 'Kid, you've got runner's legs,' he told me. 'You're going to do all right in this game.' "

Though he went to Boston University on a track scholarship, Kelley's heart belonged to the road. On weekends he'd head off with Jock Semple, the Boston Athletic Association's Scottish masseur/mystic, and his distance crew for a few laps around Jamaica Pond. Once Kelley had his breakout race at Boston while still a collegian (his 2 hours, 28 minutes, 19 seconds was the fastest time by an American in more than a decade), the distance had him, body and soul.

"I was so imbued with the marathon," he says. "I'd studied DeMar, Cote, Kelley. I was ahead of my years in my appreciation for the race."

In a city where a domestic runner hadn't won its most storied footrace since The Elder in 1945, Kelley quickly found himself cast as the favorite son. "We're America's lonely dopes," his roommate, Nick Costes, told him. "We're doing this for a bowl of beef stew, Kelley."

These days, the top runners in Boston run for a $100,000 purse, plus bonuses from their shoe companies and a shot at a $500,000 payout from the World Marathon Majors. Back then, the prize was a medal with a diamond in the middle. "It's all a different scene today," muses Kelley, who won the U.S. title eight straight times. "You could go crazy thinking about it, but what's the point?"

People thought Kelley and his fellow "plodders" were nuts to begin with. "It's April, and the saps are running in Hopkinton," the newspapers said every year. "We were not only lonely dopes," Kelley chuckles, "we were freakin' psychotic."

Now, he's a partner at Kelley's Pace, a running store in Mystic. But his days of toeing the line are long past.

He once heard 1952 Olympic gold medalist Emil Zatopek talk about "the games of children," Kelley says, "and I think I know what he meant." His last Boston Marathon, 15 years ago, was a four-hour ordeal that left his head swimming and his hamstrings shrieking. This time, he'll cover the course in an open car, which always has been the sanest way to get from Hopkinton to the Back Bay. He'd guessed as much in 1949.

"I'm going to get to the grave," John Kelley says, "before I run another marathon."

John Powers writes for The Boston Globe.

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