Nice Amby, Kel was the best.
Jerry Nason Special to The Globe
Boston Globe Newspaper Apr 19, 1981
For most of his adult life as a foot racer on the highways and byways of his native New England, probably half the sports-page readership assumed him to be the son, or at least the nephew, of Ol' Johnny Kelley (middle name Adelbert), who runs in his unbelievable 50th Boston Marathon on tomorrow - and who, incidentally, has no progeny.
The identity crisis is not and never has been shared by the party of the second part, who is John Joseph Kelley of Mystic, Conn., ex- schoolteacher , freelance writer and very much his own man. He needs no props, needs not to borrow another man's name, runs in no man's shadow. J.J. has pretty staggering marathon credentials of his own.
When Johnny J. - at 49 still referred to as "Young John" Kelley - competes on Monday wearing masters No. T440, it will be for the 27th time in the Boston hoedown. He has won once (1957) and was second to foreign runners five times - being so close on two occasions that he could contemplate his opponents' strictured calf muscles while agonizing over his own.
Among his other credentials is the enlightening and irrefutable fact that J.J. finished the race 12 times between 1953 and 1967 with an average time of 2 hours, 24 minutes - or six minutes faster on the average than the best Boston race ever clocked by the event's super legends, Clarence H. DeMar and Ol' John Kelley.
Johnny J. vaguely recalls, when he was very small fry of 6, that his Irish-born father told him one day, "Son, there's a famous marathon runner up in Boston with the same name as yours - Johnny Kelley."
In his moment of recollection, J.J. grins and says, "I didn't even know what a marathon was.
"I'd like to say that Ol' John somehow had influenced my becoming a runner, too. It would make a great story, don't you think? But, unfortunately for the story, it wasn't that way. I got into running - well, I was really pushed into it by another circumstance.
"I attended Bulkeley High in New London, formerly a preparatory school that had kept the prep school philosophy that every student must participate in a sport. I was too small - about 100 pounds - to try out for anything but the cross-country team. That's how it began."
Johnny J. made his first appearance in the Boston Marathon in 1949. He was not yet 18 and still in high school. Ol' John was already a legend in the race, but Young John, even then, experienced no identity crisis that day upon overhearing spectators excitedly exclaiming as he came into view, "My God, it's Johnny Kelley's son! How time flies!" What Young John did experience was a knee injury that grounded him at Boston College, about 21 miles down the pike. He had the injury earlier and aggravated it.
"I don't know where Ol' John finished in that race (he was fourth), but I do know that I hadn't entered the race because my name, like his, was Johnny Kelley. I wanted to find out if a high school cross-country runner could run the marathon distance. I never consciously attempted to run in Ol' John's footsteps. I don't recall even seeing him that day, although I may have."
Later, about a decade later, Young John and Ol' John became fast friends and still are. In truth, Johnny J. allots much of the credit for his stunning runaway victory in 1957 to Ol' John.
"He was living in Belmont then," Young John relates, "and he invited me and Jesse (his wife) to stay with him the night before the race. It was a life-saver for me. I was what you might call a worry wart.' Real nervous. I'd get so tensed up the night before the Boston race that I'd show up at Hopkinton the next day practically sleepless. I'd always gone to a hotel the day before. People would know where I was and get me on the phone. I never could get the race off my mind.
"But Ol' John had me at his house in '57 the night before the marathon and, for the first time, I was completely relaxed. The phone would ring. John would answer it, wink at me, then tell somebody on the line, I'm sorry, you can't talk with him. He's gone to bed.'
"I was never so relaxed and rested for a Boston race as that year, thanks to Ol' John."
Young Kel set forth from the Hopkinton starting line the next day to become the first American winner of the race since Ol' John 12 years earlier - and established a course record for good measure. He was 26.
His most fizzy run down the course, though, had occurred the year before when Young John hooked up with a raging tiger from Finland named Antti Viskari. Both sped three minutes below Briton Jim Peters' accepted world record for a marathon and four minutes below the Boston record. Kel lost a final-mile showdown by merely 21 seconds, actually watching Viskari sever the tape.
J.J. fingers the Viskari race as numero uno in his personal account book - and you must remember that this is a runner, Young John, who once captured eight consecutive national marathon titles at Yonkers, N.Y., a feat which, in reality, transcends DeMar's famous seven Boston victories over a period of 20 years.
Young John recalls, "That Boston race in '56 was so incredibly fast that a remeasurement of the course was called for. (It was found to be 1000 yards shy of the required 26-mile, 385-yard distance). I've always regretted the short course' discovery. Converted, the 2:14.33 I did that day would have panned out to about 2:18, my career best by two minutes. Also, Viskari and I really tore through that '56 race on an ideal day. We were humming!
"I was more in control of things a year later, when I won in 2:20, and could easily have run several minutes faster had I chosen to jeopardize what looked like a safe victory. Without that luxury of a choice the year before against Viskari, I had to let the bolt out, the result being my truly fastest marathon. It was a rare case of finishing second while still full of running. Viskari - he was a powerhouse that day."
In those days Young John was the golden boy of American marathoning, his crop of wavy hair standing out like a shock of ripe wheat on the race course. At one point in his career he forced a minute-to-midnight rules reversal on the US Olympic Committe that, to my knowledge, is without precedent.
That's when he broke down in the 1960 Boston race, one of two Olympic team tryouts, and failed to finish a marathon for only the second time in his life. An ankle injury had hampered his training that winter. An angry foot blister, rare for him, popped halfway down the course at Wellesley Square. At 16 miles, Kel was walking and running, from there to Boston College, in hopeless pursuit of Finland's Paavo Kotila. At that point, with his world collapsing around him, Young Kel abandoned the race and, apparently, the Olympic dream.
Three Olympic team positions were to be awarded on a point basis as related to the Boston (April) and Yonkers (May) Marathons. The USOC was adamant on that type of processing. And there was Kel with no points in Boston and doomed, apparently, by the format. Under the rules of selection, it was irrelevant that Young Kel had won the gold in the Pan-Am Games, won the Boston and Jersey City marathons, the national marathon for four straight years - or had, in 12 straight races in the previous three years, been the first American to finish.
He was clearly the finest 26-mile runner his country had produced to then - and this was the low point, the Death Valley, of Kel's career. He was so disconsolate that he "retired" from running in Boston that April night of 1960. At his physical peak, only 29. "I'll never run again," he vowed. "Everything I've worked for is out of reach now. No point in my continuing. I'd have to win at Yonkers by 20 minutes to even be reconsidered for the team - and nobody I know of every won a marathon race by 20 minutes."
But there was created such a media uproar over the obvious injustice, joined by race rivals of Kel's, race officials and such piercing voices as Jock Semple's, to identify one in the clamor, that the USOC came up with an unprecedented reprieve: If he ran the Yonkers trial in vintage Kelley style, they'd reconsider.
So, six weeks following his Death Valley days in Boston, Kel "unretired" and captured the Yonkers race from there to Scarsdale, and frosted the cake by breaking his own course record. So he was sent as an Olympian to Rome, where the incredible Abebe Bikila made his historic barefoot gold medal run. As was his custom, Young Kel was the first American to finish.
Three years later Kel was to beat Bikila in Boston - although, again, he was the runnerup and first American to arrive from Hopkinton. For the eighth time! This, in 1963 and also in retrospect, may have been Young John's No. 1 "prestige" performance. He outlegged two Olympic champions in that race (Bikila and Mamo Wolde), the British Empire champion Brian Kilby and Finnish champion Eino Oksanen. From any point of view this has to be judged an epic of physical fitness. The only guy fitter was the winner, Aurele Vanden Driessche of Belgium.
"That was the last time I ever ran Boston in real top condition," Kelley comments.
The truth is, were American citizenship papers a requirement for entry in the famous Boston Marathon, Young Kelley would have captured the race eight times, not once. He was the first domestic runner across the line in 1953, '54, '56, '57, '58, '59, '61 and '63. He was narrowly beaten by Finns Viskari and Oksanen (twice) - narrow, that is, as 21 and 25 seconds.
The only real clobbering he ever took as a runnerup was inflicted upon him by Mihalic the Yugoslav on a blistering hot April day in '58.
"It was a nightmare," Kel recalls. "But the two tough races I had in Boston with Oksanen - well, afterwards I was kicking myself. I should have run more aggressively, broken out at Natick (10 miles) or Wellesley, used my speed to advantage. Instead, I accepted a head- to-head power struggle for 25 miles and Ox' was simply stronger than I was at the finish.
"In the 1958 race against Mihalic - well, it really was a nightmare for me. I'd been the first American to finish for four straight years and, by this time, all the headlines in the papers were It's Kelley Against the World' or Kelley only USA Hope.' Man, I hated all that bullcrap that added to thepressure of racing Boston.
"It came up again, of course, before the race with Mihalic. Maybe even more so. I wanted to repeat my '57 win so badly that I lost sleep. And I mean I went sleepless for five consecutive nights preceding the race. By April 18 I was a haggard wreck, despised running, despised myself for letting myself get so ego-involved in any activity. Still, there I was in Boston the day before the race, out with George Terry for a ceremonial trot along the Esplanade. Half a mile out I pulled an insomnia-wracke d deltoid muscle. Hallelujah!
"I ran the next day, under 85-degree conditions and a hot sun - ran with Mihalic, an Olympic runnerup, for 18 miles and finished a dazed second, five minutes arrears. A Finn was third, minutes behind me. He shared my nightmare, I'd guess.
"That was a watershed in my life. I asked myself, John, what are you doing to yourself? Learn to relax. Don't expose yourself to this kind ofpressure anymore.'
"I guess I never really enjoyed the Boston race in those days because of that pressure. I wish I could have taken the relaxed approach to it that Billy Rodgers does today - but I couldn't. I was uptight going into that race, time after time."
These days, now that he is approaching 50, J.J. runs relaxed as a squirrel foraging in a hazelnut grove and has a good time. "I don't put in the heavy training effort now, and usually run the course in the 2:40s, which is about on par with the preparations I make for it.
"But I never did pile on the heavy training mileage that is the norm among the elite today. My best marathons, when my career was peaking, seemed to follow an 80- to 90-mile training week over a period of three or four months. I seldom went above 100 miles in a week, and, on the few occasions I did, wasn't impressed by the results.
"As I'm sure you'll remember, only Zatopek and a handful of internationally ranked runners regularly exceeded 100 miles of weekly training in those days 25 years ago. As I look back, I believe I had found nearly ideal modus vivendi in my 70 to 90 miles per week year-round - considering my commitments to school, work and a new marriage.
"They've come a long way in training, baby, since the '50s, but I like to think I was in the van of the speed generation.' "
With or without your permission, Young Kel, I'll amend that remark. You were the Godfather, son. You were the first college- trained runner to capture the Boston classic, the first collegian so intrigued by the marathon in 1953 BS (Before Shorter) that you knowingly took the risk of being bumped off yourcollege track team (Boston University) by an irritated coach (Doug Raymond) if you persisted in running marathons. And you did persist (5th in '53, 7th in '54) and a pointedly marked exit out the locker-room door awaited you.
The big marathon boom, the intense focus on the event by college- trained runners today, can be tracked right back to your living room, John J. - a sort of "triple play," if you must. It goes from Kelley to Burfoot to Rodgers . . . Amby Burfoot, who was coached in high school by John J. Kelley and later won the Boston race in 1968, the same Amby Burfoot whose roommate at Wesleyan was Bill Rodgers, who thus became infected with an ultimate, late-developing attack of marathonitis himself.
John J. Kelley laughed. He laughs easily. He said, "I suppose you could look at it that way. Amby Burfoot was a student of mine when I was teaching and coaching cross-country at Fitch High in Groton, Conn., in '62 and '63. He was originally a baseball player, and I inadvertently swiped him from the baseball squad.
"Amby was a pitcher - but even back then he wore glasses. Wearing glasses, that guy could pitch a baseball 90 miles an hour through a two-foot hole in a fence, but without them - well, he moved over to the track squad and fell in love with running.
"Today, with the contact lenses they've developed for athletes - well, I still think Amby Burfoot had the arm to be a major-league pitcher. Of course, he was a pretty darn good marathon runner, too."
John J., more often known as Young John Kelley, paused. "Well, he continued, "all this has been of things of the past. Gone, perhaps forgotten by most people. The "now" thing is Ol' John Kelley running in his 50th Boston Marathon. How about that?
"What do I think of it? I think both he and the situation are incredible. Incredible. I'm a little better than halfway there myself now, race No. 27, but I have no illusions about making it to No. 50. It's entirely logical to believe that no other man will ever achieve what Ol' John will be doing out there on the road Monday."
Well, the purpose of this piece, if chance brings you to this point, was merely to point out that the John Kelley, 73, who is about the perambulate in his 50th Boston Marathon is neither father nor uncle, nor even remotely related to the other John Kelley, the mere sprout of 49, who will be whacking up some macadam himself that day.
Caption: TOMORROW - AS IF YOU HADN'T HEARD BY NOW - 73-YEAR-OLD JOHN (A.) KELLEY WILL BE COMPETING IN HIS 50TH BOSTON MARATHON. BUT THERE IS ANOTHER JOHN KELLEY - JOHN J. KELLEY - WHO OWNS A SIZABLE CHUNK OF MARATHON HISTORY HIMSELF, HAVING CAPTURED THE EVENT ONCE, FINISHED IT SECOND 5 TIMES AND BEATEN ALL AMERICAN RUNNERS IN 8 RACES. THEY CALL HIM YOUNG' JOHN KELLEY BECAUSE, AFTER ALL, HE'S ONLY' 49 AND THIS WILL BE ONLY' HIS 27TH BOSTON MARATHON . . .
Copyright Boston Globe Newspaper Apr 19, 1981