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Forever 'Younger'

This Kelley left his mark on race, too

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 tomorrow. "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 for a 10-mile handicap race in Littleton where the elder Kelley, then 40, was the marquee name.

"My feet were all bloody at 7 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.' "

Tentative first steps
Besides the legs, Kelley also had the love for the loneliest of sports. "Genevieve, are you aware of what your son is doing?" a concerned neighbor asked Kelley's mother after her skinny schoolboy had loped painfully past in mid-workout. "Yes, he's out for cross-country," his mother replied. "Check on him," the neighbor advised. "That can't be good for his heart."

Against his coach's advice, Kelley and buddy George Terry decided to run Boston on a lark a couple of years later. "We stayed at the Irvington Rooms For Men off Copley Square for 75 cents a night," Kelley remembers. "Then we went to Hayes-Bickford's and got a big breakfast of pancakes and chocolate milkshakes, the worst thing we could have eaten."

What followed were three of the longest hours of Kelley's life. "I dropped out right around Boston College and sat on the curb and waited and waited and waited," he says. "I could see the city down below and I couldn't get there. Someone came around with a newspaper extra that said 'Swede Wins Marathon.' I'm still in the race, I thought, and the race is finished."

The following day was worse. No matter what happened in Boston, coach Mal Greenaway had warned Kelley, he'd still have to run the mile in the big meet against Fitch High School. "That was horrible," Kelley says. "I was going to show Mal even if it killed me -- and it nearly did."

Though he went to BU on a track scholarship, Kelley's heart belonged to the road. On weekends he'd head off with Jock Semple, the BAA'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 2:28:19 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."

Today, the top runners at 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 US 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."

Breakthrough in '57
Every four years, though, the BAA medal all but guaranteed a place on the Olympic team, since Boston and Yonkers were the trials events. In 1956, Kelley, who'd skipped the previous year's race because his Army duties limited his fitness, ran brilliantly, nearly chasing down Finland's Antti Viskari in the final mile, and he and Costes ended up with tickets to Melbourne.

Race day came up brutally hot at Olympus, the mercury soaring 30 degrees overnight. "[Defending champion] Emil Zatopek was smiling at the starting line," recalls Kelley, who'd breakfasted on salt-laden onion soup to help his body retain fluids. "Today, we die, he said." Still, Kelley went out brashly and led for the first 12 miles. "It was unwise, but I did it," he acknowledges. "We were so stupid."

France's Alain Mimoun , who'd never run a marathon but grew up in Algeria's scorching heat, won the gold medal as Zatopek finished sixth and Kelley a legless 21st. Five months later, though, he was running on air along Commonwealth Avenue. "Just a great day for me," says Kelley, who's still the only BAA runner to win the race.

Everything had gone his way. School vacation had fallen a week earlier, so he'd had time to perfect his training. The elder Kelley ("He was a great confidant and mentor") had hosted him the night before, fending off callers, feeding him breakfast, driving him to the starting line. And the weather was favorable -- temperature warming gradually from 50 to 70, light northwest wind, cumulus clouds.

Fifteen miles in, Kelley couldn't believe how easily it was going. By then, he figured, either he or former champion Veikko Karvonen would win. "I didn't want to go another 10 miles neck and neck with another Finn," Kelley says. "They were tough guys. They never let up. They kept hammering away."

So he went for broke in the middle of the Newton hills and left Karvonen behind. "You've got 200 yards," Semple shouted to him from the bus. The last 6 miles could have been a fun run, but his Irish distrust of good fortune kept Kelley fretting even as the huge Saturday crowds shouted his name. "I didn't allow myself to believe it was happening," he says.

It wasn't until he was through Kenmore Square with a three-minute lead when Kelley concluded that unless he fell into an open manhole, he would win. "You finally can savor the damn thing," he told himself, as he turned into Exeter Street and saw the mayor waiting with a laurel wreath, Semple with a blanket, and wife Jess with a kiss.

It was the most blissful moment of his career -- "I was so euphoric" -- and Kelley sensed that he'd never surpass it. "The challenge was there to win it and I won it," he says. "I should have stopped there."

But he didn't, couldn't. If Johnny The Elder hadn't stopped (his two victories were a decade apart), how could The Younger? So he came back in 1958 and nearly drove himself into the ground on an 84-degree day.

"That was the worst," says Kelley, who remembers having the "blind staggers" after finishing nearly five minutes behind Yugoslavia's Franjo Mihalic , the Olympic runner-up. "It was horrible because I made it that way for myself. For some reason, I just got spooked. I didn't sleep a wink for five days; instead of counting sheep, I'd be counting Finns. You shouldn't really do this, I told myself. You'll be wiped out."

But if America's Only Hope didn't take the line on Patriots Day, who else could step up? "I didn't learn my lesson," Kelley says. "I kept coming back." In 1959 he was second again, this time to Eino Oksanen , a strapping Helsinki detective who slipped away in the chill rain as they were coming to a makeshift wooden bridge before Kenmore Square. "Again, the unanswerable question: What happened?" says Kelley, who once observed that finishing second at Boston is like drinking vinegar.

In 1960, he didn't finish at all -- new shoes gnawed a hole in his foot after 3 miles and he walked off with 5 to go. That's it, Kelley decided, figuring that his Olympic hopes were blown. I'm quitting. "You're wise to drop out of the game," a neighbor later told him. "Your best years are behind you."

Annoyed at being has-beened at 29, Kelley impulsively entered a 5-mile race in Westerly, R.I., that day, won it, and felt reborn. He won the Yonkers trials so easily that US officials put him on the team for Rome and a race he remembers as full of majesty and spectacle and a bit of mystery.

The 1960 Olympic marathon began at sundown and proceeded along the ancient cobblestoned Appian Way to the Arch of Constantine. "They had soldiers and sailors holding these giant burning tapers, so the last 9 1/2 were illuminated," remembers Kelley, who finished 19th. "We were like shadow figures running. I knew I was in the top third of the field, but I didn't know where. At the finish, everyone was talking about a guy [Ethiopian victor Abebe Bikila] who ran barefoot."

His own worst enemy
The shadows were a soothing place to be for a man who was used to being center stage in a passion play every April. The next year, Kelley was knocked down by a relentlessly playful black Labrador pup just as he was coming into Newton with the leaders and had to be helped up by Great Britain's Fred Norris. "What an act of sportsmanship that was, but he cost himself a victory," says Kelley, who caught up with Oksanen but ran out of gas and finished second again.

That was Kelley's last best chance to win another wreath. He was fourth in 1962, never in contention. In 1963, despite a nasty strep throat ("I'm crazy to run this thing," he thought), Kelley surprised himself by coming in second, passing runner after runner in the raw mist and fog.

"Coming down out of BC, I saw someone walking with his hands on his hips," he says. "It turned out to be [1968 Olympic champion] Mamo Wolde. Maybe I can finish this, I thought. I chugged by Wolde and after another half-mile I saw another guy walking. It turned out to be the Olympic champion [Bikila]. This is incredible, I thought. Hang in there, hang in there. I didn't even know I was second. You couldn't see a quarter of a mile ahead of you."

Kelley couldn't catch Belgium's Aurele Vandendriessche , who set a blistering course record (2:18:58), but it was the most satisfying second of his career. "I was elated," he says. "I thought, maybe I'm not washed up."

It was last time that Kelley finished in the top five in Boston and it was just as well. Though the "America's Only Hope" label had chafed him, the pressure had come from within. "It was always upon myself, by myself," he says. "It reached into my other life and I couldn't turn it out. I didn't have the mental tenacity."

He marveled at how The Elder managed it all those years, blowing kisses to the spectators, drawing joy and energy from them. "I always thought Johnny could have been mayor," Kelley says.

Later, he admired Bill Rodgers, another Connecticut kid who won Boston four times and always appeared unruffled. "Bill had a wonderful approach to it," Kelley says. "He had that ability to lurk undercover with that lovable flakiness."

Kelley, with his shock of blond hair and the BAA's unicorn singlet hanging from his spindly frame, always appeared haunted and drained. "Everything I've ever done," he says, "I've done with this neurotic sense of urgency."

Run and done
So it was pleasant, at last, to be merely a familiar face in the crowd, cheered on as The Elder still was. And it was a terrific kick to have Amby Burfoot, whom Kelley had coached in high school, become the next American to win at Boston in 1968. "I was coming down off BC that day," he recalls, "and someone yelled, 'Your student is in the lead.' "

Kelley stopped teaching before he stopped running. "I didn't retire, I jumped out," he says. "I issued myself a sabbatical and never went back. I've kicked the money bucket out from under me a couple of times."

Kelley drove a cab for his sister's company in New London for a couple of decades and did some freelance writing -- poetry and art reviews, a running column and "how shall I put it, a 'general disinterest column.' " Now, he's a partner at Kelley's Pace , a nearby running store. But his days of toeing the line are long past.

He once heard Zatopek talk about "the games of children," Kelley says, "and I think I know what he meant." His last Boston, 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."