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Runner forced to skip

Kelley, 91, takes a pass but will return

HARWICH -- You had to hear the voice to know Johnny Kelley is OK.

He looked terrific, resplendent in a blue 1999 Marathon jacket over his white turtleneck. His eyes still have the Kelley twinkle, and at 91 he looks strong as ever.

But when the song swelled out of him like the spring sunshine on a Cape Cod morning, with Kelley nailing every note of his trademark, "Young at Heart," you knew that despite his weekend decision to skip this year's marathon, he means it when he says adamantly, "I'll be there in 2000 and hopefully I'll be myself long before then."

Kelley will not appear as grand marshal because he doesn't want to risk a recurrence of the pneumonia he contracted following abdominal surgery last winter. Thus, after 63 years that have made Johnny "The Elder" Kelley the very symbol of the Boston Marathon, he says, "I will be there in spirit. I wish all the runners good luck."

On Jan. 26, Kelley underwent surgery at Cape Cod Hospital to repair a perforated colon. The surgery, described as major by his doctors, was declared a complete success. But Kelley's road to recovery was set back by pneumonia, as he spent the month of February recuperating.

On March 1, he was released to Cranberry Pointe Rehabilitation Center in Harwich, where he is making daily progress. He went from the bed to a wheelchair last week and by last weekend he was walking with a cane and looking forward to getting outside and moving his body again.

His overall health, he says, is excellent. A life of running has given him a strong heart.

"My doctor tells me my heart is stronger than 99 percent of his patients," says Kelley.

Born on Sept. 6, 1907, John Adelbert Kelley, the oldest of 10 children in a West Medford family, won his first Boston Marathon in 1935 after he finally learned to pace himself and not burn all his energy in the first half.

Though he would go on to win another Marathon 10 years later and finish as runner-up seven times, that first win was still the sweetest. But it was a bottle of sugar pills that nearly cost him the race.

April 19, 1935, was Good Friday, and some 300,000 spectators -- a relatively small crowd -- turned out in ideal running weather as Kelley took on national marathon champion "Pat" Frank Dengis from Maryland.

Kelley was running with two talismans given to him by well-wishers -- a handkerchief from his aunt and a bottle of 15 chocolate glucose tablets, which he popped throughout the race, hoping to gain energy along the way.

According to race accounts, Kelley, who had lost previous races by burning out in the late going, paced himself and ran third most of the way. Dengis ran even more conservatively, staying behind Kelley until Wellesley, when he blew past Kelley only to suffer a sudden stitch that felt like "a knife in the heart," forcing him to stop short.

Though Kelley streaked into the lead, his win was far from assured. At Kenmore Square he had to stop and vomit up all the pills he had been chomping. Meanwhile, Dengis was over his stitch and coming on at a gallop again, though he never seriously threatened Kelley's two-minute winning margin. The time: 2:32:07.

Ten years later, Kelley won his second Boston in 2:30:40 -- the fastest time in the world that year -- and, at 37, he was making jokes about his impending 40th birthday. "They say life begins at 40," Kelley told a Globe reporter, "and I have three years before I get there."

With the appearance in the '50s of John J. Kelley, also representing the Boston Athletic Association, John A. Kelley picked up the "Elder" appellation, while John J., the 1957 Boston winner, was, of course, "The Younger." With The Elder becoming a symbol of longevity and The Younger threatening to win several years into the 1960s, the two Kelleys had become a famous mainstay of the world's most famous footrace.

Long after The Younger stopped running Boston regularly, The Elder was still hanging in, running every April for three decades until 1992, when he announced -- at age 85 -- that he had run his last full marathon. But even then, for another two years Kelley ran the final 7 miles, starting at his own statue at the foot of Heartbreak Hill.

From 1995-98, Kelley ran no more but rode in a convertible at the head of the race as grand marshal, a position he would have held this year and plans to reclaim in 2000.

The long scoresheet of his life of running, beginning when shoes were sneaker-thin, covers eight decades -- so far. He holds New England championships at every distance from 3 miles up. Nationally, he was champion 11 times in four events, including the marathon in 1948 and 1950. He was 1937 and 1954 national champion in the 15,000 meters, and in 1943 and 1954 won the 20,000-meter crown. He won the 25,000-meter national title five times, and made the Olympic team in 1936, 1940, and 1948. At age 44, he narrowly missed making it to the 1952 Games.

Kelley became the first road racer elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, whose officials had to waive the retirement rules because, they reasoned, this was a runner who might never retire.

Kelley recalls that he wanted to be a baseball player, but was not good enough. When he was 12, his father took him to see his first Boston Marathon finish, and when the top runners -- Peter Trivoulidas, Arthur Roth, and Carl Linder -- came sprinting through the finish to cheering throngs, Kelley remembers he "fell in love with it then."

In those days, even elite runners had to train on their own time, and Kelley would work days for Boston Edison while training evenings. His favorite spots were the Middlesex Woods and the Medford Fells, running on dirt roads. "It was a paradise running in those places then," he said.

Much has changed over eight decades -- including the explosion of women's running and race sponsorship -- but Kelley doesn't pine for the old days.

"It's better now, much better," he said. "We have a lot of wonderful girl runners. They're better than the boys, and more honest. For them to run two hours and a half is just amazing."

And to another Boston Marathon icon who returns this year, Kelley sends heartfelt greetings from the Cape, where he plans to watch the race "on telly":

"I wish Bill [Rodgers] all the luck because he's a very good friend of mine and a great athlete."

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