He arises before
dawn and runs for about an hour. He usually trains six days a week, but as the
Boston Marathon nears, he adds a long run of two to 2� hours to his schedule.
"I never train by the miles," he says. "I go by the clock."
Even more than most
people, runners appreciate Kelley's accomplishments, and many of the world's
best hold him in awe. Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston champion, is associated
with the race almost as strongly as Kelley, whom he calls one of the greatest
athletes of the 20th century. "I hold Johnny in the highest esteem,"
says Rodgers. "When you think about it, who has done as much as John? Some
people say Jesse Owens or Jim Thorpe was the greatest ever, but for me it's
Johnny Kelley. Those guys are long gone, and Johnny's still at it. He's my
Samuelson, a two-time Boston champion and the gold medalist in the first
women's Olympic marathon, in Los Angeles in 1984, says she came to understand
Kelley's special link to Boston when she inadvertently lined up in his starting
spot before the '79 race. "That's when I learned who he was and what he
means to this race," says Samuelson. "What Johnny has done, and is
still doing, is incredible. He has so much energy and enthusiasm for life.
We've all had our frustrating days and down periods, but Johnny has persevered
through decades. That says so much about the kind of person he is."
enters only the one marathon a year, but he competes in numerous other events
in the Cape Cod area—including a half-marathon that bears his name—and is
frequently invited to race elsewhere around the country. He speaks often to
groups, summing up his fitness philosophy as, "The three D's: desire,
dedication, determination." His creed has always been "Train sane."
He isn't afraid to take a day off. If the weather is too cold or wet, he stays
home and paints—mostly scenes from his beloved Cape Cod.
"I listen to my
body. It'll tell you when to take a break," says Kelley. "You don't
have to run 26 miles to be in shape, but it's important to do something, like
walking, swimming, biking, any kind of exercise."
Dr. Kenneth Cooper,
founder and president of The Aerobics Center in Dallas, has known Kelley for 30
years and every year since 1984 has put him through an intensive physical at
his clinic. "Johnny's cardiovascular fitness is phenomenal," says
Cooper. "His level of conditioning is like that of a man in his late 50's,
early 60's. He's a remarkable specimen."
Kelley worked for
37 years as an electrical maintenance man at Boston Edison Company. He retired
in 1972, and the next year he and Laura moved to Cape Cod. He treats every day
as a celebration. "I'm enjoying my life and my running more than ever,"
he says. "The best part is, Laura and I do what we want, when we
basement in Kelley's home doubles as his art studio and museum of running
memorabilia. It's cluttered with hundreds of trophies, plaques, medals and
photographs. Most are gathering dust, but prominently displayed on one wall is
the framed laurel wreath, preserved in wax, that he received for winning his
first Boston Marathon. The inscription reads: PRESENTED BY THE PEOPLE OF
ATHENS, GREECE, TO JOHN A. KELLEY, APRIL 19, 1935. "Winning Boston that
first time meant so much," says Kelley. "It was a beautiful sunshiny
day, and I felt like it was my turn. The year before, in 1934, I was second, so
I knew what I had to do. The first one will always be special. That wreath is
what the race is all about.
"I'm a stubborn
man—and impatient, too. I figured out once that I should have won at least
three other Boston Marathons, when I should have gone out at a slower pace and
then come on at the end. I always pushed too hard and then didn't have anything
left. My best distance was 10-mile races, but the marathon was where you had to
go to make a name, so that's where I went."
Kelley has enjoyed
so much success, he has difficulty singling out one moment he most cherishes.
His Boston triumphs rank high, but so do the memories of being on Olympic
teams, especially in 1936, when Jesse Owens won four gold medals before Adolf
Hitler in Nazi Germany. Kelley was a friend of Owens's; they lived in the same
house in the athletes' village. Kelley remembers an encounter with Hitler's
bodyguards. "I went into the stadium in Berlin, and I had my United States
uniform on," he says. "These big brutes came over and tried to give me
a hard time, teasing me because I was small. But I gave it right back and told
'em I was a marathoner. That got their attention, and they left me alone after