The first time I met John J. Kelley was on a boat, during a race in which we were both competing. That may seem unusual, and indeed it was. It was way back in 1979 and the occasion was one of the first triathlons ever held on the East Coast. I had seen a flyer for the three-sport event in a local running store, and was immediately intrigued. A swim, bike, and running race, all in one event; it was a challenge I could not resist. Although swimming was not my strong suit, I did supplement my running with laps at the local pool every now and then, and thus felt well capable of completing the mile distance, to be followed by a 27-mile cycle and a six-mile run.
On a brisk morning I stood on the New London, Connecticut seashore, ready to conquer this multi-sport race. Little did I (or the other competitors and race organizers) know, but a swirling rip tide was lurking beneath the waves lapping up on the beach, a strong and dangerous current that would prove too much for all but the strongest and most experienced swimmers in the field.
As the horn sounded I gamely dove into the ocean and began swimming. As many novice triathletes have learned, swimming in the ocean is far more daunting than doing laps in a 25-yard pool, especially when a swirling tide is pushing you backwards. Struggling to see or hear much of anything, I furiously pushed against the choppy waves, with no idea of what direction I was headed or how far I had traveled. The answer, sadly, was not very far, despite what seemed like an interminable time in the ocean. Eventually I realized voices were calling out to me from a boat that had pulled alongside. “Get on the boat,” the voice screamed. “No,” I shouted back, “I’m in a race.” Despite my protestations, race officials quickly hauled me onto the vessel in a pathetic heap, whereupon I realized that despite my efforts I had covered less than one hundred yards.
At least I was not alone, which was some comfort, as the boat was crowded with others that had become ensnared in the whirlpool-like rip tide. One of the dropouts was an skinny, unassuming gentleman, who was smiling and laughing at the short distance we had managed to swim. I was crushed by having been defeated by the triathlon, my first DNF in three years of distance races. But as a hot-headed 23-year-old I lacked the emotional perspective to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, unlike the gentlemen on the boat, whom I would soon learn was the inimitable John J. Kelley. So began a friendship, that despite infrequent get-togethers, would continue for the next three decades.
Sometime during that day in New London I became aware of the fact that Kelley had won the Boston Marathon (a race at the time I hoped only to be able to qualify for some day) and had also competed in two Olympic Marathons. As so many others that have met John will attest, you would never know by his humble, happy-go-lucky nature that he had reached such great heights in the sport. Unlike the cocky ego-exuding attitudes of so many of the frontrunners in races those days, he was as down to earth as your next door neighbor. In fact, soon after meeting John J. Kelley, you had an odd feeling you had known him for years. He was just that sort of guy.
Perhaps it was that I was running for the Boston Athletic Association (the club for which he also competed), or perhaps not, but for whatever reason I became friendly with Kelley, as did my sister Roberta, who at the time lived nearby the finish of the Boston Marathon. She was thrilled when he accepted an invitation to stop by her apartment after the Boston Marathon, perhaps in 1980 or 1981, for a party she hosted. We considered it a visit from running royalty, but as was his predilection, he shrugged off such adulation, simply seeking to meet up with fellow runners and chat about the race.
As it happened, the respective trajectories of our running careers would cross during the 1980s, as I worked to chisel my marathon time down below three hours and eventually the much sought after 2:49, which would earn me an entry into the Boston Marathon. Kelley, on the other hand, past age 50, had already run his best races, which, as mentioned earlier, included winning the 1957 Boston Marathon. That victory broke a string of 11 years in which foreign runners had dominated the winner’s circle at Boston. As with the current era (now 28 years and counting, on the men’s side), the hunger for an American winner among fans and the media was palpable, and Kelley bore much of the weight of that desire. That he was able to carry that burden and still meet those lofty expectations was an astonishing accomplishment. If Ryan Hall or some other American is eventually able to break through and win in Boston, he will know the unique deliciousness of breaking the tape as a sentimental American favorite, as John Kelley did.
One of the races in which John Kelley I both ran was the 1981 East Lyme Marathon. I was gunning for the sub 2:50 I would need for Boston, while John was simply supporting a fledgling marathon by adding his illustrious name to the starting field. Alas, I came away disappointed, clocking 2:52 on a warm day and missing the Boston qualifier. But there was Kelley at the finish, having run a few minutes faster, relaxing and happily chatting with the other runners. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me, “there will be other races and you will get your Boston qualifier. Besides,” he added, “you should be happy just to be done with this damn marathon on such a hot day.” He was right of course. A few months later I did finally qualify for Boston, and would go on to run the race for several years during the next two decades, albeit with far lesser results than he had achieved, but personally satisfying nonetheless.
Whenever I would meet John Kelley in the ensuing years, at a race, a runner’s gathering of some kind, or at his store in Mystic, he would heap gobs of praise on me for what I had accomplished in the sport, which in actuality paled compared with his own accomplishments. But that was his nature, always with a smile, good cheer, and words to make you feel better.
The wheels of time march inexorably forward, and now it is I who has seen his best days as a long distance runner. Last August, my significant other Charlotte and I took a trip to Mystic to meet up with her old college roommate and husband. I stopped at the store and was disappointed to learn John was not in. Later however, while sitting outside on a picnic bench, I saw an elderly gentlemen, stooped over and slowly trudging forward. I realized with surprise that it was John, on his way to the store. Instead of talking about upcoming races, as we might have done 30 years earlier, the topic was primarily our various and sundry health concerns. Despite his obvious ill health, John still retained an upbeat countenance that seemed to say, “Life is just grand, isn’t it?” As he had done more than 30 years earlier on that boat after our ill-fated triathlon attempt, just through a simple conversation he was able to offer a younger man valuable perspective on life. And like he had on that day long ago, with a chance encounter he brightened your day and made you smile, regardless of the burden that might be weighing upon you. In the end, that quality-even greater than his incredible gift for winning marathons-is what made John J. Kelley a special and unique man, and in whose footsteps one can seek to follow.