R.I.P. Johnny Kelley

Did I ever tell you about the time I outran a Boston Marathon champion and Olympic distance runner?

Sixteen years ago, I was running hard, three or four times a week. Back then, I was sharing a house with Tiron just a few blocks from the Charles River trail, and I’d get up in the early morning mist to “run the bridges”. I’d start out heading west, following the winding asphalt and concrete trail along the north bank of the river. Count off some number of bridges, then cross over to the south side and come back the other way. On a good day, I could manage six miles in each direction, then shower, dress and bike downriver to my job at MIT. I was 32 years old, and in damned good shape. Better shape than I’d ever been in, or have been in since.

The goal was a marathon. One of those Life List things – I wanted to run a marathon. Of course, I still want to have run a marathon, but I’m no longer so sure about wanting to do the actual running part of it. I mean, I still like running, but spending a solid four or five hours doing it seems perhaps a tad excessive.

But this is now, and that was then. And back then, the longest actual race I’d ever run was a 10k, so it seemed logical to try knocking off a half marathon or two to get used to longer races. My longer river runs were already almost at the half marathon distance, so how hard could it be? [And yes, we all know that this rhetorical question is surpassed only by “What could possibly go wrong?” for efficacy in summoning doom from on high, right?]

Anyhow, I picked the Great Hyannis Road Race as my test case. Running a half marathon along the lazy winding roads of Cape Cod sounded idyllic. It was going to be a fun warm up. As we were all stretching at the starting line, the announce – this was back before they hired lycra-clad aerobics babes to “pump the crowd up” to the pulsing sound of trite pop rock played at ear-splitting volumes that… wait. Now, where was I? Oh, right: at the starting line. The guy with the megaphone announced that this year’s race was dedicated to legendary Olympian Johnny Kelley. I looked around and asked out loud: “Johhny Kelley? Who the hell is Johnny Kelley?” Judging from the sea of evil eyes glaring back at me, I would have fared better asking who the hell this Obama guy was at the Democratic National Convention. I made some sort of nervous laugh and tried to pretend I was joking, but decided to keep my mouth shut from that point until I climbed into my car at the end of the race.

The run itself was beautiful: up and down, and up and down through the rolling hills of Cape Cod, up and down through the dunes of Cape Cod. A gorgeous run on a beautiful spring day. I thought I was going to die.

Amid the pain, I realized something important about the Charles River path: it followed a lazy winding river. It was flat, flat, flat. Yes, I’d been running 12 miles, but they were completely flat miles, and Cape Cod, it turns out, only exists because it’s a small ridge of undersea mountains protruding up from below the surface. Cape Cod doesn’t stop going up and down, and if you’re running a half marathon, you’re going to go up and down more times than you can possibly count.

Still, I was making a good try of it – had little caramel chews I was popping every few miles to keep the sugars flowing, and trying to lose myself in the natural beauty of the place to mask the pain in my legs. (Back then, sonny, we didn’t have iPods we could plug into our ears to distract ourselves. If we wanted music, we had to carry a gramophone and crank the handle while we… oh, never mind).

As I said, I was making a good try of it – at mile 10, I was still averaging somewhere just over eight minutes per mile; slower than my flat trail pace, but absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Then, somewhere around mile 10.5, with three left to go, something went “sproing”. It wasn’t like blowing a knee out, or a muscle seizing up, I just hit the wall, and my entire body gave out. I remember the exact moment, and remember the sensation: you’re a beach ball, and someone’s just pulled the valve: Pfffffffffffffffft.

An interminable time later I did finish the race, but with an average time of 12 minutes per mile: it took me as long to finish those last three as it did the first 10 and a half.

I wasn’t able to run again – at all – for about four months. I tried, but my legs just wouldn’t do it. Not even a quick shuffle to get across Mass. Ave when the light was changing. It was like something in my brain had developed an override circuit, and any attempt to trick my body into rapid locomotion would trip the breaker.

But I did have one point of pride from the run, beyond having actually completed it under my own steam. When I looked at the posted results page days later, I noticed that I’d finished just a minute or two ahead of the legendary Johnny Kelley. I did some research, and was impressed to the point of taking it as a matter of pride: At age 32 I had, with two and a half hours of sheer determination, bested a man who had twice won the Boston Marathon and represented our country in three separate Olympic games. He was a great runner, and I had outrun him. I did, however, have to grant him this: Kelley won his first Boston Marathon in 1935 – two years before my parents were born, and was 87 when he finished this race, hot on my heels.

I saw a new blurb this morning that the famed Johnny Kelley had passed away last night. Some investigation revealed that this was Kelley the younger, who didn’t win his first Boston Marathon until 1957; Kelley the elder had departed this world seven years ago, at age 97. But I’ve thought about him from time to time since that race. About how I’d always tell the story backwards, starting with bit about beating an Olympic marathoner in a foot race, then explaining “how it really happened.” It always reminded me how easy it was to spin a story so it sounded much better than it was, and yet, how when you added the whole truth in, it became even better than you could have possibly made it by telling only the half truth. Then again, stories are how we explain our lives, and in the end, isn’t that exactly how life works?

(Speaking of which, remind me to tell you about the time at that formation flying clinic at Castle Air Force Base when I got to ride back seat with Chuck Yeager. Really.)

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