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Johnny Kelley, father of the American marathon
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Forsyth County News

Sad news. John J. Kelley, the father of modern American marathoning, died Sunday in North Stonington, Conn.

He was 80.

The cause of death was melanoma that had spread to his lungs.

Kelley was "the first truly modern American road runner, the first fast American marathoner, and a renaissance runner for the ages," wrote Amby Burfoot, a Runner’s World editor, in 2007.

If anyone would know, it would be Burfoot, a true disciple of Kelley. "It’s September, 1962, and I’ve just finished my first high school cross country race. I’m losing the struggle to keep my lunch — hot dogs and chocolate milk — so I’ve ducked under the football bleachers, hoping no one can see me," recalled Burfoot.

"I’ve already decided that I’ll never run again!

"But Mr. Kelley spots me and jogs over. He’s an English teacher at my school, and the cross country coach. I figure he’ll turn back when he notes my distress, but he keeps coming, like someone who’s seen this sort of thing before.

"Kelley rises up on his tiptoes — I’m six inches taller than he is — grabs me by the shoulders, and turns me toward him. We’re face to face, his bright blue eyes ablaze.

"Amby, that was a great race,’ he says. ‘You’ve got a real potential in this sport. If you stick with it, there’s no telling how far you might go!’

"No way. I’ve finished ninth or something pitiful like that. Coaches don’t talk to losers like me. Only winners get praised. This Kelley’s a strange one. I’m dubious, but people say he won the Boston Marathon a few years back. He must know running. At home that night, I decide to massage my sore legs. Maybe I’ll try them tomorrow."

In 1968, Burfoot won his own Boston marathon. "I am surrounded by mayors and governors and newspaper reporters. But I only want to talk to one person, the one who made it all possible.

"He finishes 15 minutes later, and fights off his fatigue to find me. I’ve never seen anyone look so happy after a bad marathon. ‘Amby, you did it!’ Kelley says, wrapping me in a big hug. ‘I knew you could!’"

Yes, Kelley did know running. His victory in the 1957 Boston Marathon was the first by an American since 1945, and the only one until Burfoot’s 1968 win.

In 1959, he won the Pan American Games marathon and national titles at 15, 20, 25 and 30 kilometers. He made two Olympic teams as a marathoner, finishing 21st in 1956 and 19th in 1960. He also added five second place finishes in the Boston Marathon.

Perhaps most incredibly, he won the US National Marathon Championship a record eight straight years, from 1956 to 1963.

And all the while he ran as a true amateur under the rules of the day. No sponsorship or appearance fees for Kelley. He even called himself an "advisor" when issuing Burfoot’s cross country letter shingle, lest he be deemed profiting from his running.

He loved reading, and this dual passion led to him being dubbed the Thoreau of running. "I found reading shortly before running, and threw myself into it with the same sort of fervor," he told Runner’s World.

Kelley attended Boston University, where he already ran to the beat of a different drummer. "Kelley argued with his college coach, Doug Raymond, about the value of long, slow runs versus endless, gasping 440-yard sprints around the track," Boston Marathon historian Tom Derderian told Burfoot. "Kelley’s fight against conventional wisdom lifted him to the crest of the new wave of American distance running that led to Frank Shorter’s Olympic gold medal."

"His legacy is that of striving for excellence for its own sake, and for the quiet satisfaction that it brings to those with a deep sense of personal values," Tom Grilk, the Boston Marathon’s executive director, told Burfoot. "I hope we continue to learn from that. It remains John’s gift to us all."

Long-time Boston Marathon director Jock Semple wrote in his book "Just Call Me Jock" that "It was a long road from our marathoning of the ‘30’s to Shorter’s Olympic win in 1972, but I look at Johnny’s 1957 Boston win as a pivotal event for the American marathon.

"Before Johnny, there were only us plodders. Johnny took a stone and placed it down so that Shorter and Rodgers could spring off it."

Bill Rodgers, who won at Boston four times between 1975 and 1980, including three years in a row, and won the New York City marathon from 1976 through 1979, told Burfoot, "Kelley was at the epicenter of American marathoning.

"He was in the trenches doing the spade work for the likes of Frank Shorter and me and everyone who has come along since. Marathoning wasn’t a business then. There wasn’t any money, and it wasn’t entertainment.

"The runners had to put up with a public sports media who basically knew nothing. Marathoners were treated as second-class athletes. But Kelley didn’t let that stop him. He was quiet but had tremendous drive. He was tough as nails."

In Marc Bloom’s book Run With The Champions, Kelley said, "I often wonder why runners could accomplish what they did. It’s like analyzing love or passion. Why did I have to run? It remains one of the great mysteries of my life."

Thank goodness Johnny Kelley’s passion has run through to so many of us.