Training Log: John Kelley The Elder
“People ask me my life philosophy all the time, I just put one foot in front of the other.”
Growing up, Johnny’s siblings called him “Old Man Coin,” because he always had change rattling around his pocket. As a child, he earned pocket change helping out on his father’s mail route. As a teen, he earned pocket change caddying his body weight in golf bags over thirty six holes a day. After leaving school, he earned pocket change at local road races, collecting nickels and dimes for each runner he passed. While Johnny ran track in high school-- boasting a personal best of 4:40 for the mile-- his reliance on his feet and fitness to earn a living provided the foundation for his training.
Johnny joined the workforce during the Great Depression, only able to find work part-time pumping gas. On weekends, he raced. Some of his teammates trained for the Boston Marathon, hoping to make names for themselves and land cushy municipal jobs. Johnny, hoping to do the same, made his first attempt in 1928-- going out with the leaders and failing to finish. Humbled, he didn’t try again for four years. In 1932, more confident, he went out with the leaders again and failed to finish again. In 1933 he finally finished but faded to 37th. The next year, he came in second. The year after that, he won. He showed up year after year after year, almost always finishing in the top five, winning again in 1945, and finishing in the top ten for the last time at the age of 50. He ran his last Boston Marathon in 1992, over sixty years after his first attempt.
He never did get that cushy municipal job; instead he became a legend at the world’s oldest marathon.
Kelley trained simply: starting in January he’d prepare for Boston, running ten miles every Tuesday and Thursday, with a road race or a twenty-miler every Saturday. After Boston, during the warmer months, he and his classically-track-trained friend Les Pawson-- who won Boston in 1933, 1938, and 1941-- would run “in-and-out” 440 yard repeats once or twice a week. In mid-November, he’d run the USA Marathon Championships in Yonkers, then two weeks later a nine-mile Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving. Then he’d ease up until the following January.
In 1937, Kelley began working at the Boston Edison Power Company. Far from easy, steady work as, say, a Parks Director (like Les Pawson), this job required nine hours of on-your-feet time every day, carrying loads and climbing stairs. Kelley ran after work, anywhere from five to nine miles, because running before work proved too exhausting. He worked every other weekend, so he’d save his long runs for his off-weekends. On Thursday night he’d come home and eat a big steak dinner then go straight to sleep without running. On Friday he’d wake up at seven and have a cup of coffee then run two and a half hours. The next day, he’d jog an easy two or three miles. On Sunday, he’d run eighty minutes then he’d take Monday off.
Rather than subscribing to quotas, Kelley ran by time. “I ran on the watch, never on miles. If you said go out and run 15 to 20 miles it would scare me. But two hours to an hour, I always trained that way.”
Kelley’s training looks light by today’s standards, but it resembles the schedule of most professional athletes outside of running. He had repeating seasons-- a series of ten and twenty mile races leading up to two main events. He had an off-season-- December. He prioritized competition over poetic workloads and treated training as practice-- a means to an end. His pragmatic training allowed him to compete well into his forties and continue to run well into his eighties without any major injuries (aside from a single hernia in 1968).
Johnny Kelley’s career is a testament to tenacity, consistency, moderation, and the true joy that comes from a practical approach to a path.