Training Log: John Kelley the Younger
John J. Kelley discovered books at a young age, spending his adolescent years at the library devouring literature and poetry. "I was especially drawn to the writers fixated on explorations of idealism,” he claimed, which explains why-- a few years later when a friend suckered him into a cross-country practice-- he was so drawn to running. Each race, laying bare the struggle of the human spirit against human capability, must have seemed a tragic yet heroic tale of idealism.
In that first practice, he bravely chased the team’s star, George Terry, for just over two miles. He chased him all through that season, then across New England’s road racing circuit, then-- in Kelley’s senior year-- through the Boston Marathon, where Kelley dropped out at halfway with an injured knee.
Despite that failed marathon-attempt, Kelley still made noise on the roads-- he won the junior AAU championships at twenty five kilometers. He made noise on the track, too-- he and Bill Squires (another soon-to-be-Boston-legend) dueled to within tenths of a second of Louis Zamperini’s high school mile record. He made so much noise that he got a scholarship to Boston University.
Doug Raymond, the coach at Boston University and a former middle-distance runner, believed strictly in 440 yard repeats and nothing else, so Kelley rose secretly at 4:30 am to run a sixteen mile loop of the Charles River without anyone knowing. “I felt so much freer when I was running by myself on the roads or trails, away from the hegemony of a coach,” he claimed.
He ran the Boston Marathon in 1953 and 1954. Despite his success-- he finished as the first American both years-- Coach Raymond forbade him from running it again and threatened to kick him off the team, so Kelley quit, dropped his scholarship, spent a year and a half in the military, then used the GI Bill to finish his education free from his coach’s grasp.
He still rose at 4:30 am each day for his sixteen mile loop, now out of necessity (he worked as a teacher and a jeweler) rather than secrecy. On Saturdays, he still ran 440 yard repeats at the MIT (not BU) track. While he openly and vocally hated intervals, his literary appetite had lead him to Emil Zatopek, who had won three gold medals on a steady diet of repeat 440s, whose rictus grimace embodied the poetic pleasure-pain that had drawn Kelley to the sport, and who Kelley now idolized and emulated. On Sundays, Kelley ran twenty miles.
In April, he ran the Boston Marathon faster than anyone ever except for the man that beat him. A month after that, he won the Yonkers Marathon and secured his Olympic spot. A month after that he ran the Olympic Marathon in Melbourne against his idol Zatopek and finished 21st-- his third marathon in three months. He returned to the United States and settled in Groton, Connecticut to teach and coach. He traded his morning loops of the Charles River for morning loops of a nearby farm and set about winning the Boston Marathon.
Far from compulsive, Kelley ran thirteen miles on some days, seven on others, ten on others-- whatever he could get in with his teaching schedule. He ran four miles the day before races, and he raced most Saturdays in local preambles to Boston. He ran anywhere from sixteen to thirty miles on Sundays to maximize his days off, then rested on Mondays after a hard weekend.
He fell in love with fartleks-- a Swedish training technique that involved playful bursts of speed through the woods-- and combined them with Zatopeks intervals, integrating 220, 440 or 880 yard “pickups” throughout his weekday runs. He adjusted his training to suit his temperament-- “I wanted to make running fun, to do more long, rhythmic runs, and to explore my surroundings," he says. "I tried new ways of training that fit my basic instincts.”
The following April he won Boston easily, running with the leaders until mile sixteen then pulling away to win by four minutes. A month later he won the Yonkers Marathon for a second time and would go on to win it six more times in a row. He ran Boston passionately but not compulsively-- running nearly every year and finishing in the top ten until 1964. Back home, he coached his students in the same way that he coached himself--steering them clear of cinders and taking them instead to the mud and dirt and earth, all while quoting Hemmingway, Joyce, and Thoreau. One of his students, Amby Burfoot, wrote “While other high schoolers ran endless laps on a track, Kelley led us on romps through thick woods, nature preserves, and abandoned apple orchards, where we ate green fruit and got sick. We splashed through streams and marshes and the lapping waves of Long Island Sound, ruining countless shoes.” Burfoot himself went on to win Boston in 1968 and then, in true Kelley-fashion, became the editor-in-chief of Runner’s World magazine .
“The things we love should consume us. If they don’t our lives won’t have meaning,” Kelley would tell his runners. He ran, read, trained, and lived like a man possessed. But while he may have burned with a poetic passion for aerobic struggle, he marshalled his flame patiently, weaving together training that suited his spirit while still serving his earthly goals. He let his love consume him, but slowly, so as to burn long and fierce and light the way for those to come later.