Finally at the finish line

Legendary Boston runner gone but not forgotten

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2005

BOSTON — He will be there at the start of the Boston Marathon, his face stenciled on the starting line. He will be there at Heartbreak Hill, young and old in a bronze handshake spanning almost eight decades of tradition.

''Everything we do here, it's all done in memory of Johnny Kelley,'' said Guy Morse, the executive director of the race. ''We're just not ready to let go of him and what he's done to inspire the runners.''

A two-time winner and 58-time finisher who became the face and the spirit of the Boston Marathon, Kelley died last October at the age of 97. As organizers prepared for the first race since his death — and the 109th in all — they didn't know how to go on without him.

So they didn't try.

Kelley's bib No. 61 — one for each time he started the race — was retired. His face has been painted onto the starting line in Hopkinton for the more than 20,000 runners to see as they set off on their 26.2-mile run to Boston.

Runners will still be serenaded with ''Young at Heart'' before the race; organizers haven't decided whether to use the Frank Sinatra version, Jimmy Durante's or a recording of Kelley. And 1985 winner Jacqueline Gareau, better known as the woman who ''finished'' second to Rosie Ruiz, will serve as grand marshal — a position created to honor Kelley when he became too frail to continue running.

''The whole week is going to have a Johnny Kelley presence,'' race director Dave McGillivray said. ''So he'll be here.''

The Red Sox have Johnny Pesky, and the Celtics have Red Auerbach — institutional icons that everyone can cheer for while the active players come and go. For the Marathon, for most of the last century, it was Kelley who embodied the spirit of the race.

''People always talk about the traditions of the Boston Marathon. He was one of the traditions,'' said Amby Burfoot, the 1968 winner and an editor at Runner's World magazine, which named Kelley the runner of the 20th Century.

Timothy Cherigat and Catherine Ndereba led a Kenyan sweep last year and return to try to extend their country's dominance. Ndereba is trying for an unprecedented fourth Boston Marathon women's title.

But this year's field also features two Americans with a chance to contend: Alan Culpepper, who finished 12th in the Athens Olympics, and Ryan Shay, the winner of the 2003 U.S. Marathon Championships. Just once in the past decade has an American finished better than 10th.

Greg Meyer was the last American man to win in Boston, in 1983. Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach won the women's race 20 years ago.

Kelley won the race in 1935 and '45 and had 18 top 10 finishes. He completed the distance 58 times in 61 starts, the last in 1992 at age 84. In 1993-94, he ran only the last seven miles from Newton, starting at the Young at Heart statue that pictures Kelley in his first win, at 27, holding hands with him in his last race.

Since 1995, he served as the race's grand marshal, preceding the leaders from Hopkinton to Boston's Back Bay in a pace car. But for the thousands of fun-runners who never had a chance to win, Kelley will be remembered as the spirit of the race.

''He won the race, but he was more than a competitor. There are so many competitors,'' said Bill Rodgers, who won four times from 1975-80.

''It's like there's a seat missing, a chair missing, and it's unusual. He personified the marathon for so many. Johnny was the guy that stood for all the good things about the Boston Marathon.''

At a party to kick off marathon weekend last week, they played a video of him singing the ''Young at Heart'' in 1999, when he missed the race because of pneumonia. When he sang, ''And if you should survive to 105,'' he tapped himself on the chest and smiled.

He thought he was going to make it.

Kelley was looking forward to the Red Sox playoffs when he died in a nursing home on Oct. 6. Rodgers inherited the honor of throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park on Marathon Sunday.

''Johnny lived so long, we thought he was going to live forever,'' Rodgers said. ''Sometimes runners think they're going to live forever, but it doesn't happen that way. But Johnny came closest of all.''



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