Photo by Bill Brett, Boston Globe
John Adelbert Kelley may well be the best athlete to ever run the Boston Marathon, the internationally acclaimed foot race that draws thousands of runners to vie for the coveted gold medal.
The Boston Marathon was initiated in 1897, inspired by the first modern Olympic Games held the previous year in Athens, Greece. It was sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association, and won by Irish-American John J. McDermott of New York, who ran the course in two hours, fifty-five minutes and ten seconds, beating a field of fifteen runners.
Thomas E. Burke, who won first place in the 100 and 440 yard races at the Athens Olympics in 1896, was the official starter of the race.
Kelley was born in 1907 in West Medford, outside of Boston, and traces his ancestry to County Wexford. "My father's people left to go to Australia," he told The Boston Globe in 1981, when he was preparing for his 50th race. "The boat stopped in Boston and they never left."
Kelley ran his first marathons in 1928 and 1932 but did not finish either race. He ran again in 1933 and has since competed in every single race through 1992! He finished in the top 10 eighteen times, taking first place in 1935 and again in1945. He owns the record for the most races started (61) and the most finished (58). His best time was two hours and thirty minutes, posted in 1943. He was 84 when he ran his last race in 1992, posting a time of Five hours and fifty-eight minutes.
He was christened Johnny "The Elder" Kelley, when John J. Kelley (no relation) emerged as a champion in the 1950s, winning the race in 1957.
In 1993 the BAA erected a statue honoring Johnny Kelley on Heartbreak Hill in Newton. The twin statues depict Kelley in 1935 and again in 1995, holding hands as they cross the proverbial finish line.
For details on the 2011 Boston Marathon, taking place on Monday, April 18, 2011, click here.
For more on Boston Irish history and heritage, visit IrishHeritageTrail.com. or read Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past by Michael P. Quinlin.