NEW ENGLAND'S TOP 100
Racing for the hills -- 61 times
Kelley ran up awesome Boston Marathon stats
John Adelbert Kelley won two Boston Marathons. That's pretty good.
He was the runner-up seven times. Very impressive.
He finished in the top 10 another nine times. Excellent.
But the next statistic is the one that draws the gasps: In the years between 1928 and 1992, Johnny Kelley ran the Boston Marathon 61 times.
Kelley, whose name is synonymous with the Boston Marathon, is No. 57 on the Globe's list of the top 100 New England sports figures of the century. Kelley wasn't always the winner, but the race wasn't over for most spectators until they had seen Kelley run by.
Raised in Arlington, Kelley took his first shot at the Marathon in 1928 at the age of 20. He faded at about 20 miles and didn't finish. He didn't finish his next attempt, either, in 1932.
But by 1933, he had begun to figure it out and he scrapped his way to a 37th-place finish in 3 hours 3 minutes 56 seconds. By 1934, he was one of the favorites and he dueled Dave Komonen through the Newton hills. Komonen surged on the downhill into Cleveland Circle and Kelley, blisters as big as half dollars on both feet, couldn't keep up. But he held on for second place.
Then in 1935, after eating a steak for breakfast and taking a subway, a train, and a bus from his Arlington home to the Hopkinton starting line, Kelley put it all together. Once again in the lead when he reached the Newton hills, he began to feel nauseated because of the glucose tablets he had been taking during the race. At Kenmore Square, he leaned over and vomited. Then he ran on to the finish line, winning in 2:32:07.
In 1936, the defending champion trailed Ellison Tarzan Brown by some 900 yards at the start of the Newton hills. He picked up the pace and caught Brown on the third and final hill. As he passed, Kelley gave Brown a friendly tap on the shoulder.
But Brown wasn't done. He surged, took the lead back, held off Kelley's last bid, and ran away. That was the year the final hill in Newton earned the name "Heartbreak Hill."
Kelley, who worked as a maintenance man for Boston Edison, had a training regimen limited by the demands of a full-time job. He only ran about 60 miles a week.
He ran his fastest time (2:30:00) at age 35 in 1943, when he placed second to Gerard Cote of Canada. He won his second Marathon in 1945 at the age of 38.
"Running is a way of life for me, just like brushing my teeth," Kelley said. "If I don't run for a few days, I feel as if something's been stolen."
He ran his last Boston Marathon at the age of 85, finishing in 5 hours 58 minutes.
Kelley, now 92, lives in East Dennis.