Like an enormous pack of hounds straining against a tight leash, 78 runners faced up a tree-shaded street in Yonkers, N.Y. the other day, their heads cocked for the sound of the starter's pistol. At stake was the National AAU marathon title. The race also was the final trial for three places on the U.S. Olympic marathon squad. It thus had particular significance for four or five Olympic contenders, but most particularly for John Joseph Kelley, 29, a wiry little high school English teacher from Groton, Conn., and America's premier marathoner.
A month earlier Kelley's bright career as a road runner seemed to have come to a dismal close. During part one of the Olympic marathon trials, the Boston Marathon, he had stumbled reluctantly from the course with five miles of the 26-mile 385-yard race still ahead of him. His feet were blistered, torn and bloody, apparently from a pair of new running shoes improperly broken in. By not finishing, Kelley had automatically disqualified himself as an Olympic candidate. After the Boston race Kelley's usually haggard face was even more drawn and tense. He sat in a clubhouse just off the finish line, dolefully examining his lacerated feet.
"This is the end of my career," he announced, bitter with his disappointment. "I've made my decision and there will be no qualifications. This was my last race."
For most of the country this statement was about as sensational as Mrs. Wagner announcing a new line of blueberry pies. But on the resolute little group who follow road racing with an almost religious devotion it had a rather shattering impact. Seemingly ended was the career of the amiable little man who had won the Boston Marathon in 1957, the Pan American Games marathon in 1959 and four successive National AAU marathons. Seemingly squelched was the hope that Kelley would become the first American to win an Olympic marathon since Johnny Hayes in 1908.
But a few days later Kelley began to feel like the man who wakes up one morning with a hangover and suddenly remembers that he had told off his boss at a party the night before.
"No doubt I should have kept quiet," he admitted. "My decision after the Boston race to retire was just me, speaking in a moment of self-laceration. But after you've put 4,500 miles a year on your feet for so many years, aiming for a certain goal [the Olympics] and then missing it, the let-down is overpowering. But maybe, when my feet stop hurting and my legs loosen up, I'll compete again."
Actually there was no maybe about it. His coach, Jock Semple, tried to persuade him to try another Olympic distance. His tiny, dark-haired, wife Jesse applied even more pressure. She said that her husband, in retiring at 29, made her feel old. No man wants to make his wife feel old.
So Kelley came out of retirement. Still in excellent condition from his intensive pre-retirement preparations, he won a five-mile road race. Feeling good, he sent in his entry for the National Marathon. "To cover myself it' I decide to run," he said.
Then came a real burst of good news. "Kelley is not out of the running because he failed to finish at Boston," announced Pinky Sober, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Committee, a few days before the National AAU race. "We have decided to give him every consideration if he wins at Yonkers. He did not ask for any consideration, but we want our strongest entry."
So here was Kelley, crouched at the starting line with 77 other hopefuls, given an Olympic reprieve. That is, if he won.
The starter fired his gun, and the field broke from the starting line, Kelley tucked modestly into the middle of the pack. The temperature was in the high 50s, ideal for distance running. Gordon McKenzie, 32, a slight, graceful runner who really prefers the 10,000-meter "sprint," bounded off to an early lead of 250 yards over Kelley and four others.
The runners wove their way over the roads and through the crowded Sunday traffic. After eight miles, Kelley, who had gone back to his old pair of running shoes, had cut the leader's margin to 100 yards, after 10 miles to 50 yards. With just a little over half the race left, Kelley finally drew even with McKenzie.
Four miles later, as they raced down a long, high hill toward the Hudson River, Kelley burst ahead. He left his rival, and the rest of the field, far behind, his feet beating out a sort of percussion jazz tempo. When he sprinted across the finish line Kelley had set a new record of 2:20:13.6 for the hilly course, beaten runner-up McKenzie by 1,000 yards, taken his fifth straight National Marathon title and—adding a final flourish to a season that had begun so badly—solidly made the Olympic team.