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Johnny Kelley: America’s Gentle Revolutionary 

How an American distance runner invented modern endurance training long before Arthur Lydiard, and used his new method to win the Boston Marathon. Words by Chris Lear.


The Godfather

Even the most advanced contemporary distance-running training programs owe their foundational elements to famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard coached a gaggle of neighborhood kids to the 1960 Rome Olympics and three of them ended up on the podium: Peter Snell (Gold, 800m), Murray Halberg (Gold, 5000m), and Barry Magee (Bronze, marathon). His insights were radical and seemingly counter intuitive at the time; he asserted that speed stemmed from strength, that running too slowly was rarely an impediment to attaining peak performance but that running too fast could be ruinous. These insights stemmed from experiments conducted in a laboratory with an N of 1: the man himself.

Lydiard was a late convert to running, commencing only at the age of 27, with a modest initial goal of finding a way to get and stay fit. In short order running became his passion, and through dogged trial and error he became New Zealand’s finest marathoner, winning their national championship in 1953 in his thirty-sixth year. The kindling of a running revolution was crackling in earnest…

A World Away

That same year, half-way round the globe, Boston University (BU) junior Johnny J. Kelley finished fifth in the Boston Marathon in 2:28. Undergraduate harriers competing and excelling at the marathon were as rare then as they are now, and his result was all the more remarkable given the pedigree of the man himself.

Johnny Kelley arrived on campus in the fall of 1950 as the toast of the town having run a national record 4:21.8 mile as a senior at Bulkeley High in New London, CT. His coach at BU, Doug Raymond, subscribed to the common knowledge of the day, a “no pain, no gain” approach of endless gut-busting 400-meter intervals day after day. The problem was that Kelley disdained the exercise as much as he excelled at it.

Says Kelley’s grandson Jacob Edwards, a 2:25 marathon in his own right: “He just never bought into the notion of endless track repeats. He hated running around a track, and, whenever possible, he wanted to be out in nature.”

Kelley’s temperament thus meshed perfectly with what Jock Semple, the coach of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), was selling, which was also the prevailing wisdom of the time: marathon training with long, slow distance, or LSD.

What to do? He rebelled — quietly. Says Edwards, “his coach (at BU) told him the long slow running was going to ruin his legs, and be detrimental to his running, so he started getting up and doing 16-milers at 4:30 in the morning so his coach wouldn’t find out.”

Edwards recalls Kelley (who passed in 2011 at the age of 80) saying that he ran those runs in the ambrosial hours as if in a daze, his body in sync with the gently awakening rhythms of his natural surroundings on the Charles.

Kelley’s sense of his own rhythms and his capacity to manage what essentially amounted to two training programs would later serve as the keystone experiences that enabled him to take marathoning to the next level. But first, Kelley continued to serve both masters as a senior at BU, winning the IC4A cross country championship at the famed Van Cortland Park in the Bronx before clocking another 2:28 in Boston for seventh in the spring of his senior year.

Kelley returned to his native Connecticut upon graduation, where he commenced teaching and coaching cross country at Fitch high school in Groton, CT. It was in those years, from 1956–1960, freed from the constraints of his college program and armed with the knowledge he’d gained as a top-flight middle-distance runner and budding marathoner, that he crafted a training program that eventually led to a victory at the 1957 Boston marathon, two Olympic berths, and a staggering run of eight-consecutive national championship marathon wins. It was a run of Lydiard-esque proportions.

1400 miles to Boston: Anatomy of a Victory

It all came together for Kelley in 1957 with a Boston victory in a then-course record 2:20.5. And, fortunately for us, this lifelong tinkerer left us his logs — his sacred scrolls — so we could reconstruct the bones of the journey. And it is here, in the build to Boston, that we see the revolutionary leap that was years in the making, and put his training starkly ahead of his contemporaries. So while it stands to reason that next to no training methodologies from the 1950s carry currency across today’s sporting landscape, Kelley’s plan — if not alone — stands apart. And just as the forest can get lost between the trees, analyzing the virtues of his plan required we take a step back from the day by day (which we present to you here) and take a look at the big picture. We present our Kelley rules of running for you now below…

1: No Single Day

Kelley’s build to Boston began in mid-December, 1956 — leaving him 18 weeks to put in the work after an 11-day layoff. Over the next four months he would take 16 days off — roughly once a week, but notably not regularly scheduled, suggesting he was in tune to his body, willing and able to take recovery when needed.

Just as importantly, he found a balance between the LSD of the BAA and the track work of the day. Throughout his training he incorporated intervals in the context of longer runs, say 6 x 880 at marathon pace on a seven-mile stretch of a 13-mile run. Not once did the work seem overwhelmingly arduous for his condition, suggesting he’d internalized what Lydiard preached a few years later: that one should never finish a training run totally depleted. He did not leave his race on his local stomping grounds.

2: Variation Matters

Kelley averaged a robust 78 miles a week, mostly in singles. Yet from week to week the total mileage varied. In peak training, less than two months out, his weekly totals were as follows: 73, 91, 81, 80, 57. The yin and the yang again suggests he had a sense of the need to tear his body down then allow it to regroup and adapt before bearing down once more.

3: Opportunistic Amateur

Running through an especially arduous winter while teaching full-time necessitated 5:30AM runs in the bitter Connecticut winter. Invariably, he documented these as “steady” runs, rarely over a 6:40 pace. He saved the hard efforts for the afternoon and the weekends, seemingly allowing for his body to work hard when most alert.

And he made hay when the sun was shining. It was not uncommon to see hard efforts on Saturday and Sunday, followed by an easy day or a day off altogether. Yet even then, the hard efforts seem thoroughly moderate in their intensity. For reasons of ego or insecurity this concept alone can be so hard to enact; clearly, he had the confidence to see the plan through.

4: Joyful Growth

Perhaps most striking of all is the sense that even as he was figuring it all out, he was learning all the same, pushing the boundaries for personal growth. Runs in combat boots (in homage perhaps to Emil Zatopek, whom he greatly admired), a 30-mile over-distance run, progression runs where the pace dropped through the latter stages, and a 2 x 6-mile tempo run as part of a longer run are both anachronistic and thoroughly modern.

Piece it together and a picture emerges of a man having fun with his chosen craft. Running through wind or snow, at sunrise or twilight, as evidenced by his log, he took it all in, the simplicity and the struggle, and moved a sport forward all the while.

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