Neither he nor the few hundred people who lined the course that day had the slightest inkling that they had participated in the establishment of a great American athletic tradition.
The original marathon took place in ancient Greece, but it wasn’t a race. In 490 B.C. an army of Athenians defeated a larger and better-armed Persian force on the plains of Marathon. Pheidippides, a Greek soldier, was dispatched on foot to bring the news of the great victory to Athens. Running the entire distance he entered the city gates, shouted, “Rejoice! We Conquer!” and collapsed dead. Because the revived modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, organizers included a marathon race of 24.8 miles (later changed to 26.2 miles), the approximate distance between Athens and Marathon.
The idea for a marathon in Boston originated in the aftermath of the 1896 Games. American athletes, especially a group of Irish Americans from Boston, had done extremely well in the track and field events. James Connolly, for example, made history when he won the first gold medal of the Games by besting the field in the triple jump. Thomas Burke later won gold in both the 100-meter and 400-meter dashes.
The team manager of the 1896 Olympic team was John Graham, a member of the Boston Athletic Association. He and the other BAA members were especially taken with the Olympic marathon (won by Spiridon Louis of Greece). For runners, no feat could compare to running 24.8 miles non-stop. It seemed the ultimate test of mental toughness and physical endurance. Why not, thought Graham and his BAA friends, stage one in Boston?
The Boston Athletic Association had been founded in 1887 in an era when track and field was a major spectator sport. Most cities had similar clubs and each sponsored annual meets that were open to all competitors. The BAA games were held annually in mid-April and in 1896 its members decided to add a marathon of 24.5 miles as the final event and to hold it on Patriots Day, the annual holiday honoring Paul Revere’s ride.
April 19, 1897 dawned fair and sunny as 15 intrepid runners toed the starting line in Ashland, a small town outside Boston. Here and there along the route small groups of spectators stood and cheered the runners on. Nearly three hours later an Irishman from New York named John J. McDermott won the race. Nine others subsequently straggled in with the remaining five dropping out along the route.
Judged a success by the BAA, even though a New Yorker had won it, the Boston Marathon became an annual event. Each year it garnered more attention from the public so that by the fifth race in 1902, some 100,000 spectators lined the course. The number of runners also grew, reaching 164 in 1909.
In those early years, as in American track and field in general, Irish runners enjoyed disproportionate success. McDermott was followed as winner the next year by Ronald MacDonald (Canada), John Caffery (Canada) in 1900 and 1901, Tim Ford in 1906, Thomas Morrissey in 1908, Michael Ryan in 1912, James Duffy in 1914, and Bill Kennedy in 1917.
But the one man who came to embody the Boston Marathon was another Irishman named Johnny A. Kelley. An assistant florist from West Medford, Mass., he started but did not finish Boston Marathons in 1928 and 1932. The following year he completed the race, finishing 37th. Over the next six decades he would finish a record 58 Boston Marathons, winning the race in 1935 and 1945, and placing second seven times (a second John Kelly won the race in 1957). From 1934 to 1950 Kelley finished in the top five 15 times. Kelley also made two Olympic teams, 1936 and 1948. (The Games were canceled due to World War II in 1940 and 1944.) Incredibly, Johnny Kelley ran and completed his last Boston Marathon in 1992 — an the age of 84.
By that time, he’d seen the Boston Marathon grow from a relatively obscure event to one of the nation’s great annual sports events with fields of runners from all around the world exceeding 25,000. The great transformation started in 1963 when Sports Illustrated ran a large feature on the race, causing the field to jump from an average of less than 200 runners to 369 in 1964. The first women ran in 1966 and by 1969 the field topped 1,000. The running craze of the 1970s brought in thousands more until the BAA was forced to cap the number of official runners at 25,000 (with thousands more so-called “bandits” running unofficially).
Johnny Kelley was honored in 1993 with a statue “Young at Heart” (his favorite song and mantra) placed along the marathon route in Newton, Mass. It depicts two Johnny Kellys clasping hands — the 27-year-old who won the race in 1935 and the 83-year old finishing in 1991. He was inducted into both the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and the National Distance Running Hall of Fame. In 1999 Runner’s World Magazine named him the “Runner of the Century.”
Note: Edward T. O’Donnell will be running this year’s Boston Marathon, raising money for the Arthritis Foundation team. Details at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
April 13, 1829: Catholic Emancipation takes effect, removing the last vestiges of the Penal Laws against Catholics in Ireland.
April 15, 1848: The Irish tricolor flag is flown for the first time in Dublin by members of the Young Ireland movement.
April 13, 1866: Playwright Samuel Beckett, born in Foxrock, Co. Dublin.
April 14, 1866: Teacher of Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, born in Massachusetts.
April 16, 1871: Writer John Millington Synge, is born in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin.