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A Boston Marathon Memory and Hope

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Johnny Kelley crosses the finish line of his 60th Boston Marathon in this April 16, 1991 file photo.Kelley, a former three time Olympian, died Oct. 6, 2004, aged 97. Johnny Kelley crosses the finish line of his 60th Boston Marathon in this April 16, 1991 file photo.Kelley, a former three time Olympian, died Oct. 6, 2004, aged 97. Charles Krupa/AP file photo

There’s little I can add to what’s already been observed about the tragedy at the Boston Marathon this week.  The horror, the heroism and the heartache will stay for a long time with everyone who experienced or witnessed it.

What I want to add to the conversation is my own memory of running the Marathon with my friend Tiffany when we were both graduate students in Boston back in 1987 and how that memory gives me hope today.

In those days, you were allowed to run in the back of the Boston pack with an unofficial number if you weren’t one of the qualified entrants.  That’s where Tiffany and I were.

At the very front of the pack was a Boston legend named Johnny Kelley.  He was the Marathon winner in 1935 and 1945.  On that Patriot’s Day morning in 1987, he was 79 years old and preparing to run his 56th Boston Marathon.  Being the legend that he was, Kelley was given the honor of being first off the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass with a healthy head start on the world class runners who were competing for the win.

About four miles into the race, Tiffany and I were cruising along at around a 7:30 minute a mile pace – way ahead of the nine minute a mile pace we had planned to run.  We looked over to our left and there was Johnny Kelley methodically running with his escort.  We were thrilled to see him and waved and shouted, “Hi Mr. Kelley!  Have a great race!”  He gave us a slight nod as we ran past him.

So things were pretty great for Tiffany and me as we ran through Natick, past the women of Wellesley College and they were still pretty good as we crested Heartbreak Hill.  It was on the downhill that my wheels came off.  About three miles from the finish line, I hit the proverbial wall.  (Tiffany, to her everlasting credit, did not.)   As I was plodding my way to the finish I looked to my right and there was Johnny Kelley passing me back as if he was out on an easy jog.  My 26-year-old self had just been lapped by a 79-year-old man.

It took me a few years to realize that it was an honor to get beat by Johnny Kelley in the Boston Marathon.  That man, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 97, represents the indomitable spirit of the people of Boston.  They’re down this week and, in our own small and indirect ways, we share their pain.  But, just like Johnny Kelley, they’ll be back and blow past whoever was responsible for this week’s terror.  That’s what resilient people like Bostonians do.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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