1957 Boston Marathon champion

The great wheel turns, and thus are we all ground into dust.  Such is the Rib-Taker’s design, and so must we all be delivered.  I just returned home from covering the 34th America’s Finest City Half-Marathon here in San Diego, another celebration of the fullness of life, only to hear of the passing at age 80 of 1957 Boston Marathon champion John J. “The Younger” Kelley at his home in Connecticut.  An e-mail from John’s protégé, great friend and fellow Boston Marathon champion (1968) Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World brought the sad news.

Anyone who had been a part of the New England running scene over the last sixty years would have tales to tell of Young John, a man who would’ve been as comfortable in Revolutionary times – perhaps even more so -than in these currently devolving ones.   To fully understand and appreciate the life and legacy of John J. Kelley, I urge you to read Amby’s moving tribute. John J. Kelley, RIP, 1930-2011: 1957 Boston Marathon Winner; America’s First Modern Road Runner.

As his nickname implies, John “The Younger” was a man who shared a name (though no relation) with a marathon runner of even greater renown. Before Young John came Old Kel, John A. “The Elder” Kelley of Massachusetts, the legendary two-time Boston champion (1935 & `45) and 62-time Boston starter.  Both Kelley’s lived to run, were  two-time Olympians, and became as famous for their non-wins at Boston as for their victories.  Ten years spanned Old Kel’s wins, while Young John was the lone member of the BAA to ever wear the olive wreath of victory at his club’s grandest race.  Yet between the two they claimed twelve second place finishes at Boston (seven for Old Kel, five for Young John).

And so today, my sympathies lie with Tesfaye Alemayehu of Ethiopia and Ariana Hilborn of Scottsdale, Arizona, runners-up in the 2011 AFC Half.  Alemayehu came up just five-seconds shy of race winner Weldon Kirui of Kenya following a race-long duel through the cloud-covered skies of San Diego. Tucson, Arizona’s Ian Burrell claimed third position in an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying 64:22. Ms. Hilborn, 30, of Scottsdale gave way only in the final mile to California’s Mary Akor, who was competing in the AFC for the first time. Akor’s margin at the Balboa Park finish was ten seconds, 77:17 to 77:27.  San Diego’s Natasha Labeaud, 24, finished third in 78:15.

     At the start line in Point Loma, over 7000 runners looked out over the wide gray Pacific Ocean, having taken 105 coach buses to the Cabrillo National Monument according to race director Neil Finn.  The course would lead them down through Point Loma to Harbor Island, passing along North Harbor Drive and Lindbergh Field before heading downtown to take on the two mile climb up “A”  and Sixth Streets to the Balboa Park finish. If it were a ten mile run there would be PRs aplenty.  But it’s those last two miles which define the AFC Half, and generally tell the tale.

The 7 a.m. starting temperature had barely climbed over 60, ideal conditions for the large group of American runners hoping to utilize the course to qualify for the January 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston.  Men would need a sub-65:00, women sub-75:00. At the gun the pack lit out with concentrated intent, University of Georgia grad Ian Burrell taking to the point. In no time a pack of five formed, Burrell, Tesfaye Alemayehu of Ethiopia, and Kenyans James Kirwa, Weldon Kirui and Benard Langat.  Mile one fell in 4:44, right at Kenyan Peter Githuka’s 62:24 course record pace from 2000.

As the course left Cabrillo National Monument and dropped into the Point Loma neighborhood, miles two (4:51) and three (4:38) began to see the pack string out.  Behind the leaders another pack led by Hollywood, California’s Christian Hesch took up formation. A 4:38 third mile led by Weldon Kirui kicked Burrell off the back, as the tenor of the race took on its full tone.  Next a pounding downhill in mile four (4:21) and only the Ethiopian Alemayehu could stick as #2 Benard Langat, last year’s AFC runner up and # 23 James Kirwa, the 2010 Baltimore and Dallas White Rock Marathons champion, gave way.

This was Kirui’s first race in the United States as he prepares for the Twin Cities Marathon in October.  He ran fifth in a hilly road 10k in Migori, Kenya three weeks ago in 31:10, so the hills of San Diego should have been to his liking.  Alemayehu had won the Napa Half Marathon July 17th in 64:34, and had placed second at the Rock `n` Roll Marathon here in San Diego in June in 2:12:23. At 26:00 into the race as the course bottomed out on North Harbor Drive alongside Lindbergh Field, San Diego’s cramped airport, Kirui threw in full power as if seeking his own takeoff.  But the Ethiopian born in the historic city of Gondor answered, his blue top over black shorts and electric lime shoes in elegant symmetry.

10K fell in 29:15, 61:48 pace, as Ian Burrell had maintained a steady effort and moved past Kirwa and Langat into third. Shortly afterwards, the press truck stopped alongside the host Sheraton Marina Hotel as the course looped out onto Harbor Island for two-plus miles.  As we hung back we clocked Christian Hesch in sixth place some 2:17 behind the two leaders.  Hesch was coming off his first career sub-4:00 mile at last weekend’s Falmouth Mile on Cape Cod (3:58:68), and was hoping to qualify for the Olympics Trials Marathon with a sub-65:00 half marathon one week later. But running in no-man’s land he was already into mid-66:00 range at half way.

The women’s race passed our location at 37:00 with Mary Akor, Ariana Hilborn, and Ethiopia’s Atalelech Asfaw tied up in a knot of men running near 75:00 pace.

When the lead runners turned back heading south on Harbor Drive at nine miles, Kirui and Alemayehu still ran tight, elbow-to-elbow.  But just nine seconds behind came the American Burrelll.  Going into his second year of law school at University of Arizona, Ian has also been distracted, wonderfully so, by the birth of his and wife Courtney’s first child, daughter Shaylee, born on August 6th.

“My minimum goal was to finish with the Olympic Trials qualifier,“ he told me after the race.  “I tried to keep things smooth, and not get sucked into their surges. I wanted to keep controlled, because I knew the miles were adding up, and there were hills at the end.”

Yes there were.  Kirui and Alemayehu passed ten miles in 47:40, Burrell losing ground, now twenty seconds behind.  Kirwa and Langat were all but out of sight by now in fourth and fifth.  Again Kirui dropped into overdrive, elbows knifing back, pushing harder than ever to take the measure of, or even break the Ethiopian. This was taking on the mien of almost any Kenyan-Ethiopian battle, the Ethiopian loath to go to the lead, sitting in deadly wait, the Kenyan pushing, wanting even more of it.

Alemayehu (L) and Kirui attack the hills

Mile 11 up “A” Street through the gentrified downtown took 5:06.  Mile 12 up the even steeper Sixth Street bordering Balboa Park took the same.  And just as the press truck pulled away, Alemayehu took his first step in the lead!

“I wanted him to help push,” said Kirui afterwards.  “But he would not.  So near the finish I kept my energy.”

When Kirui came into view in his blue uniform with yellow piping, the Kipsigiis tribesman from Kericho, Kenya had a clear advantage. And he had earned the win, leading all but the initial two miles, and making all the surges through the course.

“I was thinking, ‘when we get to the hill, I will push’,” said runner up Tesfaye Alemayehu who lives with his wife in Addis Ababa.  “But he kept pushing, so I decided to follow instead. But he was very strong.”

Alemayehu has been staying in Antioch, California with an uncle as he races in the U.S., and trains alone. He will make his next start in the Baltimore Marathon this fall where he will meet defending champion and today’s fourth place finisher James Kirwa. None of the American women who hadn’t previously qualified for the Houston Olympic Trials did so today as Mary Akor’s winning time was 77:17, ten seconds up on Ariana Hilborn. It was the slowest AFC winning women’s time since Laurie Binder’s 77:37 in 1985. But the first American win since Sylvia Mosqueda’s in 2002.

2011 AFC Half champion Mary Akor

“At ten miles I started to push,” said Akor, a Nigerian native who became a U.S. citizen in 2003.  “After 11 I took the lead for good. I’m still not at full strength, though. I had abdominal surgery last July, then tried to run the New York City Marathon.  Oh, my God!  It’s like I had never run before.  But I am on a new program for the marathon, and I am becoming more strong.”

“It was my first race since I PR’d at Grandma’s Marathon (2:37),” said runner up Hilborn, a University of Arizona grad. “It was weird coming back a couple weeks ago, but I’m beginning to get some good training in. I taught first-grade for six years, but I’ve taken this year off, and just work at Sole Sports, a local shoe store. I’ll be running the Twin Cities 10 Miler next.”

In typical San Diego fashion the sun burned off the coastal cloud cover by mid-morning.  So by the time the masses of runners were entering Balboa Park it had turned from an ideal day to race to a glorious day to lounge about on the cool, green grass and remember another day racing the wind, and all who had come before to lead the way.


  1.  Weldon Kirui – Ken. – 1:03:18
  2. Tesfaye Alemayehu – Eth. – 1:03:23
  3. Ian Burrell – Az. – 1:04:22
  4. James Kirwa – Ken. – 1:05:14
  5. Benard Langat – Ken. – 1:05:32
  6. Christian Hesch – Ca. – 1:07:41
  7. Jacques Sallberg – Ca. – 1:07:43
  8. Ewen North – Co. – 1:07:47
  9. Ben Payne – Fl. – 1:07:48
  10. Nazario Romero – Ca. (1st local) – 1:07:53


  1. Mary Akor – Ca. – 1:17:17
  2. Ariana Hilborn – AZ – 1:17:27
  3. Natasha Labeaud – Ca. – 1:18:15
  4. Joanna Zeiger, 41, – Co. – 1:18:29 (S.D. native, 4th, 2000 Olympic Triathlon)
  5. Lindsay Nelson – Ca. – 1:19:04
  6. Tere Derbez-Zacher – AZ – 1:19:33
  7. Atalelech Asfaw – Eth. – 1:19:37
  8. Erica Baron – N.M. – 1:19:38
  9. Lauren Weaver – Ca. – 1:20:42
  10. Jessica Brothers – Ca. – 1:20:48


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.