When Christian Morrison was growing up in Waterford, the John J. Kelley road race went by his house the first Saturday of each August.
In 1976, the year he turned 12, his 11-year-old brother told him he was going to run it, so Morrison decided he would run the 11.6-mile race too.
“The first year I ran it, it was high noon, I’m 12 years old, I haven’t really trained and I’m running 11.6 miles in bad shoes,” Morrison said laughing. “And my parents have no idea that this is probably not a good idea.”
Morrison, now the men’s and women’s track and cross country coach at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, finished the race that year (so did his brother). On Saturday, he will run the race, now the John and Jessie Kelley Half Marathon, for the 47th straight time, starting and finishing at Ocean Beach Park in New London.
The race is one of the oldest in Connecticut, in its 60th year, starting in 1963 as a promotional event for the Schaefer Beer company at Ocean Beach. It has always been free to run in, and this year it is at capacity with 1,000 runners expected.
“It was always a big event,” said Morrison, 58, who lives in Shelton. “People would come out of their houses and watch you, there were tons of people cheering for you. People would come out with their hoses. There were lots of unofficial water stops.”
The race began, according to its website, as part of Schaefer Day, a sports-oriented celebration in the New London area that featured swimming races at the Ocean Beach pool and auto racing at the Waterford Speed Bowl. In 1963, the organizers decided to put on a 12-mile road race. Somehow, it became a 10 ½ mile race. There were 19 runners in the first edition and Johnny Kelley, the iconic 1957 Boston Marathon winner who lived in Mystic, won what was called the Schaefer Race.
The race started at noon on what is traditionally one of the hottest days of the year.
“There were so many years the race started at noon, like every blessed New England road race back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s,” said 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot of Mystic, who has won the race multiple times. “It was too often 95 degrees and we just died horrible deaths in that race but for some reason we kept going back.”
Tim Smith of Norwich, who won the masters division for many years, ran for the first time in 1965 and remembered an impressive (free) post-race buffet.
“We’re talking lobsters, clams, crabs, free beer, soda,” said Smith, 73. “That was one of the best seashore buffets anywhere. As the numbers grew they couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t the race; it was the buffet that drew a lot of the entrants.”
Burfoot said in the early days the race became a destination for many top runners from New York City. New York Road Runners Club co-founder and ultramarathon pioneer Ted Corbitt; Gary Muhrke, who won the first New York City Marathon in 1970; New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow, Jim Fixx, who wrote the “Complete Book of Running” that helped fuel the running revolution of the 70s; Nina Kuscsik, the first Boston Marathon official women’s winner – they all made their way to New London in the early days of the race.
“There weren’t that many races then, but it was mainly the Kelley name that brought people to it,” Burfoot said. “Kelley’s victories and my victories – you put the two of us together and it sounds like a serious road race. People got that message so if you were a serious runner, you wanted to come and mix it up with the best.”
Burfoot won the race in 1965, 1966 and 1967 after Kelley, his high school coach and mentor, had won the first two.
Over the years, the course has changed. The race now starts at 8 a.m. It was named after Kelley in 1974 and his wife Jessie’s name was added after her death in 2003. John Kelley died in 2011 at age 80.
In 2017, organizers decided to change the distance to 13.1 miles and its popularity exploded, although some runners enjoyed the original quirky distance.
Morrison, who finished in the top 20 a few times when he was younger, sometimes wishes he had picked a shorter race for a streak.
“I knew [the half distance] would make it more popular, but it just made it that much more difficult for me personally,” he said. “From 40 [years old] on, I would say this is pretty hard to get ready for every summer. Now I’m 58, I’m hoping to get to 50 in a row, but this half marathon thing has made it a little more difficult.”
Burfoot, who has run the race more than 20 times but won’t be there this year, said it’s special to him, like the Manchester Road Race which he has run 59 straight times.
“It’s No. 1 in my heart after Manchester because it is the local race and also because of the fantastic tradition of it being a free road race, which makes it a real peoples’ race in the Kelley tradition of being welcoming to everyone,” Burfoot said. “It’s a truly unique part of national history in road racing. If there are other free road races – and I can’t think of any – but there are none that are of the same standing and have the same history as the Kelley race. That’s what makes it special and unique.”
Lori Riley can be reached at email@example.com.