Santa Fe runner headed to Boston Marathon at age 66
Vinnie Kelley’s scruffy gray mustache and soft eyes are notable features, but his bulging calf muscles and high shorts — which anyone who doesn’t run might declare too short — are his real attention grabbers. The moment Kelley starts to run in his lopsided stride, full of power, his leg strength becomes increasingly evident.
On Monday, the 5-foot-5, 66-year-old Massachusetts native will compete on his home turf in the Boston Marathon, one of the world’s most iconic races and among the hardest to qualify for. It will be at least his eighth time running the race since 1997.
His “fantasy goal” is to finish in under three hours — a pace of less than seven minutes per mile — and place first in his age group. Although, he’d be thrilled to make top three.
Kelley finished second last year in the 65-to-69 division in 3 hours, 18 minutes, 50 seconds. To get under three hours would require shaving off nearly 19 minutes, a difficult task at his age. Kelley will be the oldest Santa Fean out of nine registered to compete in this year’s race, according to the Boston Athletic Association’s entry list.
Another local entry is Caroline Rotich, a native of Kenya who won the Boston Marathon women’s race in 2015 and has lived and trained in Santa Fe.
As for Kelley: “It’s my ultimate goal to run sub-three between now and when I turn 70.”
While he has accomplished the feat several times before — his personal record is 2:54:17 at age 50 in 2002 — this would be the first time he’s done so after turning 60. To prepare, he’s amped up his mileage and speed workouts, averaging 88 miles a week for the past 18 weeks.
He’s well aware that competition is steep.
“There are at least 14 qualifying times better than mine, three of them significantly faster,” Kelley said. “It’ll play on your mind but you can’t let it.”
Kelley also has been dealing with an on-and-off groin injury, and there are numerous other factors — weather, meals, hours of sleep — that can stir anxiety and make or break a performance.
“Anything can happen out there,” he said, “so what’s most important is having a good time.”
Last year, headwinds, humidity and 70-plus-degree temperatures added minutes to most competitors’ finishing times, said Kelley, who started in the third wave. “The weather was tough, and there was a lot of weaving in and out of people who started earlier,” he said, adding that he passed 13,992 people from start to finish.
“It was one of my proudest moments just to stick it out and keep myself motivated,” he said.
To earn his second-place podium spot, he had to beat 424 men in his age division.
Kelley hasn’t always been such a competitive runner. In fact, it wasn’t until he moved to Santa Fe in 1994 that running became a more integral part of his life. Along the way, he fell in love with the sport.
“Running is what connects me to the good things in my life,” he said. “Every time you run a race, you see people overcome adversity on some level. It’s just you, your legs and your brain.”
He’d be disappointed to miss the awards ceremony for the event’s top three finishers in each age group, he admitted, but he believes he’ll be content no matter the outcome. After all, his biggest aspiration is something far more meaningful than a finishing time or a podium status.
“It’s a really important goal for me to define how long you can keep doing this sort of thing,” he said, adding that he hopes to be a “longevity athlete” and prove to other aging athletes that you don’t have to give up doing the things you love to do.
And as long as he can keep running, he’ll do his best to continue qualifying for Boston.
For Kelley, Boston is home.
As a child, he watched the marathon from the sidelines, inspired by athletes like Olympian and Boston champion John Kelley, no relation, and two-time Boston champ and hometown hero “Tarzan Brown.”
The first time Kelley ran the Boston course was at age 15, with some high school buddies, as a “bandit,” an unregistered runner who chased the elites.
“There wasn’t much running involved,” he said with a laugh, adding that he walked at least half the route, was wearing Keds sneakers and had a few swigs of beer before the race.
Returning to the Northeast reminds Kelley of his upbringing, one of the primary reasons why the marathon means so much to him. Yet, some memories of the race are bittersweet. In 2013, Kelley bore witness to the Boston Marathon bombings.
“It’s unimaginable the amount of blood,” he said. “… I just remember seeing a kid standing on the barriers, watching the race, just like I did growing up. … For him to see that happen — for kids to be there — that’s the worst part.”
Coming home to Santa Fe that year was a relief, and the city remains his running sanctuary.
With miles of trails in and around Santa Fe, pros and beginners alike gravitate to New Mexico’s capital city for high-altitude training. Several of them have settled here.
“What’s so inspiring about training here is that you can see these pro athletes pass you by, doing things that take your breath away,” said Kelley, whose favorite running spots are Aspen Vista and the Rail Trail. “It’s fun to see people running around your neighborhood who are world-class.”
Ryan Bolton, owner and founder of Bolton Endurance Sports Training and founder and head coach of the Harambee Project — a program that works primarily with East African runners — agrees.
“There’s just so much [variety and terrain] in every direction,” he said, adding that New Mexico is rare for its offering of hills, canyons, mountains and everything in between.
Bolton, who’s been training runners and triathletes in Santa Fe for nine years, is the coach of more than 100 athletes worldwide, including eight who are competing in Boston. One of these runners is Rotich, who has her sights set on another win.
“She’s in a really good space right now,” Bolton said. “Physically, her workouts have been off the chart, and mentally, she’s in a great place, which is equally important.”
For Kelley, Boston isn’t about elite recognition.
“I’m not one of those talents,” he said. “But I am the guy who wants to know how long a person can sustain doing this sport. I’m the one who wants to do whatever it takes to keep running until I’m at least 80.”