With Johnny Kelley, the 73-year-old iron-legged folk hero, in the field, only a few world records could have stolen the show in the Brooks Masters 15-kilometer race yesterday along the C&O towpath. As it was, some faster-than-expected times were turned in, with the help of a downhill start from a playing field at Georgetown University and then, out and back, a flat and scenic route along the strip separating the Potomac River and the canal.
Roger Robinson, 41, an English literature professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, won first place among the men. Benefited by a 4:45 first mile, Robinson's time was 47:20. Hismain competition was Herb Lorenz, a New Jersey woodwork teacher who won the 20-kilometer masters championship three weeks ago at Hains Point.
About a mile after the halfway turn-around, Robinson ran a mile spurt and pulled ahead. Lorenz couldn't go with him. Farther back, and to finish fifth, was Hal Higdon, the writer whose 1971 book "On the Run From Dogs and People," has remained a pre-Fixx and pre-Sheehan minor classic.
If the field of 200 senior runners had a touch of glitter, it was because the Brooks shoe company put up the transportation funds for out-of-the-area runners like Robinson, Higdon and Lorenz. It was Johnny Kelley, though, the three-time Olympic marathoner who will run his 50th Boston in April, who added joy to the day.
Dressed nattily in knee-high blue socks and with his wife Laura at the finish line with a cooling-down suit, Kelley gave the younger crowd a lesson in pacing. He hit the first mile mark at 7:40, the two-mile at 15:20. Then getting a second wind, he shifted gears into high cruise and began passing men and women 30 years younger. His final time was near 67 minutes, almost a a seven-minute-per-mile pace.
After the race, one of those outdone by Kelley, who lives in East Dennis, Mass., said, "It was a distinct honor to be passed by Johnny." The honors were shared by many.
The evening before, at a runners' dinner organized by David Theall, the race director, Kelley used his Irish wit to charm his audience with tales of the old days of just sneakers and the lonely roads. He spoke of the new days too, saying that after 104 marathons and thousands of shorter events, "I've never enjoyed running more."
One story that had the crowd laughing recounted Kelley's coming up Heartbreak Hill in Boston last spring and overhearing two runners behind him. "One said to the other. 'Hey, there's old Johnny, 'i hope, I'm still running when I get to be his age.' I thought to myself, 'Yeah, and I hope I'm still alive when he does it.'"