Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Six Mile Road Race - 1946

Kanto Athletic Club (1920) "Voittajat" = The Victors. Click on photo to enlarge
What with all the 5Ks and 10Ks and half-marathons and marathons and ironman triathlons, we might think that distance running as an amateur sport did not exist until the last years of the twentieth century. We would be wrong. The Olympics as a bastion of amateur sports was resurrected in 1896, the Boston Marathon in 1897. The Maynard Historical Society has in its collection a program dated 1946 for the 18th Annual Six Miles Road Race, to go from Memorial Park, Maynard, to the Knights of Kaleva camp ground at Fort Pond, Littleton. The event was sponsored by the Kanto Athletic Club of the Finnish-American Athletic League.

Some of the program sponsor names that still might ring a bell: Erikson’s Dairy, Fowler Funeral Service, Hawes Florist, Gruber Bros Furniture, Maydale Beverages, Parker Hardware, Russo’s Restaurant and Twin Tree CafĂ©. Others, perhaps not: Rink Alleys (bowling), Erkkinen Service Station, C. Wainio Barber Shop. Reporters from Boston Globe, Boston Post and Boston Herald were in attendance.

Program for 1946 Road Race, with
image of John A. Kelley on the cover.
Runners (all male) were from athletic clubs as far away as New York. Forty-nine were listed as starting the six mile race, with another twenty-eight for a two-mile cross country race. Jersey #1 among the longer distance runners went to John A. Kelley. The Society does not have any mention of the race results, but it is a fair guess that Kelley won. In his lifetime, John A. Kelley ran 61 Boston Marathons starting in 1928, winning twice (1935 and 1945) and coming in second seven times. He was on the U.S. Olympic team for the marathon in 1936 (Berlin) and 1948 (London). Did not medal. He completed his last Boston Marathon in 1992 at age 84, finishing in just under six hours.

There is a bit of Kelley confusion about marathons. John J. Kelley (no relation to John A.) ran his first Boston Marathon in 1953, while an undergraduate at Boston College. He went on to start that race 31 more times, winning once, coming in second five times, and like John A., was on the Olympic team twice (1956 Melbourne, 1960 Rome). Did not medal. To avoid confusion whenever both were running in the same event, John A. came be referred to as Johnny (the Elder) Kelley while John J. was Johnny (the Younger) Kelley.    

Finnish immigrants were big on athletics. Early on, temperance groups promoted sports as part of a healthy, alcohol-free lifestyle. Political groups also fostered sports – about one-fourth of Finnish Socialist Federation chapters sponsored teams. The favorites were track & field, wrestling and gymnastics.

Political schisms impacted sports. In Maynard, the Kanto Athletic Club was under the auspices of the Finnish Temperance Society, but the Socialist Society group started the Tarmo [“Energy”] Athletic Club. Socialist teams stopped competing with non-Socialist teams. Then, the Labor movement further split into Socialists and Communists. All this was so stifling that in time the groups gave up political purity and opened to wider extramural competition again.

Women were also members of athletic clubs.
This Tarmo Athletic Club photo is from 1926.
Internationally, Finns and Finnish-Americans became associated with long distance running. Stars of the 1920s included Ville Ritola and the brothers William and Hannes Kolehmainen. Paavo Nurmi, nicknamed the “Flying Finn,” won a total of 12 Olympic medals and set numerous world records. Endurance running matched up well with the Finnish concept described as Sisu – a stoic determination to persevere, bravely, often against odds of success. The Finns think of Sisu as uniquely theirs. The closest equivalent in English might be describing a person as having grit. To continue to strive despite repeated failures, despite the knowledge that in the end one might still fail, is Sisu.

In time the waves of immigration slowed, and the Finnish-American population assimilated. Finnish was no longer spoken at home. People became less of sports participants and more of sports fans. We have this program for the eighteenth Annual Six Miles Road Race, but no information of whether there was a nineteenth or a twentieth.


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