Joe Kelly: 86 and Still Running Strong

by Christine Bishop and Ken Orner

In a new series I will interview members 80 and over who think of age as only a number.  Joe Kelly who is now 86 and still running and racing is our inaugural profile.

We will start with an interview of Joe in 2005 by Ken Orner and then fast forward to 2019. You will see that the one constant that unites the years is Joe’s determination to compete and win.

Profile of a Runner
Joe Kelly
By Ken Orner
August 2005

What is your age, occupation, background, hobbies, and other interests?

I am 71 years old, a graduate of Georgetown Medical School and after 40 years of medical practice, I am now retired.  The most challenging period in my medical career occurred during my seven years of active duty with the U.S. Navy.  In 1960, I volunteered for “Operation Deep Freeze.” This involved several months of intensive training in cold weather medicine and Naval Procedures.  We received training in leadership, logistics radio communications and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Following the training I was shipped to New Zealand and ultimately to Antarctica where I was made Officer in Charge and Physician at an isolated naval outpost, Hallett Station.  I was 27 years old at the time, just completed my internship and was assigned to full administrative and medical responsibility for 18 men.  I spent one year there.  Incidentally, there was no other office or medical personnel on the base; so if I became sick, there was not doctor for me.  During that year some serious medical emergencies occurred but with the help of God, good fortune and medical knowledge, everyone survived, including me.

When I arrived back in Christchurch, New Zealand, the first thing I noticed was the smell of grass and trees.  It was springtime in New Zealand, 1961.  The only fragrance I had been exposed to in Antarctica was the smell of penguin guano:  there were 250,000 birds at my base.  Imagine a large chicken coop without walls!  In 1966, I received a letter from the National Scientific Foundation, informing me that a geographic feature on the world map had been named in my honor KELLY GLACIER, which is located in northwest Victoria Land, Antarctica. The remainder of my medical career was more or less routine, filled with the mundane, sad and sometimes harrowing experiences that fill most physicians’ lives.

My other avocation is the theater.  As an actor for 16 years I have performed in 39 shows, in front of audiences from 50 to 450.  I don’t sing but I do comedy and drama.  Acting has its own rewards but overall it is not as satisfying for me as running.  Since I retired five years ago, I have been involved with volunteer work for the American Cancer Society and Senior Services of Albany.

When and how did you get interested in running?

I started running when I was 45 years old that was in 1978.  Ten years earlier I had stopped smoking and lost 30 pounds but I was still somewhat soft.  I also had developed a nagging to severe low back pain.  Dr. Tom Mason, neurosurgeon and runner, told me I could either get into shape or have surgery.  I began by swimming and after about a year, I was able to swim a mile three times a week, without too much difficulty.  Then I decided to start running and since I was in good cardiovascular shape I could run for one and and half miles the first time out easily.  I ran my first marathon in 1980; it was called the Fall Foliage Marathon and my time was 4:17 and after that I was hooked on running.

What are you most memorable races and your favorite races?

My most memorable races are my 5th and 6th marathons (I ran a total of 7).  Number 5 was the Long Island held on May 5, 1982.  It was my PR at 3:42:01.  My sixth was two weeks later on May 19, 1982: it was the Heritage Trail Marathon and it seemed to include every hill, bridge, and mound in Watervliet, Cohoes, Troy and Green Island and my time was 3:44:43.  Two of my favorite races from the past were the Yankee Doodle Dash, a very flat 10K held every Memorial Day in Rensselaer.  I averaged between 43 and 44 minutes consistently every year, and the 30K Price Chopper-thon, which I ran many times.  My best time was 2:37 in 1982.  Currently my favorite races are the Dare 5K in Mechanicville, the Berkshire Medical Center 5K in Pittsfield, MA on July 4th and the 15K Stockade-athon.  I have run the latter more times than any other race.  I also like the Shamrock Shuffle in Glens Falls held each March.  This year I ran the USMC Half-Marathon for the first time and found it to be a great race and except for the first mile it’s about as easy a half-marathon course as I have run and I hope to run it again in 2005.

How do you train?  Do you have any training partners? 

Mostly I train by myself although at times I have trained with friends.  Occasionally it is nice to run with others but I believe I achieve my most satisfaction and peace of mind when I run by myself. I have had more creative thinking while running alone, especially after I get into a “zone.”  To paraphrase what someone once said:  Running is a lot less expensive and much more fun than seeing a psychiatrist.

Do you have a philosophy of running?

My current philosophy on running is to be very thankful each morning that I am still able to run and I remind myself of this several time each day.  I also avoid supporting races, which discriminate against older runners by not having at least a 70+ age group with the standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place awards.

Any other sports interests?

I recently purchased a mountain bike together with a helmet and a bike carrier for my car.  It’s fun to ride a bike (you never forget, right?), and I think it helps my running.  I figured that if John Kerry can spend $8,000 on a bicycle and George W. Bush $3,500 on his mountain bike, I can spend $132 at Walmart.  What the heck: it’s the trickle down effect of our economy, isn’t it?

Any interesting stories?

In 1985 I was at a medical conference in Boston.  The conference hotel was at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which was being held on the last day of our conference.  Instead of attending the conference a group of us went to watch the finish.  Rob deCastella of Australia won it, but the surprise was that Bill Rodgers came in 4th at 40 years of age.  After the race I was standing next to him in the hotel at the press conference as he tried to answer the reporters pointless and silly questions.  He demonstrated extreme patience and humility and I was very impressed.

Flash forward to 1994 at the Covered Bridges Half-Marathon in Vermont and Bill Rodgers was the featured runner.  His time was 1:08 and at age 50 he finished second overall.  For two hours after the race he sat at card table, in the hot sun signing autographs and chatting pleasantly with each runner that came by.  When my turn came, we spoke for a few minutes (no, he did not remember me from Boston) and he signed my racing bib, which I have framed to this day:

“Joe Kelly
Good Running Today
Bill Rodgers ‘94"

14 Years Later

JpeKellyWinterFINAL.jpgJoe’s fervor for running races has not lessened. Every year he runs the OK 5K, does the Winter Series faithfully, the Running of the Green, the Rabbit Ramble, Good Karma 5K, the Independence Day 5k in Pittsfield, Hilltown Triple Crown 5K races, the Dunkin 5K where this year he came in first his age group: 46 minutes. He looks forward to the Apple Run on October 5, where he praises their particularly fine awards. 

Talking about the races he has been in over the years, he gave praise to Phil Carducci for being creative and sensitive to the competitors’ needs. Phil was the first race director in this area to start the age group 70-75, and since has continued to go up to today’s 80+.  He also is the only one who has reduced the registration price for runners 70 and over.

Joe only runs races that have ages over 80, which brings us to his effort to have age groups further differentiated. 

The top age group when he first started running in 1978 was 40. Most of the good runners were much younger. He was able to run 10Ks in around 45 minutes without any trouble but that was not fast compared to the other guys around. 

In 2002 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Pace Setter about the policy of the club not to have 70 and over age groups for awards. There were no 80 year olds running then.  However, recently the HMRRC became the first running club in the Capital District to add an age group 84 and above for the Labor Day 5K race.

Favorite Race

The Long Island Marathon as listed in Ken’s interview was still his favorite.  It has particular meaning for him because he grew up in that area and knows it well.  As he ran along the Jones Beach Board Walk the music from Chariots of Fire was playing, which he had seen twice, and made him feel as if his feet were off the ground.

Cancer Scare and training

About 5 years ago when he was 80 he developed prostate cancer but never let it stop him from running.   He was treated with radiation with good results and no negative sequelae.

He does 20 races a year and he hasn’t missed any. He does 25 military pushups every other day, and runs 3 to 4 miles also every other day.  He doesn’t walk; he only runs.  He used to enjoy cycling but the increased traffic has discouraged him.

Volunteer Work

Joe has done a lot of volunteer work. While in his 70s every week he did the Meals on Wheels route, drove cancer patients for the American Cancer Society, and also drove for Community Care Givers in Guilderland.  He doesn’t volunteer now but  gives generously to charities he supports.


Joe as mentioned in Ken’s interview loves theater and has done 45 plays over 30 years.  He began acting in 1988 and has taken many classes. His last part was in 2018 when he played Dr. Gibbs in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  He also played Dr. Spivey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which seems like typecasting but he says he has been cast as a lawyer more often. During his years on the stage came to realize that there is a lot more to acting than many realize. For example, he says that it is more stressful than being in a race.  His favorite review was for his role in 12 Angry Men where critic Drew Phillips wrote that Joe held his own with Henry Fonda. Although he loves the stage, he has retired from that avocation.

What accounts for Joe’s longevity?

The big thing about running is that Joe is determined to do it and willing to put up with pain and discomfort.  He also has longevity in his family. His mother lived to be 94 and his grandfather 93.  So genes play a large role as well as a healthy life style.

        Joe pointing out features in Antarctic map to Charles


He has runners who when they find out he is 86 say they want to be like him.  He tells them to just run!  Joe has run 7 marathons, countless half marathons, and innumerable 30Ks. So if you want to be a great runner, go out and run.  Cross training ideas are fine but if you want to be a runner there is no substitute for running.  He says that you have to run a lot, be persistent and not let excuses stop you.  In 1987 he had knee surgery but it only slowed him down for a short time.  But you should always listen to your body.  If you are seriously hurting, take a break, but remember exercise is a lifetime commitment. 

Goal to be running races in his 90s

Joe is determined to see age categories rise to the 90s and still be running racesWe wish him luck and hope to see him in a race when he is 90!

                                          Kelly Glacier Above


To view video documenting Joe Kelly’s time at Hallett Station in Antarctica made by the Antarctican Society do Google search:  Dr. Joe Kelly/Antarctica

 About Hallett Station
Since the late 1980s, Hallett is now a completely isolated nature preserve, by international law, no trespassing, no boating, and no flyover . All the buildings that  remained after the fire in 1973, have been removed.

Cape Hallett Station

Cape Hallett Wikipedia

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