BAR HARBOR — It’s hard to pinpoint Rudy Kelley’s tipping point, his impetus for ditching booze and cigarettes for good. The morning hangovers certainly contributed. He grew to realize his path was unsustainable.

But looking back, it may have been the blue jeans that put him over the top. He can still see them hanging from a clothesline, measurements seared in his mind. Waist, 35 inches. Inseam, 27.

“They were wider than they were long,” he said. “I couldn’t even tie my shoes without gruntin’ and groanin’, cigarette smoke curling up by my ears.”

This summer will mark 41 years of sobriety for Kelley, now 70 and a two-time age-group gold medalist in the 10-kilometer road race at the biennial National Senior Games. Next month in Birmingham, Alabama, Kelley enters a new age bracket (70-74) and has designs on winning not only at 10K, but also two days later at 5K, a race in which he placed second both in Minneapolis in 2015 and Cleveland in 2013.

Kelley’s winning 10K times were 44 minutes, 18 seconds in Cleveland and 44:20 in Minneapolis. If he runs even faster in Birmingham – and he thinks he can – he has a shot at the National Games age-group record of 41:57, set in 1991 by Will Metz of Montana. No other 70-plus runner has broken 43 minutes for the 10K race since the games began in 1987.

Rudy Kelley of Bernard, right, runs along the carriage roads in Acadia National Park with Steve Whalen of Bernard.

“I’m out there to compete,” Kelley said. “And I’m out there to compete 100 percent.”


The National Senior Games – for athletes 50 and older – celebrate their 30th anniversary this summer. Maine will send a contingent of 84 athletes. All of them qualified by placing among the top three in state competition last year.

A crowd of more than 100 athletes and volunteers is expected Friday afternoon at the Fireside Inn in Portland, where Jo Dill, coordinator of the state games, will announce awards that include a Maine Senior Games Hall of Fame induction for Kelley.

“He’s an incredible runner who has overcome a lot,” Dill said. “He’s a really nice guy and very supportive of the Maine Senior Games.”


Kelley grew up in Bernard on Mount Desert Island as the middle of three boys, and graduated from the old Pemetic High in Southwest Harbor. He spent four years in the Air Force and much of his adult life in the Midwest working in numerous fields, including carpentry and ranching. He has been married twice and has four children, and had been a recreational therapist at a Missouri veterans hospital for about 20 years when he retired in 2006 and returned to Mount Desert, where his younger brother still lives.

Kelley said he got the Senior Games bug 16 years ago, after a retired friend told him about the event.


Rudy Kelley is serious about his races. “I’m out there to compete,” Kelley said. “And I’m out there to compete 100 percent.”

“I laughed it off at first,” Kelley said. “Said, ‘I’m not running with a bunch of old people.’ That was not a good attitude. These people take it pretty seriously. Three of ’em waxed me pretty good.”

With his trim 132-pound physique, neatly groomed white beard and weathered face, the 5-foot-5 Kelley has the look of an old-time sea captain. He does spend plenty of time outdoors, but when he lived in Nebraska in the mid-1970s his lifestyle wasn’t so healthy. He smoked up to two packs per day and drank “about anything I could get my hands on” before realizing he had to change.

He decided to run, and took a lap around his father-in-law’s field. Kelley collapsed and had to dissuade his in-law from calling an ambulance. After that, he found other places to train, bought a $3.50 pair of Red Ball Jets (a canvas sneaker similar to the Converse Chuck Taylor), and finally got a decent pair of running shoes.

“No one, in that little Western town – Gordon, Nebraska – no one ran,” he said. “They thought I was crazy.”


Kelley said nicotine proved more addictive than alcohol, although neither was easy to quit. He said he fell off the wagon after three weeks of sobriety in 1975 at an American Legion hall in Nebraska.


Rudy Kelley takes advantage of a sunny day to run in Acadia National Park.

“I got up that next morning and I just sat and I stared,” he said. “Took a good long drive and had a good long talk with myself. I said, ‘This is it, I can’t do this no more.’

“I’ve never taken another drink. Definitely the running helped fill that void.”

These days, Kelley trains in Acadia National Park. The loop around Eagle Lake measures a bit less than 6 miles, so for Kelley to complete his planned 10K training run last weekend, he needed a bit more distance.

He turned away from the lake and passed beneath an arched stone bridge, breaking stride and stumbling slightly to reach behind his training partner and brush his fingers along the rough surface of the pink granite. Kelley’s grandfather and great-grandfather helped build the 16 bridges that grace the park’s carriage roads.

“It’s sort of a superstitious thing,” Kelley said of his gesture, “a way to give thanks to all the guys and my relatives who helped work on it. When I end my run, I have a spot in the middle (of the bridge) where I do some wall stretching and I always do think of them.”

This summer will mark 41 years of sobriety for Rudy Kelley, now 70 and a two-time age-group gold medalist in the 10-kilometer road race at the biennial National Senior Games.

The run around Eagle Lake is deceptively challenging, with the second mile a continuous climb. It’s not so much the angle of the incline as its length. Kelley and his running partner, Steve Whalen, churned past five dismounted cyclists walking their bikes up the hill.


“He wants me to push him,” said Whalen, 55, “which is crazy, because we just finished a 5K (race recently) and he finished like three steps behind me.”


Their pace over sloping carriage roads strewn with pine needles and crushed stone was 7 minutes, 26 seconds per mile. Their time for the 10K training run, 46:15, is within two minutes of Kelley’s performance in Cleveland four years ago.

Kelley has studied an elevation map of the course in Birmingham and is hoping for roller-coaster hills. He noticed that “once guys reach about 60, they have problems with hills. That’s where I win a lot of my races.”

The entry list for Kelley’s age group shows 17 runners in the 10K and 40 in the 5K. He recognized some of the names, has become friends with a few of his rivals, and is eager to match strides with them, cheered on by his girlfriend and two of his children.

Lately, his hip has bothered him because of the work he’s been doing taking down spruce trees, pulling brush and building an orchard for peaches and pears on property he inherited. He’s got four more holes to dig, four more trees to plant, “then after that I’ve got to rest,” he said.


But not for too long. After Birmingham, he plans to build a house.

“Quitting smoking and drinking is the best thing I ever did,” he said. “I am so glad those days are gone. Nothing could entice me to take another swallow, although I have to admit, sometimes I see someone with a bottle of Jameson’s (whiskey) and I kind of take that extra look.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.