Richard Kelly – Running gave him back his life
By Brent Johnson
Richard Kelly remembers catching a little lady gazing at him and quickly averting her eyes when he looked up. He would look away, and she would look back at him. He looked up, she looked away. He finally approached her.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
She hesitated. “Are you that man that runs down Statesville Boulevard?” she asked. He confirmed her suspicion.
“You sure look different with clothes on,” she said.
A lot of folks probably wouldn’t recognize Kelly fully clothed ó or at a standstill ó though he’s been in Salisbury nearly his whole life.
Kelly, 61, is the risk manager for the city of Salisbury, a certified safety health manager and a certified smeller who drools over motorcycles and has been running for almost thirty years ó 8,578 days to be exact, missing only 62.
“I’m a creature of habit,” he says. “I look forward to it every day.”
He didn’t always.
Kelly was born in Salisbury. His family moved to Charleston, S.C., when he was in the first grade, and he moved back as a seventh-grader. He and his sister moved in with their grandparents, and he attended Boyden, now Salisbury, High, then graduated from Appalachian State University.
He joined the Marine Corps in 1969, and for the physical fitness test, he had to run 3 miles in less than 30 minutes. He did so but thought nothing of it.
Once out of the military, Kelly married Sandy. They had a son, Ricky, and Kelly got a job with the city.
Although his wife was a Christian, Kelly was not religious. He says he began to spiral downward, fell in with the wrong crowd and collected addictions. He drank a lot and smoked close to three packs of Winstons a day.
At 214 pounds, with a 42-inch waist, he sat in front of the television every night.
On March 13, 1979, Sandy gave birth to another son, Mike. Kelly went to visit his newborn son and wife in the hospital and returned home that evening to the realization that his lifestyle was becoming hazardous to his life and the people he loved.
The thought of not being able to watch his son grow frightened him. He went to bed, under the influence of alcohol, and pleaded for a sign.
“If there is a God in heaven, please help me,” he said.
He awoke the next morning with an idea that appeared “clear as a bell.”
“God gave me a gift through running,” he says.
After work that day, he decided to test his epiphany at the Knox Middle School track. He couldn’t make it around the track once and was discouraged walking the rest of the way.
“I had no stamina and nothing but respiratory problems,” says Kelly.
Though defeated, he thought of his son, went home that evening and embraced his new vision.
A carton of cigarettes always lay on top of the family’s refrigerator. But Kelly told his wife that night, “Once I finish the carton, I’m not smoking anymore.”
They both thought he was crazy. “I don’t care if it kills me, I’m gonna do it,” he recalls saying.
Mike Julian, a friend and accomplished runner, gave Kelly tips that helped him set goals. He set goals of running three-miles and quitting his addictions. He says running wasn’t the hard part. Kicking nicotine was.
“I craved a cigarette so bad. I would dream that a 6-foot pack of Winstons would chase me and say ‘Smoke me, smoke me,’ ” Kelly says. The dreams seemed so real that he would wake up in the night and believe he had broken his oath to quit.
Kelly needed almost a year to shake the habit. Now, he gets nauseated just being around cigarettes.
“You have to develop the discipline and will power,” he says.
Once he dropped his unhealthy habits, Kelly raised the bar for himself. He increased his running goal to 3 1/2 miles. Then 4 and 5. Then the 8 that he has run for more than 20 years.
Self-conscious, Kelly ran for 1 1/2 years at the Knox track, never leaving the oval.
He had not considered racing competitively until the Crop Run 10K caught his attention. “I’d like to get a T-shirt,” he thought.
The 6.2-mile course started and ended at the old YMCA across from First Baptist Church. Though he was in shape, Kelly wasn’t sure if he was up for the competition.
He prayed that night to finish the race. The thought of beating anyone hadn’t crossed his mind.
“The gun went off, and my adrenaline started pumping,” he says. He jokes that his prayer changed from “Lord let me finish the race” to “Lord let me beat somebody.”
He finished 112th out of 125, but he was thrilled to run beside people who valued the sport as much as he did.
On vacation not long after that, he couldn’t find a track. So, finally, he got the nerve to clock a road course, and he has never set foot on the Knox track again.
Now, he runs the same course almost every day, starting from his house and looping around Salisbury. He has a treadmill, but says it comes “from hell” because he runs without getting anywhere, staring at a blank wall.
Over the years, he has lost 89 pounds, and 12 inches off his waistline. “I’m at my fightin’ weight,” he says.
Though he watches what he eats, Kelly enjoys food very much. He loves peanut butter, ice cream and a “to die for” peanut butter Blizzard. Diet Coke is his beverage of choice. He eats chicken often, has oatmeal every morning and makes a dozen bran muffins every week.
“These are whoppers!” he says.
He is a firm believer in disciplined exercise and a good diet.
“It’s a simple equation of calories in and calories out,” he says. “People can change. I’m Richard Kelly from Salisbury. I’m no different. …
“I might not live a day longer then anyone else, but I will be happy.”
In 1998, Kelly’s wife, Sandy, developed a brain tumor. Though chemotherapy delayed the tumor’s progress, she died in August 1999. The Kellys were married for 31 years, and he is grateful and amazed that she stuck by him in his times of struggle and self-loathing.
“I didn’t like who I was then,” he says.
Their last years together, though, were very good.
“I became the husband and father I should have been,” he says.
He is now an active member at Landmark Church and thanks God for giving him a chance at a better life.
Although he has acquired Plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of a tendon at the bottom of the heel caused by overuse, he still runs 6 miles daily, as he has for the past six years ó and does 1,000 sit-ups a day.
He attributes the bulk of days he missed running to his heel injury, but he rode the stationary bike, instead, and jokes about wearing the front wheel off the frame.
Kelly figures he has run about 13,140 miles in the past six years. The other 23 1/2 years, when he was running eight miles a day, he accumulated 68,620 miles. Throughout his life, he has run the distance around the world at the equator 3.3 times.
Some tell him he’s “a stick in the mud,” and he needs to get a life. He just laughs and tells them, “I have a great life.”
Though he has run 10K and 10-mile races and half-marathons, his competitive running days are over.
“I plan to run for the rest of my life. If I can’t run, I’ll be out there walking,” he says.
“Running gave me my life back.”