Irish ancestry lures Aspen man to run another marathon, at 72 |

Irish ancestry lures Aspen man to run another marathon, at 72

Nate PetersonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Challenge Aspen

ASPEN John Keleher thought he was finished running marathons.At his age, the longtime Aspenite assumed there wasn’t another 26-mile race in the world that could lure him back into a routine of 5 a.m. training runs, a regimented diet and hours upon hours spent churning out lonely miles.Keleher assumed wrong.When local non-profit Challenge Aspen settled on the Oct. 27 Dublin Marathon as the race that its annual marathon team would train for and run this fall, Keleher said he felt the tug of his Irish ancestry pulling at his heart.Keleher’s forebears were among the estimated 1 million Irish who fled their home country during the potato famine of the 1840s to seek a better life elsewhere. Keleher’s first and only visit to Ireland was in 1962 while serving in the Navy.

Now he’s heading back, at 72, to run a marathon that winds through the well-worn streets of the country’s capitol.”All of my mother’s and father’s family came from Ireland,” said Keleher, whose Irish ancestors were spread from counties Cork and Waterford in the south to counties Mayo and Roscommon in the northwest. “When Dublin came up as the race, I said, ‘I gotta go.'”Keleher’s son Chris is an avid runner who has coached the cross-country team at Aspen High School for years, but Keleher admits that, before running his first marathon four years ago, he wasn’t much of a runner himself.His wife Linda convinced him to sign up for the Challenge Aspen marathon team, in 2004, because that year’s race was in Monaco.”Linda said, ‘I’d really like to go to Monaco, why don’t you run the marathon?'” Keleher recounted with a laugh. “I really had never run competitively. I ran track back in high school and I played baseball in college. That was really my sport. I was really happy if I could a stretch a single into a double running all of 180 feet.”After Monaco, Keleher joined the Challenge Aspen team again in 2005 for the Maui Marathon, then ran another marathon on his own in 2006 in northern California. Each Challenge Aspen team member has to raise $4,500 in pledges in exchange for 20 weeks of professional training leading up to the marathon as well as a plane ticket, race entry and lodging.Keleher has raised the money for his three Challenge Aspen marathons through pledges from family and friends and donations from business associates.

For Keleher, the mission of the Snowmass-based non-profit – which provides recreational programs for the mentally and physically disabled – is one that has always been important to him. One of his sons was born with muscular dystrophy and died in 1980 at the age of 13.”It’s a neat deal to benefit Challenge Aspen,” Keleher said. “It’s a wonderful organization and the opportunity to raise money for them is a special time.”There’s no secret, either, as to how Keleher manages the rigors of training for a marathon at his age. It has to do with his Irish bloodlines.”I’m really very fortunate to have picked my parents,” he said. “They gave me some great genes. … I broke my ankle a couple times playing baseball, but it really doesn’t bother me that much. My knees are good, my heart, lungs, all that stuff.”Keleher is old school: Unlike some of his younger Challenge Aspen teammates, he doesn’t run with an iPod. He enjoys the process of running because it focuses his thoughts.”It’s a great meditating time,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re going out the door at 5 in the morning, you say, ‘What is wrong with me? I need a psychiatrist.’ But it really is an exhilarating feeling to be able to finish a marathon. I’ve enjoyed the discipline and the goal.”He also likes the fact, after three marathons run mostly on scenic highways, he’s finally doing a 26-mile race on city streets.

“I’m looking at finishing in five and a half hours,” Keleher said. “Hopefully, by the time I come through, there will still be people lining the streets.”

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