|Johnny Miles 1926, 1929
In 1916, when Johnny Miles was eleven years old, his father went to war and Johnny went to work in the coal mines of Cape Breton Island. Each afternoon he hurried out of school to catch the three o’clock shift, worked until eleven at night, then went home to sleep. In the morning he got up for school at nine, attended classes, and in the afternoon returned again to the mines. His salary was thirty-five cents a day. The situation was unusual, even in the tough Nova Scotia economy of the war years. Not many children Johnny’s age descended daily into the dank collieries to toil alongside adults. Johnny was there only because his father had written the mine manager from France, giving consent. (a)The family had little choice. The money the elder Miles mailed home from overseas would not support his wife and four children, pay the upkeep on the family home at Sydney Mines and meet the payments due for a piano he had purchased for his young daughter (b).
As the eldest child it fell to Johnny to help out. He spent three years in the mines as a young boy and held tour mining jobs. The first was a surface job, cleaning the lamps miners wore in the pits. He shined the shades with rags, blew grit out of the filters and poured enough oil into the compact tanks to last twelve hours.
When Johnny went underground it was to take on the depressing job of trapping, the opening and closing of swing doors at junctures in the mine shaft to let coal trains pass. The doors were necessary to prevent an accumulation of gas, and potential explosions. at the mine face. Trapping meant endless hours alone in the dark waiting for the rumble of the trains. The principal sounds in between were the cupping of water and the rustle of rats.
At meal time Johnny would draw a sandwich out of a lunch pail his mother had packed and, holding it in the tips of his thumb and index finger’ eat in the gloom. The sandwich was held carefully because his hands were always black and there was no place to wash. The final soiled bit between his fingers he pitched to the rats.
They were always looking for food. Whenever there was a person around they knew that sooner or later you were going to eat and that they would get a morsel,” Miles recalls.
Later he drove a horse, hauling coal from the face to the main shaft where it was pulled to the surface by an endless rope. Horses taken into the mines returned only for slaughter at the end of their work days. Underground stables were constructed to house them.
”All the feed came down in big cars, oats, hay and bran, and there were trains of water cars, filled on the surface and brought down to the horses each day, fresh.”
As he grew stronger Miles was outfitted with a backpack to carry machine picks from the mine face to the surface for resharpening. A loaded pack weighed too much to hoist onto his shoulders so it was filled by others, then off he trudged, stooping the whole time to avoid striking his head on the low ceiling.
Each Saturday Johnny picked up an envelope containing his pay. Occasionally there was the pleasant surprise of two envelopes, the second containing retroactive pay from a new contract settlement negotiated by the miners’ union. Whatever he received Johnny took home to his mother. She gave him back a quarter but it was money he rarely spent. ‘”Before the week was over I knew I’d have to hand it back because she’d need it for something.”
He managed to save a dollar and open a savings account, proud that it put him in possession of a bank book. ”In the bank book was a dollar and that dollar was mine.” But a crisis arose one week when there was a delay in the arrival of the miners’ pay and his mother asked him to return the money. Johnny protested but to no avail. Resigning himself to the inevitable he set off to the bank. consoling himself in the fact that his deposit would at least have earned some interest in the interim. Instead he got a rude introduction to the economics of the chartered banks.
“I only got back ninety-eight cents. They charged me two cents for the transaction.”
Johnny escaped from the mines when his father returned from overseas in 1919. Basking in the luxury of having no obligations but school, he took an interest in one of his father’s lifelong pursuits, physical conditioning. After classes he worked out on weights the elder Miles had used as a boxer, later extending his routine to include a skipping rope and arm and leg exercises. He did not develop an interest in running until the spring of 1922 when he learned that a three-mile race would be held on the May 24 holiday at Sydney. What intrigued him were the prizes. To the first twelve finishers would go an assortment of fishing rods, reels, jackknives, silver cups and other articles that put a gleam in his schoolboy’s eye.
”I had about four weeks to train. I just went out on the road to see how far I could run. I knew the race was three miles. So I ran a few hundred yards and got winded and had to walk for a while. Then I’d run another fifty yards and get winded and walk some more. And I kept that up until I could finally run a mile. Then I increased it to a mile and a half, two miles and finally three. I could do that much and not get out of breath.”
Seventy-five runners showed up for the race. Johnny finished thirteenth, one place short of an award.
”I was disappointed I didn’t get a prize but on the other hand I was consoled that there were seventy-five in the race and I wasn’t last. That gave me some confidence.”
Miles ran his second race at North Sydney on July 1, 1922. The prizes were similar but there was the added attraction of a hundred-pound bag of flour. A merchant offered it to the first runner past his door. Miles, who had been training steadily since May, planned his tactics coldly. At the crack of the gun he bolted for the store, ready to collapse on the doorstep if necessary to be there first. He won the flour and managed to hold on for third place overall in the race. That netted him another prize, a small wooden desk lamp, and set the stage for his first racing victory. With his family present to cheer him on, Johnny won a three-mile race the following month in his hometown of Sydney Mines. His father, all smiles as he crossed the finish line, subsequently became his coach.
Behind the Miles house was an open space just large enough to map out a running track an eighth of a mile around. Johnny ran laps while his father held a stopwatch. As his son developed ever keener interest in his new sport the elder Miles saw potential and offered encouragement.
Someone in the family produced a copy of the training principles of Alf Shrubb, the renowned British runner.
”He told how to train and what his success was. It was the Bible for my early training,” says Miles.
Using the book as a guide the elder Miles put Johnny through what would be recognized today as a form of interval training, one slow lap, another at medium effort and a third at full speed, continuing the cycle for several repetitions.
He also forced Johnny to learn an accurate sense of pace by guessing lap times as he ran, circling the track until he could shout them out to the second. There were sprinting drills as well, to avoid getting beaten in the home stretch of races, and endless miles on the Cape Breton roads to build up stamina. For variety in the winter Johnny laced on speed skates and glided over the frozen expanse of Little Pond.
The effort paid off. Johnny quickly became a runner to be reckoned with in Cape Breton athletic circles, a regular winner in local races. But his first big racing triumph did not come until 1925 when he travelled to Halifax for a race billed as the Canadian five-mile championship. To the surprise of many, himself included, he trounced the field.
On his return to Cape Breton, while walking from the train station to his home, Johnny met the manager of the Canadian Co-operative Store in Sydney Mines. Johnny had applied at the store for work as a teamster, wanting to escape the polluted mine pits to which he had returned, but there had been no reply.
“How did you get along?” the manager inquired.
“I won,” Johnny said.
The manager looked surprised.
”Well,” he said after a pause, “I’ll see you in my office in the morning at nine o’clock.”
Work as a teamster was a welcome change for Miles. Each morning he left the store with a horse and wagon (a sled in winter) piled high with groceries, sacks of sugar and flour, and bags of feed for livestock and poultry. Deliveries took him as far as ten miles into the countryside beyond Sydney Mines. Often he was so late getting home that it interfered with his training. So he devised a set of overlength reins and ran home behind the wagon.
“The horse knew when all the weight was gone and you turned around that he was going home to a warm barn with oats and hay. So away we’d go lickety-split. People thought I was crazy, you know, because I didn’t have any running clothes on. I just had work clothes and heavy boots.”
The sight grew odder when Johnny’s route took him past the mine where his father worked as an underground surveyor after leaving the army. Occasionally they travelled home together. With the elder Miles driving the horse and Johnny trotting alongside neighbors gazing out country windows assumed the boy was being punished for untold sins.
Miles’ parents realized after his victory in Halifax that their son was gifted with unusual athletic abilities and their interest in his training was shared. His mother kept watch on Johnny’s eating and sleeping habits as closely as his father attended to his training methods. The biggest race in Nova Scotia was the Halifax Herald Modified Marathon, a ten-mile race each Thanksgiving through the environs of the Nova Scotia capital, and with its approach in 1925 the elder Miles made his son an offer.
”If you can win this race,” he said, “I’ll sponsor you to Boston for the marathon in April.”
Johnny’s eyes lit up.
”That’s a deal,” he said. ”That’s a deal.
Johnny ran the Herald race on October 17, 1925, two weeks before his twentieth birthday. The course was wet and sloppy but, spurred by visions of faraway Boston and anxious to please his parents who followed in a car, Johnny ran like the wind. The decisive moment came toward the end of the race when Johnny found himself battling for the lead with Ronald O’Toole, a fleet Newfoundlander who was among the favorites. At South and Barrington streets Johnny cut across the corner while O’Toole stayed on the sidewalk to avoid the muck. The manoeuvre gave Johnny the edge and he sprinted to the finish a winner in 53:48 3/5, a course record.
To prepare for Boston Johnny increased training from his usual thirty miles a week to more than a hundred miles, a level his father thought necessary to compete with the runners in the world’s most famous footrace. Johnny liked to run on the highways and byways around Sydney Mines but the arrival of winter reduced him to the streetcar line, the only thoroughfare kept open. He ran twice a day over the eight-mile section—five to seven miles before work and ten, sometimes fifteen, afterward. Each Saturday afternoon, when the store closed at two o’clock, he would log a single extended run of twenty to twenty-two miles. Neighbors grew used to the sight of him scurrying purposefully back and forth.
Even with the arrival of winter Johnny continued to wear shorts when possible, using a mixture of olive oil and wintergreen on his legs to ward off the cold. One day after a storm, the way plowed just wide enough to let a horse-drawn cutter through, Johnny glanced ahead and saw a large black dog sitting in the road. He tried to ease past the animal but it lunged at him anyway, teeth catching an exposed leg. The bite drew blood but was not serious, something Johnny attributed to the slippery concoction on his skin. But once home he began to worry about the possibility of rabies. His parents advised him to report the incident and he called the chief of police.
“Where did it happen?” the chief demanded.
Johnny supplied a description of the dog and details of the attack.
”I’ll send Big MacGregor down to investigate,” the chief promised.
MacGregor was a towering Sydney Mines constable who evidently took his work seriously. Some hours later the telephone rang at the Miles home.
“I don’t think you’ll have any more trouble,” the chief told Johnny.
MacGregor went down and saw tour dogs that answered to the description. He didn’t know which one it was so he shot all four of them.”
Johnny kept track of runners elsewhere through the sports pages of the Cape Breton Post, the newspaper that was delivered daily to the Miles household. Once, following the 1924 Olympics in Paris, the Post published a photograph of Albin Stenroos, the Finnish runner who had won the Olympic marathon. Johnny clipped out the picture and tucked it in his wallet, occasionally drawing it out as he made his delivery rounds and gazing at it in wonder.
He was my idol,” Miles recalls.
As the winter of 1926 progressed the elder Miles flipped through the calendar and circled a day in mid-March. the date when Johnny would put his training to the test by running a full marathon trial.
“I have to have some idea that you can go the distance. and how fast,” his father said.
They measured off the course together, a bit more than three trips back and forth on the streetcar line. When the day arrived it snowed, a typical late winter storm on the island, but Johnny ran anyway, so determined to meet the challenge that he never once paused, even for a drink. The elder Miles waited with a stopwatch as Johnny finished the course, the time registering two hours and forty minutes. Back home, Johnny sat in the kitchen and drank cup after cup of tea.
”I didn’t feel tired. I felt that I could have kept on and on.”
As the Boston Marathon approached the elder Miles drew two hundred and fifty dollars from his bank account, a substantial sum, and booked rail passage to Boston for himself, his wife and son. The mayor, Michael Dwyer, called Johnny into City Hall to wish him well.
“No matter how tired you get,” Dwyer said, ”always remember that you can make one more step. That may be the step that gets you over.”
Johnny and his parents found lodging at a modest boarding house in Boston, arriving about a week in advance of the race. Johnny slept in a cramped room heated by a small gas stove.
He knew he would be facing the formidable Clarence DeMar at Boston, the marathon winner for three consecutive years and tour times overall. DeMar held the Boston course record of 2:29:40 1/5 which was also the world marathon record of the day. But he had no idea until he read the Boston newspapers that Albin Stenroos had come from Finland t’or the race. The fanfare over DeMar and Stenroos rivalled that leading up to a great heavyweight fight. Johnny scarcely knew what to make of it.
The marathon would be his first and he would be running against the two best-known distance runners of the time.
The elder Miles obtained a map of the course from the BAA, and members of the Cape Breton Club of Boston, helpful since the family had arrived, gave Johnny and his father a ride out to the marathon starting point, now established near the town of Hopkinton.
The elder Miles wanted Johnny to see the course and, taking all afternoon, they walked the twenty-six miles back to Boston. Worried that darkness might fall and confuse the way they did so without stopping, Johnny’s stomach growling with hunger by the time they reached the boarding house. The excursion dispelled stories of the Newton Hills and their frightening inclines. Johnny was used to steeper grades in Cape Breton. But he was not used to walking. The outing left him stiffer than he had been in months.
Johnny trained on the home cooked food that all Cape Bretoners ate: potatoes, vegetables, butter, milk, cheese, bread and lots of meat. His father thought meat provided energy. The night before the marathon he cooked his son a steak and wrapped it up with some dry toast tor the next day, adding a thermos of hot tea as they departed in the morning for Hopkinton. The runners congregated at a farm house that was alive with the bustle of race preparations and the activity of doctors putting the one hundred and eighty-eight athletes in the field through mandatory examinations. ‘You’re all right, you’re fit,” Johnny was told.
Outside, with an hour and a half to wait before the noon start, Johnny sat on a curb and ate his steak while his father repeated instructions for the race. The strategy was simple. He wanted Johnny to stick with DeMar or Stenroos, whichever of the two famed runners happened to be in the lead.
Johnny, a maple leaf containing the letters “NS” bobbing on his sleeveless racing shirt, did exactly as he was told. DeMar and Stenroos ran close together for the first five miles of the race with Johnny close behind. Then Stenroos surprised him by breaking away from DeMar. With more than twenty miles to go Johnny was reluctant to follow, especially since DeMar showed no inclination to chase the Finn so early in the race. ”DeMar knows what he’s doing,” Johnny thought, holding back. ”Stenroos will come back sooner or later.” But a tew miles later, with Stenroos still pulling away and DeMar still showing no sign of pursuit, Johnny took off, leaving the lion-hearted Melrose runner to the mysteries of whatever strategy he had in mind.
While DeMar languished behind, Johnny overtook Stenroos, tucking in so close behind his Finnish idol that at times he could have reached out and touched him with a hand. Johnny tailed Stenroos all the way to the Newton Hills while crowds, estimated at a record half million, lined the marathon route to cheer the runners through.
”I just had these little tennis sneakers on and I was running very quietly,” Miles says. “With the noise of people yelling and so on I figured Stenroos doesn’t even know I’m here.”
Going through the hills Johnny detected a slight change in Stenroos’ pace, the gap between them narrowing without apparent effort. Johnny felt a flash of panic, wondering what a Cape Breton delivery boy should do when he found himself on the shoulder of an Olympic champion. Ascending the last and toughest of the hills he pulled exactly even with his idol for the first time and stole a look at his face. What he saw came as a shock.
“The eyes looked sunken and glassy. There were lines in his face and he looked tired. Geez, I thought, I’ve got him!”
Johnny took over the lead, bewildered at his bravado in doing so and raced for downtown Boston, head spinning as spectators roared in surprise. At any moment he expected the bubble to burst and Stenroos, or DeMar, to go sweeping by.
But neither did. And as he wore down the distance to the finish, reporters following in press vehicles began to sense an historic sports upset, an unknown from nowhere toppling the giants of his sport. They shouted wisecracks and encouragement.
“It’s the salt herring you’re after,” one called out. “That’s what’s keeping you up here. He thinks we got fish in the back of this car.”
A couple of miles from the end a car from the BAA pulled alongside and an of ficial leaned from the door, looking Johnny straight in the eye.
”You’ve got it, kid,” he said. ”You’ve got it.”
Johnny’s triumph electrified Boston.
He swept across the finishing line on Exeter Street in 2:25:40 2/5, shattering DeMar’s course and world record by four minutes and a fifth of a second (c). Stenroos held on for second, exactly four minutes behind, and DeMar struggled home third in 2:32:15, amazed at what Miles had done.
”That boy ran the best marathon since that Indian in 1907,” DeMar said.
Johnny was the toast of Boston. The Canadian Club took the Miles family from the boarding house and placed them in a suite of rooms at the Hotel Bellevue. Johnny was honored by the Cape Breton Club and the Intercolonial Club. The Boston Post bannered the story of his victory across the top of the front page — ”Unknown Kid Smashes Record in Greatest of All Marathons” — and filled its columns to overflowing with details of how it happened. So entranced was The Post that it arranged a two-day itinerary and sent Johnny on a tour of personal appearances and speaking engagements about the city.
Johnny rode at the head of a five-car cavalcade, a motorcycle escort whisking the procession through red lights and stop signs as though he were a touring president. Dignitaries lined up to shake his hand and tens of thousands turned out to catch a glimpse of the fairy tale boy who had caused such a stir. Johnny spoke to school children, visited a prison, answered questions on radio and even preached a sermon, his gospel message leaving an audience of three thousand spellbound at the Tremont Temple.
“Since Monday I have had a wonderful time,” Johnny said. “I have met your prominent men, your governor, your high officials, visited historic places and been greeted by crowds of people. But this is the greatest honor I have received, the one of which I am most proud, to be here with you in God’s own house, in the fellowship of those assembled to do God’s work.
“There is no secret to this marathon game. You must think clean, live clean, obey the laws of nature and of God. You may fool the people for a time if you don’t obey these rules, but you won’t fool God, and if you don’t live clean you will ultimately have to pay, both here and in the life hereafter.” (47)
The celebrity was as heady for Johnny’s parents as their champion son but through it all the elder Miles felt a tinge of embarrassment, the result of some advice he had once given Johnny on buying clothes. Johnny had insisted on buying an expensive suit at the Canadian Cooperative Store while his father thought a cheaper one would have done as well.
“I only paid twenty-two dollars and fifty cents for mine,” he told Johnny. ”It looks equally as good as yours.”
Now he wished he had held his tongue, even that he had had Johnny’s foresight. The reason was the length of his pants. In the excitement at the BAA Clubhouse following Johnny’s victory the trouser legs of the elder Miles had gotten soaked by a spraying shower nozzle. When they dried they shrank half way to his knees.
”He had to take his pocket knife out and cut the thread on the cuff and turn it down,” Miles remembers. ”Then it still wasn’t enough and he had to loosen his braces and let them down. And then the crotch was hanging down. I said, ‘See? Now what did I tell you about the quality of my clothes?”’
When Johnny and his parents finally left Boston, The Post sent a reporter, Bill Cunningham, along to record the homecoming, Post readers still being enchanted with the marathon hero and its editors unwilling to let the story die.
Cunningham found lots to write about. Johnny’s train was welcomed by throngs at railway stations all along the route. At Moncton, New Brunswick, the mayor saluted Johnny at a rail platform ceremony and a bouquet of roses was presented to his mother. In Nova Scotia, he was taken from the train at Truro and carried shoulder high down Inglis Street to the Stanley Hotel where the family stayed overnight as guests of the town. A crowd gathered and Johnny spoke from an overhead balcony as though he were the pope, announcing that he would run the marathon two years hence at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Other receptions followed at Stellarton. New Glasgow and Antigonish (48).
Crossing the Strait of Canso into Cape Breton Island the journey became the stuff of legend. Crowds grew larger, cheers louder, speeches increasingly effusive. Adjective was piled on adjective until it became unclear whether Johnny had won a footrace or conquered a foreign land. So many tried to board the train as it neared Sydney Mines, all intent on being part of Johnny’s extravagant homecoming, that the conductor gave up collecting fares.
At Sydney Mines the scene was all that might have been imagined, crowds, bands, fireworks, a parade through town on the town’s new fire engine. The electric company installed special lights around the Miles home and placed others at the entrance to the harbour. School children were given candy and ice-cream.
Later came banquets and receptions in Johnny’s honor, more gifts, unending praise. He told and retold the story of the marathon and his belief that clean living had led him to victory. Back on the delivery route customers welcomed him into their homes and fed him to keep him strong.
“They’d make me drink these eggnogs until they’d be coming out of my ears. Well, gee, you know I couldn’t insult them. I had to try and drink it.”
Victory had come so easily for Johnny that no one, himself included for that matter, saw any good reason why he should not return to Boston in 1927 and repeat his mighty deed. All it would take was the same careful training and preparation. But to make certain of victory again the elder Miles devised a secret weapon for Johnny. The idea had come to him as he sat with Johnny in the Miles kitchen talking of Boston in the months before the 1927 race.
Getting out a pair of Johnny’s ninety-eight-cent running sneakers he placed them on a set of scales, noting the weight at nine ounces each. Then he picked up a straight razor and began shaving down the soles with long clean cuts. When each sole was pared to four ounces he stopped, exhaling a satisfied sigh. The soles were thin as paper but when Johnny held them in his hand they felt light as feathers. His father calculated that the reduced weight would cut his time by several minutes over the course of twenty-six miles.
“Winning would be a cinch,” Miles recalls. ”Nothing to it, just a walkaway. That was the way it was figured out. I never wore them until the day of the race.”
The elder Miles took personal charge of the miracle shoes, swearing Johnny to silence. News of this engineering breakthrough was not to leak out until Johnny sprang it on the world with another historic marathon at Boston. The shoes went unwrapped until he laced them on at Hopkinton on Patriot’s Day.
The first thing he noticed was, indeed, how light they felt. The second was the creeping feel of heat coming though the filmy soles. The 1927 Boston Marathon turned out to be another scorcher, the sun pouring down from a clear blue sky. By noon the new surface of black tar macadam on the road leading out of Hopkinton was beginning to bubble. When the gun sounded it sent Johnny to the disaster of his life.
“Before I got three miles the blood was coming through my sneakers, these little canvas shoes. I lost the toenails on both feet, big blisters coming up under each one of them. I tried to pull my toes up because the sock was pulling on the nails. Then the top of the toes skinned off and blistered. My feet were just a mass of blood.”
At seven miles Johnny dropped out.
Humiliation descended in quick and savage fashion. The newspapers, which had sung his praises so highly a year earlier, wrote him off as a flash in the pan and a quitter. Bill Cunningham turned on him viciously. John L. Sullivan, the boxer, persisted in the ring until his face was cut to ribbons and Johnny should have displayed similar class, Cunningham wrote.
“Johnny Miles — the great Johnny Miles the crowd was all waiting for — let go without even a fight. That isn’t the way champions perform. That isn’t the way championships pass. Miles should have finished the race if he had to crawl across the line on his hands and knees after the hour of midnight with his bleeding feet wrapped in newspapers. Good losing is as much a part of the code as good winning. The loser who walks off the field is some part of a thief. He robs his opponent of legitimate victory and the full measure of glory that goes with one.”
There were no parades or cheering throngs for Johnny Miles in 1927. ”We’ve learned a bitter lesson,” his father said.
Stung and bewildered Johnny returned to Cape Breton, hurting inside from all the people he knew he had disappointed. So raw were his feet that he was unable for a while to return to the roads and bury the nightmare in his daily runs. The nails fell off one by one as he waited for them to heal, and as he made the rounds in the delivery wagon there was the added burden of explaining what went wrong. He yearned to return to Boston and make amends but the day he would be able to do so was two long years away.
Meanwhile, he traveled to Hamilton, Ontario, in July, 1927, to run the Canadian marathon trial for the Amsterdam Olympics the following year. He made the team and was urged by the coach to remain in Hamilton and take advantage of the city’s training facilities.
“lf I stay in Hamilton I’ll have to have a job,” he said.
“Why don’t you go down to International Harvester?” the coach suggested. ”They’re taking on people right now.”
Hired as a laborer, Johnny remained forty-three years, rising from menial duties on the shop floor to the level of senior management. The one time he contemplated leaving the company was the year after he joined, when he thought his absence for the Olympics would mean giving up his job. The company granted him special leave.
Like Boston, although not as cruelly, the Amsterdam Olympics were a disappointment for Johnny. He ran seventeenth in a field of sixty-eight marathoners, his time an uninspiring 2:43:32. He thought the absence of his father, who could not afford to make the trip, was a factor.
“For a race like that you’ve got to be keyed up, fine-honed, not just the body but the mind. I didn’t have my mind on my work. If my dad had been there he’d have said, ‘Now listen kid. Never mind these palaces. Never mind the Kaiser. You’re here for a purpose. Stick to that and we’ll see all these things afterward.”’
Johnny missed the 1928 Boston Marathon because of the Olympics, the wisdom among Canadian coaches being that he should not run both, and when he went back to Boston in 1929, having done little to distinguish himself for three long years, he was the object of considerable skepticism. Critics tended to write him off as a one-shot wonder but he retained respect among fellow runners. No one could dismiss the fact that he had covered the Boston course faster than any other runner in the history of the race. Opponents kept a close eye on him as the race began.
”They were around me like a bunch of flies around honey, just seesawing back and forth. After a while I figured I’m going to get away from this. I’m going to put on some speed and break right away.”
The 1929 Boston Marathon field included an impressive array of the day’s top runners — Clarence DeMar, again the defending champion, having won Boston an unprecedented six times in all, Karl Koski, Jimmy Hennigan and Whitey Michelsen. Miles’ early bid to take control of the race prompted a hasty discussion of strategy among his rivals. One at a time they decided to move up and test him, and as each caught and tried to pass him Johnny answered with a burst of speed. Gradually, as the miles swept away, it became apparent that no one was going to deny Johnny on this day.
”Whitey Michelsen was the last one up. He went back and said to DeMar, ‘He’s got plenty.’ Clarence told me this himself afterward, otherwise I would never have known. So that was the end of that. I kept going and won the race.”
He swept to victory in 2:33:08, (d) well off his 1926 time, but the triumph the sweetest of his life. The blight was washed from his name at last. Even Bill Cunningham-took back his terrible words, coming to Johnny personally to apologize. He also confessed that never in his journalism career had readers turned on him so furiously as they had after his printed outburst against Johnny in 1927. If Johnny’s pleasure in redeeming himself was surpassed by anyone else, it was his parents, especially his father. As the architect of his son’s career the elder Miles felt as vindicated as Johnny. His mother was also relieved.
“The greatest pleasure my mother and dad had in their whole lifetime, I’m sure, was following me around from race to race. My mother, certainly, because she was one of these humble persons. Her whole interest was centred around her family. She wasn’t a person that would quarrel with anybody. She was a very peaceful soul. Never got away from home very much, being alone all those years with my father in the army. A little excitement like this really put years on her life.”
Back in Hamilton, his new home, Johnny was given a reception at city hall. Among those attending was Bill Worth, general manager of the fibre and twine division at International Harvester headquarters in Chicago. Worth joined the chorus of praise that was heaped upon Johnny, telling all present how honored the company was to have a champion athlete on its staff. But he also said something else that had a critical bearing on Johnny’s life.
“I remember it because I memorized it. He said, ‘If Miles puts as much time and energy into the interest of the International Harvester Company as he puts into his running, he could have a future.’ That’s exactly what he said. The reason that I remember it is that I came home that night and kept repeating it in my mind. I didn’t sleep very much. Effectively, I quit running that night.”
A couple of highlights remained before Johnny abandoned competition entirely. One was a third-place finish at the British Empire Games, held in 1930 at Hamilton, and the other was the chance two years later to run again in the Olympic Games, the 1932 Olympiad at Los Angeles. He finished fourteenth in Los Angeles, timed in 2:50:32, and put his running career behind him. A doctor advised him to quit running gradually, rather than abruptly, so he tapered off slowly and then stored his running shoes away.
By this time Johnny had met and was about to marry Bess Connon, (e)the cheerful, hospitable partner with whom he would spend his life, and he had also decided to accept Bill Worth’s challenge to carve out a successful career at International Harvester. From his beginnings as a laborer, Johnny became first a management trainee, then a foreman, chief inspector and assistant superintendent. In 1947 he was asked to join the company’s foreign operations division and moved to France, where he and Bess spent six years while Johnny supervised construction of a plant outside Paris. When they returned it was to Chicago and a job that would have made Bill Worth proud. For the last seventeen years of his career Johnny managed the fibre and twine division at International Harvester headquarters.
When he retired Johnny returned to Canada and a high-rise apartment that he and Bess occupy atop Hamilton Mountain. From their balcony Johnny could look down on Ivor Wynne Stadium, where he ran for Canada in the 1930 British Empire Games, and just beyond is the storied shoreline of Hamilton Harbour and the course Around the Bay. On a clear day Toronto is visible in the distance, its dark office towers poking up from the blue horizon of Lake Ontario.
The apartment gleams from the care of Bess’ housekeeping, except for one room, a comfortable corner where Johnny keeps the many reminders of his days as a champion marathoner. A cabinet glitters with cups and trophies: a wall is lined with photos and citations, and there is a painting of Johnny as he was in 1926 at Boston, a red maple leaf on his chest. There are scrapbooks too, yellow with age, and a table is filled with running magazines and correspondence. Bess has long since resigned herself to the clutter.
Johnny has never been tempted to return seriously to running but fitness has always been part of his life. He worked out for years with the Hamilton police force and was a frequent visitor at a local gymnasium during the years he spent in France. In Chicago, he was a member of the Chicago Health Club and he still plays golf, pedals a stationary bicycle and skis cross-country in the winter.
Each spring Johnny makes a pilgrimage to Nova Scotia for a special race, the Johnny Miles Marathon, run over hilly northern Nova Scotia roads around New Glasgow. Patrons of the race have included Edward Schreyer, the Govennor-General of Canada. In the spring of 1983 Johnny was summoned to Ottawa by Schreyer to receive the Order of Canada the country’s highest civilian honor. The order is one of many awards given to Johnny in recognition of his athletic achievements. He is also a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1979 Johnny went back to Boston for the fiftieth anniversary of his comeback victory of 1929, the race that proved the skeptics wrong and won him a place among the handful of athletes to triumph more than once over the legendary Boston course. He and Bess were guests of the BAA and the occasion was marked by a small presentation. Johnny stood on the platform at the finish line in front of the Prudential Centre and watched Bill Rodgers race to his third Boston victory in 2:09:27, a new course and American record.
Johnny took as much pleasure from the moment as did Rodgers. They posed together for photographs, a fitting touch since each in his time had brought high new standards of excellence to the race. Afterward, reporters gathered to ask the inevitable question: how fast might Johnny have nun in his heyday given all the advantages of modern marathon specialists like Rodgers? Johnny had often wondered himself and was tempted for a moment to play the game. He paused, then drew his sturdy frame forward to the microphone and said simply:
“Bill Rodgers is one of the finest people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. I’d never say a word that might reflect on all that he has done.”
(a) Portions of this chapter are drawn from an interview with Johnny Miles at his home in Hamilton, Ontario, on September 15, 1981.
(b) John William and Eliza (Kendall) Miles came to Canada from Britain where their endest son, John C. Miles. was born October 30. 1905. The family settled in Sydney Mines.
(c) The Boston course was thought to have been lengthened in 1924 to 26 miles, 385 yards, the standard marathon distance accepted by the International Olympic Committee. Stenroos thought a mistake must have been made for Miles to have run so fast a time and the course was remeasured by the BAA. It was found to be one hundred and seventy-six yards short, exactly one tenth of a mile, a distance that would have added about thirty-five seconds to Miles time. The length was corrected in 1927.
(d) The time was the fastest by four seconds of the three marathons run over the Boston course since the course was corrected to the full marathon length prior to the 1927 race.
(e) Born December 1, 1908, at Hamilton, a daughter of Alexander and Annie Connon.