Jojnny Miles..... Marathon Champion

Johnny Miles


Sports: Track & Field

Inductee Type: Athlete Year Inducted: Original Home Town: Sydney Mines, Cape Breton County

Biography Johnny Miles was born October 30, 1905 in Halifax, England. Soon afterwards, his family moved to North Sydney, Cape Breton. Johnny began his running career in 1922 as a sixteen-year-old. By 1925, he was the Canadian champion in the 5-mile distance, and was considered Nova Scotia"s top distance runner. In 1926, Johnny arrived at his first Boston Marathon and was pegged as a "curly-haired, befreckled, saucy-nosed, 22-year-old" who had never competed in a race more than ten miles long. Before the race began, the big story was the match-up between Clarence DeMar and Albin Stenroos, two of the greatest marathoners in the world. But the "unknown" from Nova Scotia shocked everyone by winning the Marathon. Miles won it again in 1929, making him the only Nova Scotian to win the Boston Marathon twice, an unbelievable feat. Johnny Miles was also a member of the Canadian Olympic Track Team in 1928 and 1932 where he placed 16th and 14th, respectively. He also won a bronze medal as a member of the 1930 British Empire Games Track Team. Miles received several prestigious awards in recognition of his talents. In 1929, he received the Will Cloney International Award for Sports, and in 1969 was inducted into Canada"s Sports Hall of Fame. He received the Dalhousie Award in 1971. In 1983, he was awarded the Order of Canada, this country"s highest honor. Johnny Miles holds a rightful place in Nova Scotia's sport history, and he is honored annually by the "Johnny Miles Marathon" in New Glasgow. He is an original Sport Hall of Fame inductee.

John C. Miles (Oct. 30, 1905 - June 14, 2003): Boston Marathon Champion in 1926 & 1929 (from THE BOSTON GLOBE)

By Michael J. Bailey, Globe Staff

Johnny Miles, who as a 20-year-old unknown from the mines of Cape Breton claimed one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Boston Marathon in 1926, died Saturday, June 14, in Hamilton, Ontario. The marathon's oldest champion, he was 97.

He repeated his feat in Boston three years later, but it was the race in 1926 that made Mr. Miles a legend.

He had never entered a marathon before the race, the 30th in Boston. But with a pair of 98-cent sneakers, a homemade jersey emblazoned with a red maple leaf, and a crumpled photo of his idol, Finnish racer Albin Stenroos - marathon winner at the 1924 Paris Olympics and the man he sought to track during the race - Mr. Miles made it through the course in 2 hours, 25 minutes, 40 seconds. That was four minutes ahead of the runner-up.

''Unknown Kid Wins The Greatest Of All Marathons,'' read the Boston Post headline the next day.

''Everybody told me I was crazy to enter the Boston,'' he later said. ''But I knew I could do it.

While his record-breaking trek at 26 miles stunned the sports world, it was his lifelong journey of skill, sweat, and an ability to overcome that made him a hero, from Boston to his home in Canada.

''There will never be another Johnny Miles,'' Will Cloney, the longtime Boston Marathon boss, once wrote. ''While great runners from around the world followed him through the years, there has been no surprise ending to match 1926 ... Johnny does not know it, but on many occasions, when I have been asked to speak to large groups, I have used his life as an example of what can be accomplished through dedication and motivation.''

Born in 1905, in Yorkshire, England, Mr. Miles came to Canada as a boy. When his father left to fight in Europe in World War I, it was left to Mr. Miles, as the eldest child, to support his mother and three siblings. So he headed to the coal mines of Cape Breton Island.

He was 11.

For three years he worked in a variety of jobs, with the responsibilities and workloads increasing as his frame filled out. During the school year, he would work after classes ended, from 3 to 11.

During one of his tasks - opening and closing the shaft doors at junctures to let trains pass - he depended upon the sounds of rats to ensure no poisonous gases had accumulated in his compartment.

After his father returned from the war, Mr. Miles was able to leave his job in the mines. He became interested in running, but not for the fitness or the glory, he later recalled. He raced for the prizes. (The first prizes he took home, for a third-place finish, were a hundred-pound bag of flour and a desk lamp.)

As the prizes accumulated, Mr. Miles began to train more seriously. With his father as his coach, he would run on a home-made 1/8 mile oval in his back yard.

Once he secured a job delivering groceries for a co-op store, his training accelerated. He devised a set of lengthy reins and would run behind the horse-drawn wagon, directing the horse as he ran. He and his horse became a curious sight along the hills and valleys of Nova Scotia, he later acknowledged: a riderless wagon followed by a runner in work clothes and heavy boots.

In the winter, Mr. Miles would run in shorts, with a composite of olive oil and wintergreen on his legs to prevent frostbite.

Before he arrived in Boston in 1926, he'd run 26.2 miles only once - he had taken a train that far from home, then ran back through snow and mud as his father timed him.

After reaching Boston, he and his father walked the course. They became lost. A Boston police officer offered this advice: Just follow the pack.

Mr. Miles had other plans.

As he waited for the start of the race in Hopkinton, he studied once more the tattered picture of his hero: Stenroos. Just stay with Stenroos and four-time winner Clarence DeMar, his father had told him. The race for the laurels, Boston sportswriters had said, would come down to a duel between Stenroos or DeMar.

''I followed them for quite a while,'' Mr. Miles recalled in an interview with the Globe seven years ago. ''My father had told me, `Those fellas are going to win the race, and you should stay with them.'''

As Stenroos left DeMar behind, Mr. Miles decided to follow the Olympic champion, getting so close ''I could put my hand on his back.''

''When we came to Heartbreak Hill,'' he recalled, ''I looked at Stenroos and his eyes were sunken, his face was kind of pulled in, and I figured this was the time to pass him. I passed him on Heartbreak Hill and I was afraid to look behind me again for fear he was coming.''

Nobody was coming. Nobody ended the race near Mr. Miles. His time was so fast that the Boston Athletic Association remeasured its course and found it short by 176 yards, invalidating Mr. Miles's record.

Mr. Miles won in Boston again in 1929 and represented Canada in the Olympic Games on two occasions.

''He's a legend,'' Jerome Drayton, a Toronto runner who won the 1977 Boston Marathon, once said. ''It's not so much that he won Boston twice, but it's the story of what life was like in Canada in those days. It was really rough and he's from a very poor background and he did a good thing.''

The news of his death was announced on Sunday at the Johnny Miles Marathon, a qualifying event for next year's Boston Marathon.



In 1983, while researching my book: Johnny Miles, Nova Scotia's Marathon King, Johnny and I made a brief visit to Cape Breton. While in Sydney Mines we asked a local resident to direct us to the Miner's Museum.

"Sorry, boys," he said, "It's closed. He then took a second, closer look at Johnny Miles and said: "Jesus, Mary and Joseph…you're Johnny Miles."

Before Johnny could own up to it, the man continued:

"Jack, you'll never be forgot down here."

When Johnny (Jackie) Miles first won the Boston Marathon, in 1926, a Post Record editorial called for a city wide 'welcome home" reception:

"Let’s show Jackie Miles that we as Cape Bretoners appreciate the service he has done this island in letting the world know that Cape Breton is still producing the same type of manhood that stormed the “Pimple” on Vimy Ridge, that did their share and more, at St. Eloi, Passchendaele, the Somme and helped carry the Maple Leaf to victory on many a stricken field." : ."If you have a flag fly it. If you haven’t, get one. Make your car look like the Queen of Sheba’s chariot and join in the parade."

Miles took it all with great humility and showed amazing strength of character. These qualities sustained him throughout his entire life.

He was born in Halifax, Yorkshire, England, on October 30, 1905 and was only 4 months old when he and his mother, Eliza Ann, and 2 year-old sister, Lena, came to Canada.

It was 1906 and when his ship docked in Saint John, NB, he met his father, John William "Willi" Miles, for the first time. Miles Sr. had emigrated to Canada a year earlier and work in the pits of the No.1 Princess Mine. In time, his son, John, followed him into the mine—but only for a relatively short time.

The rosy-cheeked tyke more than paid his dues in the dark, dreary mine but that was just a way station on the road to becoming an international sport's icon? What fortune teller would dare to foretell that Miles would live almost100 years?

There was more to Miles than just athletic prowess and longevity. He had a close relationship with his parents and siblings. For forty-three years he displayed extraordinary loyalty to International Harvester Company—from a menial labourer's position in 1927 right to the top, to the boardroom in Chicago.—including an extended stopover in France as plant manager.

Having enjoyed a normal childhood, Johnny's sense of obligation to the welfare of his family has no better example than the 3 years he spent as a 'boy-miner.' In 1916, when his father was serving in France with the Nova Scotia Highlanders, young Miles was an 11-year-old schoolboy. He decided to earn his keep by getting a job at the coal mine.

Though it may sound unbelievable, he wore his mother's high-heel shoes the day he applied for work. This made him appear taller than he actually was. He was hired and for the next two years the boy laboured on the afternoon shift as well as attending school, full time. On payday Johnny always handed his unopened envelope over to his mother. She gave him 25 cents a week for pocket money. Johnny banked it.

When his father returned from the war he encouraged his son to train as a boxer but the boy had other plans and began entering local races.


Johnny soon emerged as Cape Breton's premier runner. He didn't give up his day job as a grocery delivery-boy at the local Co-operative store.

Johnny is still remembered for his record-setting victory at the Boston Marathon in 1926. Boston never was the same after he hit beantown. While outdistancing his hero, the Finnish Olympic runner, Albin Stenroos, Miles also conquered the great Clarence DeMar, who went on to seven wins, a record not likely to ever be surpassed.

DeMar was quoted as stating:

"He's a wonderful runner. If at his age he can better my record by four minutes, I don't know what he'll do when he's my age"

Stenroos added: " I was beaten by a better runner. Miles is one of the best I've ever seen."

DeMar visited Cape Breton more than once and Johnny Miles outran him every time. Miles ran the Boston 5 times, recording his second record-breaking victory in 1929 when he was 23 years old.

Johnny's made two mediocre appearances in the marathon at the Olympics, Amsterdam(1928) and Los Angeles(1932). He finished both times but it was his third place finish at the 1930 British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, that kept him in the record books.

Johnny Miles' death in 2003 was commented on in news media around the world. Rather than diminish the influence which he had on the lives of school children in Cape Breton and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, his passing seemed to further enhance his icon-like image.


In the late 1920s school textbooks portrayed Miles as a role model for clean living. On the streets of his hometown, Sydney Mines, youngsters would imitate his mannerisms, begging the question from parents and friends alike: "Who do you think you are, Johnny Miles?"

It has been well documented that scattered around Atlantic Canada and elsewhere, new-born children, race horses, pleasure and commercial boats, and more than one song, bore the name of Johnny Miles.

In fact, my family's connection to him goes back a very long way, to the birth of my brother, Johnny, now a medical doctor in New Glasgow. The date was May 23, 1927, and the place— the Salvation Army Grace Hospital in Sydney.

It was the day before Victoria Day, which in Cape Breton brought out race enthusiasts for the annual long distance events in Sydney, Glace Bay and other communities. The Bay race was a 15-mile contest on the Black Diamond Race Track. Along with well-known runners such as Johnny Miles and Reid Ross, two American runners, Jimmy Henigan and Johnny's arch-rival, Clarence DeMar, were invited.

On that occasion, my mother, Katherine Williston, was asked what she planned to name her seventh son, born one day earlier. Whether she replied, "… whomever wins," or, "… Johnny Miles if he wins, " has never been clarified.

As fate would have it, Johnny Miles was first across the finish line and my mother did indeed name the curly-headed kid, 'Johnny Miles Williston.' The two Johnnies began a lifelong friendship in the mid 1950s and it was greatly enhanced in 1975, with the establishing of the Johnny Miles Marathon, in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.


In 1983, Miles received the Order of Canada from Governor-General Schreyer. One Ottawa pundit, in a news story titled: "Marathoner Miles, Legitimate Canadian Hero," quoted Miles' own assessment of his career: "From the bowels of the earth to this."

Will Cloney, long-time Boston Athletic Association race director, once wrote: "There hasn't been a Johnny Miles in Boston since Johnny Miles."

The Miles biography, Johnny Miles, Nova Scotia’s Marathon King, was published by Nimbus, of Halifax, in 1990. Its sales helped generate over $25,000 for the Johnny Miles Foundation. The New Glasgow based foundation in turn donated a similar amount to UCCB (Cape Breton University) in January 1998—to establish the Johnny Miles Scholarship Award.

Later, the university bestowed on him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree, in Hamilton, in April 2002— it was his crowning moment.

At the time of his untimely death on June 14, 2003, I wrote these words: : "…sports history would be kind and gentle on Johnny Miles. For those were the words that best described him, mixed in with oceans of determination, dedication and love for the Cape Breton that adopted him."

To which a fellow writer added:

"…to say that the death of legendary marathon runner Johnny Miles represents the end of an era would be somewhat misleading, for the era he personified was over long before he passed away. It was more like an echo of times past, when sports stars were athletes rather than cash cows; role models rather than walking advertisements and it was a reminder of a time when the words: "…for the love of the game…" were more than just the hollow phrase they have become today."

"Sports and athletes back then were more connected to the community than they are now, and it was more about the game than money. Johnny Miles was a reminder of the lost connection and vanished values."

The legacy of Johnny Miles will continue to live and inspire, perhaps even after another 100 years pass into history.

We celebrate his life and glory in his achievements. Cape Breton and all of Nova Scotia (Canada, too) are all the better for having known—Johnny Miles.

Winnipeg, Manitoba/Nov. 2005

(Floyd Williston is a researcher, author and freelance journalist, formerly of Sydney, now living in Winnipeg. He was a frequent contributor to the Cape Bretoner..)