For 12 years, Don McNelly has volunteered as a guinea pig in a research study of endurance athletes.
In November he drove six hours to a Baltimore medical center to undergo an annual battery of aerobic tests. Then he took a side trip to Boonsboro, Md., to do what he enjoys most: run a marathon. After quietly setting a world record, he got back in his car and drove home to western New York.
McNelly turned 80 on Nov. 11. No one this old has run so many marathons. His lifetime tally of 570 puts him third in the nation’s prolific-marathoner rankings--the two men ahead of him are 69 years old (with 733 races) and 53 (with 624 races). But his greatest accomplishment was racking up 297 runs of 26.2 miles or more in the decade of his 70s.
Frightened into action at 47 when a buddy died of a heart attack, the no-time-for-exercise McNelly tried out the hallowed Boston Marathon in 1969 and got hooked. He’s been competing in Boonsboro for 30 years.
The popular race winds along a dirt track in the Appalachians for 16 miles, descends to the Potomac River valley, then courses along roads to Williamsport, Md. It’s a 50-mile ultra-marathon and, for once, McNelly quit a little more than halfway through it.
“I kind of goofed off a little bit,” he said in his usual self-effacing way. “Well, 26 miles is 26 miles! It was just pleasant, the sun was shining, the temperature was nippy but perfect for running and the leaves were turning.
“It’s a good place to go out and just commune with God and your fellow runners.”
Before turning 70, he could run a marathon well inside four hours. His usual time now is close to seven hours. In Maryland he almost hit eight hours. “Things haven’t been quite the same since I fell off a ladder and cracked three ribs” in 1997, he said from his home in this Rochester suburb.
While hundreds of Americans have taken to the grueling pursuit of multiple marathons since the 1960s, few of McNelly’s contemporaries possess his physical conditioning and mental tenacity. A dose of insanity seems to be in the mix, too.
“You go to a high school reunion or something and there’ll be people with canes and walkers and staring off into space,” he lamented.
If there’s a lesson to be imparted, “I don’t think I should go around telling them because it’s almost too late,” he said. But he implored anyone reaching middle age to “take care of yourself, for God’s sake-- get some exercise.”
McNelly, a 6-foot 215-pounder, had been aiming for 300 marathons as a septuagenarian but was laid up with a back injury for four months this year. “I wanted to hit a nice round number, but my world isn’t going to fall apart,” he said.
Reaching 80 is exhilarating, but “to have your wits about you and be able to do a marathon occasionally is just magnificent,” he said. “You can’t describe it. I’d break into tears if I started dwelling on the thing. I’m just so lucky.”
In 1988, after his executive job at a corrugated box company had taken him frequently to Baltimore, McNelly enrolled in a geriatric health study at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.
Researchers there compare the health of sedentary people alongside long-distance runners aged 60 and up, “the philosophy being that people like Mr. McNelly represent the role model for successful aging,” said Dr. Les Katzel, who runs the study.
“We’ll be testing him till he’s 100--that’s what we’ve agreed upon or till the money runs out,” Katzel said.
McNelly’s marathon career still has far to travel.
“I guess my next goal is 600 marathons,” he said with nonchalance. “That’ll be in 2002, all other things being normal. I’m just going to keep plugging away.”