In It for the Long Run

by Oliver Stallings

Like an elite athlete, Don McNelly has his own police escort as he makes his way towards the finish line of Last Chance First Chance Marathon. Shuffling south along the powder-white sand of Daytona Beach under sharp blue skies, McNelly's thighs are burning - and so is his desire to finish the 26.2 miler.

Somewhere about two miles down the World's Most Famous Beach is a double-decker scaffold and the narrow chutes that mark the end of the race. Just beyond that is a comfortable hotel room and a nice, relaxing shower.

Right from the beginning of the race, McNelly was separated from the field of 450 -except for a good friend who matched him step-for-step the entire distance.

After following a course that took them up the beach, over a bridge, along a river, through a nature preserve and back to the beach, McNelly, his friend and a lone Volusia County Sheriff's car with lights spinning approached the finish. Unlike a typical lead car, this vehicle didn't pull over at the last minute to let McNelly break the finishing tape. That's because McNelly was running last. That Sheriff's car was what runners affectionately call the "sag wagon."

By the time McNelly made it to the finish, he had been on his feet for almost seven hours. While he was out on the course, a chilly morning had evolved into a mild afternoon, a deserted beach had come alive with sun and surf lovers and a finish line once flanked by enthusiastic spectators was being disassembled.

None of this mattered to McNelly, because there was still one person left to drape a medal around his neck and offer him congratulations. There was still that intense feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing a marathon, whether you are first or last.

It's a feeling McNelly relishes, even after finishing 555 marathons - 90 of which were ultras, between 30 and 50 miles long. It's an emotion very few people who are about to turn 80 will ever have.

In 1969, McNelly, who was born in Brooksville, Ohio, began his long-distance running career in an effort to lose weight after a college friend of his died suddenly of a heart attack. McNelly's doctor, a runner himself, convinced him to take up the sport. "I was 35 pounds overweight," admits McNelly who is 6-foot-1 and now weighs 215. "I went to the track and had trouble running just one lap. So I walked, then ran until I finished a mile. Then I went back the next night and did the same thing. Nine months later, I finished my first marathon."

Since then, McNelly has run in every state plus the District of Columbia and every province in Canada. He has gone the 26.2-mile distance in 20 countries, including France, England, Germany, Portugal, Thailand and Japan. In one year alone, he completed 27 marathons. Ten times since 1969, he has run back-to-back marathons on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Between January and April of one year, he ran four marathons, all under seven hours. Since his 70th birthday, McNelly has totaled 284 marathons. "I was raised on a farm and had to work and didn't have time to do sports," says McNelly. "I have no athletic background." One thing McNelly does have is a medical history that is free of any running-related injuries. In fact, he has compiled his incredible running streak without ever being sidelined by any type of injury whatsoever. There have been no sprained ankles, no back pains, no hamstring pulls, no shin splints, no heel pain, no heat exhaustion, no overuse injuries...nothing. In fact, he seldom even gets a cold. As he approaches his 80th year, McNelly still has plenty of cardiovascular and muscle endurance, plus flexibility.

What's the secret that keeps this octogenarian and others like him running for decade after decade while others, most of whom are many years younger, become sidelined with medical problems? Is it diet, sleep, luck or heredity that enables runners to avoid injury and illness? What exactly are the variables that keep people going - when 75% of those who jog can expect to be injured for anywhere from a few weeks to a year?

In McNelly's case, maybe it is heredity. After all, his father lived to be 87 and his mother 76. Not long ago, his 70-year-old brother did a 50-mile ultra marathon in Hagerstown, Maryland, where he competed among 1,700 others.

Ask the Doctor
Many seasoned runners will tell you they have heard it all. They know about hard days and easy days, warm ups and cool downs, diets and diaries. They know not to increase running mileage more than 10% a week, that shoes become inadequate after about 300 miles, that stretching can help, that stretching can hurt and that speed can kill. They have followed the advice of Sheehan and Shorter, Liquori and Elliott. They have been inspired by the words of a college dean in the film Chariots of Fire as he welcomed students back to classes with the words, "Let each of you discover where your chance for greatness lies. Seize that chance and let no power on earth deter you."

Dr. Reitman has had 23 professional fights since turning pro in 1988. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound doctor donates his winnings to charity. "I am an assistant professor in the medical school at Boston University, and I'm ashamed when I tell my students that a lot of what I have learned, I've learned from boxing," says Reitman, who was the New England Golden Gloves champion in 1971. "I tell my students that most of what I know I've learned from my body."

Reitman is part of Orthopedic Associates USA, a seven-doctor group that he founded, practicing out of Plantation, Florida. During a typical week, he sees about 20 patients; during the year, he performs numerous orthopedic surgeries. The most common runners' injuries he treats are related to the kneecap. "Many of these knee problems are related to the fact that runners become emotionally involved with their shoes," says Reitman, who has run four Boston Marathons, all in the four-hour range. "They don't want to change their shoes. They don't realize that most runners' problems can be prevented by alternating shoe wear. If you wear different shoes and several different brands, you don't stress the same part of your body every day. Moderation is the key. The elite runners I treat by and large have obsessive compulsive personalities. They don't know when to back off. The smart ones do a lot of cross training and substitute high-impact training with low-impact training such as swimming."

Reitman teaches and preaches to runners about the importance of alleviating biomechanical problems. He wants his patients to think from the ground up. "To begin with, you've got to alternate running surfaces, alternate shoes and use good cushions and orthotics," says Reitman. "As you go higher up, make sure that the leg itself is strong and flexible, and work to strengthen the quadriceps. Try to keep elbows at a 90 degree angle and work the arms - because arm motions strengthen the rotator cuff. This will help alleviate a lot of neck and shoulder trouble, which is more common than back injuries in runners. Stretching is good, but don't overdo it."

The doctor believes it's important to take a good multi-vitamin and natural supplements, especially chondroitin sulfate, which helps nature rebuild new cartilage. Get between six and eight hours of sleep and, whenever you get the chance, take a swim.

Keep in mind that heredity plays an important role. Reitman says he has some young 90-year-old patients and some old 50-year-old patients. "When I helped train Evander Holyfield before his first Lennox Lewis fight, I learned that in 13 years of fighting Evander never had a major injury," marvels Reitman. "He follows the principles of proper diet, nutrition, strengthening, stretching, rest, cross training, cardiovascular exercise, avoidance of over training and large doses of common sense."

According to statistics, the average American life expectancy is approaching 100 years. If you want to be running instead of sitting in a wheelchair for that last 20 years or so, you have to exercise common sense. If you want to be a hero, you may or may not make it to 50. You have to listen to your body and to your head.

Learn from the Best
Another way to avoid injuries may just be to train with those who never get hurt. Maybe that way we can learn their secret. When it comes to diet, McNelly, although he is not a vegetarian, eats very little red meat, avoids fatty foods and loves cereal. He enjoys a beer or a glass of wine every now and then. His weakness is peppermint ice cream - he eats it four times a week. Otherwise, he has no set schedule when it comes to eating. Once a year, he gets a complete physical, and he monitors his blood pressure and cholesterol levels closely.

Every day, McNelly rises between 5 and 6 a.m. after a solid nine-hour sleep. To him, sleep has become the panacea that he feels keeps his body fresh and injury free. Even on New Year's Eve, after running a marathon that morning, Mc Nelly was in bed by 9 pm. During a typical week, he runs three to five miles a day. On weekends, he does a long run of about 10 miles.Every morning for the past five years, he's been popping about 15 vitamin pills, including Vitamin C (1,000 mg), vitamin E (400 mg), beta carotene (500 mg), folic acid (400 mg), B6 (50 mg), B12 (100 mg) and calcium. He washes these down with either water or juice.

McNelly has a treadmill in his basement, but he never touches weights or jumps into a swimming pool. For relaxation, he reads history books, works on his computer, mows the lawn or does landscaping around his property.

Although he credits a lot of his good fortune to heredity, McNelly feels he has some good advice for those who may have picked the wrong parents. He advocates throwing away your pride and not letting your ego get the best of you. "Take it easy and don't go out and kill yourself," he says. "It's all right to push a little bit if you feel good. But don't keep going out and trying to set new records. A lot of younger runners do this, and that's why they get injured. When I started running in Ohio in 1969, there were about 30 people my age who were competing in marathons. I think there may be about two or three left. What I have done is throw my pride away. I don't care if I win, as long as I can keep on running."