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
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
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
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."