Many miles left in this marathon man

Published: Monday, 9/15/2003  BY DAN SAEVIG, TOLEDO BLADE SPORTS WRITER


Don McNelly's wheels are just fine, thank you.

Oh sure, after almost 60,000 miles there's a little rust around the edges and they may not have the pick-up they once did, but the Rochester, N.Y., resident figures they're good for at least another 18 years or so.

After all, his legs have been his window to the world, taking him to every state, through every Canadian province and territory, up Mt. Fuji, and across parts of Mexico, South America, Thailand, France, Greenland, Cyprus, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, England and Iceland.

Not bad for an original that dates to the days of the Model T.

Before hopping in his car for the long drive home yesterday, McNelly looked like most of the 95 participants in USA Track and Field's 100-mile Roadrunning Championship at Olander Park. Dressed in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, shorts, running shoes and cap, he finished 90th overall, completing 35.63 miles in less than 23 hours.

Aside from his pace, which consisted primarily of a fast walk, the only thing that gave McNelly away were the two digits tacked to his shirt: No. 82.

It's not often that participants are given race numbers that correspond with their ages.

“You have to work at getting old,” McNelly said. “You can sit on the couch and say, `I've worked all my life, now the world can serve me.' Put a clicker in your hand and watch TV, maybe drink a little beer, go to the golf course and get in your cart for nine or 18 holes ...”

Or, like the octogenarian who celebrates another birthday Nov. 11, you can keep your feet moving.

The run that began Saturday at 10 a.m. was McNelly's 624th marathon since his first, the Boston Marathon in 1969.

“I started at the top [at the age of 48],” McNelly said. “A fraternity brother of mine at General Motors Institute just up and died. Bang. Overnight. I was scared.

“I went to a doctor for a check-up and he hands me a copy of Kenneth Cooper's book, Aerobics. It changed my whole life.”

That gift - and the some 60,000 miles he's run since that time - have brought lifelong benefits to the industrial engineer who spent three years on a Navy destroyer during World War II and who retired in 1989 as vice president of the Northeast Region for St. Joe Paper.

“I went to my high school reunion the other day,” McNelly said. “Class of '38. I was the only guy there. It was me and nine women. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.”

That still may happen when Phyllis, his non-running wife of 61 years, reads the comment.

It may be the only thing that keeps him from adding to his world-record total of 352 marathons completed - including 13 this year - since turning 70.

“Someday, it's all going to come to an end,” McNelly said. “I know that. But I plan to keep going for as long as I can.

“I've never been happier in my life than I am today. I'm fortunate, I'm lucky. I don't have a single problem worth mentioning.”

That outlook may have something to do with where he's been.

McNelly has seen the world, but wasn't prepared for what he saw while participating one year in the New York Marathon.

On his way through Harlem nearing the end of the race, McNelly heard someone yell, “Go get 'em, Pops.”

Turning his head to acknowledge the support, the runner spotted a man on the sidewalk. Nearly McNelly's age, the man wore black gloves as he sat perched on a skateboard.

His legs were cut off above the knee.

“And he's wishing me luck?” McNelly said.

Overwhelmed by the gesture on that New York City street, McNelly saluted the stranger and then did what he's done for all of his now 82 years.

He kept on moving.