ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Don McNelly had to pull out of a marathon last week in Harrisburg, Pa., after only 12 miles.
“I hate to say it — it was just not my day,” says McNelly, who was hoping to finish his 745th marathon — just days after his 90th birthday.
McNelly says he has at least one more 26.2-mile slog up his sleeve and an extra reason to spur himself on: the failing health of his longtime friend, 79-year-old Norm Frank, who with 965 marathons behind him has run more than anyone else in North America.
McNelly and Frank met at a race early on in their running days and were old hands at marathons by the time 1972 Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter helped ignite the U.S. running boom. Now, they find themselves united in one more goal: running more marathons even as their aging bodies protest.
The runners have been close ever since they met, realized they lived just miles apart in Rochester and started traveling to races together to save on gas and hotel bills.
They still wrangle over politics and pre-race food — McNelly’s a pancake Republican, Frank a spaghetti Democrat — but their love of mega-marathoning trumps any differences.
Frank is convinced he can reach the 1,000-marathon milestone, but he’s been stricken with debilitating vertigo since two strokes in 2008 and relies on a walker. He moved into an assisted living center last year, and McNelly drives in from the suburbs once a month.
“When we get together we talk about running. That is the No. 1 thing we have in common,” McNelly says. “On the other hand, I don’t want to twist the knife, remind him that I still can and he can’t. I try very hard to be sensitive about what I think he’s feeling, what I would be feeling if I were him.”
Although it sounds “a bit sloppy,” McNelly wonders if staying in the game is partly a tribute to Frank.
“The thought is there,” he says.
Though three other North Americans have participated in more marathons than McNelly, he carries the distinction of grinding out more than anyone 70 or older.
A 6-foot, 230-pounder who looks like Santa Claus when he lets his white beard grow out in winter, McNelly ran most of his marathons inside five hours through age 65.
Not caring much about speed or besting other competitors is one key to longevity. Nowadays, McNelly walks. And he’s invariably the last one over the line. But he quietly set world records in the decade of his 70s, when he racked up 295 marathons, and in his 80s, when he accumulated 177 more.
“I’m 90 and I feel like I’m 50, 60 tops,” he says. “I’m a lucky, lucky, lucky guy.”
McNelly was born on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1920, and given the middle name Pershing in honor of Gen. John J. Pershing of World War I fame. He grew up on a 100-acre farm in the lush Miami Valley in Brookville, Ohio.
He served aboard a Navy destroyer escort during World War II, married and raised three children, and finished out his engineering career as an executive at a corrugated-box company in Rochester.
The alarm of having a buddy die of a heart attack got McNelly running at 47. In his first competitive race — the 1969 Boston Marathon — he went with the crowd and got burned out by Mile 4. He still managed to run and walk his way to the finish in 5 hours, 1 minute.
Physical conditioning, mental tenacity and princely genes kept him hooked every bit as much as Frank, a landscape gardener who launched his improbably prolific long-distance hobby in 1967.
“It gets in your blood,” says Denny Fryman, 63, a Walt Disney World concierge who’s third in the U.S. rankings, with 833 marathons. “I’m a pup compared to these guys, but you’re just so glad you can do it. You feel so good.”
At least 210 people worldwide, 44 of them Americans, have run 300 or more marathons. Germany’s Horst Preisler, 75, who’s closing in on 1,700, snatched the world record Frank held from 1994 to 1996.
That didn’t bother Frank.
“I was never competitive against another runner — that wasn’t my goal,” Frank says. “I just kept doing it because I loved to compete against myself.”
What hurt the most was suddenly not being able to run a step.
Drugs for a heart infection in December 2008 saved Frank’s life but damaged his inner ear. Dizziness is a constant, but he hopes an experimental procedure in Canada might provide a cure.
“I am depressed, but not as bad as I feel I should be,” Frank says when McNelly drops by his apartment, which features a world map dotted with pins for each marathon venue.
“A lot of it has to do with where I am,” he says. “The people here are great. A lot are in worse shape than I am, but we all get to survive.”
Nodding at McNelly, he adds: “It doesn’t depress me when he comes by. Maybe it should.”
They break into laughter.
“His morale is higher than mine would be,” McNelly confides afterward.
Not that McNelly doesn’t have setbacks, like on that Sunday in Harrisburg. But he’s already planning one or possibly two more runs this winter in Florida and Texas.
“Lately, I’ve been wrestling with my soul, saying, ‘Why don’t I be reasonable and go to half-marathons?’ But I’m very strong, I’m competitive. My goal is to live to 100. I want to go out and do at least one more.”