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94-Year-Old Raced 627 Marathons, 117 Ultramarathons

Starting “Late” At Age 48, He Raced For 42 Years

Don McNelly ran his first marathon in 1969, when he was 48. Three years later, he recorded his lifetime best, a 2:51 at Boston.

He wasn’t even warmed up.

His race numbers make your jaw drop: Don ran about 20 marathons a year while in his 60s. He ran 295 marathons and 58 ultramarathons in his 70s. He completed 177 marathons and 7 ultramarathons in his 80s.

The number of races he completed in his 70s and 80s are thought to be world records for those age groups.

627 Marathons, 117 Ultras — <Gulp!>

In the 42 years that he raced, from age 48 to about 90, Don completed an astounding total of 627 marathons and 117 ultramarathons.

Even though he suffered from more than his share of physical trauma and disease, he kept running.  He had a radical prostatectomy at 67 and suffered atrial fibrillation and asymptomatic chronic lymphocytic leukemia in his 80s. His other “minor” injuries over the years include plantar fasciitis, low back pain, and multiple rib fractures from a fall.

“I kept going through most of them,” said McNelly, who is six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds through his marathon career. “I just slowed down and did more walking.”

For about 23 years, Don was a research subject for a Veterans Administration project. The British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research just published the results of that research, which explores how Don’s aerobic fitness fared as he kept exercising heavily into his 90s.

Don’s marathon finish times were about 4:00 hours through his mid-50s and early 60s, then averaged about 4:20 in his early 70s, and then slowed to about 10 hours in his late 80s as he walked and ran the races.

His VO2 max –aerobic fitness measurement– declined by about 70% between the ages of 68 and 91, and correlated to his slower marathon times.

What We Learned From Don’s Running History

The research speculates that he lost aerobic fitness simply because he mostly ran slower and didn’t run many shorter, faster races. It surmises that if he’d run shorter and faster races, his aerobic capacity could still be maintained into late life.

But that approach held no appeal for McNelly. “I’m not competitive with others,” he told Runner’s World, “but I’m very competitive with myself, and I wanted to complete as many marathons as I could.”

Still Going

Don, soon to be 95, still walks at least every day or two.

“I want to keep going as long as I can,” he said. “It seems to be working. I’ve lived longer than any relatives I know about, and I haven’t noticed any mental slippage. I’m very happy and content. I feel very fortunate.”

The study’s authors say Don is a prime example of how exercise is pure health gold for older people.

“If you can’t run, jog. If you can’t jog, walk. We like to say, ‘Motion is lotion.’ Exercise helps prevent arthritis.”

(Many thanks to Runner’s World for the original article and to the AP for the image.)