Don McNelly, whose passion for running led to 744 marathons, dies at 96

Don McNelly, whose passion for running led to 744 marathons, dies at 96 ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Don McNelly called his marathon running “a positive addiction.” “I have to get my running fix or I get itchy," he said during a 1995 interview with the Democrat and Chronicle. He would scratch that itch with abandon for more than four decades. A longtime resident of Irondequoit who completed 744 marathons, including 117 ultra-marathons, in a running career that brought him international fame, McNelly died Sunday. He was 96. “He was so devoted, and I would say consumed — or addicted — he would often say he was addicted to running and he was quite proud of that," said Dan McNelly, Don’s son. “If he couldn’t do marathons he wasn’t going to do anything else." Perhaps because of his obsession with 26.2 miles and good health, Don McNelly was able to enjoy a variety of accomplishments, including a legacy of volunteerism that revolved around his running passion. Age an asset for ultramarathon runners, study suggests Watch the thrilling video of 70-year-old woman finishing ultramarathon with seconds to spare Described by family and friends as a polymath, someone who becomes a master of many areas of life, McNelly also found time to make wine, enjoy classical music, author a book, become a beekeeper and, at the age of 80, become the “elephant ambassador" at the Seneca Park Zoo. A World War II Navy veteran, McNelly served the community on the boards of Hillside Children's Center and Strong Children's Hospital and as president of the Seneca Park Zoo Society. He helped found two popular road races, the Stroll for Strong and the Jungle Jog 5K, fundraising events that have raised thousands for Golisano Children's Hospital and the zoo, respectively. A bench at the zoo bears McNelly’s name in appreciation for his many years of service. “I met him when he was well into his mid-80s and you’d never guess his age," said Chuck Levengood, Seneca Park Zoo’s director of development. “He had more enthusiasm and energy than most people half his age. He was a glass-half-full guy, always positive and willing to jump in and help out however he could." McNelly’s running exploits were featured in Runner’s World magazine and many other publications. His colorful life was the subject of a book, The Madman, the Marathoner. “Few people could ever hope to achieve in three lifetimes what Don McNelly has done in one," said Juanita Tischendorf, a family friend and McNelly’s biographer. “A man too big to ever be forgotten." Rochester's Don McNelly, left, receives encouragement Rochester's Don McNelly, left, receives encouragement from an unidentified runner during the 2010 Harrisburg Marathon in Harrisburg, Pa. Mr. McNelly completed 744 marathons, including 177 past age 80. He died Feb. 5 at 96. (Photo: Daniel Shanken, Daniel Shanken/AP) Raised on a series of tenant farms in Brookville, Ohio, as the oldest of seven, McNelly served aboard the destroyer USS Kyne as a lieutenant and chief engineer and was among the first Americans to set foot in Japan after the atomic bomb attacks. He would return many times to Japan for visits, including to run a marathon with his grandson, Nick. McNelly and his family relocated to Rochester from Indiana in 1954. He served in a variety of executive positions for St. Joe Paper, Co. Shaken by the sudden death of a close friend from a heart attack, McNelly began running in the late 1960s, way before America’s running boom. He ran his first marathon in 1969 in Boston, struggling to the finish. But three years later, he completed the iconic race in 2 hours and 51 minutes. He would go on to set what Runner’s World said are believed to be world records for most marathons past the age of 70 (295, of which 58 were ultras) and most past the age of 80 (177, of which seven were ultras). He reached the 700 milestone in 2006 at age 86 and eventually met his goal of 744 — the ship number of the USS Kyne. He attempted No. 745 at a marathon in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2010 just days after his 90th birthday but had to pull out after 12 miles. Don McNelly, then 74, runs at Durand-Eastman Golf Course, Don McNelly, then 74, runs at Durand-Eastman Golf Course, near his home, in January 1995 as he prepared to run in Antarctica the following month. (Photo: Reed Hoffmann/file photo) In addition to his mega-marathon running, McNelly ran up the Empire State Building and across the United States as part of a relay team. A prostate cancer survivor, McNelly once was the subject of a research project studying aerobic fitness and aging by the Department of Veterans Affairs. “I’m 90 and I feel like I’m 50, 60 tops," McNelly told The Associated Press. “I’m a lucky, lucky, lucky guy." While he averaged sub-five-hour marathons until age 65, later in life he used a combination of jogging and walking to get to the finish line, making many friends along the way. One of his best friends was traveling companion and kindred spirit Norm Frank of Brighton, who completed 965 marathons. He died in 2015 at age 83. Why this obsession with marathons? McNelly said it had to do with testing his physical and mental limits and “competing against myself." “I want to keep going as long as I can,” McNelly told Runner’s World. McNelly is survived by his wife, Phyllis, two sons, Tom and Dan, and one grandson, Nick. He was predeceased by daughter Nancy.
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About Jerry Schaver

Personal History of Jerry Group Director of the 50 and DC Marathon Group from 2002 to 2011 Jerry was born and raised in a small community in Albany, Illinois along the muddy Mississippi river. Jerry still resides in Albany today. He is the youngest son of three boys. He graduated from Fulton High school in 1977. He has one daughter, Nichole and grandsons, Hunter and Nolan. Jerry works for Alcoa Mill Products in Bettendorf, Iowa. Jerry also does volunteer work for the Special Olympics, YWCA, and local races in the community. His life lessons were learned from his grandfather on how to be compassionate with others and to make life simple. Jerry enjoys many hobbies. Hiking in the woods, enjoying the nature and wildlife, or viewing the mountains, and maybe climbing a few too! Motorcycle riding has became his new passion, along with bicycle riding. Jerry bikes either to help recover from injuries, or for an alternative to training. Recently he has got his grandson involved in bike riding with a trail along bike. The two of them enjoy riding on the local bike path. Weight-lifting is an important hobby but also a great tool for marathon training. Jerry was a heavy smoker and overweight when he decided to take up running to get back into shape in 1994. He first tried out small races but went on to do his first marathon in 1995 in Chicago. He had no experience and no one to give him advice and learned that day he had a lot to learn yet. Jerry became determined that running marathons was something he wanted to continue to do. Jerry became a member of the 50 and DC Marathon Group in 1999 after completing 20 states as in the old rules. After being in the group a few years he felt there was a need to have a website to help with the growing number of members. Jerry with the help of his web-designer friend Bob developed a website for the group in 2001. He also is the web host of the website, taking care of all the members’ stats and etc. Jerry was the Group Director of the 50 and DC Marathon Group since December 1, 2002. Through his travels on marathons, he has developed many friendships around the world. Jerry has traveled twice to Cuba with World T.E.A.M. Sports to run marathons, but the main goal of the trips was to help the disabled Cuban athletes with hand-cycles and medical injury prevention. His compassion for helping the disabled has enabled him to help them with their goals of doing marathons by allowing them to join the 50 and DC Group under special rules. Long term goals for Jerry include running marathons in Russia and Ireland. And hopefully in the future have his two grandsons by his side running a marathon with him. Jerry lives by his motto of “I can, I will, I’ll try, I do.”