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.
In his 60s, McNelly ran roughly 20 marathons a year. In his 70s, McNelly completed 295 marathons and 58 ultramarathons. These figures are believed to be world records for a runner in his 70s.
In his 80s, McNelly tapered off a bit. He finished 177 marathons, and seven ultramarathons. These totals are also thought to be records for that age group. He ran his last marathon at age 89. His lifetime totals: 627 marathon and 117 ultramarathon finishes.
In his late 60s, McNelly volunteered to be a subject for a research project at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore. The British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research has just published results of that research, which details how McNelly’s aerobic fitness changed as he remained highly active into his tenth decade.
The paper notes that McNelly maintained a marathon finish time of about 4:00 through his mid-50s and early 60s. He slowed to about 4:20s in his early 70s, and wound up running and walking marathons in close to 10:00 in his late 80s.
The Veterans Affairs lab first tested McNelly when he was 68, and last tested him at 91. His VO2 max declined by about 70 percent over 23 years, and the decline was highly correlated with his slowing marathon times.
There’s always a Catch-22 in these figures. Did McNelly get slower because his VO2 max declined, or did he lose aerobic fitness because he could no longer run as fast, perhaps due to muscular and skeletal limitations? The VA researchers speculate that McNelly could have maintained a higher fitness by running fewer marathons, and more shorter races.
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.”
McNelly kept running through a radical prostatectomy at 67, and atrial fibrillation and asymptomatic chronic lymphocytic leukemia in his 80s. He also had a modest number of injuries: 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.”
These days, McNelly, who will turn 95 in November, gets out for a walk every day or two in his hometown of Pittsford, New York.
“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 journal article’s lead author, Odessa Addison, DPT, PhD, is a Veterans Affairs fellow in advanced geriatrics. She told Runner’s World, “This case report offers a unique perspective on successful aging. Our subject is a wonderful example of how older adults can stay fit.
“If you can’t run, jog. If you can’t jog, walk. We like to say, ‘Motion is lotion.’ Exercise helps prevent arthritis.”
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source: Runner’s World by Amby Burfoot