Don McNelly, an Irondequoit resident who completed 744 marathons, died at age 96. (February 2017)
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.
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.”
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.
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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