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Monday, November 29, 2010
Don McNelly had to pull out of a marathon last week in Pennsylvania after only 12 miles (19.3 kilometers). It would have been his 745th.

McNelly, at age 90, says he has at least one more 26.2-mile (42.16-kilometer) 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.

"I hate to say it — it was just not my day," said McNelly of the Pennsylvania run. He had been hoping to finish the marathon, which took place just days after his 90th birthday.

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, realizing they lived just miles apart 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 explained. "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 stated.

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.

McNelly, who looks like Santa Claus when he lets his white beard grow out in winter, 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 said. "I'm a lucky, lucky, lucky guy."

"I am depressed, but not as bad as I feel I should be," Frank added, referring to the times McNelly drops by his apartment, which features a world map dotted with pins for each marathon venue. Nodding at McNelly, he said: "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 confided afterward.

Not that McNelly doesn't have setbacks, like on that Sunday in Pennsylvania. 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," McNelly concluded.

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