In It for the Long Run
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In It for the Long Run

In It for the Long Run

by Oliver Stallings

Like an elite athlete, Don McNelly has his own police escort as he makes his way towards the finish line of Last Chance First Chance Marathon. Shuffling south along the powder-white sand of Daytona Beach under sharp blue skies, McNelly's thighs are burning - and so is his desire to finish the 26.2 miler.

Somewhere about two miles down the World's Most Famous Beach is a double-decker scaffold and the narrow chutes that mark the end of the race. Just beyond that is a comfortable hotel room and a nice, relaxing shower.

Right from the beginning of the race, McNelly was separated from the field of 450 -except for a good friend who matched him step-for-step the entire distance.

After following a course that took them up the beach, over a bridge, along a river, through a nature preserve and back to the beach, McNelly, his friend and a lone Volusia County Sheriff's car with lights spinning approached the finish. Unlike a typical lead car, this vehicle didn't pull over at the last minute to let McNelly break the finishing tape. That's because McNelly was running last. That Sheriff's car was what runners affectionately call the "sag wagon."

By the time McNelly made it to the finish, he had been on his feet for almost seven hours. While he was out on the course, a chilly morning had evolved into a mild afternoon, a deserted beach had come alive with sun and surf lovers and a finish line once flanked by enthusiastic spectators was being disassembled.

None of this mattered to McNelly, because there was still one person left to drape a medal around his neck and offer him congratulations. There was still that intense feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing a marathon, whether you are first or last.

It's a feeling McNelly relishes, even after finishing 555 marathons - 90 of which were ultras, between 30 and 50 miles long. It's an emotion very few people who are about to turn 80 will ever have.

In 1969, McNelly, who was born in Brooksville, Ohio, began his long-distance running career in an effort to lose weight after a college friend of his died suddenly of a heart attack. McNelly's doctor, a runner himself, convinced him to take up the sport. "I was 35 pounds overweight," admits McNelly who is 6-foot-1 and now weighs 215. "I went to the track and had trouble running just one lap. So I walked, then ran until I finished a mile. Then I went back the next night and did the same thing. Nine months later, I finished my first marathon."

Since then, McNelly has run in every state plus the District of Columbia and every province in Canada. He has gone the 26.2-mile distance in 20 countries, including France, England, Germany, Portugal, Thailand and Japan. In one year alone, he completed 27 marathons. Ten times since 1969, he has run back-to-back marathons on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Between January and April of one year, he ran four marathons, all under seven hours. Since his 70th birthday, McNelly has totaled 284 marathons. "I was raised on a farm and had to work and didn't have time to do sports," says McNelly. "I have no athletic background." One thing McNelly does have is a medical history that is free of any running-related injuries. In fact, he has compiled his incredible running streak without ever being sidelined by any type of injury whatsoever. There have been no sprained ankles, no back pains, no hamstring pulls, no shin splints, no heel pain, no heat exhaustion, no overuse injuries...nothing. In fact, he seldom even gets a cold. As he approaches his 80th year, McNelly still has plenty of cardiovascular and muscle endurance, plus flexibility.

What's the secret that keeps this octogenarian and others like him running for decade after decade while others, most of whom are many years younger, become sidelined with medical problems? Is it diet, sleep, luck or heredity that enables runners to avoid injury and illness? What exactly are the variables that keep people going - when 75% of those who jog can expect to be injured for anywhere from a few weeks to a year?

In McNelly's case, maybe it is heredity. After all, his father lived to be 87 and his mother 76. Not long ago, his 70-year-old brother did a 50-mile ultra marathon in Hagerstown, Maryland, where he competed among 1,700 others.

Ask the Doctor
Many seasoned runners will tell you they have heard it all. They know about hard days and easy days, warm ups and cool downs, diets and diaries. They know not to increase running mileage more than 10% a week, that shoes become inadequate after about 300 miles, that stretching can help, that stretching can hurt and that speed can kill. They have followed the advice of Sheehan and Shorter, Liquori and Elliott. They have been inspired by the words of a college dean in the film Chariots of Fire as he welcomed students back to classes with the words, "Let each of you discover where your chance for greatness lies. Seize that chance and let no power on earth deter you."

Dr. Reitman has had 23 professional fights since turning pro in 1988. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound doctor donates his winnings to charity. "I am an assistant professor in the medical school at Boston University, and I'm ashamed when I tell my students that a lot of what I have learned, I've learned from boxing," says Reitman, who was the New England Golden Gloves champion in 1971. "I tell my students that most of what I know I've learned from my body."

Reitman is part of Orthopedic Associates USA, a seven-doctor group that he founded, practicing out of Plantation, Florida. During a typical week, he sees about 20 patients; during the year, he performs numerous orthopedic surgeries. The most common runners' injuries he treats are related to the kneecap. "Many of these knee problems are related to the fact that runners become emotionally involved with their shoes," says Reitman, who has run four Boston Marathons, all in the four-hour range. "They don't want to change their shoes. They don't realize that most runners' problems can be prevented by alternating shoe wear. If you wear different shoes and several different brands, you don't stress the same part of your body every day. Moderation is the key. The elite runners I treat by and large have obsessive compulsive personalities. They don't know when to back off. The smart ones do a lot of cross training and substitute high-impact training with low-impact training such as swimming."

Reitman teaches and preaches to runners about the importance of alleviating biomechanical problems. He wants his patients to think from the ground up. "To begin with, you've got to alternate running surfaces, alternate shoes and use good cushions and orthotics," says Reitman. "As you go higher up, make sure that the leg itself is strong and flexible, and work to strengthen the quadriceps. Try to keep elbows at a 90 degree angle and work the arms - because arm motions strengthen the rotator cuff. This will help alleviate a lot of neck and shoulder trouble, which is more common than back injuries in runners. Stretching is good, but don't overdo it."

The doctor believes it's important to take a good multi-vitamin and natural supplements, especially chondroitin sulfate, which helps nature rebuild new cartilage. Get between six and eight hours of sleep and, whenever you get the chance, take a swim.

Keep in mind that heredity plays an important role. Reitman says he has some young 90-year-old patients and some old 50-year-old patients. "When I helped train Evander Holyfield before his first Lennox Lewis fight, I learned that in 13 years of fighting Evander never had a major injury," marvels Reitman. "He follows the principles of proper diet, nutrition, strengthening, stretching, rest, cross training, cardiovascular exercise, avoidance of over training and large doses of common sense."

According to statistics, the average American life expectancy is approaching 100 years. If you want to be running instead of sitting in a wheelchair for that last 20 years or so, you have to exercise common sense. If you want to be a hero, you may or may not make it to 50. You have to listen to your body and to your head.

Learn from the Best
Another way to avoid injuries may just be to train with those who never get hurt. Maybe that way we can learn their secret. When it comes to diet, McNelly, although he is not a vegetarian, eats very little red meat, avoids fatty foods and loves cereal. He enjoys a beer or a glass of wine every now and then. His weakness is peppermint ice cream - he eats it four times a week. Otherwise, he has no set schedule when it comes to eating. Once a year, he gets a complete physical, and he monitors his blood pressure and cholesterol levels closely.

Every day, McNelly rises between 5 and 6 a.m. after a solid nine-hour sleep. To him, sleep has become the panacea that he feels keeps his body fresh and injury free. Even on New Year's Eve, after running a marathon that morning, Mc Nelly was in bed by 9 pm. During a typical week, he runs three to five miles a day. On weekends, he does a long run of about 10 miles.Every morning for the past five years, he's been popping about 15 vitamin pills, including Vitamin C (1,000 mg), vitamin E (400 mg), beta carotene (500 mg), folic acid (400 mg), B6 (50 mg), B12 (100 mg) and calcium. He washes these down with either water or juice.

McNelly has a treadmill in his basement, but he never touches weights or jumps into a swimming pool. For relaxation, he reads history books, works on his computer, mows the lawn or does landscaping around his property.

Although he credits a lot of his good fortune to heredity, McNelly feels he has some good advice for those who may have picked the wrong parents. He advocates throwing away your pride and not letting your ego get the best of you. "Take it easy and don't go out and kill yourself," he says. "It's all right to push a little bit if you feel good. But don't keep going out and trying to set new records. A lot of younger runners do this, and that's why they get injured. When I started running in Ohio in 1969, there were about 30 people my age who were competing in marathons. I think there may be about two or three left. What I have done is throw my pride away. I don't care if I win, as long as I can keep on running."

Bob Dozoretz, 50,
Weston, Florida

Unlike McNelly, Bob Dozoretz of Weston, Florida wants to keep winning as well as keep running. Since turning 50, Dozoretz, a packaging supplies salesman, has set personal records in the 10K (37:02) and 5K (17:39). One year, he was the Grand Master winner in the Naples Half Marathon in 1:20:38, missing a personal record by two seconds and finishing 52nd out of 1,400. A few weeks later, he was an age-group winner in the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K in Tampa, Florida, where he ran a 56:07, good enough for 64th overall in a field of 5,800. The following week at the Festival of Light 5K in Fort Myers, Florida, he won $100 for being the top Grand Master in 17:40.

Dozoretz believes his increasing success is because he has been able to run injury free since he started running.

In 1984, while living in Buffalo, he wanted to lose some extra pounds, so he began running. Although his brother, who is eight years older, sometimes ran nine miles at a time, Bob thought doing that kind of distance was foolish. So he stuck to running a 3/5 of a mile loop around the block where he lived. Gradually, he began to run the loop faster until he was able to do three miles, then ten miles at a time.

Since then, Dozoretz has finished 18 marathons with a personal best of 2:55:26 two years ago in the Wine Glass Marathon in Corning, New York. He was ninth overall in a field of 500. He has competed in an 8K in Japan and has run marathons in Portland, Oregon, Minnesota, Paris, France and Toronto, Canada. When it comes to 5Ks and 10Ks, he has run more than he can count.

Except for a case of bronchitis that caused him to run a 3:50 in Paris one year, Dozoretz has run injury free, even though he puts in 50 miles a week with a grueling track workout, hard tempo runs of 9-11 miles, and a 15-miler on the weekends. One day a week is dedicated to lifting weights.

Dozoretz, who is married with no children, credits much of his running longevity to his diet. "I have noticed that every time I modify my diet, I feel better," he says. "I have eliminated red meat and dairy products, although I'll have a pizza every now and then. I eat a lot of fish, vegetables, turkey, fruit and soup. I drink only filtered water, will have a beer once in a while and eat a lot of energy bars. My weakness is oatmeal raisin cookies. I also take a variety of vitamins such as E and C. Because of an asthmatic condition, I take an enzyme called C0-q-10, which helps the heart get oxygen."

As far as sleep goes, Dozoretz gets around seven hours, usually going to bed by 11 or 11:30 p.m.

Dozoretz feels he remains injury free for four reasons. The first is genetics. His mother is 83 and in good health, and his father passed away at age 89. Second, he believes that lifting weights contributes to a total body workout and strengthens muscles. Third, running slowly over long distances instead of breaking the body down with intense workouts is essential. Fourth, he listens to his body and knows when to back off. "Don't try to do too much too soon, don't race every weekend, and enjoy your running," he insists. "I'm looking forward to my 50s, because I still think I can run faster."

Barbie Sidan, 34,
Coconut Grove, Florida

Barbie Sidan also thinks she can run faster as she gets older - as long as she can remain injury free. So far, she's finished 11 marathons, 18 half marathons, hundreds of 5Ks and 10Ks and four triathlons. As yet, she has never been injured.

Sidan began running in 1989 in an effort to get back to her high school cheerleader shape. Six months after running 2-3 miles daily through her neighborhood, she entered her first 5K and finished in 26 minutes. After that, she started running 30 miles a week and entered local races almost every weekend. In 1991, Sidan finished the Miami Half Marathon in just over two hours. "That was the biggest thing I ever did, and I couldn't believe it," says Sidan. "I got the bug and I wanted to do another one."

Sidan went on to increase her weekly mileage to 50 a week. In 1992, she ran her first of four New York Marathons in 4:40. In 1999, she turned in a personal best 4:07 in the Chicago Marathon. Her personal best for a 5K is 23:10.

As part of her training regimen, she runs over bridges in an effort to simulate running over hills. She will also periodically visit a gym for weight training or jump into a swimming pool and do some laps. Additionally, Sidan, who is 5-foot-8, 140 pounds, has been known to take a 100 mile bike ride.

Despite plans to increase her training load and compete more, Sidan is confident she'll stay injury free. "All the years I've been running, I have used the common sense approach," she says. "I take the day off before a race, I don't push and I put my ego on the shelf. I believe in moderation."

Sidan's eating habits also reflect moderation. "I don't diet. I eat whatever I want, including red meat. I don't buy into that whole thing about no protein. I eat a lot of egg whites and oatmeal and make sure I drink tons of water, at least 12 bottles a day. Occasionally I'll have a beer, but I don't drink hard liquor. In the mornings, I take multi-vitamins and calcium."

Sidan usually gets at least 8 hours of sleep a night, then gets up at 6 a.m. and runs 6-8 miles a day during the week and 10-12 on Saturday. Stretching is done before, not after her workouts. She wears cushioned shoes and always has two pairs so that she can alternate. Whenever her shoes get worn down, she replaces them.

Dennis Marsella, 49,
Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Dennis Marsella doesn't have to worry about replacing his running shoes. That's because he wears work boots or dress shoes when he runs. Since 1981, Marsella - who is known as a stunt runner and usually referred to as the Coat Man - has competed in over 100 marathons, most run in black wing-tipped dress shoes, all run in a thick winter denim coat that weighs as much as 25 pounds when wet.

During his first training runs, Marsella realized that his 5-foot-10, 157-pound frame and his strong upper body (a result of high school football, lifeguarding and surfing) wasn't going to be able to cover 26.2 miles in any kind of exceptional time. Therefore, he decided to do something that would be different and challenging, like running in a coat.

He runs 10 miles every day between 11:30 and noon along Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Blvd., then he hits the beach, hides his shoes and takes off for another five miles in the soft sand. On peak days, he'll go 22 miles, all done in wing tips. During every workout, he carries three-pound weights. Once a week, he goes to a track for a speed workout in his dress shoes. He also runs up and down three flights of stairs at his apartment complex. During these workouts, however, the coat remains in his closet. "I never get injured; I never get sick. I run about four marathons a year, have run over 50,000 miles and have never even gotten a cramp."

Marsella attributes his good fortune to more than diet, training, sleep, vitamins or the drinking of apple cider vinegar, which he says purifies his skin and breaks down toxic waste in his body. He's convinced that refraining from alcohol, being a vegetarian and having a grandmother who lived to 99 aren't the reasons he's run injury free for so long. "I feel you get injured when you are tight and you are not stress free," Marsella insists. "I study Buddhism every day and believe that the mind controls the body. I believe that the universe is energy and the channeling of that energy can alleviate injury. Because you become what you visualize, I visualize energy flowing through my body like a white light, starting at my toes and going all the way to my head. Sometimes I'll hold in my breath for a few seconds while running. This gives my cells a burst of energy. It helps your running, and it rejuvenates the skin and makes you look younger. But the main thing is to realize that if you can channel divine energy and keep your mind clean, you won't get injured."

Sylvia Weiner, 69,
Montreal, Canada

Unlike Marsella, Sylvia Weiner, 69, has had to struggle with mental focus while remaining injury free over two decades. That's because Weiner survived imprisonment in a German concentration camp, where she lost her entire family at the hands of the Nazis. In 1984, after a trip back to Poland, she wrote a book called The Visitors, which is about her experiences as a concentration camp prisoner.

Now married and the mother of two daughters and a son, Weiner has a running resume that touts 75 marathons and countless other distance races, including many age division victories. Her permanent home in Montreal, Canada and her winter home in North Miami Beach contain over 1,000 medals and trophies.

At the age of 46, Weiner gained national recognition when she became the first-ever women's Masters winner of the Boston Marathon. Today, her name is engraved in the Winner's Circle Monument of the Boston Marathon in the city's Copley Square. Since that victory, she has gone on to finish six more Bostons, with a personal best of 3:21:00. In 2000, she won her age group in the Palm Beach Half Marathon in 1:58:58.

Weiner's running success has come about despite a nervous condition that keeps her awake at night, granting her only about four hours of sleep. She has managed to overcome panic attacks, heart palpitations and nervous breakdowns, grim reminders of her years of imprisonment.

Weiner attributes her good health and lack of injuries to nearly 40 years of running. In 1960, an instructor at the YMCA in Montreal got her interested in running as a remedy to help her relax. "I went out and ran a little and thought I was going to die because my heart was beating so fast," she remembers. "Then I finally got better and when I looked in the mirror, my face had changed and I looked alive. Now I don't have to take tranquilizers."

During the winter, when she visits Miami, Weiner gets up every morning and runs 8-10 miles through a park near her home. She takes 100 mg of vitamin C, 400 units of E, 1,200 mg of calcium plus multi-vitamins. She eats a well-balanced diet but avoids red meat, although she'll have a steak every now and then. She likes chicken, fish, egg whites, fruit, vegetables, lots of pasta and chocolate cake with icing. Sometimes she'll have a beer, but nothing harder. "I know runners who say they need nine hours sleep or they feel washed up. But I'm lucky if I get four. I know runners on strict diets who don't do any long distances, and they get injured. Everyone I know has gotten injured. From what I am learning, maybe a lot of it has to do with heredity."

Summing Up
One individual who believed that heredity has nothing to do with health and longevity was Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon, who searched for the fabled Fountain of Youth in 1513.

Although the mythical fountain was never discovered, it seems as if some runners may have found their own personal ways to stay young and remain free of injury. That's why it is important to listen to those wise people who never get injured.

It might also be beneficial to listen to one of the Seven Wise Men of Ancient Greece who spent a lifetime measuring pyramids, predicting eclipses, and discovering mathematical theorems. His name was Thales of Miletus and one of his philosophical beliefs was: Nothing in Excess.

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