Running Fool: Galesburg's Marathon Man


By Mike Kroll


The population of Galesburg is unquestioningly shrinking as bad economic times grip this city but earlier this summer we gained a new resident. Don Nierling is tall and lean with the body you would expect of a marathon runner. Sixty-six years young and retired from the normal pursuits of life, Don’s current existence is simple and spartan (he owns neither a television nor radio and very little furniture) and revolves around his regular schedule of marathon races. He runs about 25 marathons per year averaging one every other week. "At my present age I can be back to full strength in about two weeks and my body really can’t take the punishment any more frequently than that any longer."

Don’s body has endured lots and lots of punishment so he knows whereof he speaks. Twenty years ago, "when I was in my running prime," Don held the record for the most marathons completed in a calendar year at 57. At one point he had run in ten marathons in a 29-day span. During a 47-week period between mid-1982 and mid-1983 he pushed his body through those 57 grueling races. "There were weeks I would complete a race in one place only to drive all night and race in the next." There’s no telling how many additional races Don might have completed in the other five weeks of that year had he not suffered a massive injury.

In the last of those 57 races Don completely tore the hamstring in is right leg. This in an injury that might have ended the running career of someone slightly less determined and masochistic than Don. He was sidelined, but only temporarily, and not for the last time. According to Don anyone who runs marathons seriously is bound to suffer injuries and he has had his share. Running those 26-mile courses places a high degree of stress on your lower skeleton and really abuses your feet. "There have been any number of races where I could barely walk the next day."

Why would someone put himself through the pain and agony over and over again? The answer is simple: "There is such a high you get from completing a marathon and putting in a good time. To many runners like me it’s a feeling that exceeds any sexual experience we might have had and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than doing drugs." To Don each and every race is a personal challenge and a different challenge to boot as his running career has been exceeding varied. Of the 161 marathons already under his belt few that been duplicated. One notable exception is the Paavo Burmi Marathon held annually in Hurly, Wis. every August. On August 8th Don will run this race for the sixth time, last year he finished in four hours twenty-nine minutes.

Don came to distance running relatively late in life. "I was 43 when I started running and I never was much of a runner in my younger days. When I was a kid in high school I hated running and could barely complete a mile run for the coach. I started running because I needed something to do."

As a young man Don was in advertising. He did a stint with the Budd Company (manufacturer of steel passenger train cars like those once used on the California Zephyr) as assistant advertising manager in Philadelphia. He later moved to New York City as an advertising executive but by 1978 "I’d had enough" and he moved his family to Atlanta where he "dabbled in real estate." It was during this early period in Atlanta that Don first took up running. "After escaping the rat race of New York I was financially successful but unfulfilled in Atlanta. I needed something to do so just like Forest Gump I just started running."

Don’s marriage fell apart in Atlanta but not before he had managed to run his first three marathons. "I really had no idea what I was doing and it was very, very painful as I needlessly abused my body out of ignorance. After witnessing what a physical wreck I was after the initial couple of races my wife refused to go with me to any further races and soon thereafter we got divorced. I had a lot to learn but I was hooked."

Following an accident that nearly totaled his Volvo station wagon when Don feel asleep driving home from a race he needed a new vehicle to travel from race to race. His son suggested that he get a used hearse. These huge Cadillac hearses rode great and were plenty big enough to live in on the road but they also attracted too much attention. "At one point People magazine even did a profile on me as the marathoner who travels by hearse but the biggest problem was the constant police attention the hearse garnered." Numerous traffic stops later it wasn’t just the conspicuous lure of law enforcement that got old but the physical demands of driving hundreds of miles between races bone tired became too much.

Marathon running has always been a serious hobby to Don. While a few runners do make a living at it, and he even once had an arrangement with Japanese shoe company Mizung that provided plenty of shoes and a small stipend, Don has always kept in mind his initial reasons for taking up this past time, it was cheap. Following a brush with a fatal plane crash while working for Budd Company Don has never again flown. When driving from race to race became old he was faced with some hard decisions but injuries led to him giving up running for about a seven-year period. "When I couldn’t physically run I thought cycling was the natural substitute but I discovered you really need to be mechanically minded to take on that hobby and that’s certainly not me."

When Don got back into running marathons he sought a better way to travel and briefly tried the bus. "On my very first Greyhound Bus trip I was brutally assaulted by a man at a bus station in Iowa that sent me to the emergency room and my assailant to jail for three months. That was the end of traveling by bus! Ever since then my preferred mode of transportation is Amtrak. Today I put in thousands of miles of train each year getting from race to race and I needed to establish a home base somewhere convenient to Amtrak. That’s how I ended up here in Galesburg. I’ve had enough of big cities and here is a small one that can boast six Amtrak trains per day."

"Here I can live simply and inexpensively and work out at Knox College’s fine track. I really love to practice on these rubberized tracks. They are so comforting to one’s feet and joints. And this town is so quiet, except for the train whistles that I enjoy. If all goes well I plan to continue running marathons well into my 90s. Sure, I’ve used and abused my body to its limits, and slightly beyond that, yet it has always bounced back and endured. Today I know and understand marathon racing better than most. I can hold a pace and I know what pace I can maintain so unlike most runners I can run at a consistent pace throughout a race"

Perhaps our community can learn something from Don Nierling.