Back in 1977, Fred Zuleger III ran his first race, a 5-miler in West Warwick R.I. He still remembers that it was held on a 90-degree afternoon in August. There were just 25 people in the field and after one dropped out, he found himself 24th and last, which is where he finished after getting lost on the course.
The experience did not discourage him and he ran seven more races that year.
A few weeks ago, after the annual Pearl Harbor Day Masters race in Waterford, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the 71-year-old Zuleger, who had just completed the 2,011th race of his career. That's an average of 60 races a year, which seemed impossible when you consider injuries, family and job responsibilities, and other factors.
Earlier this week, I spent an entertaining hour talking to Zuleger about his remarkable 33-year racing career.
A retired assistant vice president of operations for Citizens Bank, Zuleger had run two miles a day, four days a week in the few years leading up to that first race. But he wondered what it would be like to run longer.
So he plunked down his $5 entry fee, the first of what would become tens of thousands of dollars of entry fees over the years. Two years after that first race, Zuleger went even longer, finishing the first of several Ocean State marathons in 3:43.
"After the race I figured that was never going to happen again," he said.
But like most marathoners, he forgot the pain and signed up to run again in 1980, which led to him qualifying for his first of 11 Boston marathons.
Zuleger lists the 1989 New York City Marathon as his favorite race. He ran 3:06, his PR. He soon began running marathons around the world from Berlin, Stockholm and Dublin to Athens, New Zealand and London, 31 in all.
Zuleger has kept meticulous records of every race he's run, from marathons to local fun runs, with information about his time, place, pace, percentile of the field he finished in, weather and course details.
He's run one race, Newport's Run for Hope, 22 times. In 1992 he set his personal record for most races in a year, 102. And he once ran four 5-mile races in one weekend. And he's not slow. He often places in or wins his age group.
Here's what impressed me the most. Zuleger has a collection of 900 of his favorite race T-shirts (he's given some away). He keeps each on a hanger and groups them according to the month of the race.
"Right now I'm wearing the long-sleeve ones from October," he told me.
If you're wondering, he lives alone.
He said his reasons for racing are simple.
They keep him in good shape, offer an easy way to get in a tough workout and most of all have introduced him to a lot of wonderful people, including a number of world-class runners and a few girlfriends.
"You meet so many great people and it gives you a social life," said Zuleger, who has four children from a previous marriage.
His favorite races are the Falmouth Road Race, which he's run 20 times, Beach to Beacon in Maine and the Mount Washington Road Race, where he's reached the summit 13 times.
When he's not racing, Zuleger said he just runs easy. One key to his longevity is he's only had one injury over the years, a bout of plantar fasciitis that sidelined him for several months.
Zuleger ended 2009 with 2,018 races on his resume. But that number won't last long. He hopes to run 60 to 70 more in 2010, including races on the first two days of the new year.
On the schedule
• Looking to add to your 2009 race total? Bacon Academy's 5th annual 5K Resolution Road race will be held 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 26 at the school, 611 Norwich Ave. in Colchester. Registration is available at www.active.com until today. Race-day registration is available as well. For more information, call Christopher Juhl or Karen Christianson at 860-537-2378 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.