May 16, 1983 12:00 PM

His job gone and his marriage on the rocks, Atlanta real estate salesman Don Nierling was nurturing his misery every day at lunch with four or five highballs. “People,” he says now, “have jumped off bridges for less”—and in a way, Don Nierling actually died. The boozing, chronically depressed, self-described “basket case” has vanished, and in his place is a new man. He calls himself Don Marathon, and he is a long-distance runner to the exclusion of everything else. “If, God forbid, I were to sprain an ankle and could not run, I don’t know what I’d do,” he admits. “I would be in trouble. My identity is so coincidental with marathoning—for Christ’s sake, my name is Marathon!” And his game is obsession.

Marathon lost his $150,000 house and custody of his three sons (ages 12 to 18) in a divorce last year. Although he had run in several races before, it wasn’t until six months after the divorce that he decided to dedicate his life to running. He bought a 1969 Cadillac hearse that is now his only home. He travels in it from race to race, sometimes logging 800 miles overnight, and sleeps in the back when he is not running or driving. “I can even do my sit-ups in it,” he says. The goal he set after running in his first 26.2-mile race last July 3: to break the world record of most marathons completed by a contestant in a single year. The record was 52, and this month Marathon ran his 53rd. By July 2 he expects to have competed in 66 marathons, and in the 1983 calendar year he hopes to chalk up 87.

Sometimes, when Don takes off his shoes after the second marathon of a weekend, his feet are covered with blood from torn blisters. That doesn’t discourage him. He competes not to win, although he usually places in the top 10 percent for his age group (40-49), but for the satisfaction of doing his best. “The gratification that comes from running a marathon rapidly evaporates,” he says, “so by midweek I’ve got an emptiness. I’ve got to go out and do it all over again. I’ve been called an ‘adult runaway,’ but I don’t regard myself as running away so much as running to a satisfying and fulfilling life.”

Some psychiatrists dispute that rationale. Three researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center who have studied middle-aged marathon runners have concluded that they are afflicted with a serious disorder akin to anorexia in young women. Like anorectics, these “obligatory runners” have exceptionally high self-expectations, fall into frequent depressions, and show a bizarre preoccupation with food. Just as the compulsively dieting anorectic grows gaunt in the quest for physical attractiveness, so the obligatory runner drives himself to extremes for the sake of physical effectiveness. Fasting for the anorectic and running for the marathoner become the core of a new identity. To stop is unimaginable.

The Arizona study was begun after Kevin Leehey, 29, a resident in psychiatry at the medical center and a long-distance runner himself, competed in a grueling marathon in the Grand Canyon two years ago. He was beaten by a 48-year-old man. “I kept wondering why these older men were running such a race and why it was so important in their lives,” he explains. “I found that a lot of them would go to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. so they could get up at 5 or 6 and run before work. They would run after work too. And they would discuss things like what they should bring for the run—water or a special drink? Should it be in a hip container or carried on the back? Whether to run in cotton or nylon clothing, the best kind of shoes, odd mixtures of food—it was very ritualistic.”

Leehey related his observations to two other medical center doctors, Alayne Yates and Catherine Shisslak, who were studying anorectics with similar symptoms. The trio decided to conduct a pilot study of 60 men between the ages of 30 and 50 who seemed to exhibit these rabid traits. They found that, like anorectics, the obligatory runners had been raised by parents who imposed their own wishes on the child and stunted the child’s sense of identity. “What separates the obligatory from the nonobligatory runner is that in the obligatory runner, something clicks,” says Leehey. “Running seems to help him, so he starts doing more and more. He finally begins seeing himself as a serious runner, and then he’s into a new identity. He talks about how running has made him happy, even though it may have caused him to lose a job or get divorced.”

Although he was not part of the Arizona research, Don Marathon agrees that he is “the classic example” of the scientists’ study. “I had some deep-seated psychological problems, due to the fact that my parents would not let me express my feelings and develop my own character,” says the Iowa-born son of a doctor and a nurse. “Now I’m expressing myself in a way that I have freely chosen. My best friends tend to be acquaintances I’ve just recently met, part of the running community. They give me the most encouragement, and they’re people I don’t even know. My immediate family gives me the least support.”

Relying on savings, Don says that he is content to live what he calls “a simple but noble life,” and plans to keep running into the next century. “This is a lifetime adventure,” he says. “I expect to be racing marathons when I’m 90 and I expect to live to be well over 100.” And should an injury cut off his running career? “I guess I’d become Don Nierling again.”

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