As Denny Fryman sat on the couch in his comfortable home in Osceola County, “Let’s Make a Deal” providing background noise and his wife and her friend at the kitchen table, he cheerfully explained his long-running fascination with marathons.
Fryman completed his 1,000th marathon in August in Orlando, Fla.
“All of us have an identification,” said Fryman, 69. “We are labeled something throughout our lives. The first thing that people who I haven’t seen for a while say when they come up to my wife is, ‘Is Denny still running? Is he still doing those marathons?’ I am still enjoying it. I am still hungry.”
All of those miles – more than 26,000 and counting, a distance greater than traveling once around the world – would not have been possible without so many fortuitous and unexpected steps along the way.
A native of Ohio, Fryman did not run track or cross country in high school. He might not have begun running at all if he had not joined the Army Reserves during the Vietnam War and wanted to improve his conditioning for basic training.
Fryman might have stopped after his first marathon, in Monroe, Ohio, in 1978, if he had finished faster than 4 hours, 12 minutes. He certainly would not have gotten this far if he never had met a University of Toledo professor named Sy Mah months into what became a lifelong journey.
Fryman ran a marathon with Mah in Toledo on Father’s Day in 1979 and overcame some speed bumps, breaking four hours for the first time. Mah, who completed 524 marathons before he died in 1988, asked Fryman how he felt.
“I said, ‘I feel great. I’m just slow,’ ” Fryman said. “He said, ‘Don’t compare yourself to other people. Throw the clock out the window. You have the mindset that you can make the marathon the most wonderful experience of your life, because you recover so quickly.
” ‘I guarantee you all these people making fun of you, 10 years from now, they won’t be running, and you’ll be running years from now.’ “
Mah told Fryman so-called mega-marathoners have the ability to complete a high number of marathons and ultra-marathons (races longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles). He convinced Fryman that repetitive nature was inside him.
Approaching 2,500 such endurance races, Christian Hottas of Germany is believed to be the world’s most prolific mega-marathoner. Larry Macon, 71, of San Antonio leads among American runners with 1,773 marathons, according to a list called the World Megamarathon Ranking.
Fryman’s total of 1,001 marathons ranks fourth all time in the United States.
“In the beginning, it is beyond any comprehension,” Macon said. “When you do the first one, you think, ‘I am never going to do another one in my life.’ It is terrible, but then I started after I had done a few hundred, then all of a sudden, I started getting some goals and wanting to add them up. It becomes a compulsion.”
Texan Jim Reeve, who knows Fryman, has finished about 700 marathons.
“You have to really enjoy running and get a feeling of satisfaction for finishing each marathon,” Reeve said. “You run into people and become acquaintances with people who have the same experience. You have to be really motivated to get out there. It is like having another job.”
Fryman has run marathons in 12 states and Canada. He has completed the New York City and Los Angeles marathons three times each and crossed the finish line in Chicago and Detroit. Fryman, a retired banker and college instructor who works as a concierge at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, finished the first Disney World Marathon in 1994.
He has run 10 Boston Marathons.
“He has never dropped out of a race that he started,” said Dorann Fryman, Denny’s wife of 43 years. “He has had a couple of operations. He had a hernia, and they told him he couldn’t run. It was devastating to him. He had an operation on his ear in Ohio, and they told him not to run for a couple of weeks. He ran anyway.”
Fryman once ran more than 50 marathons in a year. He averaged 40 annually during the 1980s and ’90s. Now he is down, relatively speaking, to 20-25 a year.
“My goal was never to get to 1,000,” Fryman said. “You get this (runner’s) high, and you don’t want to give it away. I never even thought of 1,000 until I got to 990. Then I am thinking, ‘I am 10 away.’ “
Fryman said it is most gratifying how his journey has inspired others to begin running.
He said a bank president in Ohio once read an article about Fryman and started training for his first marathon in his mid-50s. Coworkers have used Fryman’s story as a source of adrenaline to register for 5Ks. Fryman advised and encouraged a manager at Disney as she prepared to run her first Disney World Marathon last January.
“You feel a sense of pride and everything, but it means I took the gifts that God gave me and I did the best with what I had,” said Fryman, whose personal best for the marathon is about 3:31 but averages 5 1/2 hours to six hours now.
“I can’t quit. I would miss it so much. If I stopped, I am afraid I would feel less of a person, for some strange reason.”
No chance. Fryman’s passion has marked him for life – and beyond.
A shoe is engraved on the tombstone awaiting Fryman in Mount Peace Cemetery in St. Cloud, along with two words.