Gary Fanelli claims the world records for the fastest marathons run while costumed as a ghost, a pirate, a teamster, a migrant farm worker and Michael Jackson. Road racing's longest-running joke disdains the usual garb of singlet and shorts and wears whatever suits him. In the 1986 New York City Marathon, it was a Mets uniform. He played catch with spectators along the route and slid across the finish line. This year he toured New York's five boroughs as Chef Ronzoni, wearing a white tunic and toque. Despite bantering with the crowd, stopping to pose for pictures and holding a box of his sponsor's pasta aloft on a silver tray, Fanelli finished in 2:56:48, good enough for 836th place in the field of 22,509.
The 37-year-old Fanelli, whose personal best is a very serious 2:14:16, puts on his road show about 20 times a year at races of varying lengths and also runs a few serious races in regular gear. He claims to have made as much as $5,000 a race in winnings and appearance fees, plus room, board and airfare. "To have Gary Fanelli in your marathon is a prestigious thing," says Fanelli. "But the money is just incidental. There's a lot of stress in the world. Everything I do is in the name of laughter. When you laugh, you raise the positive vibrations of the world."
Fanelli calls himself "a major clown in the universe," but back home in Ardsley, Pa., he was just another class cutup. He remembers knocking on the door of an older neighbor who had longish hair.
"Get a haircut, Tarzan!" Fanelli yelled, and then ran for his life.
December 14, 1987
That sort of behavior made him a sprinter. He didn't become a marathoner until he let his own hair grow, dropped out of Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College and joined a commune in Maui, Hawaii, in 1969. He didn't stay long. After a few months, he says, an inner voice whispered, "You're a runner, Gary. You can be really good. Get out of here."
Fanelli listened, returned to Ardsley and went into training. In 1980 he made the U.S. Olympic trials in Niagara Falls. To protest the American boycott of the Summer Games, he ran in a shirt that read THE ROAD TO MOSCOW ENDS HERE. He led for 15 miles before dropping back into the pack. Fanelli says he set the burning pace so that the three U.S. qualifiers would all have better times than the eventual Olympic champion. The three all finished under 2:11:00. In Moscow a month later, East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski won in 2:11:03.
Fanelli retained his competitive edge, leading the 1981 Boston Marathon for 16 miles. That was the year he discovered costume racing. He was flipping through some old 45s in a Souderton, Pa., thrift shop when he saw the Suit. His inner voice whispered "Elwood! Elwood!" The voice was referring to Elwood Blues, Dan Aykroyd's character in The Blues Brothers. "I knew then that I was on a mission from God," says Fanelli. He bought the suit, added a thin black tie, dark glasses and a black fedora, and wore it to a runners' party. The ensemble was such a hit that he wore it for his next race, a 10K run in Southampton, Pa. The Suit was a bigger hit there. He won. As Fanelli crossed the finish line, he even played a few bars of I Can't Turn You Loose on a harmonica.
Since then Elwood has, at various times, been seen dashing over the Verrazano Bridge in New York, up Heartbreak Hill in Boston and through Olympic Stadium in Stockholm. Sometimes that sharkskin gets a little steamy inside. In Pittsburgh, Fanelli ran with his hat and both hands full of ice cubes. "The show must go on," he says.
By now Fanelli has a trunkful of characters. There's the geeky Clarence Nerdelbaum, who carries a calculator and pocket "nerd pack" full of pens and pencils; Dr. Outrageous, a hip neurosurgeon in a surgical mask and scrubs; and Gary Wallstreet, who competed last spring in the Wall Street Rat Race, a 3K run in which the runners circle Manhattan's financial district in business togs while gripping attachè cases. Before that race, Fanelli gave noontime clinics on how to run with success while dressed for success.
Two years ago at a marathon in Jamaica, Fanelli set a national record of 2:24:41 as Billy Chester Polyester. He describes his getup—straw hat, oversized Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt—as "patio wear from Sears." He might have finished a minute faster if, with 100 yards to go, he hadn't started running backward and dancing reggae style.
Fanelli won some 20 of 35 serious races this year, including six in Hawaii, where he now lives. "I do have to race for real every so often," he says, "just to feel what it's like to run as Gary Fanelli again."