Lutherville resident Gene Fritzel has run 240 marathons, including one in every state, but his most recent race through his own neighborhood on Oct. 10 may have been the most memorable of all.
His neighbors helped him celebrate his retirement from marathon running by organizing the Country Club Park Victory Lap Running Festival.
Fritzel, 70, had planned on ending his marathon career by running in person at the Baltimore Running Festival on Oct. 17, but the race is being held as a virtual event because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’m so glad that Baltimore didn’t have their marathon this year because it gave me a chance to run in the neighborhood and the people knew about it and the signs that were out, and it became such a neighborhood thing and it was just an overwhelming experience,” Fritzel said.
Neighbors Nadine Fenchak, Brian Kavanagh, Pedro and Michelle Hackshaw, Mark Malone and Dana Brener were instrumental in getting the race in motion.
“They were the ones that kind of really took this ball and made it so special for me, and I’ll always be indebted to them. It’s just how I feel about it; I just love them to death for doing this,” said Fritzel, noting Malone mapped out the course.
In addition to Fritzel, who was the only one who ran the full marathon, there was also a half marathon, 10K, 5K and Kids Fun Run.
“It was an absolute blast,” wrote his daughter Kristyn Harrold.
Kavanagh, who was born in the neighborhood in 1976 and moved back in 2014 after seven years in Toronto, has fond memories of Fritzel.
“I’ve always known him as the neighborhood runner," he said. “Everybody knows him. You ask anybody in the neighborhood and everybody knows him.”
Kavanagh ran the 10K and was amazed by the support of the community.
“It was the most random stuff. There were so many signs out on the streets, people cheering him on," he said. “At the finish line there was probably 50 to 100 people, and yet everybody had masks and everybody was set up in family pods.”
Fenchak, who put out word of the event on Facebook and saw the buildup explode through the neighborhood, wasn’t surprised by the support.
“We had to make it more of a community thing so he wouldn’t feel it was about him,” said Fenchak, who ran the 10K race. “He’s very humble and he didn’t want it to be about him.”
Fritzel’s official time was 6:59.03, and he made sure it would count toward the Baltimore Running Festival’s virtual race that allows runners to complete a course of choice at any time.
“I was bummed out when I couldn’t finish marathons this year because I didn’t want to continue to train one more year for a marathon because I am just getting too slow to do them,” he said.
“I contacted Lee Corrigan from Corrigan Sports and I said, ‘Lee, I just want to make sure that I would get credit for the marathon this year because I wanted it official,’” Fritzel said.
The race time was officially recognized for Fritzel, who had run the previous 19 Baltimore Running Festival marathon races with crowds of runners.
“I think Gene thought initially the [community] race was going to be mentally tough because he didn’t have the adrenaline of being on the race course, but I think in some ways it was really nice for him because he had people that he knew all along the race course,” Fenchak said.
He had someone on a bike to provide snacks and help guide him along the way and an Apple Watch with GPS to aid his journey.
“It wasn’t like running a marathon where you are following the pack, you were pretty much by yourself,” Fritzel said.
Fritzel celebrated the milestone by running in the neighborhood the next day.
“I have been running for 30 or 35 years and it’s just a part of my life, and the only thing I’m stopping doing now is the marathons,” he said. “Now, at the Running Festival and these places, I’ll be doing the halves.”
His first marathon was the Marine Corps in 1991, and his fastest one (3:11.34) came at age 48 in the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota in 1998.
That run came during his quest to complete the 26.2-mile races in all 50 states, and he accomplished that challenge in 2008.
“My wife and I, when she was alive, we did a lot of vacations around my runs and stuff like that,” said Fritzel, who even raced out of the country. “I finished the states and a year and a half ago I did Africa, the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon. It’s just such a rewarding experience between Africa and this one; they were just the most rewarding runs.”
The actual race in Africa was in the town of Moshi in Tanzania, but the day before the race he climbed Kilimanjaro.
Fritzel, who graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 1968, ran the half-mile there for two years, but didn’t start running again until years later.
“I just started brisk walking and suddenly one day I was running and then one day I’m doing 5Ks, and then you start running distances, and at one point in time I was fairly decent but I was never an elite runner,” he said. “After that, you just did them because they just become part of you and then you get into a circuit of other marathoners and it became part of your life.”
Fritzel worked 21 years for the Baltimore City Police Department, retiring from there in 1993, before working another 27 years for the Baltimore County Sheriff’s Department.
During his retirement, he has added playing pickleball to his exercise plate.
But, running — and seeing his neighbors along the way — is his passion, even if it does slow him.
“There’s half the times when I don’t have a lot of time, I have to go out of the neighborhood now because if you don’t you are running into people and all they want to do is talk now. I love talking with them, but sometimes you can’t do it.” he said.
Fenchak bonded with Fritzel through running and knows the neighbors wouldn’t have it any other way.
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“He is a really special guy and he inspired a lot of people,” Fenchak said. “That’s why I think so many people in the neighborhood wanted to do this for him.”