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Omaha Magazine

Iron Phil’s 4,378 miles and counting: “I didn't know 13-year-olds weren’t supposed to run ."

Aug 31, 2020 03:56PM ● By Ryan Borchers
Omaha marathon runner Phil Perrone

Phil Perrone ran his first marathon at age 13, completing the event in Falls City, Nebraska, with his dad in under four hours.

“In those days, [running a marathon at that age] was kind of unheard of,” he said. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to. I mean, my dad just said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and we did it.

“I guess I didn’t know 13-year-olds weren’t supposed to run.”

An Omaha native and graduate of Westside High School, Perrone, who turns 60 in early 2021, has always been athletic, but he had a special reason to take up running at such a young age.

“I wanted to spend time with my dad,” he said. 

Perrone and his father, Frank, continued running marathons together, of which their “most recent” was in 2001. Frank took up running around the age of 35 and has run nearly 45 marathons.

Perrone, though, has participated in 167 marathons, which equals a little over 4,378 miles. That’s a bit longer than the driving distance from Juneau, Alaska, to West Palm Beach, Florida. Although he has not run that literal route, he has run through all manner of temperatures and terrains.

One memorable marathon was held in Kansas City on Oct. 25, 1997.

“It started out 40 degrees and freezing rain and ended up a blizzard,” he said. “It was so cold I didn’t want to walk, so I just kept running and I did a real fast time.”

Across the Midwest, a snowstorm that day created havoc. In Omaha, the memorable storm dumped 9.2 inches of snow on Omaha and caused widespread power outages.

Perrone also ran a marathon in Las Vegas, aptly called “Run with the Devil,” where the temperature was 93 degrees at the beginning of the race and 112 at the end.

Perrone served with the Army National guard in Nebraska for 36 years and ran for the military marathon team for approximately 15 years. Running helped him stay healthy and avoid bad habits. 

Other memorable runs include completing three marathons in three days around Lake Tahoe—which he has done on two separate occasions—and a 1983 marathon from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Minnesota, in which he ran his personal best time of 2 hours, 58 minutes.

“It was 6,000 runners out there, and the problem with that is…there’s so many runners, nobody that I knew could be there to appreciate it with me,” he said. “You couldn’t communicate with your family, so you were kind of finishing on your own.”

Perrone, though, isn’t one to let something like that make the experience any less special.

“As far as a marathon goes, every one you finish, to me, is the best,” he said.

At age 16, Perrone, Frank, and Perrone’s two brothers ran the 1977 Omaha Marathon together and were the subjects of an article that appeared in the Omaha Sun. A young girl by the name of Lisa saw his picture in the paper, after which they were set up on a blind date. Lisa eventually married Perrone, and, during a half-marathon they walked in Las Vegas in September 2019, the couple renewed their wedding vows on the course.

“It’s called a Run-Thru Wedding,” he said. “About four miles into the race you get in there with 250 of your closest friends in about a 30-square foot area and they marry you.”

Participating in marathons, Perrone said, has been good for his life. He did not let a 2017 knee replacement stop him from his preferred form of exercise. He has been told he’s a “bad quitter.”

“For probably the first 38 or 40 years of my running, I almost never was injured,” Perrone said. “But through the years of the military, and all the training that I did and all the activity I did, my knee just…wore out.

“That was a tough time,” he said. “I knew that my running was over.” 

Running had been a way for Perrone to relax. It was good for his physical health, but more importantly, it was good for his mental health. It helped him escape from all the stress he experienced in the military.

This development was not a complete surprise. One of Perrone’s brothers had a knee replacement earlier, even though he didn’t run to the same extent Perrone did, and his mother had two knee replacements. However, Perrone’s doctor told him he could one day walk in a marathon.

“You just have to re-evaluate and readjust your goals,” he said. “My running’s over, but I can still be out there on the course.” 

He walks 20-25 miles a week, often at his favorite spot, Lake Zorinsky. Perrone has walked two marathons, and he plans on walking the Omaha Marathon this month.

Walking large portions of a marathon isn’t unheard of, said John Eickman, vice president of HITS Endurance, which organizes the Omaha Marathon and works with the Omaha nonprofit Partnership 4 Kids, which helps at-risk kids finish high school and set life goals. HITS Endurance makes sure to accommodate people who are determined to complete the race and think they may finish after the race officially ends.

“There are a lot of people who have a goal of running a marathon, and if they are uncertain about whether they’re going to be able to make the cutoff, yeah, we do get probably one or two of those kinds of requests each year,” Eickman said.

Less common, though, is encountering someone in Perrone’s position.

“He wanted to know if it would be OK if he went over the time limit,” Eickman said, which is about six and a half hours before the course has to start opening up again. “Anybody…who wants to do a marathon after full knee replacement surgery deserves our respect, our humble respect.”

Many people, Eickman said, include running a marathon on their bucket lists. They may finish one, maybe a few others. But completing 167 marathons, especially at Perrone’s age, is a rare feat.

“I’m not aware of too many people that have done as many marathons as Phil,” Eickman said. “He’s top percentile in my mind.”

Perrone insists he isn’t a superman. He’s just a hard worker, someone who can hopefully inspire others to work hard, too.

“For me...it’s a self-confidence builder,” he said. “Every time I finish a race, I mean I just feel that much stronger and determined to go on with life and to move forward.” 

Visit omahamarathon.com for more information about the Omaha Marathon, hitsendurance.com for HITS Endurance and p4k.org for Partnership 4 Kids. To see a list of all the marathons Perrone has run, visit marathonmaniacs.com. 

This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.