Who is the oldest and most experienced runner in Coventry? It is no contest. The undisputed winner and still local road race king is 73-year-old Fred Zuleger.
For this 5'6", 119-pound senior-citizen titan of a runner can say he has competed or trained in 2,167 road races- and counting.
No other local runner can also say they have raced in West Greenwich and Bermuda; Narragansett and Berlin, Germany; London, England and Waterford, CT; Quebec City and Providence; up Mt. Washington and even in New Zealand to rub noses with members of Maui tribes.
Zuleger has always chronicled so many details of his training and race results- from time, pace and place to race fees, age-group placement, etc- in his red loose leaf folder and other small notebooks.
“I am up to 54,798.935 miles,” proudly said the retired Citizens Bank assistant Vice-President and 1956 Hope High School graduate who always loved, knew and compiled numbers well.
But Zulega has even more evidence that he has competed in such a staggering total of road races, with enough miles to travel over twice the circumference of the earth.
His house has become a living museum, of sorts, detailing his accomplishments, travels and sheer fun from just running.
First, there are hundreds of registration numbers attached to the walls of an entranceway with numbers ranging from 1 to as high as 12,000. “The one that has #1 on it was given to me because they decided to issue them in reverse alphabetical order,” he said. “Most of the time I am near the end.” Over 1,000 race shirts are stored in closets.
There are dozens of ribbons and medallions concentrated in one corridor and trophies on refrigerators, microwaves, in a patio, on a TV and elsewhere.
Hundreds of pictures show him with racing luminaries such as former German Olympian and gold medal winner, Ute Pippig. But most are with other runners he has befriended along the way. “Most of my friends are runners,” he admitted.
He has been active as former President of Rhode Island Road Runners and of New England 65-Plus runners Club.
He even keeps old sneakers in the garage, ‘retiring’ them only after “I have run about 1,200 miles with them."
Zulega started racing only after hearing about it from a friend and soon saw the health benefits. At one time his weight ‘ballooned’ to 160. But today, he is almost exactly the same as he was after graduating from Hope High School in 1956.
“I do not lift weights,” he said of his training methods and lifestyle that also concentrate on healthy eating, except for ice cream, that is. His only major injury was plantar fascitis and even that did not deter him from traveling overseas during one major historic event.
Despite the injury, he willed himself to run in a marathon through the Brandenberg Gate in Germany in 1990, celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. “So I guess you can say I ran through a wall when I got there,” he said, showing a piece of the wall he brought back with him on the historic four-day trip.
In his first race in West Warwick, he came in 24th and only because another runner who would have finished last dropped out. “I wondered what it was like to run five miles. I got lost and ran about 5.3 miles in a five-mile race in Raynham and finished last, but I enjoyed it.”
So began his foray into competition, sometimes running as far as 18 miles a day to train to compete in marathons and getting up before the crack of dawn before work to do so. Otherwise he often averaged 24 miles a week to train for shorter races.
After reaching age 50, 1989 to 1991- is when he attained his best times in races that usually were five and 10 miles as well as half-marathons and marathons. “I used to average seven to eight minutes per mile, but now I am in the 11 to 12 range,” he explained. His top finishes usually earn him automatic placement in many races.
Among his 1,008 age-group top three finishes, Zulega's best effort in the marathon distance was in one of the most famous races of all. “My best time was in the New York City Marathon in 1989 when I ran 3:06:04,” he said of the famed 26.2 mile marathon route. “Then there were 28,000 runners and now there are over 45,000.”
“The coldest I ever ran was 18 below in Coventry when I was running with Charlie Bowen, former Central Coventry Fire Chief,” he recalled. “It was a sunny day, but frost had condensed and frozen all over our faces.”
On the contrary, he has run and trained when temperatures reached the mid 90s, too.
Oh, the stories he can and does tell of so many races, including the famed Boston Marathon - 11 times in all, and of course, the Ocean State Marathon. In France, instead of just water being given to runners for rehydration at some of the pit stops in a marathon, he said wine was also offered, instead.
So if you see a short, thin, older and very fit athlete running the streets of Coventry, it is likely to be Zuleger. Give him a gentle honk and a wave as he runs around the local streets. And wish him well on his next race.
“Running a marathon is like going on a journey and not knowing what will happen," he said.
Zulega has every intention of adding on more journeys, miles, smiles and good times with his friends.