Mike Fanelli

Mike Finelli died this past November from brain cancer. I’m hesitant to say he battled his illness since brain cancer is generally terminal. More appropriately, Mike lived as well as he could under the circumstances. He only revealed his diagnosis to family and a few friends as he lived life the best he could.

The Curator

Throughout his illness, Mike continued to maintain his museum grade collection of running memorabilia which he passionately housed in the Track and Field Garage next to his home in Napa Valley, California. In addition, he continued to update his Facebook page for his more than 4000 followers who checked in to read his historical posts and view relics from his collection. In one of his last post in November, Mike showed his typical self-effacing irony and humor when he wrote, “damn rodents ate ALL of my award ribbons (in approx. 1998)….like 60 of them…chewed them up to make rat bedding…gross…even peed on my high school varsity letter too… BUT, they spared the patch…only ONE way to get such a patch and that was to win outright an association championship. In Feb 1979, I surprisingly won the 50K (31.1 miles) road championships in 3:05:13 (5:53 per mile for 31 miles) at age 23.”

The Runner

Running was Mike’s passion. By his count and documented in volumes of journals, he ran two laps around the world. In the last half decade or so these miles were compiled in spite of enormous pain from the erosion of cartilage in his feet. 

Mike vaguely mentioned his running career in his numerous Facebook posts. He preferred to share the stories of the sport’s headliners and highlight their memorabilia. Yet, in my eyes, Mike was a badass runner. I know, first hand.

Fittingly, Mike and I first met at a road race almost forty years ago. I had just finished college and entered a local 8K in Washington, D.C. The race remains indelibly etched in my mind. At the gun, Mike and his brother Gary bolted into the lead and never looked back. I was astonished that two guys dressed as the Blues Brothers whooped me so soundly. It’s all relative and to this 800M runner, Mike was World Class.

The Ambassador

A few years later when I reminded Mike how we met, he was sheepish. He seemed to want to distance himself from his past silliness. Instead, Mike had begun to forge his identity as one of the most able and passionate champions of Athletics. He represented the sport with the same dignity and commitment that the athletes waged to achieve their feats. He embodied what running means to all of us who derived as much joy from the sport as he did.

The Meet Director

As many have noted, Mike wore many hats. One label he proudly wore was “Meet Director.” In his 1992 Pacific TAC meet, he gave San Francisco its first sub 4:00 mile. Moreover, Mike defied the IAAF on that day. 

Only a week prior to Mike’s meet, the 400M World Record holder, Butch Reynolds, was ordered by the IAAF’s General Secretary Istvan Gyulai not to run the Bruce Jenner Classic in San Jose, California. At the time, Butch was suspended by the IAAF for a failed drug test. However, enough questions surrounded the protocol of Butch’s positive test that a U.S. district judge issued a restraining order not to interfere in Butch’s participation in any U.S.A track meets.

The Agitator

In defiance of U.S rule of law, Gyulai reiterated Butch was banned by the IAAF. He also threatened to suspend any runners that competed against Butch and strip the Jenner Classic of its Grand Prix status if he ran. The spineless Jenner meet director, Bert Bonnano, enforced the ban. Butch’s chance to run an Olympic trials qualifying mark looked bleak. 

Mike’s Pacific TAC meet was probably Butch’s final chance to hit the trials standard. I can not speak directly to Mike’s motivation to have Butch run in his race. I’m sure “athlete’s rights” was one explanation. Patriotism could have been another. Nevertheless, it would take courage, intelligence, guile and a host of other traits embodied by Mike Fanelli to get Butch to the starting line without jeopardizing other athletes eligibility.

The plan Mike devised was that only a few people could know Butch was slated to run. The secrecy was necessary because only athletes knowingly competing in a meet with a banned athlete could be suspended. In turn, Butch’s race was the last competition of the day. This gave everyone who ran before the 400M plausible deniability that they knew Butch was running that day. The athletes who raced against him assumed the risk. 

Butch did a clandestine warm-up. He miraculously appeared in his lane, slipped into the blocks and got his Olympic Trials qualifying mark. 

How do I know all this? I’m sure Mike never spilled this story at the Wild Duck winding down with a few beers after the pre Classic. He was too modest.

I only know this story because I trained with Butch in Palo Alto at the time. When I first shared my memory of that day with Mike he chuckled and said, “I can’t tell you how many times the IAAF faxed me to get the list of runners who ran against Butch in that 400M. They were NEVER getting those results.”

The Friend

Mike was teaching us until the very end. As Renay conveyed, “Mike preferred to live his life as if he was living, not dying.” Sadly, this stance didn’t give most of us a chance to say good-bye. Yet, my vanity and ego tell me otherwise. Mike posted a picture of a victory of mine only a month ago. I’m honored to have been on your mind. Your friendship will be with me forever.

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