This is the official obituary for Mike Fanelli, written by Peter J. Thompson, which was approved by his wife, Renay Weissberger Fanelli.  This will be the first of several pieces we will do in honor of Mike Fanelli, a wonderful human presence in the sport that I had loved for 40-plus years. He will be missed. 

 

Mike Fanelli, Respected and Renowned Cultural Storyteller of Track and field Athletics, Passes, by Peter J. Thompson

The world of Track and Field Athletics is deeply saddened by the news that Michael ‘Mike’ Fanelli died on 25 November 2023 from glioblastoma brain cancer at the age of 67. His wife, Renay Weissberger Fanelli, shared that Michael passed peacefully at home in the company of loved ones.

Mike Fanelli was a true Renaissance man and wore many hats during a lifelong affair with Track and Field Athletics. He was an athlete, a coach, a mentor, an athletes’ agent, an elite athlete coordinator for national and international events, a sports marketing director, a color commentator, and an eloquent and accomplished speaker. But above all, he is remembered for being a historian, a ‘collector’ and a storyteller. As a collector, he operated in two distinct arenas. He gathered data about his own running, and he collected significant track & field artifacts dating back to the start of track and field in the USA and internationally.

Mike Fanelli leads the pack, Crystal Springs, 1981

But Mike didn’t collect just for the sake of collecting and ‘having’ something. He collected so that there would be a record that told the story of the sport he loved and that he could freely share, which he did with a boundless enthusiasm expressed in his regular and compelling posts for his thousands of followers on Facebook. Mike summed it up best when he said, “I refer to it as ‘cultural storytelling.’ When a particular culture wants to pass down their history over the years, and it’s not something that can be transcribed otherwise, this is our opportunity to do that.”

Michael Joseph Fanelli was born on 1 May, 1956 in Philadelphia. At the age of 12, he was “glued to the television” as he watched the USA track & field athletes compete at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. He fell in love with the sport and started running and collecting autographs and memorabilia in junior high school. From the very outset, he kept a methodical and meticulous log of his running training and competitive performances, which is how he always knew and could evidence his lifetime mileage.

In 1970, he made it onto the Bishop McDevitt High School’s cross-country team as a freshman and embarked on a running career that included over 800 races ranging over all distances from 400m to 100 miles and spanning five decades. His competitive achievements are too numerous to list but include national-class performances of 4:16 for the mile, 2:25 for the marathon, and completing a 100-mile race in 16 hours and 40 minutes. Fanelli won the San Francisco Pacific Rim Marathon on two occasions, in 1988 and 1989. And at age 50, he could still run a mile in 4:56.

115,000 Lifetime Miles

Mike Fanelli’s consistency and his dedication to healthy training and racing ensured that his lifetime mileage was truly prodigious. As the years passed, so he accrued milestones. The first really significant one of these came when he approached 100,000-lifetime miles. He predicted when he might achieve this, and in 2012, Fanelli returned to Philly, to where he grew up, and on November 18th, ran the Philadelphia Marathon. This was his 40th marathon, and during the race, he joined the ‘100,000-Mile Club’, a small and very select group of runners who can evidence that they have run at least 100,000 miles in their lives. 

Fascinated by numbers and motivated by goals, Mike achieved his next target of 114,411 miles one year ago on November 5th, 2022. The palindromic nature of 114,411 miles appealed to his sense of significance. His running continued and Renay Weissberger Fanelli recalls Michael’s response to the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of glioblastoma, “Through it all, he continued to do the things he loved, including running, of course. In October 2023, he achieved his goal of reaching 115,000-lifetime miles run, the equivalent of circumnavigating the world more than 4 times.” 

Mike Fanelli, photo by Paul Merca

Mike Fanelli was one of the early pioneers in athletics, with integral roles in the transition of track and field and running from a wholly Corinthian, amateur sport to one having a recognized and accepted professional elite. Starting in the late 1970s, into the 80s 90s, and to today, athletics is continuing to evolve to meet the needs for both a professional and amateur side. And moving to the West Coast in 1976, Mike was part of that journey, both facilitating change and recording the cultural evolution.

He was associated with the Bay Area’s most famous race, the iconic Bay to Breakers, from 1985 to 2005 as a color commentator, and during this time, he was also Running Promotions Director at Reebok International Ltd. (1984-1987). Mike was an experienced and popular coach and mentor, and in the decade from 1990 to 2000 was the head coach of the Impala Racing Team, a Bay Area elite women’s team. Coaching post-collegiately, he skillfully guided 14 athletes to Olympic Track & Field and Marathon Trials qualification. He served as the USATF National Cross-Country chairman from 1992 to 1994 and coached the USA National Team at international distance events in Japan (1992 and 1996), South Korea (2000) and as USA National Team Leader for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Spain, 1993. 

The Track and Field Garage

For thousands of Facebook followers, Mike Fanelli was the renowned keeper of the legendary but self-deprecatingly titled ‘Track and Field Garage’, the home for his collection of 5,000-plus artifacts, magazines, and programs dating back to the 1860s. Each day Mike would pull out and share some nugget from his collection and eloquently recount its story and the context and significance of that story.

In a 2022 Runners’ World article titled, ‘The World’s Most Impressive Track and Field Collection Might Be in This Guy’s Garage’, Theo Kahler summed up Mike Fanelli’s influence on the sport when he stated, “For over 50 years, Mike Fanelli has kept the sport’s history alive.” The ‘Garage’ contains the program from the U.S.’s first indoor track meet, held at a New York City skating rink in 1868. It also contains every issue of the sport’s foundational magazines, Track and Field News (founded in 1948) and Distance Running News (1966), which later became Runner’s World.

For those of you reading this and wondering, “What will become of the contents of the ‘Track and Field Garage’?” Be assured that they are safe. Earlier this year, Mike entrusted his collection to a friend and fellow historian and collector, Jack Pfeifer. Jack is a long-time Track and Field News correspondent and the current President of the Track and Field Writers of America, and, as planned, he transported the artifacts from the garage to safe storage in Oregon. Mike and Jack decided to seek a permanent location for the amalgamated collection of track memorabilia, naming the joint collection the ‘Pfeifer-Fanelli Track and Field and Cross-Country Library’. Look for a further announcement at a future date.

Michael and Renay on the Red Carpet as Patrons of the Alexander Valley Film Festival, 2015.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that Mike Fanelli achieved all of his diverse and time-consuming avocational activities in and for Track and Field Athletics while maintaining a full-time and demanding professional position. Since 2006, Michael Fanelli was a luxury property specialist with Healdsburg Sotheby’s International Realty, specializing in the sales and marketing of fine wine country residential properties throughout Sonoma County and beyond. With a total of more than 25 years of real estate experience, and a half-billion dollars in sales, he won countless national industry awards and was perennially ranked within the top one percent of all real estate professionals nationwide. Recognized as an expert in the field, it was natural that Michael would become a frequent lecturer on business success strategies and a guest commentator on KGO radio, offering insights on the Greater San Francisco and Bay Area real estate topics and issues.

Michael Fanelli possessed so many positive traits and qualities, including a dedicated loyalty. It was typical that this loyalty would be expressed in his relationships with family and friends and a continuing connection to and support of his alma mater, San Francisco State University. At SFSU, he ran on the varsity team1981-1983 and graduated in Business Marketing in 1983. In 2011, Michael was inducted into the SFSU Hall of Fame. He still holds the SFSU school record for 10,000m, set in 1981, has an athletics scholarship endowed in his name, and in 2019 the school’s signature, 3-day distance carnival was re-named in his honor, becoming the ‘Mike Fanelli Track Classic’.

The worldwide family of Athletics passes on its sincerest condolences to Michael Fanelli’s family and friends. Michael is survived by his wife, Renay Weissberger Fanelli, and pup, River. A service honoring Michael will be held in January 2024. Renay has suggested that, in lieu of flowers, consider making a contribution to the ‘Mike Fanelli Scholarship Fund’ at his alma mater, San Francisco State University. Renay set up this scholarship years ago to honor Michael on his 50th birthday. Each year, the scholarship goes to an individual who stands out as a leader and an inspiration to others rather than simply being the fastest runner on the team.

Here’s a link to donate: Mike Fanelli Scholarship Fund

Rest In Peace, Michael Fanelli. You may have departed the earth as we know it, but your presence and contribution shall never be forgotten.

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