The People Who Can't Not Run

For a community of runners, never taking a day off becomes a fixture of existence.
Satish Krishnamurthy/flickr

When Gaby Cohen found out she needed a C-section, she headed to the private bathroom in her labor room and jogged in place for 12 minutes. The 44-year-old didn’t want childbirth to end her 14-year record of running every single day.

“I know it sounds ridiculous and insane, but I think I would’ve been really, really upset, and I think I would’ve been really worried about it,” she says.

Cohen, a summer camp administrative director, now 51, will hit 22 years in November 2014, and she hardly holds the record. Some people have run daily for more than 40 years.

Cohen and hundreds of others live by a simple principle: Run every day. Period. Some of these “streak runners” call themselves “streakers,” and to avoid the forbidden skipped day, they’ve persevered through flu, whooping cough, and even the eye of a hurricane. The United States Running Streak Association defines a streak as “at least one continuous mile (1.61 kilometers) within each calendar day under one’s own body power (without the utilization of any type of health or mechanical aid other than prosthetic devices).” Treadmills are OK, but crutches and canes are not. You can’t run your mile in the pool, either.

Super-dedicated people who go at least a year can get on USRSA’s official list. It’s not clear how many U.S. streakers are out there, but the association’s numbers are increasing. USRSA’s newsletter listed 86 active people in the spring of 2002, but the website listed more than 430 in March 2014. The association’s Facebook group started with 40 members in April 2011 and now, with its counterpart Streak Runners International, it has more than 1,000. Some experts call daily running risky, and researchers haven’t formally studied the practice, but streak runners point to its benefits in their lives. 

Just like a signature Tom Hanks character, some of these people aren’t shooting for a particular tangible goal, says Michele Kerulis, director of sport and health psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “I think about Forrest Gump,” Kerulis says. “He just wanted to run.”

*  *  *

They all start for different reasons, but for everyone, streaking becomes a fixture of their existence. Former everyday runner Kevin Germino of Orland Park, Illinois, churned out two miles at about 12 minutes per mile the day after his vasectomy. That’s pretty good, considering he “felt like someone was pulling on my balls.”

Now, imagine streaking for 45 years over a distance about six times the earth’s circumference. Mark Covert, a teacher and track and cross-country coach at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California, ran through arthroscopic knee surgery, rotator cuff surgery, and a broken left foot, logging close to 150,000 miles during his 45-year streak. He’s a legend among streakers and has gotten the attention of Runner’s World, CNN, and ESPN. Covert decided to end his streak in 2013 when midfoot collapse in his right foot—which he says resulted from flat feet—persuaded him it wasn’t worth it to keep going. “Many people would say that the streak controlled my life,” says Covert, 63. “I always thought that I controlled the streak.”

Juggling the daily commitment with work demands takes adaptability. When flight attendant Deb Brassfield-Zoltie has  a 4:45 a.m. check-in time, she wakes up at 1:15 a.m. to run. She’ll get to the airport by 4 a.m. The 54-year-old’s outfit distinguishes her, too—people around Los Gatos, California, call her “Pinkie” because she works out every day in a pink shirt, short, sunglasses, and hat. Brassfield-Zoltie’s license plate reads RUNRNUT, and she lives up to the title. She set a goal to run every day for 20 years, and she’s made it to year 16 already.

During any long streak, storms of life hit—literally, for David Walberg, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and has been going for more than 31 years. When the eye of Hurricane Frances passed over his neighborhood in 2004, he seized the serene moment to do a 1.2-miler. Cold weather didn’t stop him, either. The independent editorial photographer and former Schaumburg, Illinois, resident says he headed out in a Chicago-area windchill of -75 degrees. “It’s just part of my lifestyle to go out and run everyday,” he says.

Sometimes, the anti-streak hurdles originate from within. When shingles struck, Denise Eberhardt kept running. The 47-year-old, who works for a marketing research firm, hit year seven May 4. “I’m tougher than shingles,” says Eberhardt, who lives in Yorkville, Illinois. “I can run, therefore I will.”

*  *  *

When it comes to sports, streaks are nothing new. Cal Ripken played 2,632 games without missing a single one, and NFL quarterback Johnny Unitas logged 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. As for running, the first known streakers started in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Ted Corbitt, who competed in the 1952 Olympic marathon, has the earliest start year on USRSA’s “retired” list—1953. He went for more than 14 years. Former Olympic marathoner Ron Hill from England has been running daily since 1964. Bob Ray of Nottingham, Maryland streaked from 1967 to 2005, and of course, Mark Covert started in 1968 and finished 45 years later.

These guys were streaking back before the first running boom, which started in 1972 and lasted until the mid-1980s, according to Ryan Lamppa, media director for Running USA. The national nonprofit maintains running industry data and aims to advance distance running in the U.S.

In 1993, George Messenger of Clarksdale, Mississippi penned a letter to Running Times magazine asking who had the U.S. record for running every day. In response, George A. Hancock of Windber, Pennsylvania, made the first known list of U.S. streakers, published in the running newspaper Runner’s Gazette in December 1994. It included about 50 people, leaving out individuals who didn’t want their names in print, says Hancock, a streaker and staff member at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Later, an insurance agent and streaker named John Strumsky presented Hancock with an idea to start an official group for everyday runners. Hancock says he backed the idea but left the job to Strumsky because he thought managing the entity could create more work than he bargained for, with streak runners coming into the light. USRSA was incorporated in August 2000, and Strumsky and his wife ran the organization until 2011, when current president Mark Washburne took over. Unlike in Ted Corbitt’s days, a streaker community now spans the country. Brassfield-Zoltie says the group helps her see she’s not the only person with this kind of lifestyle, and it offers motivation from like-minded people. “We all think the same,” Brassfield-Zoltie says. “And there’s obstacles you have to overcome so when you see someone overcome that obstacle you’re like, ‘Oh hey, I can do that, too.’”

On Facebook, people write personal updates and inspiring posts on the USRSA page. Search “#runstreak” on Twitter to see runners keeping track of their stats. And yes, there’s an app, too: StreakTrackr, designed to keep tabs on any kind of activity, whether it’s running, exercising, or studying. Streaking isn’t a walk (or even a run) in the park, but people find their own ways to make it work.

Perfect example: South Bend, Indiana resident Dan Myers, who’s been streaking for more than two years. When a car hit him in 2012, he finished his run despite a bleeding elbow and a knee he says was hyperextended. Then, like all streakers do, he went out the next day. Once, on the way home from Boston, a storm stranded him in Logan International Airport. So, he crossed his two bags over his chest in an X-shape and ran up and down a tunnel for more than 30 minutes. Myers, now 48, even measured out the distance with a phone pedometer to ensure he completed his personal daily minimum of 3.1 miles. “People run through airports all the time, so it wasn’t really that weird,” says Myers, a professor and vice president at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s not like somebody actually watches you running for half an hour.”

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Katherine Dempsey is a writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

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