The People Who Can't Not Run

For a community of runners, never taking a day off becomes a fixture of existence.
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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.”

Myers says he doesn’t like running itself very much, but he’s reaped benefits from streaking. He lost about 25 pounds within the first four months, his blood pressure has gone down, and he’s got more energy, he says. To him, the streak is a positive influence. “It makes me do things that are good for me,” he says.

With daily running, the miles add up, and keeping track is the trick. Liam Flynn, 55, of Palos Heights, Illinois, has 20 journals for recording how far he’s run each day since he began his streak in 1995. After his 18th year in 2013, he had gone more than 35,000 miles. Some runners make recording more high-tech: Diana Davis, 28, a postdoctoral faculty member at Northwestern University, uses a computer program to map the various places she’s run, including Oxford, England. When she lived in Providence, Rhode Island, she ran on every street on the city’s East Side, and now she’s working on streets in Evanston and nearby Wilmette. Although Davis has been streaking for more than five years, she can’t become USRSA-certified because she’s jogged in the pool.

For people who do get onto the USRSA list, their names are printed in “The Streak Registry”—the quarterly publication for members of USRSA and Streak Runners International. Besides the official USRSA active and retired lists, the newsletter includes runner updates and “streaking anniversaries.” USRSA divides people into groups based on how long they’ve run. “Legends” have gone 40 years or more. Streakers with less than five years are “Neophytes.”

Streak runner Yeraj Rust, now 14, started at age 11. He says he wants to snag that number one spot and enjoys reading The Streak Registry and looking at his name. Sometimes his peers don’t believe him when they find out that he runs every day, he says. “It’s in the book if they want to go check,” says the middle-school student from California.

In fact, Yeraj and both of his parents streak. “[Other people] get a little freaked out and I tell them, ‘Oh, we do it with clothes on,’ ” says Gary Rust, Yeraj’s dad. He has run for 30 years, and he says he has 20 pairs of running shoes that he switches up to ward off injury.

*  *  *

Although researchers haven’t examined streak running’s effects on the body, some experts say it’s not healthy. The body needs a day off to recover, says Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, chairman of the International Marathon Medical Directors Association.  “When God created the heaven and earth, he gave a day of rest,” Maharam says. “Anybody that runs every day without any rest is not smart.”

Mixing up different kinds of physical activity via cross training is key, says Stephen Gryzlo, head orthopedic surgeon for the Chicago Cubs and an associate professor in orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Otherwise, the repeated stress on the body could lead to overuse injuries like tendonitis or stress fracture.

Dr. William O. Roberts, a professor in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota and the medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon, says he sees no problem with streaking as long as someone’s not getting injured and they’re feeling fine. “Cross training’s great, but if you don’t like to cross train, why bother? If running’s what you like to do and you like to run, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that,” Roberts says.

But not everyone feels fine during the entire streak. Kevin Germino, who ran the day after his vasectomy, ended his streak in 2002 because he was suffering with chronic tendonitis. He started streaking in 1995 and trained hard for races throughout those seven years, averaging between six and seven miles per day. About six months before his last run, Germino’s knees started hurting. The pain got so severe that he couldn’t even kneel in church, and surgery in 2003 removed scar tissue from his right knee. Germino also ran throughout college and high school and suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease as an adolescent, which created a permanent bump under his kneecap. He thinks this put him at risk for future problems. Still, Germino says streak running hastened an operation that was inevitable. “I was like, if I want to be able to walk as an adult, I better stop,” Germino says. “I could not bend down and sit on the ground and play with my kids with my knees bent.” But he says the streak’s benefits—running faster—outweighed its costs.

Roberts says no data indicates streaking has real costs or benefits. Jeffrey Ross, a sports medicine podiatrist in Houston, doesn’t think streak running is a good idea, but he still says we can’t automatically say it’s bad or good for everyone and it depends on the individual. Research is needed to reach more definite conclusions, he says.

*  *  *

Life happens, and streaks end. Covert says that when he called it quits after 45 years, he felt fine. But Gary Rust, the patriarch of the daily runner family, says if he ever had to stop, he’d mourn. He says he loves running, and even speaking about it reminds him of good times. “I think it would be psychologically devastating,” he says. “It would take me time to get over the loss of my neighbor. It would take me time to get over the loss of my spouse. It would take me time to get over the loss of my streak. Because it’s been with me so long.” Rust says he’s addicted to running. But he says his everyday record is not the most important thing in his life. If his wife required a kidney transplant, he’d give up a kidney for her, even if he had to end the streak.

Dedication and addiction aren’t the same, says Duncan Simpson, an assistant professor in sport, exercise, and performance psychology at Barry University and a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. To Michael Sachs, a professor of kinesiology at Temple University, addiction comes down to control. “If your life seems to revolve around making sure that your streak continues, then I don’t know that that’s necessarily a good thing,” Sachs says. He says he thinks researchers should investigate addiction as it relates to streak running.

Indiana resident Charlie Hart, 42, says he thinks streaking has helped him become a better dad and husband. His daily romp gives him the “me time” he needs as an introvert, so he can then go back and focus on his wife and two children. Lynette Hart, 37, says she still doesn’t completely grasp her husband’s streaking, but as she’s realized “it’s a part of him,” she says.

Streaking, as well as intense physical competitions like ultramarathon races and Tough Mudders, to Sachs seem like a way for people to test themselves and see what they can really do.

Whether or not streakers “can” may not be the right question, though. They need to determine whether daily runs are enriching their lives, says Jim Afremow, a mental coach and licensed professional counselor who has worked with professional athletes and Olympians. “Is it about the journey or is it just about the destination?”

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Katherine Dempsey is a writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

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