For days without end: In it for the long run

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2012 - 6:26 AM

Injury? Labor? Cold? Some runners refuse to miss a day - for years

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Steve Gathje enjoyed his daily run along a path near the Mississippi River

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Julie Maxwell, like so many others, made a New Year's resolution to start running again. Once she starts, she probably won't take another hiatus for a long time.

Literally.

Maxwell, an attorney from Kasson, Minn., ran at least 1 mile every day for 33 years, five months and five days until she fell and broke two bones in her ankle in mid-December. At the time, Maxwell held the longest active running streak by a female in the United States.

That is according to the U.S. Running Streak Association, which tracks the daily progress of this subculture of runners who run every day.

Rochester's Steve DeBoer is No. 5 nationally at 40 1/2 years. Minneapolis resident Steve Gathje is No. 10 at 39-plus years.

The running streak rules are simple: Runners must complete at least 1 mile every day, and they must be honest.

The runners realize the premise of their achievement creates skepticism, but they take the honor system very seriously.

"I don't get paid for this," said Gathje, an actuary at Ameriprise Financial Services. "I suppose there are people who would make this up, but I don't know why."

OK, but why do it? Or better yet, how in the world does someone run every day for 40 consecutive years?

"To be honest, I've run longer than that," DeBoer said.

The association didn't create the 1-mile daily requirement until the early 2000s. DeBoer actually has run every day for 41-plus years. He just didn't meet the 1-mile threshold every day until June 7, 1971.

Since then, he's run more than 136,000 miles, including 48 races of marathon distance or longer.

"Starting a streak is almost unfathomable," Gathje said. "To say I'm going to run for the next 30 years ..."

That's because life offers daily challenges and unexpected events. People get sick, get married, have kids, go on vacation, experience a death in the family, get stuck at the office, stranded at the airport, snowed in. Sometimes you just don't feel like going for a run.

The streakers still manage to run a mile every day.

"Everybody who runs every day has some stories to tell about how they kept their streaks alive," DeBoer said.

'I know it hurts'

DeBoer, a clinical dietitian at the Mayo Clinic, has dealt with pneumonia, kidney stones and an avulsion fracture in his ankle during his streak. Doctors gave him a walking boot to help his foot recover, but he took it off to run and then slipped it back on when he was finished.

"Within a month, I was running 15 miles again," he said.

Gathje once suffered from pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of his lungs. He asked his doctor if running would cause permanent damage.

"He kind of looked at me and said, 'You can't run. It will hurt like crazy,'" Gathje said. "I said, 'I know it hurts. I've figured that out.'"

Gathje's wife woke him early one morning after her water broke with the second of their four children. Her contractions hadn't started yet so ...

"She said, 'You better run before we go because what if we're there all day?'" Gathje said.

Maxwell's most difficult circumstance came in 2003 when she received a call in the middle of the night that her father had died. She went home, grieved with her mother and then put on her running clothes as the sun came up.

"It was a very hard run," she said. "But I knew that he took pride in my having run all those years. I had to get out there for him and for me."

Their streaks continued in places far and wide, on their wedding days and in harsh Minnesota winters.

DeBoer wears ice cleats over his shoes in slippery conditions, but he's suffered frostbite on his face a few times. Gathje avoids treadmills at all cost, so he runs laps in the parking garage of his condo when the weather is bitterly cold or messy.

DeBoer has run in 43 states, South America, Canada, Mexico and England. He kept his watch on central time during a trip to Australia so that he wouldn't get confused by the time change and allow 24 hours to elapse without running.

"I was kind of screwed up," he said, "but I kept my streak going."

Finding a way

Gathje kept his streak alive by running laps around an airport hotel in Newark after his flight was canceled.

Maxwell has run around the deck of a ship crossing the English Channel, under the Eiffel Tower and outside train stations while waiting for the next one to depart. Once, she arrived in Tokyo late, quickly threw her luggage in her hotel room and went for a run at 11:30 p.m.

You can imagine her disappointment, then, when she missed a step and fell while bringing her dogs inside her house last month.

"Nothing exciting or exotic," she said. "No crocodiles or sharks or anything."

She pleaded with emergency room doctors to figure out something that would allow her to keep running post-surgery, but she knew in her heart that wasn't possible. She's not allowed to put weight on her ankle until the end of January.

"As soon as I get the OK from the doctor and it feels good, I'm going to start trying to get back to the jogging," she said. "As soon as it feels strong enough to have a good, solid one-mile run, then I'll be back out there the next day."

Maxwell admits the streak became a compulsion -- "that's about the only compulsive part of me," she said. All three run in the morning before the craziness of a work day begins. They wake up, get it done and then prepare to tackle anything thrown their way.

"There's plenty of days where I don't feel like it, but it's just not an option," Gathje said. "It wasn't one of those things where I started and said my goal is to run every day. It was many years into the streak before I even knew there were other people like me out there."

An obsession

Their backgrounds in running are quite different. DeBoer, 57, competed in cross-country in high school. Gathje, 56, played football, baseball and basketball as a kid. He took up running in eighth grade and later competed in track and cross-country at St. John's.

"The streak was important to me, but I was a competitive runner," he said.

Maxwell, 60, was teaching in Faribault after college and thought it would be good exercise to run between the apartment she lived in and another one she was remodeling.

"One day led to another day and then another day," she said. "The months and years just passed. It became an obsession."

All three agree that a running streak requires some creativity and an understanding spouse. And dedication, of course. Gathje recalled a favorite saying of decorated Minnesota distance runner Bruce Mortenson: "The first step is that first step out the door," he said. "Once you've done that, it's easy."

The trick is to repeat that process again the next day. And the day after that.

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