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The Minds and Habits of Master Streakers

Running every single day — through illness, injury, and dangerous weather — is not only opposed to nearly any training philosophy, but also kind of crazy. We asked runners on their 4th, 5th and 6th decades why and how they do it.

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The difference between running 999 out of 1,000 days and running 1,000 out of 1,000 days is more than one day. It’s the difference between not being a streak runner and being a streak runner.

It’s the difference between other Peace Corps volunteers who, after arriving in Quito, Ecuador in 1978 on a red-eye flight, took a nap, and Steve DeBoer. 

“I had been counting my steps at home because I knew I’d have to estimate my mileage once I got to Ecuador,” says DeBoer, who recently passed his 50th year of running every day. “I counted in Spanish, to practice the language. Actually, I counted every fourth step, and by that metric, 300 steps equaled about a mile.”

Who Are These “Master Streakers?”

DeBoer is a member of a small, some would say obsessive, club for whom never taking a day off — more than speed or distance or competition — is everything. According to Streak Runners International/United States Running Streak Association, DeBoer has the third longest running streak in the world, atop 3,112 men and women, mostly in the U.S., who have been running at least a mile every day for more than a year. 

Running every day, through illness, injury, bad weather, is antithetical to virtually any program out there. Bad for you, right? Borderline crazy. Why do it? What could running every single day possibly provide that merely running pretty consistently doesn’t? 

I went to the most experienced to find out. I talked with:

John Sutherland, currently #1 in the world at 52.06 years of daily running;

Steve DeBoer, #3 at 50.03 years;

Sue Favor, #3 among women at 36.49 years; and

Steve Gathje, who retired his running streak at 45.84 years.     

Three men posing for a picture.
At the celebration of Steve DeBoer’s 50 year streak anniversary. Left to right: Steve DeBoer, #3 active streaker in the world; Jon Sutherland, #1 active streaker in the world; Jim Pearson, #2 active streaker in the world. Photo: Mark Washburne, President of Streak Runners International/USRSA

There were commonalities. Necessarily, the masters of the streak are in their fifth, sixth and seventh decade of life.

None of them started out with the intention of establishing a streak. In fact, the concept barely existed when most of these streakers started back in the 1970s. (USRSA was established in 2000. President Mark Washburne said streaks are registered on the honor system, but for especially long streaks that began before 2000, he asks for log books, news stories, references, and other forms of documentation to verify).

Most started running every day as a way to get in shape. They all mentioned being raised to value hard work, discipline, tenacity, and consistency. Getting it done first thing in the morning, usually very early, was universal. There are nine men, but only one woman, 84-year-old Lois Bastien, whose streak exceeds 40 years, which reflects the fact that there were few women running in the 1960s and 70s. Surprisingly, location did not play much of a role. DeBoer and Gathje are both lifelong Minnesotans, and Minnesota, with its brutal winters, has more streakers than any other state. Though one mile is the minimum per day, these streakers far exceed that: Sutherland’s average over 52 years is 10 miles a day.

But Why?

Stress reduction, meditation, spirituality, connection with the outdoors, and physical fitness were mentioned as benefits, but there was a dance around the big existential question of why. On one hand, they all mentioned wanting to run every day until they passed from this earthly sphere. The philosophy is: you don’t decide whether or not to breathe; you don’t decide whether or not to run. It’s part of life. You wake up, you run. They admitted streaking was an obsession, but argued that healthy obsession was not an oxymoron. On the other hand, when asked about its importance in the larger context of their life, running did not even make the podium. Family, friends, the people they’d met through running, faith, health, happiness — those were the big prizes.

Where commonalities between the master streakers fell apart? Family situation/lifestyle, work, diet — a lot of variety. One point of particularly large divergence was level or pace, as measured by PBs or interest in racing. For instance, Jon Sutherland, now 70, was an elite competitor with PBs of 13:51 for 5K and 28:51 for 10K; Steve DeBoer was dead last in the two varsity cross country races he ran in high school, and “wasn’t good enough to run in college.”

That said, these four masters of the daily were so individual, so articulate, they described the streak running mentality best in their own words. Here are their words, from phone conversations with these runners:

Steve DeBoer

Steve DeBoer, 66, lives in Rochester, Minnesota, married with two grown children, recently retired from job as dietician, started his streak on June 7, 1971 at age 16.

Man racing with shirt off over a bridge.
Steve DeBoer racing in 2006. Photo: courtesy Steve DeBoer

How his streak started

“I was not a great athlete, but with determination or stubbornness a person without a lot of ability can do some amazing things over time.” 

Psychology and motivation

“I have a streak mentality, a tendency to do things every day. In 1967, 12 years old, I was very bad at pushups, so I started to do calisthenics every day. Burpees, jumping jacks, sit-ups, pull-ups, pushups. I kept track of it in a diary. I still do 100 pushups before I go out, and 30 to 40 sit-ups. And I stand on my head.”

Rituals and routine

“I go shirtless down to 30 degrees — I’m warmed up from the pushups — and shorts down to 20. I’m not stupid. If it’s windy or sleeting, I’ll make exceptions.

“When I was working, I got up at 4:30, out the door by 5:15. In winter I ran to work. In summer I ran, then biked to work. I hated running in the dark in the winter so I slept in til 5:30.

“I still have a pair of Brooks Super Villanovas that I bought in July 1980. They have over 7,000 miles on them. I have about 25 pairs of shoes that I rotate. I get one new pair a year. Shoe Goo — you can still buy it at Walmart!”

Biggest threat to the streak

“I had food poisoning once — ran two miles and spent the rest of the day in bed. I broke my ankle in 2007. I taped thoroughly over the wrapping, and did a mile in 15:20-something. Four weeks later, I was up to 15 miles. Another goal I have is to never run less than 200 miles in a month, so I made it. And in February 2020, I was hospitalized for a week with double pneumonia and influenza B. I had IV antibiotics but my breathing was not that bad so I jogged around my bed for 20 minutes and figured that it had to be a mile.”

His why

“I use running time to plan my day, and pray. For meditation. It’s a non-caffeinated jump start — I don’t drink caffeine. For me, it’s [streak running] a social network too. It’s a challenge — can we do it til the day we die? A friend, Roger Carlson, was running home from a race, had a heart attack, and died. That’s what I’d like to do — finish a race and die.”

From the final paragraphs of his soon-to-be-available book Traversing the Tundra:

“The bottom line is that I run and will continue because it is a passion but not an idol. For those of faith, God needs to be our highest priority. My advice to others is to follow your passion (something positive, not necessarily running) and see how far it will take you, but don’t let it take over your life… there is much more to enjoy in life besides lacing up my Super Villanovas and traversing the tundra one more time.”

Jon Sutherland

Jon Sutherland, 70, lives in Washington, Utah, semi-retired writer/coach, set six track records while at Cal State Northridge, started streak May 26, 1969 at age 18. 

1981 photograph of man running on track.
Jon Sutherland racing at a track meet in 1981. Photo: courtesy of Jon Sutherland

How his streak started

“In 1969, Mark Covert — he’s a good friend, a champion, and huge inspiration — said he’d run every day for a year. I thought, that’s noble. I’m going to try it. I was running two or three miles a day, but within a couple months I was up to 100 miles/week.”

Psychology and motivation

“I’ve always been competitive. I’ve done 1,150 100-mile weeks, up to 120 sometimes. Hard all the time. The streaking — I didn’t even think about it. All the streakers behind me, they weren’t any good. Covert and I were elite runners, we were good. The streak has never been the most important thing. I ran to be competitive. I liked the feeling and the people I ran with.

“I was a rock journalist for 20 years. I know I’m the only one who’s dog-piled with Metallica and [has] run with Prefontaine. Been to more than a thousand rock concerts, but I never took drugs. I’d be home by 1 or 1:30, and I always take a 25-minute nap in the afternoon. I’m a world class recoverer. Once, I ran a marathon, and five days later, ran a 13:56 5K.”

Biggest threat to the streak

“I was running a half marathon, stepped on ice, and tore ligaments and pulled a chunk of bone off my pelvis. The doctor wanted to re-attach it surgically but I didn’t have insurance, so I just limped badly for nine months, doing the same 2-½  mile course. Not to keep the streak together; the streak doesn’t motivate me as much as people think it does. I had been in great shape, and I wanted to get back.

“The hardest thing was shingles when I was 67 — it kicked my ass. I could barely sleep, I was in so much pain. I slept on a tarp because the blisters would pop. I lost 10 pounds, fell 25 times because I had neuropathy. It lasted a year.”

Routine and rituals

“I don’t drink coffee, but I have 8 ounces of Dr. Pepper in the morning. I’m also a big Sam Adams guy.”

His why

“I have a tremendous urge to run, to be moving. I think when I’m running. It’s my church that I go to every day. When I get done I feel good about myself.

“To quote one of the guys from Metallica about quitting: I don’t see no fucking stop sign.

“Rock writer, runner, streaker — I’m proud that I did it all. I’m a memory guy. I’d rather meet someone I admire than have a million dollars. That’s the great thing about the streak — you meet so many people.

“If I can break the world record — I don’t want to jinx it. [On July 4th, Sutherland surpassed British Olympian and running legend Ron Hill’s world record running streak of 52.11 years.] I’m being real careful until then, because you never know.”  

Sue Favor

Sue Favor, 54, lives in Los Angeles, educator, started her streak December 20, 1984 at age 17.

Girls lined up tp race in college meet in 1970s.
Sue Favor (pictured 5th from the left in purple and white jersey) lines up for the mile event in the 1985 Oregon state track meet during her senior year of high school.

How her streak started

The middle of my senior year of high school, I was crawling my way back from illness. I had to get out of the house, and do something toward getting better, so on the darkest day of the year, December 20, I set out running. That was the day I started streaking. One run at a time, every day, a little stronger. Pretty soon it was spring and I thought, I think I’m going to do track.

“Born and raised in Eugene, surrounded by runners. Mary Decker Tabb, she was there at the time, and Alberto Salazar ran by on the daily. You have no idea how much that influenced me.  

“My first love was basketball. Watching the Oregon women’s team, they were so strong and solid. I saw possibilities to being a woman I had never considered. I thought, that could be me. I tried it [basketball] but I wasn’t very good. Being an athlete, that stuck.”

Psychology and motivation

“I’ve never cared much about races. For me it’s a bodily and emotion regulator. Running got me through depression, and a lot of other stuff. My body is so used to running at this point that if I suddenly stopped, I don’t know if I’d even be able to eliminate in the morning.

“I ran so I could see things. Long-ass runs, an hour in the morning and an hour at night. That’s the way I saw the city.”

Routines and rituals

“I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time. I get up, have coffee — I’ve lived in Seattle — Starbucks is as low as I go — run, and go to work. I’ve been on a save-the-knees program since 2008. If I want to do more cardio, I go to the gym and do bike or stair stepper.

“When I was young I ran in the dark, I always run alone, and I’ve never been accosted. I project myself as a strong woman. My family raised me with no gender limitations. I’ve always been extremely independent.”

Biggest threat to the streak

“In 1993 or 94, I fell and gashed myself, ran home, and helped myself. In 2002, I gashed my knee so hard the kneecap was showing. It hurt like hell, took ten stitches. Next day I ran very carefully and painfully. In 2008, I had pneumonia. That’s about it.”

Her why

“I was raised by parents who didn’t give up. I believe in discipline, in habits, in commitment. I admit, I value the streak itself, and the fact that I’m pretty high up on the list. I’m more than 36 years in — what kind of schmuck would I be if I quit? It’s not rational, I guess. But there’s no decision — the run is on unless I’m dead.”

Steve Gathje

Steve Gathje, 66, lives in Minneapolis, retired actuary, married with four children and 3 grandchildren, started a streak on September 25, 1972 and retired it July 27, 2018 after 45.84 years.

Black and white of boy running.
Steve Gathje running a high school 2-mile race for Rochester (MN) Lourdes in 1973, about 6 months into his streak.

How his streak started

“I went out for track my junior year in high school to get in shape for football. The first cross country race in the fall I killed two guys who had beaten me before and thought, this is going to be a great season. That night, I had my appendix out, and was out for almost the whole season. When I finally got back to running, I was frustrated, angry, really wanting to get back in shape. I wasn’t even aware streaking was a thing, but that’s when it started.”

Psychology and motivation 

“It’s the way I was raised. Work ethic was a huge thing. The way to be successful was to give it your all, outwork everyone else. Through college I felt like I couldn’t take a day off if I wanted to be competitive. Eventually it became so ingrained, I can’t remember a day I had to make a decision to run. It was not if, but when. 

“At first it was about competing, not so much the streak. I ran a 2:27 marathon and won some 10Ks, and still raced into my late forties. But I was married, had four kids and a demanding job — it was obvious I wasn’t going to be in the national class. Then it became about going out for a run every day.

“It reduced stress, it was my own time. If I wasn’t addicted to exercise, I’d be addicted to something harmful.”

Biggest threat to the streak

“In 2018, I had hip problems. I ran in pain for a month, could barely go a mile, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t walk up and down stairs. It might have been cool to hit 46 years, but why? Running used to make my life better, and now it was making it worse.

“I went to the doctor on Friday — I’d run that morning — and started crying because I knew the streak was over. The next morning, it was extremely weird to wake up and not go for a run. I was not even the same person.  But a week later I tried an ElliptiGo, and now I pretty much do that every day.”

His why

“A running streak can be all-consuming. I’ve not been that way. I was a senior executive, with a  39-year marriage, family, friends. Grandchildren are a magnificent thing. For some, the streak becomes destructive. Running had a slot in my life but not anywhere near the center.”