Amby Burfoot first ran the 4.748 mile Manchester Road Race in 1963, when he was a senior in high school. This year, in spite of a bout of Achilles tendonitis that kept him from running in the weeks before the race, he finished Manchester for the 57th consecutive time. That, as far as we can tell, is the longest currently active streak of consecutive unassisted road race finishes and one of the longest streaks of all time.
Prouder of Streak than Boston Victory
Burfoot isn’t only a dogged long-time participant at Manchester, of course. He won the race nine times, including seven in a row from 1971-77. That’s just part of a long and storied career in running that includes a win at the Boston Marathon in 1968 and many years as an editor at Runner’s World.
Burfoot says, “I’m very proud of my Manchester streak, prouder than I am about winning Boston, since I consider ‘endurance’ and ‘resilience’ the very essence of what it means to be a runner. I’m thrilled every year that I am able to return to the Manchester start line. And a bit frightened that this won’t continue forever, and will likely end for reasons beyond my control.”
Other Resilient Runners’ Race Streaks
Burfoot’s closest competition might be the other men at Manchester with streaks of 50 years or more, led by John O’Dell, who finished his 53rd consecutive race this year at age 66. Other runners continued impressive streaks in 2019. Ben Beach finished his 52nd consecutive Boston Marathon in spite of suffering from dystonia, a rare neurological disorder that awkwardly flips his left leg sideways with each stride. In South Africa, Barry Holland and Louis Massyn both completed their 47th Comrades Marathons in a row.
The longest current assisted finishing streak belongs to Fred Duling, who completed his 60th consecutive Schuylkill Navy Run in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving. Fred had an accident in 2010 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Since then, he’s competed in a wheelchair with the assistance of family and friends.
The longest finishing streak we know of is 67, by the late Jack Kirk at Dipsea, a trail race in California. That race was interrupted by World War II, so Kirk’s longest consecutive yearly streak was from 1946 to his last Dipsea in 2002 at age 95, a 57 year streak that Burfoot matched this year. Burfoot calls Kirk, aka the “Dipsea Demon,” his “all-time running idol”.
From Habit to Streak
Amby doesn’t remember exactly when he started making a point of running the 4.748 mile race every Thanksgiving morning. “It would have been well after I stopped winning,” he said, “because winning was its own reason for going. I became most conscious of the streak when I saw that somewhere out in the future was the number 50. That was around my 35th year.”
The closest he came to missing the race was in 1971. There was a snowstorm on the morning of the race. Burfoot’s car was sliding around on the drive to Manchester and he almost decided to turn back, but he forged on and ended up winning.
How to Race Forever
Burfoot, who’s recently written a book (Run Forever) on running as you get older, says that if you want a long running career, you need to adjust as you get older so you can keep moving as much as possible. When he was younger, he was a believer in specificity of training. But now he runs less often and less aggressively.
Burfoot takes regular walking breaks during most of his runs. He started out running nine minutes and walking one more than a decade ago. Now he runs four minutes and walks one during workouts of five miles and longer.
Bike, Gym and Pool
About two-thirds of his exercise time is spent on the recumbent bike he keeps in his living room. “It’s like my comfort place. Sometimes I do an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon of recumbent cycling; very slow-not trying to do workouts, just reading newspapers and journals and magazines.” He’ll take short breaks from the bike to do a few push-ups and other exercises, then it’s back to spinning slowly.
He also spends more time in the gym since he’s retired. “I now I spend actual time getting in my car (which should be a no-no) and driving 8 minutes to a gym three times a week. I’m at at-home freelance writer, so just the routine of getting out of the house and going to the gym has been good.”
Burfoot walks 6 to 8 miles a week. He’s discovered podcasts, finding that they help pass the time enjoyably, even though he calls them, “something that supposed old-time pure runners like myself are not supposed to do.” And he’s added more swimming to his routine. “Swimming is something I’m always trying to do more of. This summer I got into a really good streak because I had a training partner, my sister, a below-the-knee amputee. I did the swims before my 3 mile morning run, got really cold, and then running in 95 degree humidity didn’t bother me for a couple miles.”
One thing Burfoot doesn’t do is road biking. “I refuse to do on-the-road bicycling because I’m afraid of falling and getting hurt. I have known too many people who have had that happen. In some cases it even ended their running careers.”
Of course Burfoot still enters races. “I think that staying healthy and running for life is a completely different activity than trying to win,” he says. “I consider myself extraordinary lucky to have the opportunity to do both.”
Still Hitting the Hills
To keep in race shape, Burfoot does a certain amount of speedwork, mostly hill repeats. He thinks those are less likely to cause an injury than other forms of hard running. He also does some high intensity training. On a short 3-mile out-and-back run, he might do six or eight intervals of 30 seconds at a fast pace.
Burfoot also uses walking intervals during longer races. The five Boston Marathons that he did from 2013 to 2018 were all done running four minutes and walking one. “I was always running to finish and feel moderately good most of the way which is what run-walk does for me,” he said. “It still gets hard at the end but a break is never more than 4 minutes away and when I have to start again it’s only for another 4 minutes. It’s so much easier to run for 4 minutes then it is for 26 miles.”
Burfoot plans on returning to Manchester as long as he can. “I’m 73,” he says. “People who’ve been friends for 50 years are enduring various very hard things in their lives now. It’s going to come my way eventually. So I’m just happy to wake up healthy most days and extraordinarily happy to wake up healthy and able to run on Thanksgiving Day.” While Amby was slower than usual this year, he remembers thinking, “It doesn’t matter how I run this year, it only matters how I am running next year.”
Ray Charbonneau has run more than thirty marathons and ultramarathons—without winning a single one. But there’s always tomorrow. Ray is the author of four books, including Idle Feet Do the Devil’s Work, and the editor of The 27th Mile, an anthology created to support the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.