The Family That Runs, and Runs, Together

"Run streaks" are one of the weirder and more fascinating artificialities of running culture. And no one does them like the Pearsons.
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Sure it looks like fun, but... oh, wait.

Image via Flickr user Kharied.

On September 3, 1994, eight-year-old Joel Pearson laced up his sneakers and went for a mile-long run. Every day since—more than 6,500 total—the Bellingham, Washington native has covered at least 5,280 feet, battling bumps, bruises, illness, the weather in his home state ("Three hundred days of rain," he says.), and other obstacles that would deter a less determined or, perhaps, simply normal human being.

Pearson's nearly 18 years of daily running is impressive. It is, however, nowhere near the longest active streak. There are more than one hundred so-called "run streaks" longer than Pearson's. The 26-year-old coach understands this fact. He's confronted by it every day, in an unusually intimate way—one of the names high on the list bears the Pearson surname. Joel's father, Jim, sits third. The former national champion and American record holder in the fifty-mile run began his run streak on February 16, 1970 and hasn't missed a day in nearly 16,000 twenty-four-hour periods.

"Just after college, my coach told me that I had to get more consistent. So I did. I kept a diary [of the miles I ran]. I put in a zero in on February 15, 1970. I didn't want to put a zero in again," he says over the phone while riding shotgun in his son's truck. The two are remarkably close. They coach together, the son now taking the lead with his 68-year-old father adding the lessons he's learned during a life spent running.

Jim and Joel are bonded by a love of their chosen sport and their strange, daily quest. Younger Pearson may never have started, however, if it wasn't for the influence of his older brother, Hopper, who currently boasts a run streak of almost three years. "I was looking at my dad's trophies in the basement," Joel says. "My brother told me that if dad continued to run every day until that February, he'd have his twenty-five years. That was the spark. I wanted to run with him to hit twenty-five years. I don't know if I was thinking clearly. I talked to dad about it and he wasn't too thrilled about it."

"I didn't want to do it," Jim says. "I was a teacher, and I'd run to school. Then, I'd run with the kids I coached, and then I'd run home. I told Joel I didn't want to wait a half hour and then go out again. He said he'd be waiting. I wanted to run at least a mile, because we live down a steep hill and I wasn't going up it unless we ran at least a mile."

"I didn't think he was going to do it for very long. I guess I was wrong," the elder Pearson says, laughing. Joel keeps driving.

***

Run streaks are a weird phenomenon. They are an entirely created entity. Jim didn't even know there was a name for his accomplishment until more than five years had passed. He ran, figuratively, into Ken Young at the fifty-mile nationals and the pair started talking. Pearson told Young he'd been going out every day, and Young said he'd been doing the same. Running streaks, gradually, became a thing with Young, who ran—again, figuratively—the national running data center, leading the way. He told Runner's World when he reached his 15-year mark, and the discipline gained more legitimacy at least among the subset of distance runners. Earlier this year, Young tore an adductor muscle near his left groin and ended his streak after forty-one years, 204 days. He's back running today.

The increasing popularity of run streaks mirrored the growing popularity of the sport. The United States Run Streak Association, Inc.—www.runeveryday.com, of course—currently boasts 334 people on its USA active list and another 231 on the retired list, including two Pearsons: Joel's uncle Don and his sister Paige. One of Joel's ex-girlfriends and his current girlfriend are also members of the club. "That wasn't planned," he says. "That just happened."

Officially, a person only needs to run a single mile a day to continue the streak, but neither Pearson adheres to this philosophy. Joel says he decided very early to run at least five kilometers every day, and he's pretty much done so ever since. His father estimates he's run over 175,000 miles during the past 42 or so years, averaging hundred-mile weeks for an 11-year stretch in the middle.

Both Jim and Joel have seen their streaks almost end. While the son's near-misses are the type of difficulties one would expect to have to overcome—a battle with pneumonia, a particularly scorching day in New Mexico—his father's tales are more dramatic. He hurt his knee helping out at Paige's play and couldn't stand the next day. Jim tried to run six times with increasing amounts of tape on the joint, but nothing worked. He accepted that the streak over until Joel came home and urged him to try once more. After protesting, the elder Pearson agreed. "I was swinging my arms wildly and holding my breath," Jim says. "We got through one-point-one miles."

A few years later, he was in Spokane, Washington running in a race. It was fourteen degrees, and winds gusted up to 55 miles-per-hour. Jim was struggling to breathe and found himself in last place. A race official asked him if he was okay. "I said yes, but I'm thinking, 'If I die, this is going to put a really bad name on the race, but if I don't get past the mile mark, I'm going to have to drive four hundred miles home and go running again,'" he says. "I kept going." Joel met him at the point-eight-mile mark and the pair finished together. They later found out the winner was blown off the course at one point.

Jim's closest call, however, came a month before the forty-year anniversary of his streak. As it turned out, the major reason for his troubles in Spokane was blood clots in his lungs, a symptom doctors diagnosed during a hospital visit weeks later. The nursing staff—a few of whom he had coached as high schoolers—were (understandably) reluctant to let him run, but Jim was determined. "[Joel and I] went for a walk and I found this really long hallway. I paced off the hallway and I figured five and a half trips would be a mile. I still didn't know what I was going to do it. And I was in my hospital gown," Jim says. "I went back to my room. Joel brought a long-sleeve shirt, and we snuck by the nurses' station. When we got to the hallway, I took off the gown, put on the shirt, and ran. At one point, there was a nurse in the hallway, so I hid. I ran six times down and back, just in case I mis-measured."

***

The thing about run streaks, of course, is that it's impossible to catch a person ahead of you until he or she stops running every day. Mark Covert and Jon Sutherland sit ahead of Jim by roughly 603 days, and they don't appear ready to give up soon. "The sad thing about moving up is the guys ahead of me are significantly younger. The leader looks like he could topple over any day, but Sutherland is tall, mean, and lean, and still races pretty well," Jim says. If a Pearson is going to hold the run streak record, it will likely be Joel. But first, he'll have to catch his father.

Can he? "I don't know. I'm going to keep adding days just in case. … He could catch me," Old Man Pearson says. "My dad lived until 79, but shoot, that would only put me at 53 years. But my mom's alive at 90, so I could go a few more."

The observation isn't morbid; it's fact. Son follows father follows son, running out and running back again.


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