I can’t help but think about Forrest Gump when I run lately. Not the skinny ping-pong champ Forrest, or the polite “box of chocolates” Forrest, but the shaggy, bearded Forrest. The Forrest that ran every day for three years straight. I’m in the midst of my own humble running streak, so when I tie my laces and start my daily miles, I say those three little words that make me think of the most famous (fictional) streaker of all time. “Run, Forrest, run.”
My goal is to run every day for 40 days in a row. Consider it a project for Lent, that period between Mardi Gras and Easter when Catholics give up something they love, like sex or chocolate or beer, in hopes of sparking a positive transformation. I’m not willing to give up sex or chocolate or beer, so I’m running for Lent. And I like running. It’s a stress reliever, like sex or eating chocolate or drinking beer. I’m a happier, calmer person after I run. So I figure if I run a lot more, I’ll be a lot more happier and calmer, right? Right?
Not according to my doctor, who calls my little running project “quite possibly the stupidest idea ever.” Something about repetitive stress to my aging joints. He has a point. Even the most competitive runners factor in rest days when training, but with a true streak, if you take a rest day, it’s over. I figure there’s a 50 percent chance I’m going to cause permanent damage. My knees will probably be the first to go. Or my hip. I have a wonky hip. On the other hand, the streak could change my life for the better. Maybe my initial math is right: running every day will make me a better person.
The rules: I have to run at least two miles a day. It can be on roads, trails, or the treadmill, but the minimum distance is two miles. Running slow is fine, but no speed walking.
Compared to other running streaks, my 40-day dalliance doesn’t even register on the radar. According to the United States Running Streak Association, the longest going running streak belongs to a 61-year-old teacher living in California who’s run at least a mile a day for more than 44 years. That’s 16,237 straight days of running and counting. The USRSA keeps a master list of all runners on a streak. If you’re looking to make the list, be prepared for a commitment. Run every day for five years straight and you’ll end up landing around number 200 on the active running streak list. They don’t even consider you a streaker until you hit the year mark.
I try not to think about this as I strive to put together the first week of running. I’m plagued by false starts in the beginning. I’ll get three days into the streak, then come across something like a Walking Dead marathon that keeps me off my feet. Then I’ll get four days in and decide happy hour is more important than my daily two miles. When I finally get in a full week of running, I start to feel the rhythm and begin to enjoy the structure of the streak.
On a particularly euphoric trail run on day six I decide I’m going to extend my streak and run every day for a year.
On day nine, while suffering through the minimum two miles on a treadmill during a snow storm, I scrap the year-long goal and pray I can make it through the original 40 days.
I learn a lot in that first 10 days. I learn that running in the rain sucks. I learn that my wife thinks running every day is silly. I learn that running in the morning sucks. So does running late at night. I learn that running when you’re hungover induces vomiting. So does running after eating a nacho mountain. Actually, running in the rain or hungover or late at night doesn’t suck. Starting to run in those situations sucks. Making the decision to run, putting on the shoes, psyching yourself up for “a few quick miles,” that first five minutes of stiff awkwardness…That sucks. But once you get going, you remember why you’re making a point to do this every day. Because it feels good. Even in the rain.
By day 16, I’m convinced there’s no way to make running on a treadmill interesting. Intervals don’t work. Cranking the incline up to 11 doesn’t work. Not even watching re-runs of How I Met Your Mother can make running on a treadmill interesting. No matter what’s on that little TV, I still feel like a lab rat.
The worst part of the streak is that it takes the adventure out of running. Instead of exploring new trails, I run one of three loops near my house day after day. There’s no sense of exploration in that, but I learn to enjoy the ritual of the daily run. I can count the things I do every single day on one hand. Sleep, eat, brush my teeth, go to the bathroom…that’s about it. Running every day elevates the habit to the level of instinct. Survival. After a while, it becomes a guarantee, just like eating. It’s no longer “if you run,” it’s “when you run.”
Most long-term streakers will admit that the daily run becomes an obsession. Forrest Gump suddenly stopped running because he felt like it. It’s not that easy for some streakers. Tim Grotenhuis is a race director and marathoner living in Asheville. He had a 367-day running streak going at one point, but gave it up. “It started to control me,” Grotenhuis says. “It dictated my day. That’s not why I run.”
Halfway through my streak, I’m fairly certain I’ll be able to hit the 40-day mark, hopefully without incurring serious injury. But I’m just as certain that I’ll be able to stop after I hit 40. That’s the beauty of Lent. There’s a tangible finish line when you can go back to eating chocolate, having sex, and drinking beer…and not running every day.