No Days Off: How to Run Streak for 75% of your life
Joel Pearson has been running 3 miles or 25 minutes every single day for almost three decades. 1) he’s not yet 40 years old and 2) he's not got the longest streak in his family.
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When I started this newsletter at the start of 2023, I made a list of people I wanted to speak to. A few of those were people I’d come across over the years and wanted to highlight (Dick Run Claire, Ann Mazur) and others came from topics that I find interesting.
Last month’s piece on running in poor air quality, for instance, led me to looking for the city with the worst AQI in the world, and then embarking upon a cross-language quest to get in touch with the Lahore Runners.
This week’s post was more straightforward. Over the past few years, some run club comrades embarked upon run streaks - there was something of a boom during the pandemic - so I wondered who has the longest run streak in the world.
That led me to the official running streak list at RunEveryday.com (as ratified by the United States Running Streak Association and Streak Runners International), which currently lists 4,422 people with a streak minimum of one year with at least one mile run per day.
I saw Jon Sutherland and Jim Pearson at the very top of that list, along with two others, declaring streaks of over 50 years. Wow.
Scrolling down the list, though, I had a double take when I saw a run streak of almost 29 years, but the runner was only 37 years old. A mistake? Nope. Joel Pearson asked me that again when replying to my email.
He asked if I was looking for his father. Nope. I was interested in Joel running at least one mile every single day since he was 8 years old. That’s already over 75% of his life.
The kicker? He’s not even got the longest run streak in his family.
How did the run streak start?
“I remember it was fall and my brother was moving rooms and so we had to move some stuff around. My brother said, ‘Do you know what these are? These are dad's running trophies.’ Honestly? I didn't really care.”
For context, “Dad’s running trophies” included American records at both 50 and 100 miles, and the accolade of being the first person to win both the Seattle and Portland marathons. By any standards, Jim Pearson was kind of a big deal.
But then Joel’s brother told him that their dad would hit his 25-year run streak (fastidiously logged in a book) if he ran until February.
“I knew that was five or six months away but I was really inspired. I wanted to run with him ‘til February. And so he came home and I told him I wanted to go for a run with him, and he wasn’t very happy about it.”
Jim Pearson confirms: “It was annoying.” But he did it. He took his son out for a run every evening until he accomplished his quarter of a century running streak. That was Joel’s first moment of accepting the run streak into his life.
“When we got to February, I remember telling my best friend, Adam, ‘This is what I want to do for a long time.’ I'm still 24.6 years behind dad.”
The run streak registry was only formed eight years into Joel’s streak. Completely based on the honor system, Joel doesn’t bother himself with thoughts of whether anybody cheats or not. He says he and his dad are doing it for themselves. Indeed, he chalked off the first week or so of his own streak when he and his father realized there was one day early on that Joel had only run 0.7 miles.
What does running every single day look like?
“It's like waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, and brushing your teeth. It's something I do every morning. I wake up in the morning and I go run. I don't wake up like, ‘I need to go run. Have I run yet today?’”
“It's weird to say that every day I run at least 25 minutes or three miles, but I don't consider myself a runner. I don't consider myself someone who brushes their teeth either.”
Was there a moment you realized the run streak was something you did?
“It was the summer before 8th grade and my best friend, Adam and I were talking about being excited going into 8th grade and how we're gonna run for president, and all things like that, and he said, ‘Are you still going to run every day?’”
“It was at that point, when I realized I had been running every day. It was just a part of my life. I was just over two to three years in at that point and I didn't even understand the question, which was my big moment of like, ‘Oh, I really am doing this every day!’”
Have there been any funny moments while on your mission?
“When I was in grade school people did not like it. People always want to decide your business. The school counselor thought dad was forcing me to run - that caused an issue. Another time a cop pulled us over one day when it was raining and tried to give me candy to get me in the car.”
When it came to that roadside police incident, Joel’s father recalled “He was just eager to get running again. He was just out there telling a story.”
That’s how father and son occupied themselves during their runs. A prompt from Jim, and Joel told a story up and down that hill. It’s no surprise when listening to both of them speak so fluently and modestly about their lives.
When I mention my deep admiration of Jim’s 53-year run streak, for example, he replies in the same way that his son does, “I can see that, but on the other hand I just went out and ran today.”
The run streak is a Pearson family affair. All three of Jim’s kids started running at two years old at all-comers track meets in the community and all progressed to running streaks of some seriousness.
Jim proudly tells me how he used to carry a playsheet and recite lines with Joel’s sister during her 3 years, and Joel’s brother’s first day of his 8.5-year streak was his first day of sobriety. That streak ended when Joel’s brother got a full-time job. Joel’s, of course, is still going.
Did the pains of growing up cause your run streak any difficult moments?
“When you're on a scholarship… Running became a chore for a couple years. That was pretty difficult. I even had to transfer colleges.”
“The first college I went to didn't want us to run five days a week, and they were pretty serious. If you get caught running on your two off days, there's punishment, and they didn't tell us that going in.”
“That was my ah-ha moment. I knew it mattered to me, but when I was told, ‘Hey, you absolutely can't do this. Your scholarship’s on the line. The team’s on the line. It's not a joke.’ It was seconds later when I started planning the transfer. That was the moment I realized how important running every day was to me.”
Joel also talks about getting into a routine of running in the morning for enjoyment, which was very different to practice, where they would stop a lot: warm up, stop, drills, stop, intervals, stop, cool down. That would be the beginning of his habit of waking up, drinking some water, and running 3 miles (or 25 minutes if he’s traveling).
Now, he says coaching is the center of his life. He doesn’t run to train for races. He runs to run, and says he hasn’t had a day that he didn't want to run in a decade.
Joel talks about how, while running, he speeds up for certain songs (he couldn’t possibly disrespect Dre with a mere 8 min/mile pace), and how beautiful it is to run through the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest - a far cry from the barren Midwestern and Southern landscapes where he has previously coached.
While he acknowledges the science-backed benefits of recovery runs in increased bloodflow, breaking up of scar tissue, boosting synovial fluid production and the rest, he also says he completely understands why his college coaches laid down the rules that they did.
Joel has coached over 70 USA Track & Field Level 1 Running Coach certification courses (somehow, not mine, though). While conducting these courses, he’s often asked about his run streak and whether he recommends it. He rues how his answer is not black and white enough for many.
“I prefer my athletes only run 364 days a year, because if they don't run every single day, I can say, ‘Hey, your body levels are down. Why don't we take 72 hours of some rest and recuperation?’ As a coach it's not that I prefer they don't run every day or only five days a week, more that I want to have the option. It takes the pressure off.”
“Right now my knee hurts and running through is easy because I'm gonna run for 25 minutes and if it gets worse, who gives a sh*t? But college athletes? That's a big deal. That could be your career.”
“So I'm an advocate of running every day but I'm also not an advocate of running every day.”
It’s an answer that promotes being flexible of mind when it comes to training and that level of thought is difficult to come by. It takes experience and humility.
Affable, open, and grateful throughout our conversation, it’s when he’s talking about coaching that he becomes more serious and an endless source of insights.
Always keen to never offend a fellow coach with his opinions, he is unapologetically firm with the sanctity of his students when I suggest he might get his daily miles in while coaching.
“I don't run with the team because if I have more than one athlete, who am I watching?”
“The moment I start caring about my running is when I'm not caring about your running. I'm there to make sure everyone arrives on time, leaves on time, gets coached, gets better, the safety, they're being monitored.”
So there we have it. The guy who’s kept a daily running streak going for 78% of his life thinks that everyone should have a run streak, but also thinks that people shouldn’t be super strict about it, and despite running every single day, considers himself more of a coach than a runner.
Seeing as Joel felt strongly enough about his streak to change colleges in order to maintain it, how does he celebrate his accomplishments? What does the man Joel calls his hero have to say about it?
“We celebrated when I hit 25 years,” says his father. “And then at 40, 45 and 50 there were little celebrations. Joel’s just going through all of this and he doesn’t say a word. No parties, and he doesn’t mind.”
“I’m proud of him. He’s a better coach than I ever was, and whatever [run streak] I get, I hope he passes it.”
It’ll certainly be a sad day when Joel begins to cut into his dad’s 24.6-year head start, but it’ll be so cool to have a second Pearson in the top bracket of the run streak registry.
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