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Everlasting Run

obert Kraft has never been on an airplane. He avoids elevators at all costs, lest he get stuck in one. He refuses to leave Miami's South Beach -- save for a doctor's appointment or an occasional Marlins game.

And he hasn't missed his daily run since Jan. 1, 1975, following an identical path from his Ocean Drive apartment to the beach, gingerly climbing over the coral-colored wall that separates the street from the sand.

Kraft is a member of a rare and obsessed breed, a streak runner. He runs every day -- weather, sickness, injury or extracurricular engagement be damned. Some streak runners get their miles in before the sun rises, before the kids must be fed and before the boss needs to see that report. Some sneak out while their co-workers are sitting in the drive-through at lunch. Some prefer a night run, when the road is calm and the air cool. The only rule is that you run, every single day, at least one continuous mile. Absolutely no exceptions.

Needless to say, this kind of thing can put a crimp or two in a person's style. "It has limited my life," Kraft admits. "I'm a prisoner of routine, but I've become comfortable with it."

Most afternoons at 4, Kraft can be found, clad in the all-black wardrobe that earned him the nickname "Raven," stretching his quads and back muscles at the Fifth Street lifeguard station on South Beach. In the summer, Kraft gets to his favorite spot closer to 5, giving the oppressive southern Florida heat a chance to burn off so the next hour and 40 minutes or so will be as comfortable as possible. After loosening up for 10 or 15 minutes, Kraft is off. But unlike almost every other streak runner in the world, he's not by himself. Over the past three decades, he has gathered quite a following, a mixed bag of Raven-wannabes who will follow him anywhere, like baby ducklings trailing behind their mama. Tanned and lean, the "Forrest Gump" of South Beach leads his charges north toward Espanola Way, about an eighth of a mile, though the sand makes it feel twice that. From there, the party buttonhooks south and then backtracks along the same route, pushing past the Fifth Street starting spot, all the way down to South Pointe Park, at the southernmost tip of South Beach. They've now run about 2.5 miles, a circuit that will be repeated two more times.

After they all catch their breath, it's into the ocean for a 1/3-mile swim, which Kraft himself will pass on if conditions aren't perfect. He has a pretty bad back -- degenerative discs, sciatica -- and the cool water only exaggerates the pain.

Another eight miles completed and logged, Kraft will retrieve his gear from the lifeguard station -- the lifeguards gave him a key 18 years ago -- and walk the few hundred steps to his apartment. Here, he will spend the rest of the night and the next morning avoiding any activity that could jeopardize his 33-year streak, which began soon after his songwriting career crashed and burned in Nashville, leaving him angry, frustrated and looking for distraction. At the time, there was an old boxing gym near his apartment and every day he saw the would-be champs jogging on the beach. He joined them for a few miles now and then, until it dawned on him that those few miles on the sand were the best part of his day.

It just made sense to keep going.

NOT EVEN TOP-10 MATERIAL

The only tangible reward for Kraft's 95,000 cumulative miles is the No. 11 spot on the United States Running Streak Association's active list. Every day since January 1975, and Kraft doesn't even crack the top 10.

As of Nov. 30, Mark Covert, a 56-year-old teacher and cross-country coach at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, Calif., holds the longest active streak: 39 years, 130 days. In July, Covert eclipsed Bob Ray's all-time streak of 38 years, five days.

Second on the list is Jon Sutherland, a college track and cross-country teammate of Covert's, who trails his good friend by about 14 months. "[Back in '69] he wrote me a letter and said that he had run every day for a year," says Sutherland, now a high school running coach in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "So I told him I was going to do it, too."

The USRSA defines a run as "at least a continuous mile within each calendar day under one's own body power, without the utilization of any type of health or mechanical aid other than prosthetic devices."

Covert, however, has his own, higher standards. The current record-holder has averaged approximately 9.7 miles a day for 14,344 days, a total of 138,639 miles. Of that total, 26.2 came during the 1972 men's Olympic marathon trials. Covert finished seventh in 2:23:35 behind trials winner Frank Shorter, who would go on to win a gold medal in Munich a month later.

Covert's shortest run has been three miles, once. His longest, 52 miles. And he once logged 210 miles in a single week. But with a wife, four kids and a full-time job, Covert says he cannot allow his streak to be the focus of his life, to which everyone and everything else must be subordinated. "It's not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about," Covert says. "I run, I put it in the log, and the day goes on. Probably about half the people that know me don't even know that I run. It's not something that I talk about. It's just something I do."

ANONYMOUS BUT HONORABLE

Even those tiny slivers of attention that occasionally shine on Covert and his fellow streak runners would not exist but for the USRSA. Indeed, the organization is the only reason many of these runners are aware that streak running exists beyond their own personal obsessions.

Run out of Millersville, Md., by retired banker and insurance agent John Strumsky, who himself owns a streak of almost 25 years, the sanctioning body of streak running was born in 1994 when the newspaper Runner's Gazette published a list of 51 East Coast streak runners. The list was compiled by George Hancock, an avid runner himself who first became aware of streak running in the early '90s. Soon after, in an attempt to organize the emerging subculture, he began placing ads in running publications. Six years later, with Strumsky, Bob Ray and Margaret Blackstock (whose 28-year streak is the longest on the list by a woman) Hancock officially incorporated USRSA. Kraft was the first to pay membership dues.

There are now 160 names on the active list, the last few with streaks of less than two years. "We have everyone from Olympians to health joggers who can't even break a 10-minute mile," Strumsky says. "We have guys who do [the] Boston [Marathon] every year and people who have never run a race."

The organization operates on the honor system, though mileage logs can be requested and reviewed if the veracity of a streak is in question. In the early years, a few runners were booted off the list, but mostly the trust seems well placed.

Consider David Hamilton, No. 8 on the list with a streak that began Aug. 14, 1972. Suffering from a pinched nerve that practically prevented him from even standing, Hamilton, in 1992, had to abort his daily four-miler after less than 400 yards. After a few hours of stretching, rest and ibuprofen, Hamilton steeled himself for a second try. Instead of his usual route, a neighborhood trail, Hamilton headed up to the local high school's track and laboriously waddled through 16 laps.

Running through pain, illness and injury is the common bond of streak runners. They all have their stories of broken bones, scoped knees, pulled muscles and torn ligaments.

Ronald Kmiec, a concert pianist in Carlisle, Mass., was wrapping up his run one day in 1977, less than two years into his 31-year streak, when he was attacked and savagely beaten by a neighbor with whom Kmiec says he had engaged in a long-standing dispute. Despite 54 stitches in his scalp, a broken rib and several broken facial bones, Kmiec convinced his wife Leslie to drive him to a neighboring town the next evening for a stealthy, if quite slow, mile.

During a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Quito, Ecuador, Stephen DeBoer, a Rochester, Minn., dietitian who sits in fifth place with a 36-year streak, did his daily runs along a little-used railroad track. After a dog took a hunk out of his left leg, just above the knee, DeBoer ran with a whip for the next 20 months. Every day he saw the same dog, though it never bit him again.

Long before his pinched nerve, Hamilton was sitting in a movie theater with his then-wife when he realized the combination of the movie and the dinner they had planned to attend afterward would end long after midnight. And he still hadn't run. "It was a martial arts movie called 'Hot Potato,' and it was supposed to be funny, but wasn't, and it wasn't good martial arts either," Hamilton says. "So I just told her I'd be back in a bit, and I did a quick three-miler."

Not surprisingly, Hamilton isn't married anymore, but he swears it wasn't the streak that came between him and his wife.

SHARING THE LOAD

At times, a streak can be a burden so heavy the runners can't sustain it by themselves. At such moments, it helps to have a wife like Laurie Gathje.

Laurie and Steve Gathje have been married for 25 years, a full 10 years less than he has been running every day. Right now, he's ninth on the list, but his name likely wouldn't be anywhere near the top if it weren't for the latitude Laurie gives Steve and his streak.

At 5:30 in the morning on July 14, 1985, Laurie's water broke. The Gathjes' second child, Sarah, was on the way, and although Steve had squeezed in a run at the birth of his first child, Joe, there was no telling how long this one would take. "I got dressed and was ready to take her, when she stopped me and said that I better run now because this might be a while," says Steve, an actuary in Overland Park, Kan.

"I knew they might wait for 24 hours and that would break his streak," Laurie remembers. "I didn't want to be responsible for that."

The streak is a great source of pride in the Gathje family. On its 25th anniversary, they celebrated with a party. Friends and family toasted Steve and his streak. Laurie presented Steve with a pair of bronzed running shoes.

But for all the sacrifice, all the waiting to give birth, all the years of driving to Steve's office every Friday to pick up the week's worth of sweaty shorts and dirty socks he accumulated running to and from the office each day, Laurie has no desire to see the streak end. Actually, she's a little scared of what might happen when it does. "It's his release from everything in life," she says. "We're going to have to find him something else to do."

WHY?

Good question. Virtually all streak runners answer with variations on the same theme: the need to challenge themselves. For many, their identities are inextricably connected to their ability to get up and run every day. The actual rankings, the races, the anniversaries ... those are all secondary, mere byproducts of the euphoria that comes with putting in the miles.

"It comes down to amazing one's self and maybe now and then a few other people," Steve Gathje says. "Or maybe I'm just slightly crazy."

Or more than slightly.

On a cool, wet Thanksgiving morning a few weeks ago in Andover, Mass., Ron Kmiec, the concert pianist with 34 Boston Marathons under his belt, stepped to the starting line of the Feaster Five. Since his best time ever for the distance is 33:18, Kmiec anticipated easily covering the five-mile course in less than 40 minutes.

The race begins with an immediate climb and Kmiec felt sharp chest pain almost from the opening gun. His constant companion for the first three miles, it lessened eventually, but never fully subsided. To keep his focus through the pain, he forced himself to concentrate on his breathing and pace, finally finishing with a 7:57 mile. Still, his 42:38 was the slowest he'd ever clocked in his eight years running the Feaster Five.

Though the pain continued, he ran a mile the next day, and another two miles the day after that. After he plodded through a three-miler Sunday at the absolutely glacial pace of 10:38 per, Leslie had seen enough. She insisted Kmiec have himself checked out. An EKG on Monday (he made sure to get his mile in before the test) confirmed Kmiec had suffered a heart attack.

On Nov. 28, Kmiec would have celebrated 32 years of running at least a mile every day. Instead, he was in a bed at the Lahey Clinic in nearby Burlington, where doctors performed an angioplasty to repair blockage in his left circumflex coronary artery.

Unwittingly, Kmiec had tried to put his streak's survival ahead of his own. Luckily, his wife didn't let him. "She saw something was going on," he says. "Without her, I would have just kept going."

After coming face to face with his own mortality, Kmiec has come to accept the end of his streak more peacefully than he ever imagined. "It never felt like it was a millstone," Kmiec says. "It was a normal part of every single day. I'm surprised I'm not having a psychological breakdown. It happened. I wish it didn't. I wish I could have figured out some way around it. But no, the gun's not loaded or anything."

Doctors have told Kmiec that running actually saved his life, that his heart was strong enough to survive the blocked artery. And when the doctors clear him to run again, Kmiec has every intention of getting back on the road. He has run in 34 consecutive Boston Marathons and isn't planning to give up two streaks in a year.

ALL GOOD THINGS MUST END, RIGHT?

Back in Miami, Kraft gives at least lip service to ending his streak on his own terms. At his current pace, the 100,000-mile mark should come around March 2009. It's a nice round number and as good a time to end as any.

Priscilla Ferguson, Kraft's girlfriend of 10 years, has heard all about 100,000 miles, and pardon her if she's just a bit skeptical. "I'm surprised he's actually able to discuss ending it rationally," she says. "I just don't think he will ever be able to stop. I've heard him call it a healthy addiction."

Almost 33 years ago, Robert Kraft started running out of anger, pissed that a song he says he wrote made somebody else rich. When he ran, he was a little less angry.

Maybe when he hits 100,000 miles, he'll find the peace he has been chasing.

If not, you'll know where to find him.

Joshua Hammann is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be reached at joshua.hammann@gmail.com.

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