(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2010. If you asked me the best runner I’ve ever known personally, I’d ask what you mean by “best.” In terms of honors won and times run, I would call it a tie and go with the gold medalists: Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson. Everyone has heard of them.
But if “best” means the runner who has run the most, and most often, for the longest time, I’d name someone you might never have read about until now. That’s Mark Covert. He’s the most consistent and the most single-minded runner I’ve ever known.
Now the running coach at Antelope Valley College in southern California, Covert was a college student himself during the 1972 Olympic Trials (where he would place seventh in the marathon at age 20). We met at a McDonald’s, both because runners still paid their own way to the Trials then and because runners didn’t worry as much about their diet then as they do now. Mark let drop offhandedly that he hadn’t missed a day’s run in almost four years. He had become a streaker, running style.
With us at McDonald’s was Tom Fleming, a future 2:12 marathoner. He and Covert were competing to see who could go the longest without taking a day off. Mark said later, “When I was younger and racing a lot, my attitude was that no one was going to out-tough me or out-strength me. They might have beat me, but they were going to have to run hard that day. The streak was part of that attitude.”
In 1976 we both joined the same tour group to the Boston Marathon. The good luck of the draw made him my roommate, in a hotel where the air-conditioning failed on the infamous “Run for the Hoses” weekend.
Mark ran with the leaders until the heat got to him. Dropping out was a blow to the competitor in him but no setback for the streaker. This bad day still counted as a run day. By then he’d gone nearly eight years without skipping one.
In 1988, as the streak reached 20 years, I first wrote about him in a magazine article. Multi-sporting and cross-training were in vogue by then, but he ignored these trends. He had no time for or interest in doing anything but run.
“I don’t swim, I don’t bike, I don’t stretch, I don’t lift weights,” he said. “I just run.” He didn’t run for his health or (since ending his career of national-class racing) to win races. He now ran mainly to keep running. He was, by his own proud definition, a “monoathlete.”
On the streak’s 25th anniversary Mark told reporter Mike Butwell of the Los Angeles Times, “At this point it’s a big deal to me. I don’t know what it means to other people, other than they think Covert is a little wacko.” How wacko? You be the judge.
He once ran on the pitching deck of a cruise ship caught in a Caribbean storm. “The crew was taking bets on when he was going overboard,” recalled Mark’s wife Debi.
Another time Mark was hospitalized with a severe case of flu. When a doctor told him he must stay overnight, he recalled, “I popped right up and said, ‘Get me out of here!’ “
Covert ran on a broken foot, suffered in a mid-run leap to avoid stepping on a snake. “I taped up the foot with an Ace bandage and [wore] a heavy construction boot, and shuffled three miles in 25 or 26 minutes. But I got my run in.”
In perhaps his most cringe-inducing episode he ran right before and the day after hemorrhoid surgery. “I was in a lot of pain,” he said, “but I survived.”
The rules for streaks are set by each streaker. Covert sets a three-mile minimum for himself.
When he heard that British runner Ron Hill, who claims a streak dating back to 1964, crutching a single mile in 27 minutes the day after a car crash broke his sternum, Mark said, “That’s getting ridiculous. Does that mean if I break both my legs but push myself around in a wheelchair for three miles that my streak is still alive? I don’t think so.”
Covert’s streak stood at 27 years when I wrote about him in the book Better Runs. He said then, “There are no days when I get up and think, ‘Gee, if I didn’t have this streak I wouldn’t go for a run.’ That’s never happened.”
And it still hasn’t. His streak passed 15,000 straight days in 2009 and reached its 42nd anniversary a year later. These aren’t token runs either. For the life of the streak he has averaged almost 9½ miles a day, or 66 a week. His record mileage for a year is 6265 (17 per day).
Approaching his 60th birthday in 2010, Mark reported that he was “down” to 50 miles or so per week. “I am running about 55 minutes to 80 minutes each day except for the days my teams have meets; then I only get in 30 minutes or so.”
He added, “I have not had any real problems keeping the streak going the last few years. I did have shoulder surgery last spring, but that was not a big deal. I just ran with my arm in a sling for a week or so.”
Though the junior-college runners he coaches mix their activities somewhat, he remains a committed monoathlete. He said, “What I told you in the 1980s is still true. I don’t swim, bike, stretch, do bounding drills or plyometrics. I have lifted weights now and then, but usually there are several years between sets.”
A better way to describe Mark Covert than the best runner of my acquaintance is that he’s the purest. He didn’t become a runner so he could spend his limited training time doing something else, including taking days off from running.
Later. A chronic foot ailment ended Mark Covert’s running streak at 45 years. He then became a “streaker” as a bicyclist.
(Photo: Mark Covert, the king of American running streakers.)
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Personal Records, Run Gently Run Long, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, The Running Revolution and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]