His days seem to run together, 9,000 of them

JOHN EISENBERG

December 03, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Bob Ray has gone out running for more than 9,000 straight days, in 48 states, in 80-below wind-chill and 120-degree heat, in 22 inches of snow (behind a snowplow), with fever and sprained ankles and torn cartilage in his ribs, during a flash flood, on the day he got divorced, with a tornado nearby. . . .

"All I can say is, why take a day off if you aren't tired?" he said the other day in his apartment in Carney, surrounded by meticulously kept logs detailing his daily runs since April 3, 1967, which was the last day he woke up and said to himself, "Aw, I don't feel like it." That was almost 64,000 miles ago.

Ray is 54, a tall, solidly built Baltimore postman with a beard, easy manner and literally the second-most tireless legs in the world. His streak is up to 24 years, 7 months, 29 days, putting him behind only England's Ron Hill, popular here during the early days of the Baltimore Marathon, who is 22 months ahead, according to running record keepers.

"I just never get leg weary," said Ray, who has run in roughly 350 races along the way, finishing a marathon in as fast as 3 hours, 18 minutes. "It occurred to me a long time ago that I was put on this earth to run."

That was when he was a kid in Delta, Pa., the country town where his parents raised nine children. A neighbor who drove a train on the York-to-Baltimore line would blow the horn from a couple of miles away. Ray would race the train to the station.

"It was about a mile," he said, "and the first time I did it in five minutes. Someone told me that was pretty fast. I wound up running on the team in high school, got within 18 seconds of a 4-minute mile."

He kept running -- not every day, not yet -- when he joined the Navy, where he repaired planes on carriers and ran in Japan, Australia, Mexico and the South Pole. ("Four miles on the crushed ice. Ran with some guy. Never did get his name.")

Then he was working in Baltimore and spending his lunch running a few miles. It was the spring of 1967. "One day one of the women I was running with made a comment that she'd run every day for a couple of weeks," he said, "and then she said that, being a guy, I should be able to do that."

Taking the dare, he started out aiming for two weeks. Once he accomplished that, he aimed for a month. "Then it was two months, then half a year, then a year," he said. "It just grew and grew."

He ran in cut-offs and tennis shoes ("red ball high-tops") in those days, and sometimes without any shoes, a leftover from his country upbringing. It was before the jogging boom, when there were no running clubs or $100 shoes.

Then someone showed him a picture of a pair of running shoes in 1978. "It was like going from a Volkswagen to a Cadillac," he said. He upped his training to around 60 miles a week and started running in races, everything from 5-kilometer --es to marathons. But he never took a day off. The standard excuses didn't, and still don't, rate with him.

Heat: "I run in the mid-day summer heat. It's easy because I've been outside all day. I'm used to it. Someone who has been in air-conditioning would have trouble."

Cold: "In Chicago I did four miles at minus-80 wind-chill. When I was going out, the hotel doorman said, 'You aren't from Chicago.' My beard froze and I couldn't move my mouth. But I can handle cold better than heat. Just don't stop."

Snow: "No problem. There's always someplace where the plows have come."

Illness: "Once I had food poisoning and 101-degree fever. I took aspirin and waited, my fever went to 99 and I went out. Obviously if I had high fever I wouldn't go. But I haven't had that."

The biggest threat to the streak occurred in 1982, when he injured his ribs turning to get something in the back of his car. "I could barely breathe, had this big bandage on," he said. "The first two days I just went a couple of miles on a track. Then I threw the thing away, went out and ran 10 miles."

The obvious highlight of the streak occurred in 1987, when he took a month off from work and drove his 1968 van through every state except Alaska and Hawaii, stopping to run in each. He ran at the foot of Mount Rushmore, up Stone Mountain in Georgia, in the Nevada desert, across the Texas-Oklahoma border.

He slept in his van on post office parking lots, took showers at fire stations and got cooperation from police everywhere. "I ran 299 miles all told," he said. "Took me 28 days, 4 hours and 56 minutes."

Clearly, he is as much a compulsive record keeper as runner. "As of [Sunday] I've run 63,913 miles in the streak," he said. "Counting all the years I ran before, I'm coming up on 86,000 miles in my life."

He paints landscapes, tinkers with his van and rides an exercise bike (yes!) in his spare time, but running -- his average daily distance is 6 to 10 miles -- is his focus. He has a number of streak milestones he's now aiming for: 25 years, 10,000 days, 100,000 miles, maybe 30 years. "And who knows beyond that?" he said.

He'll draw a little closer every day. Literally. "I don't do it because I'm competitive," he said. "I do it because it's fun. Some people say, 'How do we know you've run every day?' I say: 'I can't prove it to you. But if you have the time to stand outside my front door for the next 20 years, you can find out.' "

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