Putting his feet up

After 38 years of running every day, Bob Ray gets a fresh start on his daily routine.


April 13, 2005|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Bob Ray's remarkable day began on a humdrum note. He did the laundry and changed the litter box. He folded clothes and fed the fish. He washed the dishes and shopped for groceries.

So it went, from morn 'til night.

What made the day distinct wasn't what Ray did, but what the Perry Hall resident didn't do for the first time in 13,885 days.

He didn't run a lick.

Last Friday, Ray left his ASICS shoes in the closet and ended his streak of having run at least 2 miles a day for 38 years -- an American record. Instead, he found himself doing routine stuff, like cleaning the charcoal grill, servicing the lawn mower and playing with Daisy, the family's 17-pound cat.

"She needs the exercise more than I do," said Ray.

He had run every day since April 4, 1967. That Tuesday, Dr. Martin Luther King publicly condemned the war in Vietnam. The film A Man For All Seasons opened at the Charles Theatre. And in Northwood, a 29-year-old mail carrier jogged 4 miles after work, on a whim, in cutoffs and high-top tennis shoes, along Belvedere Avenue.

For Ray, it was the start of a streak that would cover 8 U.S. presidencies and 3 American wars. He ran in every state but Hawaii. He ran on days so hot the road blistered, and on days so cold his beard froze. He ran far enough to have lapped the Earth four times.

But last week, one day after his 68th birthday, Bob Ray put his foot down -- and held it there

"The monkey is off of my back," he said.

In the next breath, however, he spoke of the streak as if it were a favorite possession:

"I feel like I've just given away an old car.

"I'm in strange territory here; this is the first day of the rest of my life. You forget what it's like to take a day off. My body says I should be out running; my mind says all of that ended yesterday.

"But if I have the discipline to run all of those days, I can sure have enough discipline not to run for one day."

It's not easy, scrapping an obsession that you've nurtured for parts of five decades. On Friday, Ray sat in his living room, flanked by scrapbooks and photo albums and a knot of balloons sent by well-wishers. He thumbed through the last of seven thick hardbound ledgers that logged all of the 100,000 miles he ran during that span. Each entry lists weather conditions, time of day, distance and location.

Ray also kept a running tab of his mileage. It's no fluke that he bowed out on a nice round number.

"As you get older, what's easier to remember than a `1' with five zeroes behind it?" he said.

Signing out

The final entry: a 4-mile run on his birthday that took Ray from home to Perry Hall High School, around the track a few times and back. As he neared the house, Ray stopped, removed his shoes, tied the laces together and hung them from the lamppost.

"The race is over," he said.

Then he stepped across the finish line, a green stripe that he'd scrawled in chalk at the foot of the driveway before setting out.

The streak was "an addiction, but a positive one," said Ray. "It kept me alert, in shape, disciplined.

"It's a selfish thing to do. Your whole world revolves around the streak. It's always on your mind -- you finish running one day and you're already thinking of the next."

And now?

"I'm relieved, knowing it's over," he said. "Now I can run because I want to, not because I have to."

It was time to walk away, said Ray: "The other day, I was jogging [to cool down after running] and got passed by a woman who was power walking.

"People used to call me `Speedy.' Now it's `Snail.' You know what? Even snails get there eventually."

Ray was getting slower. He also wasn't getting any younger.

"Better I should end it on my terms than to be carried off on a stretcher," he said.

That's exactly what his wife, Cindy, feared.

"I'm glad he stopped [the streak] because of all the road rage," she said. "Drivers have swerved into gutters to make Bob jump into the grass. At least now it won't be an everyday worry."

Friday afternoon, relaxing in a patio chair, Ray spotted a man wearing yellow shorts and sunglasses chugging down the street. Did the Iron Man suddenly feel running pangs? No. Instead, he morphed into a sideline critic like everyone else.

"He's not running with a fluid motion, like he's in training," Ray said of the passer-by. "It's more like, `Oh God, my wife is making me run, so I'll do it if I have to.' "

Along a 100,000-mile road, you'd expect a guy to collect a few memories -- and who knows what else.

"I found enough tools -- screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets -- to go into business, but never a toolbox," he said. He found lots of money -- more than $2,500 -- and turned it all in. On a busy street, he found a box turtle, scooped it up, took it home and named it "Lucky." Cindy used to walk Lucky in the back yard.

Only once was Ray nearly mugged on a run. In 1987, he was pursued by thugs near Northern High School who were after his watch.

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