If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of running streaks. Running every day has changed my life in so many ways, but as I wrote about recently when I hit the 4-year mark, I’ve been contemplating ending the streak within the next year or so.
Can you fathom running every single day for 31 years? Showing up and pounding the pavement for 11,315 days in a row? Well, I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with the amazing Derrick Spafford who has accomplished one of the longest games imaginable.
Derrick Spafford is a 55-year-old competitive runner and running coach from Ontario. He’s the owner of Spafford Health and Adventure: a company that offers coaching, organized races, guest speaking, and snowshoe and running gear. Throughout the course of his 31-year streak, he’s competed in hundreds of races with distances ranging from 800 meters to 100 miles. While Derrick has ran his fair share of road races and track events, his love lies in the mountains and off-the-beaten-path trails.
Derrick’s Fitness Journey
Derrick played competitive hockey growing up, but realized early on that he actually enjoyed the dryland training more than the actual game itself—a rarity in the hockey community. Running is an integral part of off-ice training and conditioning; an unanticipated interest that Derrick decided to develop further. He writes:
I quit hockey and began running more on the backroads and trails near our family farm. My family was always very active outdoors from a young age with lots of hikes, bike rides and cross country skiing. The love of the outdoors carried over into my running and more specifically, for trail running.
Derrick admits that when he started running in the early ‘80s, he enjoyed the competitive aspect of the sport more than the actual enjoyment of the activity itself. Where in team sports you rely heavily on your teammates to win a game and less so on individual performance, with running, the burden rests entirely on you. Derrick writes:
I remember being frustrated with hockey and other team sports when I was younger as you could have your best game ever, but if the rest of the team didn’t work hard, you could lose. With running, you had more of an effect on the potential outcome….if you weren’t consistent in training or had a bad race, you were essentially the only one to blame for it.
The love of the outdoors and the need for control over performance that Derrick craved, made running the perfect activity for him to pursue.
The Inception of the 31 Year Streak
After pulling back from hockey, Derrick began running more regularly in the 1980’s and took the plunge into running year-round in 1982. However, it wasn’t until Christmas Day, 1989— almost 10 years after first taking up the sport—that Derrick began his streak; a streak, that unbeknownst to him, would endure for years and years to come.
Behind the inception of any streak, athletic or not, there’s always an underlying reason or motivation to start. Is it to develop a habit? Lose weight? Challenge yourself? For Derrick, his reason was grounded in his competitive side: “I had been frustrated in my race times and hit a bit of a plateau,” he writes. “I was hoping that with more consistent training, I’d be able to build a stronger base and get faster.” Consistency is an integral piece of any training program to help improve your running and pace—and what’s more consistent than holding yourself accountable every day to accomplish this task.
When I first learned about Derrick’s streak, I had questions— many, many questions—as I’m sure most of you do as well. I had the opportunity to interview Derrick on his incredible journey, which I’m excited to share with you. Whether you’re interested in pursuing your own streak, are in the midst of one yourself, or just want to read something inspiring, Derrick’s incredible story checks the boxes for all your luminary needs.
Contrary to the “x miles a day” formula that streaks conventionally follow, Derrick chose to set a minimum amount of minutes of running per day to count towards his streak instead. He writes:
I’ve always felt that it’s more important to go by time on the legs and hours run as opposed to mileage per week so I’ve never really tracked mileage. This started way back way before GPS watches were available to track mileage. I have always run the majority of my runs on trails (even when I was racing on the track, road races and marathons), so time was a better indicator and made for a more efficient way to monitor training and recovery.
With time as the main foundation, Derrick chose 20 minutes as his minimum (which is well over the mile mark even at a painfully slow pace). Throughout the streak, he logged many more miles (and minutes) than the bare minimum, but this marker was a great tool to use on the recovery days. “On days where I was dealing with injury, illness or extreme fatigue, a super easy 20-minute jog was my rest day”, writes Derrick.
With my own personal streak, I set a minimum of around 4 kilometers per day, which typically puts me in the 20-25 minute time range. I too have found that after a big race or when dealing with injury or illness, the shorter mileage has been an important strategy to keep me propelling forward.
Depending on the streak duration, allow yourself some flexibility for lower mileage days that you can use when you’re sore, sick, or injured. Having these very easy days, whether measured by time or distance, can increase your chances of sticking with not just a streak, but an exercise program in general.
Even though Derrick set the minimum at 20 minutes, he would typically average 90 minutes to 2 hours per day throughout the entire year, particularly when he was training for expeditions and ultramarathons. I know what you’re thinking—hold up for a sec. Let me repeat that: 90 minutes to 2 hours every. single. day. While weekly mileage did fluctuate (some weeks higher and others lower), that was the average spanned across a year. Wow.
Derrick didn’t just stick to the long, easy training runs, however. Just like any good training plan, he incorporated several different training runs into his program at varying intensities. He writes:
There were some training weeks where I would run over 20 hours for the week, which would be broken down with one to two long runs of between 3-7 hours, a mid-week longer run (2-3 hours), and then some form of quality session as well (intervals, tempo, hill training, etc). The rest of the runs each week would again be run mostly on trails with a lot of rolling and technical terrain.
Don’t confuse consistency with repetition. Consistency doesn’t mean it needs to be the same day in and day out. Incorporating variety in your workouts and running on different terrain can make you a faster, better runner. It’s also fun to mix things up. While most of your training should be easy from a sustainability perspective, there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate quality sessions (VO2 max/interval, threshold/tempo runs, etc.) as well while maintaining a streak.
When you first saw the title of this article, I can almost guarantee one of your first thoughts was: “but, but, how did he avoid injury after all that time?” This was one of my initial thoughts as well. Even after sustaining my own streak for roughly 13% of what Derrick accomplished, I had some rough encounters with injury during a much shorter interval of time.
Derrick provides some very important advice here that anyone considering a streak should follow diligently. He writes:
I was able to keep my streak going for over 31 years because I listened to my body closely. I put in some very hard, and very high volume training for an extended period of time, but I also took some very easy days when I felt like I needed it.
Listen to your body, folks. Pushing your body when it’s screaming to stop and when you feel pain, but continuing onwards regardless is a guaranteed recipe for injury. If you’re feeling prolonged soreness and can’t seem to recover, it’s time to bring down that mileage and/or intensity. Slow it down even if it feels like a snail’s pace until you’re fully recovered.
Derrick also stuck with trails for a majority of his daily runs. He lives on a dirt road and “being only 2 kilometers away from an extensive trail network,” he had no need to “ever really touch pavement.” Trail running is better for your knees, takes away stress on impact (as opposed to road running), and can help avoid shin splints. In addition to listening to his body, using his 20-minute rule on the rough days, and sticking namely to trails. Derrick also has another trick up his sleeve: snowshoeing. “I have always done a lot of snowshoe running during the winter months too which is great for strength and injury prevention.” Who knew?
No matter how meticulously you plan to avoid injuries, even if you take the utmost precautions, there’s bound to be some strain over the course of 31 years. Derrick writes:
I’ve had a lot of injuries over the years, but I’ve always felt I’ve been able to run through them by being careful and listening to my body. I’ve also found that it’s important to stay on top of injuries early on – seek out good sports med professionals to help turn injuries around quickly. With each injury, you learn something about your body too that you can help to prevent future injuries.
Once again: listen to your body, and if you do inflict an injury during a streak, it’s important to seek out help from a PT as soon as possible—especially if the injury is causing pain and worsening over time. Of course, there are more severe injuries that you absolutely should not run on (broken bones, certain types of sprains, stress fractures, etc.), but when determining whether you should continue running on an injury, it’s a good idea to gauge your own individual pain. This is a subjective experience, so don’t let pride cloud your judgement.
Recovering After an Ultramarathon
Derrick did run several ultramarathons over the course of his 31-year streak. A 100-miler puts extreme stress on your body and many athletes will take weeks off (sometimes even months) after with zero running. However, in Derrick’s case, he devised a recovery strategy to help him continue to run while recovering. He writes:
I’d take some downtime of only doing my minimum run of 20 minutes per day for as long as I need. I’ll also mix in a few other activities like mountain biking, hiking and lake swimming to aid in recovery.
What Derrick is engaging in is active recovery—a strategy that helps reduce lactic acid build up and minimize the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). He admits that usually after a week or so of short runs, he’ll “get the itch to start exploring a little further on trails again and searching out new routes.” Derrick will also indulge a bit more in the treats “as a reward after a hard effort which makes it that much more gratifying.”
The Mental Side: Sustaining Motivation
How does one get the motivation to get up and run every single day for 31 years? Like any habit, if you do it for long enough, it just becomes, well, just that: a habit. You don’t need to think twice about it—you just do it almost subconsciously. One of the great things about streak running is that the longer you sustain it, the more there is at stake if you decide to just stop. The excuse of “I just don’t feel like it” that may have once been the force keeping you grounded on the couch will become a much weaker pull. Derrick writes, “The streak takes on a life of its own after a while. After around 5 years, I really didn’t want to break it and used that as motivation to keep it going.”
Just to keep a streak going, however, is not going to be enough motivation to get you out the door every day for years. When it comes to sustaining motivation, it’s important to find a framing or form of intrinsic motivation that is deeply (and uniquely) meaningful to you. Derrick’s love of the outdoors and sense of adventure are both frames that kept him motivated throughout his life. He writes:
I’ve always enjoyed getting out and exploring in nature on a daily basis. There is always something different and new to see on the trails. I embrace each day on the trails.
I love that. Trail running has so much to offer. Even if you run the same route day in and day out, there’s always new things to see, animals that cross your trail, and the zen-like experience that nature offers can make time fade away.
Of course, Derrick is only human and did experience “a handful of days each year where [he’d] grudgingly head out the door for a run wishing that [he] didn’t have to.” However, he admits that despite how much resistance he would feel prior, he always felt better after his run. The feeling of the quotidian runner’s high is indeed akin to a ‘healthy’ drug that keeps us coming back for more.
Derrick shared some of the most difficult days he endured during the streak, which included:
- The day after a 100-mile race or expedition.
- Injury (you name it, I’ve had it…my broken fibula was probably the worst!).
- Illness. I’ve had some days with a pretty high fever that I look back on that weren’t fun.
- Travel. Having to squeeze in a run at an airport or parking lot along a highway.
- Cold rain. +4C and rain is the worst running conditions for me. I’d rather run in -40 ANY DAY!
- And, of course a combination of all the above happened at the same time in a single run, which was less than fun! 😉
The End of the 31 Year Streak
Derrick never really set a definitive end date of his ongoing streak, but said that “as long as my health is not being put at risk, then I would continue for as long as possible.” However, in January 2021, an unexpected and scary medical issue surfaced that put Derrick in the hospital for days: forcing him to end his streak.
In December, 2020 he started to feel a “throbbing pain” in his left calf that couldn’t be healed from his traditional recovery protocol that included stretching, foam rolling, or a self-massage. While the pain would subside temporarily, it would come back again later in the day. “It got to the point where I was in significant pain in my calf, and despite not really wanting to be near a hospital during COVID, I made a trip to the ER,” writes Derrick. The following day, Derrick underwent a D-Dimer test (to check for blood clots) and an ultrasound at the hospital. Both tests came back with no abnormalities, so he was sent home and told to self-monitor for any worsening pain.
A week after returning home, things started to get a bit better, but shortly after, started to take a concerning turn. Derrick began feeling a variety of new symptoms, including tightness in his chest, right shoulder, and back. He wondered if it was muscle related (from splitting firewood) or was somehow correlated with the pain in his calf. After an evening of worsening symptoms, Derrick scheduled a call with his family doctor who, after hearing the long list of symptoms, voiced her concerns about a “bad feeling” and advised him to go to the ER right away. “I’m very glad and extremely lucky I did, as things could have ended much worse,” he writes.
After more tests and scans, the results confirmed that Derrick had a pulmonary embolism. A condition that occurs when there is blockage in one the pulmonary arteries in your lungs. If left untreated, this condition can get very serious, very quick—resulting in a ~30% mortality rate. All pulmonary embolisms start in the deep veins of your legs and make their way up to your lungs. During this nightmare, Derrick was understandably scared. He writes:
Some dark thoughts went through my head in those early hours after hearing this. The absolute worst feeling was being so alone and with the memory of my wife Sara driving away and not being able to be with me (due to COVID protocols).
The thought of not being with your loved ones in the moment when you’re fearing for your life is so heartbreaking—I can’t even imagine how much more painful the experience must have been for Derrick.
He admits that after hearing the news, the next week “was a blur.” He endured a “steady rotation of fever, chills, sweats, chest pain, difficulty breathing, coughing, pain meds, blood work, imaging, more blood work, (repeat).”
From all the running Derrick did over the years, he built up a strong pair of lungs and thankfully needed to be put on oxygen for only one night. His wife Sara was eventually able to visit after producing three back-to-back negative COVID tests which Derrick writes, “was wonderful.” After Derrick’s symptoms stabilized, he was allowed to go home and “continue his rehab as an outpatient.”
Life After the Streak
This has been a thought I’ve considered more recently: what is life like after the streak? When you’ve had this quest as such an integral part of your life for so long, what do you do when it ends?
After Derrick was discharged from the hospital, he couldn’t run for 6-weeks due to a damaged lung and forced time-off needed to recover from his pulmonary embolism. It wasn’t until March that he was able to lace back up and hit the trails again. He slowly started to build up his mileage but sustained an injury in his right calf mid-May.
Derrick was concerned that it might be another blood clot, but because he was on blood thinners, considered that it would be unlikely. “It turns out”, Derrick writes, “it was a torn soleus from my left calf being so weak after having the blood clot in my left leg.”
He halted his running again and poured that ambitious energy into mountain biking during his recovery, continuing to strengthen his legs and lungs. Derrick has since slowly gotten back into running but is keeping these runs to a minimum. The road to full recovery is long for Derrick: spanning from 3-6 months to a few years.
“I have increased my time mountain biking during my recovery, which has helped my legs and lungs to get stronger”, Derrick writes. Sadly, his lungs will never recover to 100% before the PE since part of the lung is now comprised of dead tissue. However, Derrick admits that this will mostly impact his high intensity efforts and less so with his steady state “long distance [runs] at submaximal efforts.”
As of today, it’s been ~5 months since he’d been released from the hospital. Derrick writes:
While I’m starting to learn to trust my body again after a potentially fatal incident, I’m getting stronger physically and mentally and starting to look forward to future events, projects, races and expeditions again.
Derrick is truly a remarkable and humble person who has achieved a monumental feat. I’m so grateful that he was willing to share his story and experience with this community. His remarkable determination and optimism are admirable. Since first hearing about Derrick and his streak, I think about him often to fuel my own efforts. What would Derrick do (WWDD) or how did Derrick deal with “x” are recurring thoughts of mine. He’s not just an inspiration for those looking to sustain a streak, but for anyone looking to develop a habit that sticks – whatever that might be. 31 years of consistency in any endeavor is difficult to fathom.
I’ll end this inspiring story with some words of wisdom from Derrick:
The big thing that I would encourage others to do is find what inspires you, what you truly enjoy doing, and what you’re passionate about. If I had to run on a treadmill or in a big city on pavement each day, I know that I wouldn’t have logged as many miles as I did, enjoyed it nearly as much, or had the opportunities I’ve had through trail and snowshoe running. I genuinely love getting out on the trails each day and am looking forward to getting back to the point where I can run long distances again on rugged and remote terrain.
Thank you Derrick for sharing your incredible journey with us! 🙂