Sutherland keeps on running, rocking

Coaching is just one more thing Jon Sutherland does simply for the love of running. Courtesy of Jon Sutherland

There have been injuries, illnesses, late nights, hectic schedules, bad weather and, of course, the never-ending effects of age.

But since Jon Sutherland went for an 8-mile run on May 26, 1969, nothing has kept him from his daily run. For more than 44 years -- the longest active streak in the United States -- Sutherland has laced up his shoes and hit the streets or trails, averaging more than 11 miles per day. He has run close to 190,000 miles over 16,216 consecutive days, with every run documented in detail in 46 thick binders at his West Hills, Calif., home.

He has fallen and broken ribs six times, and had 10 broken bones in all during the streak, including stress fractures in a shin and foot. Even when a muscle tore away a piece of his hip, he kept going. At 63, the longtime writer and high school cross country coach still logs more than 40 miles each week, and he runs now for the same reason he did when he was 19: the pure love of it.

A day without running is unthinkable. As long as he has his health, he'll keep adding days and miles to those binders.

"One of my favorite lines is from James Hetfield from Metallica," says Sutherland, who for many years covered heavy metal bands for music magazines. "Somebody asked him once in one of those videos, 'How long is Metallica going to be together?' He says, 'I don't see any stop signs,'" Sutherland recalls, laughing. "That's the way I feel. Nothing's telling me to stop."

If all goes well, Sutherland will run past his 45-year anniversary in May and eclipse the U.S. record held by Mark Covert, his friend and former college teammate. Covert, hobbled by foot problems, decided to end his streak after running a mile on July 23 of this year, 45 years to the day after it began in 1968. Sutherland says he never would have had the idea to run every day if it weren't for Covert, a terrific college runner who began his streak about 10 months before his own.

"If I can make 45 years next May, it's going to be bittersweet," says Sutherland, who never wanted to see Covert's streak end. "I have so much respect for Mark. He's a great friend. But I'm proud of what I've done, too. And I didn't live the normal hours. I was a rock 'n' roller, head to toe."

One year, that meant going to 179 rock concerts. "That's 179 morning workouts that are in serious jeopardy," he says.

But he'd often get home or back to his hotel room in the early-morning hours, awake at dawn and get in a run.

"It was hard, but I always found a way."

Rocking along

Sutherland jokes that he couldn't have picked two more incompatible passions as running and rock 'n' roll. After running at Los Angeles Valley College and Cal State Northridge, Sutherland worked for decades in the music business as a writer, editor and publisher, also managing bands and working for record labels.

"People say, 'What did you do in the music business?' and my joke is, 'Everything except cocaine and make money,'" he says.

For years, Sutherland had to get creative to carve out time for runs, perfecting the art of disappearing in the middle of the day. He'd be at his office in Hollywood (which had a shower), slip out for a 10-miler through Griffith Park and then get back to business. On the road with bands, he says, "I'd have to jump out of the bus and run five miles while they're doing laundry."

Most people he dealt with had no idea he was a runner. It just wasn't something that came up. He remembers one night while he was working at Metal Blade Records his running became a topic after a meeting with the managers of the bands Megadeth, Slayer and Dokken.

"They said, 'Hey, we're going to dinner, Jon. Let's go,'" he recalls. "I said, 'I haven't run today. I've got to go run.' They said, 'You'd rather run than eat?' And I go, 'Look at this body. Does it look like it's missed more meals or more workouts?' They all said, 'Meals.'"

Today, Sutherland is 6-foot-4 and weighs 158 pounds, 22 pounds less (and 2 inches shorter) than he was as a high school pitcher in Los Angeles. He didn't take up running until he went to L.A. Valley College in the fall of 1968 and went out for cross country, eager to strengthen his legs and endurance for baseball. Instead, he discovered he liked running better. He saw how good Covert was -- he led the team to a state community college championship that year -- and tried to learn from him.

"He was the best runner in the country, and I wasn't even in the top 10 on our team," Sutherland says. "But I liked working and I liked running and I really admired Mark as a person. I just enjoyed how hard he worked."

Then Covert told Sutherland in the summer of 1969 that he'd just run every day for a year. "I said, 'Whoa, I want to try that,'" he recalls.

Neither he nor Covert had any idea what they were starting.

The first day and beyond

Day 1 of Sutherland's streak came almost two months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and nearly five months before the New York Mets became miraculous. Barack Obama was just 7 years old in May of '69, but is now the eighth U.S. president to serve during Sutherland's streak.

By the time Sutherland vowed to run every day, he already had a mini streak of about two months. It began with an 8-mile barefoot run on grass, the first day in weeks he'd been cleared by his doctor to run after suffering a 95 percent tear of the peroneal nerve in his lower leg. The leg was in a brace as he healed, and the inactivity drove Sutherland crazy. He can still recall the freedom he felt at running again.

"I remember exactly where I was," he says. "I went to Cal State Northridge, and there's a tree that we used to start underneath, and I remember sitting there and I said a prayer, 'God, if you let me run today I'll run every day for the rest of my life.' I really felt … I didn't know what I was saying. 'Please let me run again.' It took me like an hour and 20 minutes to run 8 miles. I was so afraid of the pain coming back. But when I was done, I just felt so good. Sweating, being active, feeling the breeze and my hair blowing back. I was, 'Oh man, I'm doing this. I'm in for this.'"

Now committed to training every day, Sutherland pushed himself, even through the heat of Las Vegas, where he moved with his family that first summer. He says he put in 2,100 miles over three months, averaging 24 miles a day, dutifully logging every workout.

"I just really, really wanted to be good," he says.

At Cal State Northridge in the early '70s, he set several school records, including for the 3,000 meters, 2- and 3-mile, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. He's still among the school's top 10 in the 2-mile (9:02.14). Later, he finished 15th one year in the national cross country championships and set personal records of 13:51 for the 5,000 meters and 28:51 in the 10,000, good enough, he says, "to get me in the top 20, top 30 in the U.S. a couple of years."

By his count, too, he has won 325 road races. But Sutherland knows it's his longevity, not his times or trophies, that people care about. His streak has been covered, along with Covert's, in running magazines and Southern California newspapers, and people who learn about it always express amazement.

"Then they think you're crazy," he adds. "That's kind of the inside joke among all the streakers, we tell each other how crazy we are, but we aren't. We're just people who have something we really enjoy and we do it."

He says running is who he is. He's also written about running and been a high school cross country and track coach for 11 years, the past eight at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif. At one point, he ran 100 miles or more per week for 11 consecutive years.

"I love it," he says. "People, they know that. I mean, that's who I am. If you say, 'Who's Jon Sutherland?' He's a runner. They don't see a rock journo from the '80s. No, he's a runner."

Which is the only explanation for his obsession to run even through serious injury. The worst came in February 1988, when he was 37 and running a half marathon on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. The road was slick from hail and the surface was uneven at about the halfway point, when Sutherland's right foot slipped several inches.

"I heard and felt this big pop," he says. "The guy next to me heard it and said, 'What was that?' I said, 'I think I broke my hip.'"

Still, he finished the race. The next day he went to a doctor and the hip was X-rayed, revealing that a muscle had torn a piece of bone from his hip. The muscle needed to be reattached, but Sutherland didn't have insurance. The doctor advised him that over time the piece of bone would dissolve and the muscle would reattach itself to the hip, so that's the course Sutherland took.

Meanwhile, he continued to run every day, usually on a secluded 3-mile trail where others wouldn't see the shuffling gait he had to adopt. "It was nine months of pure hell," he says.

How far can he go?

When Sutherland records his 16,438th consecutive day next year to pass Covert, streak runners will take notice.

"We were really shocked that Mark quit, but it's going to be a pretty big deal," says Mark Washburne, president of the United States Running Streak Association, who has his own streak of nearly 24 years. The association, started in 1994 and formalized in 2000, keeps track of running streaks in the U.S. of a year or longer. As of this month, 419 men or women have streaks of a year or more, with Sutherland one of seven with 40 years-plus.

The rules are simple: Runners must run at least a mile every day, without crutches, canes or other aids. It's impossible to document every runner, so it's on the honor system, with runners required to sign a certificate that they abide by the rules. In some cases runners are asked to provide documentation.

"We'll challenge, especially the long-time streaks. We're pretty careful," says Washburne, of Menham, N.J.

With Sutherland, of course, that's not an issue. Sutherland has been keeping a journal since high school, first making notes on his pitching and then his daily runs -- as well as entries on almost everything in his life. As a journalist and writer (he has authored four books), it has been a daily exercise. British runner and former Olympian Ron Hill, 75, is recognized by many -- including Sutherland -- as having the world-record streak of almost 49 years. He has run every day since Dec. 20, 1964. But after surgery in 1993, Hill said he used a crutch to complete a run, which doesn't meet the criteria of the U.S. Running Streak Association.

So, Covert is at the top of the U.S. list, with Sutherland closing in. And Covert, a longtime coach at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, Calif., says he has no reason to believe Sutherland won't break his mark and keep on going.

"I hope he can go 50, 55 [years], wherever he wants to take this," Covert says.

But nothing's guaranteed.

"It's obviously something you want to continue to do, but it's a physical thing," he says. "A step in a hole -- because of how severe injuries can be and how long they take to heal -- you're a step away from the streak ending. I assume it will go for a long time, but I don't know."

Covert's only wish is that Sutherland can end it on his terms, not see it halted because of injury.

The streak has come to mean a lot to Sutherland, who went back on the 10th anniversary of its start to carve his initials "JLS" and "5/26/1969" in the tree at Cal State Northridge. Thirty-four years later, he's going to make no predictions how long it can go.

"I think [considering] anything other than catching [Covert's] record is just foolhardy," Sutherland says. "I don't know if I'll be alive."

All he knows is that as a runner, he needs to run.

Says Sutherland: "The first thing I think about when I wake up every morning, after I say my prayers, is, 'Where am I running today?'"