by Art Carey
His original idea was to mark the occasion by running with Bill Clinton. But the President has had other affairs on his mind lately, so Joel Perlish had to settle for someone a little less lofty: me.
And so it was that I joined Perlish the other day for a trot around his Havertown neighborhood. My timing was a little off — I missed Joel’s 7,000th run – but he said he was thrilled to have me along nonetheless for Run No. 7,007.
Yes, that’s right. Joel Perlish has gone for a run more than 7,000 days in a row. He hasn’t missed his daily run since the began The Streak nearly 20 years ago on Jan. 8, 1979.
He has run in all kinds of weather, in all sorts of places, in sickness and in health. On day, when an attack of vertigo leveled him, he willed himself out of bed at 11:30pm. to squeeze in a minimum half-mile run before midnight. He ran every day when he was biking across America. A couple of years ago, after an ice storm made footing treacherous, he ran swaddled in bubble wrap to protect himself from falls.
“Moving is a wonderful way of life,” says Perlish.
Talk about an understatement. Next to Perlish, the Energizer Bunny is a sloth. But Perlish doesn’t just move, He moves with purpose. He’s the personification of something near and dear to my heart-functional fitness.
The other day, for instance, we didn’t just run around in circles, we accomplished things! We ran to several banks, we stopped at a pharmacy to pay utility bills, we dropped off correspondence at Haverford Middle School.
This is typical Perlish: He literally runs errands. Some days his route may take him to the post office or the dry cleaner or the bagel shop. Insofar as he’s devoted to running every day, and carefully calculates and logs his mileage, you might think him a tad compulsive. But before writing him off as a head case, factor this in: He’s no slave to rigid routine. He runs at any time of day. Some days, he’ll run only half a mile; other days, five or more. He almost always varies his itinerary, depending on what he has to do and where he needs to go.
A run with Perlish is no grim workout. He’s not ruled by time and a stopwatch. He does not ruin his appreciation of the experience by wearing headphones. He exults in fresh air and sunshine, but enjoys the special challenges and delights of all kinds of weather. He talks, he stops, he visits. On bike tours he sometimes puts a poem in his map rack and memorizes it. On runs, he and his buddy will recite verse.
The other day, when I ran with Perlish, we added to the fun by dropping for 20 push-ups in a bank parking lot. Later, when we crossed the vast school yard of Lynnewood Elementary School, he challenged me to a sprint. Afterward, breathless, glowing, Perlish, who just turned 51, was as giddy as a ribbon winner on field day. Says Perlish: “I sometimes feel like I’m flying.”
He wasn’t always so fleet of foot. When Perlish was a senior at Haverford High, he was kept after school by the gym teacher because he couldn’t run a mile in less than 12 minutes. He didn’t catch the running bug until 15 years later when the sight of a few of his classmates at a high school reunion – specifically, their multiplying chins and thickening middles -stirred worries about what lay in store for him. Says Perlish: “I looked at my own developing paunch and I could see the trend. I told myself, “You’d better do something about it now or join the crowd.”
Bucking the tide wasn’t easy at first. When he began jogging, he could barely cover the distance between two telephone poles. He’d run for a few days, get discouraged, then quit. But he kept coming back, and gradually, one telephone pole became two, then four, then a mile, and so on. On that fateful day in January 1979, he decided, in keeping with his nature, that now is the time, it’s all or nothing: I will run every day for the rest of my life.
Perlish makes his living as a professional photographer, taking portraits and recording weddings and bar mitzvahs. But for 20 years after college, he was a teacher, first at Coopertown Elementary, then Manoa Elementary. During the ten years he was at Manoa, he organized “Joel’s Joggers,” rounding up kids in his class and running with them to and from school. Amazing but true! — and it earned Perlish immortality in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon.
In 1980, while gazing at a U.S. map and pondering how to spend his sabbatical, Perlish had a brainstorm: He’d ride his bike across the United States and visit some of his former pupils. And that’s exactly what he did, pedaling from San Francisco, south to Mexico, across the Southwest, and due east to Pennsylvania and Atlantic City. Riding alone, he covered 4,437 miles in three months. Along the way, he stayed with friends and former students, and spent the night at campsites and in college dorms, churches and empty jail cells. His total lodging expenses for the entire trip: $1.50! “People everywhere were very friendly,” says Perlish. “This country is nothing like what you read in the newspapers.”
Since then, Perlish has biked in all 48 contiguous states and traveled more than 19,000 miles. Up next: Alaska and Hawaii. Taking a long bike trip has become a summer ritual for Perlish, and lest he forgets, bicycles hang in his dining room and kitchen on which he rides to dispatch chores beyond running range.
For almost as long as he’s been a runner, Perlish has also been a vegetarian. His cardiovascular system must be as clean as a newborn’s. His resting pulse, he reports, is often a cadaverous 45 beats per minute. At 5 foot 8 and 150 pounds, he’s greyhound lean, but says he feels best when he tips the scales at a featherweight 140.
Perlish also tries to lift weights every day (for different muscle groups) and does pull-ups before and after each run on a homemade chin-up bar in his carport. “It’s kind of sad when people let themselves go.” he mused the other day. “People make excuses why they can’t exercise, but really there are no excuses.”
Perlish’s advice: “Don’t try to do too much at once. If you feel tired, back it down. Just try to keep moving forward.” He also had some advice for me: New shoes! (And don’t be a cheapskate.) “Would you rather have joints that feel real bad,” asked Perlish, “or spend $70 for a good pair of running shoes? As soon as a pair feels hard in the sole, I toss them.”
His ultimate purpose? To keep The Streak going forever. “My idea is to live to be 110-something years old” says Perlish, “and to go running on a gorgeous day like this, by a stream with sparkling water, and to keel over during the run.”