Daily running streak broken by COVID-19, just shy of 20 years

Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, holds the white stick he took with him on his runs. He was nearing the important anniversary of 20 years of running every single day until COVID cut that streak short. He wasn't a runner when he began running 23 years ago. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

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Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, holds the white stick he took with him on his runs. He was nearing the important anniversary of 20 years of running every single day until COVID cut that streak short. He wasn't a runner when he began running 23 years ago. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

The details of 7,243 runs are recorded in Jim Merritt’s journal. The first entry is Oct. 29, 2001. The last is Aug. 27, 2021, just a couple months shy of the 20-year anniversary of Merritt’s daily running streak. A COVID-19 diagnosis robbed him of his ritual runs. Though the end was abrupt and heartbreaking, Merritt is moving forward with appreciation for all he’s accomplished and hope for future runs.

“When I started running, I never imagined it would take me this far,” said Merritt, 73, of Buford. “I was never too athletic, so I really surprised myself.”

Merritt and his wife Linda MerrittMerritt smoked cigarettes for decades, but his habit came to a halt when Linda was misdiagnosed with emphysema 23 years ago. Afraid of what health ailments he may face, he traded his cigarette habit for something he’d never tried before: running. After three years of casual runs, he had the idea to see how many days he could run in a row. “Streaker Jim” was born.

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Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, talks about his running career in his man cave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, talks about his running career in his man cave.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Combined ShapeCaption
Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, talks about his running career in his man cave. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

As a delivery driver for a printing company, Merritt always found a way to work his runs into his daily schedule.

“I’ve made many runs in interstate rest areas during all hours of the day and night. I’ve ran on holidays, on vacations, through sickness,” said Merritt. “I had no idea of the commitment level required when you take on something like this. I had no clue it would go so far, but it keeps building and feeding on itself. You finish a run, still feel great and think ‘why wouldn’t I run tomorrow?’ That’s the feeling that’s kept me going for two decades.”

His wife of 35 years, Linda Merritt, has been in awe of him all these years.

“It’s all I can do to get out of bed in the morning and there he is, waking at 4 a.m. to go run,” she said. “He’d run before church and before work. He even ran after he fell backward off the roof and had a concussion. I only let him run around the house, but he got a mile in every day until he was better. I’d worry about him in the summer. I’d be having a heat stroke, worried he’d dehydrate during an afternoon run, but he did great. He ran through everything, all for the glory of God.”

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Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, kept track of which hat he would wear for his daily run by putting a clothes pin on the next one in rotation. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, kept track of which hat he would wear for his daily run by putting a clothes pin on the next one in rotation. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Combined ShapeCaption
Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, kept track of which hat he would wear for his daily run by putting a clothes pin on the next one in rotation. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Merritt has run more than 500 races. He used to run 10Ks and he ran a couple half marathons, but nothing longer than a 5k in recent years. His most recent average was 19 miles a week, three miles five days a week, and two miles two days a week.

Merritt joined the United Stated Running Streak Association in 2008, an organization where he could fraternize with other runners and publicly record his running stats.

“When you run everyday by yourself, it’s such a treat to go to races on the weekend,” said Merritt. “I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands, of people at races and through the running streak association. The running community is such a collection of nice, wonderful people. It’s hard to imagine I wouldn’t know them if I hadn’t started running.

While Merritt often ran organized 5Ks on Saturday mornings (he ran about 20 this year), his daily runs were around town. Though many don’t know him by name, he said, plenty of folks around Buford recognize him as the “old man who runs with that white stick.” The stick he carries is fashioned out of PVC pipe. He created it years ago for protection against stray dogs he might encounter.

With his running streak, Merritt had both a short and long-term goals. The short: run tomorrow. The long: run every day for the rest of his life. He always wondered how his streak might end. So did Linda.

“We all thought he might break a foot or a leg one day,” she said. “We never imagined it’d be this.”

Linda Merritt was diagnosed with COVID-19 first, Merritt followed about a week later. He continued to run for six days after he became ill. Each of those days, he woke at 4 a.m. to run one mile, the minimum daily requirement by the U.S. Running Streak Association. It was Saturday, Aug. 27, when he faced the reality that his body couldn’t endure another run.

“I had a rough couple of days coming to terms with it,” said Merritt, his voice brimming with emotion.

Despite being diagnosed with double pneumonia during his stint with COVID-19, his oxygen levels were always high. The doctor told Merritt his lungs were in great shape, that running likely saved his life.

Merritt is now ranked #108 on the men’s retired running streaks list.

“I’m a lifetime member of the organization and I’ll hold a place on the roster forever. I’m very proud of that. It’s been very difficult for me to let go of my streak, but I hope to get back to running. Running made me healthier and happier. I never regretted a run. I realize how truly blessed I am to have made a journey like this and go as far as I did. I’m at peace.”

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Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, holds the what stick he took with him on his runs. It commemorates his 7,243-day running streak. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, holds the what stick he took with him on his runs. It commemorates his 7,243-day running streak. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Combined ShapeCaption
Jim Merritt, 73, of Buford, holds the what stick he took with him on his runs. It commemorates his 7,243-day running streak. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner