A running streak saving his life

Inspiration for all of us…

A 74-year-old North Dakota runner devoted 40 years to build streaks. Not snapstreaks. But a dare to start a running streak. Teens: listen up. Streaks can empower you, build your confidence, and change your life – if you choose the right ones.

Dennis’ longest streak was running 5333 consecutive days. Then, he completed a 3308-day streak. Nearly 24.5 years of running. Every. Day. Essentially, he trained 40 years to prepare for the day doctors stopped his heart – his running-streak broken.  

In 1977, this high school coach went to a conference. A speaker ended with, “I dare you to run a mile a day for a year.”

“I could do that!” Dennis was confident. He hated his 230-pound frame, and the dare was a jolt to change.
He quickly learned he was in bad shape – only able to run ¼ mile. So with ¼ mile intervals of running and walking – he finally completed his one mile run.
About a week later, he could run one mile without stopping.
The running fever had bit. In his lifetime, he went on to run six, ten, and sometimes 20 miles a day.

“My goal was always to run tomorrow,” Dennis said. “And run the next day. That’s always my goal.”

With each mile…
Weight dropped.
Running 556 days in a row, he melted fat to a healthy 180-pound weight.
His first streak. Discipline. Self-motivation.
As family and career drive our days – Dennis continued running. And he’d take breaks. But, suddenly something triggered and Dennis became very serious about pounding the pavement.  

His longest streak…

was 5333 days – nearly fifteen years. Rain, sleet, high winds, snowdrifts – it didn’t matter. He ran in extreme conditions. Freezing his eyelids at -95 wind chill to overheating in 101 degrees F.

“Nothing is going to stop me from running,” Dennis said. “I had to run everyday just like I had to breathe everyday.”

Dennis’ determined willpower and desire were not enough to keep his longest streak going. Medically, he was derailed. The streak – broke. Dennis’ routine was taken by storm with the findings of a bladder tumor needing surgical removal. He ran the morning of his major surgery. “I knew that my string of days was over,” Dennis said. It was there, surgeons discovered prostate cancer.

He left the hospital weak. Robbed of his streak.
Yet, determination was stronger than defeat. He kept moving.
Dennis walked daily – starting with a very challenging 100 yards. With persistence, he completed a four-miles walk.

After six weeks of slow walking, “I just knew I had to go out and run.”
He hit the pavement, surprising himself with a six-mile run.
“Not as fast. But I could run it,” Dennis smiled.

He began to rebuild his speed and stamina.
Regain strength.
Not for medals or ribbons – simply for himself.
And starting another series of uninterrupted running days.

Another streak…

… 3308 days.
Just short of nine years.
In this stretch, leukemia tried to destruct his body by sky-rocketing his white blood cells count to 200,000. Chemotherapy complicated with nausea.
Four battles with pneunomia.
Dennis. Never. Quit.
“I don’t know how I did that,” the agony flashing through Dennis’ memory. “There was no excuses. Never. No way I’d get out of this. Get up. And run,” Dennis said.

He’d clock his miles in the wee hours, before his day as a secondary principal, athletic director and coach. Dennis became a running icon in his tiny community of 400 in Scranton, ND, and his network of coaching leaders.

“Somewhere along the line, something triggered. And it was just something I had to do,” Dennis said about his running.

The frigid North Dakota winters bite. Dennis layered up to 27 different pieces of clothing to combat the freeze. He’d meet the winds head on, and running with the wind home. Essentially, Dennis sustained 23 ½ years of daily running. A routine. A drill. His oxygen.

But, everything changed.

It came to a screeching halt.
Dennis was facing the fight of his life as doctors stared into his open heart cavity.

It was a routine Sunday. May 7, 2017, Dennis’ early-morning run was difficult. Although he’s no stranger to the whipping North Dakota winds, Dennis struggled. He had to walk about one-quarter mile. He credited the high winds, and went about his day.

Looking back, it was a sign. Something is drastically wrong.

A couple hours later, Dennis was coordinating his duties as a transit-driver, when he walked to the van, grabbing his heart. Somehow, he pressed redial on his flip phone. And help was on the way.

Coincidentally, Dennis was in a neighboring town with a hospital, with a doctor present. An air ambulance near. All contributing factors for dynamic developments in desperate times.

The difference:
between life and death.

“I don’t remember anything, except that I was in big trouble,” as its all a blur for a few days, Dennis said.

This collegiate athlete and daily exerciser had an aortic dissection.
A poor prognosis, but his surgeon attacked the odds.

A heart stopped.

Stopping Dennis’ heart for three hours, putting his body on ice for six. Replacing four inches of his ascending aorta – the main artery of the body which supplies oxygenated blood to the circulatory system had been forced apart.

The surgery team’s determination matched Dennis’ tenacity.

Dennis’ running program likely saved his life.
“I was the only person he (the surgeon) knew that had been preparing for this for forty years,” Dennis said.

As a high school biology teacher, Dennis has influenced some students to study medicine. During this fragile situation, several of his students guided his care. As nurses, as assistant surgeons, as medical leaders. They helped save Dennis’ life.

Nine days later, Dennis walked out of the hospital.
A second chance. Dennis began to walk.
One block at a time.
Two months of extensive and intense rehab.
Now, six months later, Dennis walks. Exercises. And smiles with gratitude.
Doctors say it will be a full year if he were to ever get back to where he was.
Dennis expects a full recovery.

Looking back at life – at his last streak – Dennis’ running goal was 5334 days.
He didn’t reach it.
Naturally, it bothers Dennis.

Is there another streak in his future?
“I’m realistic. I don’t think I’m going to start running again. My knees feel better walking,” Dennis shared.

So, he spends 90 minutes everyday exercising. Sit-ups. Pushups. Stretching. Walking.

“I’m bound and determined not to just sit. And float away,” Dennis said. “That’s just me.”

How many miles? He’s not positive.
But, calculating stretches of his life where he’d run up to 100 miles a week then backing off to only 45-50, Dennis estimates, “I’m probably on my third time around the world.”

A growing streak.
A winning streak!