BODY WATCH : Streak Smarts : You might say Mark Covert likes to run. He's averaged 11 miles every day since 1968--just because he can.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time the sun breaks over the desert horizon this morning, Mark Covert will have already pulled on his blue Nike Air Max 2Lights and pushed himself out the door into the early morning chill for his daily run.

If it's a good day, he'll pad 10 or 12 miles through the streets of Lancaster. If not, he'll stop after seven or eight. But it won't be a memorable start to the day in either case.

What would be worth noting is if Covert had passed the day without running at all--because that hasn't happened in nearly 27 years.

And we're not talking jogging here. A former Olympic hopeful in the marathon, Covert, 44, has averaged 11 miles of quality running every day for each of the last 9,752 days, enduring despite pulled muscles, a broken foot and a serious case of hemorrhoids. Once, he even ran laps around the deck of a ship struggling through a severe tropical storm just to keep the streak alive.

And a remarkable streak it is--a combination of determination, willpower, resolve and uncommon good fortune. Or, as Covert's wife, Debi, so eloquently summarizes: "It's stupid."

Covert laughs. "I've never said this is a mark of intelligence," he offers. "To the person who reads this, yeah, this is absolutely ridiculous. The man is brainless.

"But at this point, it's something that I enjoy doing. As long as it can go on, it will go on."

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Covert didn't need the streak to call attention to his running. Between 1969 and 1973, when he was at his competitive peak, he won two state junior college titles for L.A. Valley College, a national college division championship in cross-country for Cal State Fullerton, set two national records in track and finished seventh in the Olympic Trials marathon.

But as he has grown older--and slower--it's the streak that has kept his name prominent in running circles. By almost all accounts, Covert's streak is the second-longest in the world, topped only by former British Olympian Ron Hill.

There is no way to independently verify such streaks, of course. Instead, runners are forced to rely on the honor system. But in Covert's case, his word is also backed by a voluminous training diary in which he has meticulously recorded each of the 109,000 miles he's run since the streak began July 22, 1968, with a rather uneventful training run on a hot summer day. The diary soon came to play a major role in inspiring the streak because that fall, as Covert flipped through his log, he noticed that he had gone more than three months without missing a workout.

"I looked and I saw 100 days and I thought, 'Boy wouldn't it be something to get to a year,' " Covert recalls. Then a year led to two, and two led to five and before he knew it, Covert's streak had taken on a life of its own.

If you consult the Book of Mark, you will learn that, as Neil Armstrong was bounding across the lunar surface, Covert was bounding 23 miles over Mt. Tom between Burbank and Glendale. And on the morning Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison, Covert celebrated by running 14 miles through Valencia with a buddy.

"It's just something that's there," Covert says of the streak. "It's just something that I've done for so long, that it's part of my life at this point. Something really dramatic would have to happen for this to come to an end."

Not that he hasn't survived some close calls. In 1980, when the streak was still in its preteen years, Covert contracted a severe flu that left him dehydrated and requiring treatment at a hospital emergency room. His condition improved dramatically, however, when it was suggested he might have to stay overnight for observation.

"I popped right up when I heard that," Covert would recall years later. "The first thing that went through my mind was, if they keep me here overnight, the streak could be in jeopardy."

The next morning, Debi followed in the car as Covert shuffled through his three miles before collapsing into the back seat.

Never was the streak more imperiled, though, than in the summer of 1982, when Covert broke a bone in his left foot avoiding a snake that had crossed his path on a training run. For nearly a month, Covert kept the streak alive by taping his foot and running in a pair of heavy construction boots that protected the fracture. The pain, however, was excruciating.

"There was a calcium buildup, a lump, that was pressing hard against my shoe," Covert recalls. "I thought, 'Well, this is about it. I don't know if it's worth going on.' It hurt so bad."

In a final act of desperation, Covert pulled out a new pair of running shoes and cut away part of the upper, leaving the lump on his foot exposed. That relieved the pressure and Covert was soon jogging circles in his back yard to test the foot. The next day, he ran three relatively painless miles.

But if that was the streak's most painful episode, the most dangerous Covert action involved circling the deck of a cruise ship that was being battered by a horrific Caribbean storm. According to Debi, bemused members of the ship's crew were taking bets as to when Mark would be pitched overboard.

Swimming, however, wouldn't have interested Covert. Nor does biking, hang gliding, para-sailing or roller-blading.

"I'm a mono athlete," he once told Joe Henderson, the West Coast editor for Runner's World magazine. "I just want to run."

"That," Henderson adds, "was the ethic of the '60s and '70s."

And for Covert, who is the track and cross-country coach at Antelope Valley College, that ethic is very much alive. His competitive instinct has survived as well, only now he's locked in a battle of endurance and media hype rather than one of speed.

For decades Ron Hill, who started his streak on Dec. 20, 1964, was considered Covert's only foe. But two others have recently surfaced, claiming to have streaks even longer than Covert's. According to Marty Post, statistician for Runner's World, a Pennsylvania marathoner claims to have run every day since Jan. 10, 1967, while a Maryland man dates his streak from April 4, 1967.

Henderson is skeptical of such Johnny-come-lately claims, while Covert remains suspicious--in a diplomatic sort of way.

"I consider my streak the second longest," he says. "I'm not saying these other guys' streaks aren't for real. If they say they've run, they've run.

"But I have always wondered where these guys were over the first 10 or 15 years. How did they just surface now?"

Even Hill's claim to more than three decades of uninterrupted running is proving controversial. Not long ago news came from England that Hill, 56, was injured in a car accident, which sparked a morbid kind of celebration among Covert's supporters. Months later, new reports surfaced that the Briton had kept his streak intact by hobbling up and down a hospital corridor on crutches and counting it as a run.

"In that case, the streak is taking over the runner," Tom Fleming, a former world-class marathoner, protested at the time. "The runner is no longer in control of the streak."

Covert would just as soon stay out of that argument. He prefers not to criticize Hill, a man he clearly admires.

Hill's streak will eventually come to an end, of course. As will Covert's, although he promises there is no finish line in sight.

"It's a big deal to me," he says. "It's something I thoroughly enjoy and I think it's good for me. It's not work and it's not a chore. I can't say that I'm even thinking about it coming to an end."

Which comes as good news to Debi and the Coverts' four children.

"I dread that day," says Debi, who despite the occasional theatrics, fervently supports her husband's habit. "He would be a different person without the streak."

Some of the runners on Covert's Antelope Valley team predict that Covert will die before he'll miss a day of running. But even being dead may prove to be little more than an inconvenience.

"Because when I get put in that pine box," Covert promises, "we'll have a little solar battery on there that will move my legs around for 20 minutes a day."

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