In sports history, some of the biggest accomplishments are records that are unfathomable to the imagination — Cal Ripken playing in 2,131 consecutive games, Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight games, Peyton Manning throwing for 539 touchdowns — the list goes on.
Shippensburg University former Olympian — and current cross-country coach — Steve Spence has his own incredible feat — running a sub-five-minute mile for 42 consecutive years — a mark believed to be a world record, according to Runner’s World. Spence won a bronze medal at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, and finished 12th at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.
Spence extended his streak on June 27 at the Pete Wright Memorial All-Comers Track and Field Series meet held at North Hagerstown High School in Hagerstown, Maryland.
“I’m happy to have the streak out of the way so that I can focus on doing what I enjoy in regard to outdoor activities. I knew I was getting close to being ready to go, so I was being careful not to do anything that would get me injured,” Spence said. “Now that it’s done, I don’t have to be so careful.”
The world has undergone quite a few changes during Spence’s streak. In 1975, Gerald Ford was in office, gas was 57 cents a gallon and the Vietnam War was going on.
“Much has indeed happened in the last 42 years. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to stay relatively healthy and fit,” Spence said. “The people that I’ve met and the opportunities that I’ve had in my life because of running have been amazing.”
While Spence has stayed healthy over the years and has been able to continue to compete, he acknowledged the challenges of training each year. Spence often trains with the SU cross-country teams.
“The effort during the race seems to have stayed about the same for me the last four years, but the preparation seems to become a little more difficult each year,” Spence said. “I remember that five years ago I just did two workouts in which I ran some 200s at a little faster than five-minute mile pace and then some 400s at pace and then I was ready to go.”
Spence, working alongside Phil Wharton, a world-renowned stretching and strengthening guru, has helped keep Spence from suffering setbacks that would leave the streak at jeopardy.
“Phil guided me back to health in 2015 and ultimately allowed me to run sub-five in December of that year,” Spence said. “Prior to reconnecting with Phil and getting on his program, I had a chronic achilles problem that persisted for at least 15 years.”
The streak has meant a lot to Spence, but for him, it is all about having fun.
“In all honesty, the preparation that I need to do to get fit enough to run sub-five is becoming somewhat burdensome and I’m not willing to go to great extremes to keep the streak alive,” Spence said. “I’d be surprised if the streak goes beyond 45 years.”
Spence’s family is also heavily invested in the sport of running, as his daughter, Neely Spence-Gracey, competed in last year’s Boston Marathon, finishing the race in two hours and 35 minutes, to become the first United States woman to finish the race.
Spence said he would like to have his daughters, Neely, Reynah and Margeaux, and his son Eli, pace a sub-five-minute mile before the streak ends.
“I feel that it would be very cool to have my daughters pace me to a sub-five before it comes to an end,” Spence said. “Also, my son Eli is 14 and he is working at becoming a runner. Maybe we could arrange for his first sub 5 to be my last while being paced by my daughters with my wife timing. That would be a special way to end the streak.”
While Spence continues to stay active, his incredible record stands as one of sport’s most impressive feats.