I thought about following up last week’s post about the shepherds in my nativity set with a post about wise men, but there’s a wise woman I want to introduce you to today. She has traveled the world to share Christ’s truth and love with others, and her running shoes always go with her. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing her story as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Barbara Latta was feeling restless on December 5, 1983. Her husband was away on an annual business trip that always took up the first two (!) weeks of December. She tried to talk her sons (a pre-teen and a teenager) into going for a walk with her. They declined, the older citing too much homework and the younger citing too much comfort to give up by going outside. So she went by herself and ran a mile and a half. It was the first step in a grand adventure.
I grew up calling her Mrs. Latta. She had two sons, one of whom was my age, and we went to church together. Somewhere in my adulthood, Mrs. Latta transitioned to “Barbara” for me, as we studied the Bible together and also ran local races together.
Last Thursday, Barbara reached a major running milestone. She celebrated her 30th anniversary running streak, which means she has run every day for the past 30 years. Today marks 30 years and 7 days of running. Every single day.
“You should try running.”
As with many runners, she had a mentor, the principal at the school where she worked as the librarian. Her principal was a marathoner, and this was still in the early days of running before its popularity skyrocketed. He had been telling her for some time that she should try running and was happy to hear she had run that morning.
She got up and ran the next day, and the next, and the day after that. On Barbara’s fourth consecutive day of running, her principal asked if she had run that morning. She had. He told her she could take a day off that weekend but also said, “You can take off one day, but you’re a beginner. So keep on running and don’t stop.” She decided not to take a day off that weekend, and hasn’t taken a day off since. She has always been afraid that if she took a day off, she wouldn’t start up again.
She hated the strange looks she got when she was out running, and so she started getting up really early and taking back roads to run on. Even now that running is much more ubiquitous, she’s still likely to run in the dark of the early morning, but she has a lot of other runners out there to keep her company.
Ask her the secret to running every day for 30 years, the secret for staying healthy enough, and she’ll talk about good health, a mostly vegetarian diet, good shoes, good genes, but, she says, “God gets all the credit for keeping me healthy.”
She didn’t even start out in good running shoes. I laugh when she tells me she ran in one of her son’s old pair of shoes, and it wasn’t until June of the following year that that changed. She and her brother were both visiting their mother at the same time, and he told her he had taken up running. She said she had too. He asked to see her shoes and was horrified. So he bought her a new pair of Nikes.
She went for a run in those new shoes and thought, “This is the best invention ever.” She ran in that first pair of shoes until the foam was crumbling out of them, unaware that it was easy enough to find and buy new ones. From then on, though, good shoes became one of her secret weapons to keeping her streak alive.
There’s an official club for this?
Barbara was about 15 years into her running streak before she learned there was an association of streak runners. That’s when a Wall Street Journal article about Mark Culvert, whose own streak just ended recently, caught Barbara’s eye, and she knew she had all of her old running logs.
She decided to join, thinking it would motivate her to keep running. The following year, she bought a lifetime membership and has never looked back.
When she first joined, there were several women with longer streaks than hers. At one point, she despaired of ever reaching the number one spot for women streakers, because there were two younger women left ahead of her. But her son encouraged her to keep at it. She took over the number one slot when, in the same month, one of the women had emergency heart surgery and the other fell down her front steps and broke her foot in seven places. Barbara said she couldn’t even feel happy about moving into the number one spot because she felt so bad for the two women.
Barbara’s not one to talk much about her streak. She never thought anyone else would be interested, and she figured it was just her quiet little hobby. She’s active in a local running club, and the club president found out about the association but never suspected he was friends with one of its highest ranked members. He tracked down a member in nearby city and asked him to come speak at an upcoming club meeting. The man said he would be happy to come to the meeting but that the president really should talk with the women who lived right here. The president was stunned to discover it was Barbara, and both she and the other streak runner came to talk to the club about their streaks and the association.
Running the world
Barbara and her husband love to travel, and as a result, she has run in all 50 states and on all seven continents, including 55 different countries.
Her favorite of the continents was Antarctica. As she and her husband describe the trip there, including the bowls of dramamine pills that greeted everyone each morning at breakfast, I make a mental note that I’ll never make it to all seven continents myself. I’d never survive the sea sickness to get there.
But she made it without any sickness and told me about daily runs on snow and ice, all about learning to decipher different kinds of penguins, and figuring out how to eat breakfast when the seas were causing the boat to churn wildly from side to side. She even pulled out the red coat issued to everyone who got off the boat to show me.
The coat is full of pockets because you weren’t allowed to leave the boat with anything in your hands. (You needed your hands to keep you from falling as you left the boat.) The red color made it easier to find you if you fell in the snow and didn’t make your way back to the boat. Again, Antarctica is off my list.
I ask her about some of her most difficult runs. There was the morning after her father died, the day that she said was the hardest. But wrung out with grief, she got up and ran and ran and cried and cried.
She has a missionary’s heart, too, and so some of her toughest runs have come from times in foreign countries where she simply was not allowed “free run” of the place. In Haiti, guards wouldn’t let her leave the compound where she and several other church members were staying and working. Not to be defeated, she scrambled up a set of stairs and ran on the rooftop of the school building in the compound. From that vantage point, she could see the sun rise on shanty towns, where homes sometimes had two walls and often had no roof. It was a view few others would see.
In Cuba, she had an even more confined space where she would run for about an hour each morning: the front porch of the parsonage where she was staying. Again, guards watched her carefully, and the pastor told her she couldn’t leave the parsonage. So she made do by running where she could.
Her missionary work in Liberia brought with it an opportunity to leave the compound. She first headed out for the beach, but then realized there were men taking care of their morning business out there, and so she quickly changed course to run on the road. She saw two men running up ahead and tried to slow down to stay behind them, reluctant to run by two strange men in a strange country. But no matter how slowly she ran, she soon realized she would overtake them. So she called out “Good morning!” to them as she ran by as quickly as she could. One of them gave chase and caught up with her. He recognized that she was an American and wanted to talk politics and learn all about life in America. It turns out, he was the ambassador to Liberia from Lebanon. As she tells me the story, she asks, “What do you say to a shirtless ambassador?”
She visited his embassy while she was there, enjoying tea and cookies and his “garden” of trees and beans, a crop he was trying to teach the Liberians to grow.
Trophies and ribbons and t-shirts, oh my!
Run long enough, and you’ll accumulate a lot of stuff: ribbons, race medals, trophies (if you’re fast enough), and lots and lots of t-shirts. Barbara shows me some of her collection, including a t-shirt quilt she made herself. She mentions that lots of her t-shirts have gone with her on mission trips so she can give them away.
She has a shoebox full of first place ribbons, another full of second place ribbons and a third with, you guessed it, third place ribbons. She has a grocery bag full of trophies, little gold runners looking like an Escher print gone haywire.
Barbara wants to show me some of her favorite awards, including the aforementioned medal for her first triathlon (where, yes, she won her age group). She’s still winning age group awards after all these years of running, and the awards do stack up.
She tells me wistfully that she has never won a race outright, never come in as first woman overall. But she holds out this little trophy with a two on it and says this is one of her proudest running accomplishments, coming in second overall. She accepts that this may be the best she ever does. And I think to myself that it’s better than a lot of runners will ever do.
In her typically modest way, Barbara downplays her streak and says she is more impressed with ultra runners, those who run distances longer than the 26.2 of a marathon. But there are plenty of ultra runners who would find her accomplishment – running at least a mile every single day – more impressive and more incomprehensible than what they’ve accomplished.
The last few days have garnered Barbara and her streak a lot of attention. A news crew came out the morning of her 30th anniversary run as local runners joined her on a run to celebrate. Check out the video. I dare you not to be inspired.
Barbara, thank you for being an inspiration to so many. Long may you run, my friend.