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74,703 miles ... and two feet

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jerry Swartsley and his wife, Zellah, share a moment after a walk on Houston Road in Phoenix Monday. Swartsley recently completed the equivalent of running around the planet for a third time, covering 74,703 miles.
Jerry Swartsley of Phoenix has run ‘around the world’ three times

When he began to amass his first 24,901 miles running in 1969, Jerry Swartsley wasn’t focused on navigating the entirety of the planet’s girth.

In fact, most of the Phoenix man’s running would take place in his beloved Rogue Valley.

His initial plan was to journal his time spent running. He’d jot down the number of miles, the weather, perhaps meaningful life events or world news. For the most part, he ran out of love for the sport.

When he realized on June 5, 1980, that he’d run 24,901 miles — the equivalent of a circuit around planet Earth — the only logical thing to do was to attempt a second “trip.”

“It just sort of happened,” he said. “Somebody told me I should keep track of my running with diaries. I’d always run before but didn’t keep track of anything,” Swartsley said. “At that time, we didn’t rely on technology or anything, and I couldn’t even find a running diary around here. I had to get the first one sent from England and it took forever for it to get here.

“I started in January 1969, but the diary got here May 10, so I started then and put down the date and weather and how far I’d gone. It’s just really simple — how I feel, if it’s a race, distance, time. I’ve done it every day for 52 years.”

Perusing his stack of journals, the entries outline a lifetime of running — and living — from the birth of a daughter to his years spent starting and helping direct the Pear Blossom Run, which began in 1977.

Some pages depict the results of more than 550 races, separated by other entries where memories and milestones were jotted down.

During one run he found the Phoenix home where he and his wife, Zellah, still live, and he met many lifelong friends, some of whom still wave and ask how many miles he’s tallied, along the back roads of Phoenix, Medford, Central Point and other burbs.

“Sometimes I would write things down, like when we found out we were going to have a baby or when we moved into our home. A lot of things have sure changed in the world. 1969 was when they landed on the moon. It’s difficult to comprehend that it was so long ago,” he said.

“Postage stamps were 6 cents when I started. Salaries were less than $10,000. The population of the valley was like 25,000. Looking through these old journals is like reading a history book, in a way.”

By Jan. 29, 1998, he had logged his second set of “miles around Earth.” On July 3, he completed his third loop, totaling 74,703 miles.

“I didn’t even think about it for a long time. When I got it the one time, I wrote it down. Just for fun. When I made it twice, I remember thinking, ‘If I live long enough and I’m healthy enough to keep running, I might get to three.’”

Zellah said her husband’s journals serve double duty as a history of the couple’s marriage and a tribute to his passion for running.

“Sometimes, when traveling, he’ll write where we are and what we’re doing. That way we always know where we’ve been over the years,” she said.

“He’s out there on the road every morning, rain or shine. If you told him that running was bad for him, he’d still be out there because he loves it so much.”

Both retired educators, the Swartsleys credit each other for the whole of their successes and triumphs.

“We’ve been a good team, that’s for sure, but this has been all his own doing. We have people joke, when he says he’s run around the world, ‘Well how did he do going over the Alps in Switzerland?’ It’s just been fun,” said Zellah. “I feel really proud of him all the time.”

At age 80, Swartsley admits he’s slowed a little, though his fitness level rivals those half his age.

“I turned 80 on Dec. 31. Still running, just not as far, not as fast. I feel like I’m slower than molasses in January, but I’m still out there. It’s like brushing my teeth. It’s just something I do everyday,” he said.

Asked where the motivation comes from, Swartsley says he runs whether he has any or not.

“Back when I first started, it was more competitive. Nowadays, people run for better reasons like their health and to live longer. The important thing is it doesn’t matter why you’re doing it as long as you do it. It doesn’t matter if you need to lose weight or you’re slow and want to get faster,” he said.

“The first step is the hardest. The first step out of bed, out the door. ... Once you get out on the road, you’ll be OK. Just have to keep at it. It’s just like brushing your teeth — you’ve just got to do it.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.