Published On: Fri, Nov 17th, 2023

Chris Farley’s marathon streak ended. His fans won’t let him quit.

Chris Farley’s marathon streak ended. His fans won’t let him quit.
Chris Farley’s marathon streak ended. His fans won’t let him quit.

After finishing the New York City Marathon earlier this month, Chris Farley, the owner of the Pacers Running stores in the D.C. area, opened his phone to what seemed like endless messages. Hundreds were propping him up after his major disappointment. But then he saw something he didn’t expect: people — a lot of them — were encouraging him to run another marathon before the end of the year.

“There is still time,” one person wrote. “I’ve already started researching downhill races,” another said.

A text message from Farley’s University of Virginia classmate, Yuri Sagatov, was more pointed.

“Stop being selfish,” Sagatov said with a mixture of sarcasm and motivational honesty. “This isn’t about you. It’s about an ideal. It’s about a dream. Your fans demand more.”

The dream, in this case, was to run a sub-three-hour marathon for the 25th year in a row. Every year since 1999, Farley, a 47-year-old from Arlington, Va., had completed a marathon race or run 26.2 miles in under three hours, a minimum pace of roughly 6 minutes and 50 seconds per mile. But in New York City, he staggered across the finish line in 3 hours 4 minutes and 3 seconds.

“It’s over,” Farley said. “It’s done.”

Or at least that’s what he thought. His streak, Farley now realizes, has evolved into a life of its own.

A teen died. Now his friends visit his grandma for breakfast each week.

Streaks are a common challenge in the running community. Most people who run a lot will know someone who has a streak. Perhaps that is someone who ran at least a mile a day during the pandemic and never skipped a day, even if they were sick or traveling or running in a snowstorm. Or maybe it’s someone who runs a marathon every year. Streaks are a point of pride and motivation for the people involved, and a point of curiosity for people who are not.

Farley’s wife, Julie Culley, is quite familiar with streaks. The first thing she asked after giving Farley a hug near Central Park was “What’s next?” Farley’s family and friends understand how much it means to him, and have encouraged him to keep going. By proxy, it means a lot to them, to0.

There is, they reason, still a month and half left in the year, and his supporters are invested in the journey. It helped Farley get out of his funk.

“I would feel like I’m cheating myself if I didn’t give it another shot,” he said.

Some of Farley’s earliest and fondest memories involve watching his father run marathons and ultramarathons. It normalized the pursuit of long-distance running for him. As a 12-year-old, Farley started running a 2.6-mile route with his father, who died in 2015 at age 72. He remembers finishing ahead of his dad for the first time in eighth grade.

“He probably let me beat him,” Farley said. “That really motivated me.”

And while it was success and competition that initially drew Farley to the sport — he competed for Yorktown High School in Arlington and joined the University of Virginia cross-country and track and field teams as a walk-on — Farley realized after graduating college in 1998 that running provided much-needed structure in his life.

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In 1999, Farley started working part-time at Pacers Running in Old Town Alexandria as a sales associate and was convinced by his college teammate, Chris McGarrigal, to run the New York City Marathon that same year. It was his first marathon, and he ran it in 2:43:14. After a brief, unsatisfying stint as a junior computer programmer for the Justice Department, Farley and his family eventually bought the Pacers Running stores in 2003. Eight years later, Farley became the sole owner of the company.

His life now could not look more different from it did back when the marathon streak started. “I was a single guy who was trying to find his way in the world,” he said. “I didn’t have a real passion for anything I was doing workwise.” Now, Farley is a married father of three boys ages 7 and under, and is a familiar figure in the D.C. running community, working in an industry he loves.

“This was something I was destined to do,” he said.

Farley knew from the first step at the New York City Marathon this year that he didn’t feel great.

He had been sick for a couple weeks leading up to the race and arrived at the start line with a cough. For the first 20 miles, Farley and his friend, Johnny Pace, were right on schedule to go under three hours. It wasn’t until miles 21 and 22 that Farley fell off pace.

“He no longer was tight on my shoulder and was a meter or two back,” said Pace, a 26-year-old freelance photographer who was documenting Farley’s race for Pacers. “I wondered if something was going wrong. The following mile, the gap widened a bit more.”

Pace, who met Farley at a high school cross-country race 10 years ago, calls him a friend and mentor. “He’s the model of a lifelong enjoyment of running,” Pace said.

He’s a model of the running streak, as well. Farley admits he can be obsessive, and running streaks hold a certain addictive appeal.

He runs about six to seven days a week and up to 60 miles a week while training for a marathon. In 2012, Farley challenged himself to run 10 miles everyday that year because a friend of his had done it. Farley, of course, completed the challenge.

“I don’t have that trait in me to do something like that,” said Culley, a runner who competed in the 5,000 meters event at the 2012 London Olympics. “Some people really crave consistency.”

David Melnikoff, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who studies motivation and flow, said that goals that have an uncertain outcome are more motivating than goals with a predictable outcome. The certainty of success of being able to run a sub-three hour marathon year after year for Farley is a lot lower than the certainty of doing just one, especially for Farley during the early years of his streak.

“Simply by reframing what he’s doing, in terms of streaks, instead of individual outcomes, what he was able to do was inject much more uncertainty in his goal pursuit,” Melnikoff said of Farley. “That’s what streaks do in general.”

He obsessed over Mount Everest but didn’t go. His son took his ashes there.

For Farley, he believes that doing hard things is the key to happiness.

“Whether you succeed or fail in those pursuits, it almost doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you’re looking for purpose and meaning, I truly believe you have to put yourself out there and try things that you might fail at and put it on the line.”

Farley thought his streak was over in 2017. Similar to this year, he had failed to run under three hours at a November marathon.

But just for Farley, the Pacers team decided to host a race of their own on a U.S. Track & Field-certified marathon course at East Potomac Park in D.C. Farley finished that race in 2:52:53 in front of dozens of family members and friends in an event dubbed “Breaking 3.”

After the New York City Marathon this year, Farley took more than a week before deciding to run another one this year. He had to think about whether he was ready to give up on his streak.

Having his wife on board was critical.

“Caring so much about something this much and is a constant in his life is a beautiful thing,” Culley said. “I don’t always feel that way as his wife, but I love that he cares so much about it. I love that people care about it for him.”

The earliest marathon Farley would run would be on Dec. 10 in Tucson, he said, and if that doesn’t work, he has friends who are willing to host a race similar to Breaking 3. Farley is ready to give the fans what they want.

“I feel like there are going to be two outcomes if I do this. Either I’m not going to make it or I’m going to make it,” he said. “But there’s only one outcome if I don’t try it.”

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