RALEIGH — Barbara Latta took her first jog on Dec. 5, 1983, wearing a pair of cheap J.C. Penney sneakers.
It felt pretty good, so she did it again on Dec. 6. Then the next day. Then the next, and as she ran December turned to January; President Reagan won a second term; the Berlin Wall fell; Frank Sinatra died; and the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.
On Thursday at age 72, Latta hit three straight decades of running at least a mile, more often 4 – a streak that makes Cal Ripken Jr. a slouch by comparison. A mob of admirers followed Latta down the greenway at Shelley Lake, celebrating her 10,950 consecutive days and lap-and-a-half around Earth.
For 30 years, she has run every morning at 5 a.m. She never got sick. She never got hurt. She never decided the snow was too deep or the air felt too cold or the rain fell too hard. Latta never pulled the covers back over her head and dozed another hour, dreaming of fairyland.
“I was afraid to stop,” she explained. “Afraid I wouldn’t start back.”
After 30 years, Latta has collected so many medals that she keeps the first-place ribbons in their own shoebox, which is filled to the top.
She’s run so many races that she stitched the complimentary T-shirts together into a quilt, and then Latta delivered the rest to the poor in Haiti.
She has run in all 100 counties of North Carolina, all 50 states of the union and all seven continents –including Antarctica, where Latta jogged in a red parka and snow boots.
“There are five different kinds of penguins,” said her husband, Everette Latta, a tagalong on these journeys. “Did you know that?”
It started as a lark for the retired school librarian. Her principal at Brooks Elementary ran marathons and urged Latta to try his habit. So on a cold Monday, family listless and watching television, she took her first steps.
Now her running has grown so automatic, so much a reflex, that it’s as much a staple as eating a meal. Latta recalls her best runs like other people recall movies they’ve seen or restaurants they’ve sampled. But even the ordinary jogs get written down in her book: Feb. 18, 1988, two times down the Ironstone Trail, 3.5 miles.
She ran the day her father died. She ran on 9/11. She ran the day Hurricane Fran hit.
Latta traveled to Liberia on a mission trip, and when running near the ocean, she met a curious man who jogged alongside her, peppering her with questions. He turned out to be the Lebanese ambassador, and he invited her to his garden for cookies and lemongrass tea.
“I live in the embassy we just passed,” he said.
She traveled to Cuba to help rebuild a church, and the minister there warned her not to leave the building, motioning to the armed guards lining the street outside. So Latta ran back and forth along the front porch.
“Just to get a mile in,” she said.
Latta traveled to Haiti to help with relief work after the 2010 earthquake, and the classrooms where she stayed had a locked gate around them. So she jogged on the roof.
“I had the most beautiful view,” she said. “The sun started to come up, and the roosters were crowing.”
“And the voodoo guys next door,” Everette Latta recalled.
Barbara Latta runs on her heels. She cherishes Nike shoes. She records all her milestones and statistics in notebooks, tabulating them and sorting by year and category:
• Best Time in a 5K: 23:28;
• Five weeks in a row placing first in a 5K;
• 17 first places and one second in 2012.
“She’s a librarian,” Everette Latta said.
And while we’re all sleeping tomorrow morning – me most definitely – Barbara Latta will be out adding another day and 4 more miles, with the deer her only company.
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