On a gusty day in Philadelphia last November, Chris Farley believed Father Time had defeated him.
Farley thought his nearly 20-year streak of sub-three-hour marathons – one that started the year after he graduated from the University of Virginia in 1998, one that had taken him all over the country, one for which an upcoming Hawaiian celebration had been planned around – was over.
Farley blamed himself.
He had been overconfident. He had been unfocused. He had been unprepared.
The wind didn’t do him any favors, either.
But Farley’s main takeaway was the toughest to accept: He was no longer capable of things he had done in his 20s and 30s.
The realization hit him like a titanium stopwatch as he crossed the finish line at the Philadelphia Marathon in a time of 3:01:04.
Farley’s streak of running at least one marathon in under three hours every year since 1999 had been snapped.
Or so he thought.
Farley’s love for running had started as a kid when, growing up in Arlington, Virginia, he would cheer his mom and dad on during races. His father, also named Chris, ran marathons and ultramarathons, which are races longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
Farley vividly recalls one 50-mile race in which he waited at a course all day for his dad to finish.
It wasn’t long before Farley caught the running bug.
“My endurance was always good from a young age,” said Farley, 42. “I liked to win and I liked to be able to control my own destiny. In running, it was pretty black and white. What you ran is what you ran and it wasn’t a coach’s decision to put you in and play you in the game or not. You go out and you run and the fastest person was the best person. I really liked that.”
So much so that after he graduated from Arlington’s Yorktown High School in 1994, he continued as a recruited walk-on for the UVA cross country and track teams. Farley ran first under UVA Coach Fred Binggeli and then later Randy Bungard and Buz Male.
“I wasn’t great,” Farley said, “but I was just really into it and I made a lot of lifelong friends.”
Thinking he someday might want to go into business, Farley had his sights set on a degree from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce.
However, he changed course after attending a class by legendary psychology professor Raymond Bice.
“It opened my eyes to being able to put yourself into the mind of somebody else and really look at their different triggers,” Farley said. “It made me think differently about the way I interacted with people.”
It also helped with his running.
“I found it very useful in how to put your mind in a certain place before a big event,” Farley said, “and how to really use the power of positive mental attitude to impact a performance.”
After graduating in 1998, he began working in computer programming for the Department of Justice. In 1999, Farley – who had never run a marathon -- decided he wanted to run the New York City Marathon. Former UVA teammate Chris McGarrigal had done it the year before and Farley thought it would be a cool experience.
Farley completed the race in 2 hours and 43 minutes, an unusually fast pace for any marathon runner and especially so for a first-timer.
“He was just a natural from the get-go,” McGarrigal said. “He adapted to the marathon much easier than most people do.”
Farley started doing marathons whenever he could, his love for all things running growing so great that he took a part-time job at Pacers Running – a shoe and apparel store in Alexandria that also organizes races – mainly so he could be around fellow runners.
That’s when, Farley said a light bulb went off. He loved talking shop with fellow runners and helping people get started in the sport.
“I said, ‘This is it. I feel like this is what I’m good at. I love what I’m doing,’” Farley said.
“The best sales job that I ever did was going into my parents’ living room and saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’”
- Chris Farley
With the idea of possibly owning his own store someday, Farley took on more and more shifts and began managing the store on weekends so that he could learn everything there was to know about the business.
In 2001, he quit his job at the Justice Department to work full-time at Pacers, despite the fact the job paid half as much and necessitated him moving back in with his parents.
A short time later, Farley had the opportunity to buy the store, but he couldn’t get a loan from a bank.
Farley turned to his mom and dad. “The best sales job that I ever did was going into my parents’ living room and saying, ‘This is what we need to do,’” Farley said.
Farley’s parents mortgaged their house to buy the store, and Farley had turned his hobby into a career.
Today, Farley owns five stores in the Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia area.
“Fortunately, it worked,” said Farley, with a laugh, “because Thanksgivings would have been awkward if it didn’t.”
Farley’s wife, Julie Culley – a 2012 Olympian in the 5,000 meters – said her husband’s love for running is unlike anything she has ever seen.
“He’s absolutely so passionate about it in a way I never was,” she said. “I think that’s what the difference maker has been for him, why he’s been able to build a business around it and why he feels so strongly about his connection to it and what it can do for other people.”
Added McGarrigal: “He truly believes in what he does every day – and not everyone can say that. He’s not just selling shoes, he’s selling a lifestyle.”
In 2003, Farley ran a personal-record of 2:31 at the California International in Sacramento. That’s a 5:48 per-mile pace for 26.2 straight miles.
From there, Farley made a point of running a marathon every fall and spring.
His performances were strong. There was a 2:34 in the Chicago Marathon; a 2:35 in the Los Angeles Marathon; a 2:41 in the Boston Marathon.
In 2009, Farley looked back at his race results and realized he had an 11-year streak of sub three-hour marathons.
Farley kept at it.
But eventually his times started to dip.
There was a 2:53 in Baltimore. A 2:56 in Savannah.
Then came last November’s Philadelphia Marathon.
“I couldn’t believe how disappointed I was. I didn’t know how meaningful the streak was. At that moment, I was like, ‘Wow! I have crossed that threshold of being old.’”
- Chris Farley
In support of Culley – the director of track and field/cross country at Georgetown University – Farley tweaked his typical race routine by attending a Hoyas’ meet in Kentucky and not getting into Philadelphia, with his 1-year-old son in tow, until the night before the race.
Still, Farley didn’t give it a second thought to the idea that he might not extend the streak to a 19th-straight year. In fact, he and Culley had already planned to travel to Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon the following year for a 20th anniversary celebration.
But as soon as the race started, Farley knew the wind – which had been steadily picking up – could pose a challenge.
At Mile 24, Farley looked at his watch and saw that he needed to run two more 7-minute miles to finish in under three hours.
“Usually for me, that would not be that difficult,” Farley said, “but at that point I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it.’
“I was thinking I should have rested more the day before.”
Farley ran hard to the finish, then looked up at the clock.
“I couldn’t believe how disappointed I was,” Farley said. “I didn’t know how meaningful the streak was.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘Wow! I have crossed that threshold of being old.’”
Culley had never seen her husband so bummed.
“He’s one of the most positive people I’ve met in my life,” Culley said. “He’s never down. No matter what happens, he just figures out a way. But he was just really down. He was so annoyed at himself.”
To make matters worse, on the car ride home, Farley – a lifelong D.C. sports fan – had to suffer through the Washington Redskins’ 34-31 loss to the Saints in which the ’Skins blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead.
Friends and employees tried to lift Farley’s spirits by telling him he still had time to run another marathon that year. “Everyone was like, ‘You can’t let this die, man! You’ve got another six weeks,’” McGarrigal said.
However, Farley didn’t think that was long enough to recover from Philly (which had taken a huge physical and mental toll) and find another marathon.
That’s when business partner Kathy Dalby told Farley she wanted to organize a marathon just for him. Pacers was already in the business of putting on races, so it had all the necessary equipment. And friends and employees from the store could serve – rather fittingly – as pacers for Farley by running sections of the course.
On Dec. 29, 2017 less than 72 hours before the streak was set to end, Farley decided to give it another go in an event dubbed Breaking3 (a play off a Nike event). With family, friends, employees and fans of his “Pace the Nation” running podcast cheering him on – many holding up life-size cutouts of Farley and wearing T-shirts bearing his image – Farley finished a certified course at Hains Point in Washington D.C. in 2:52.
The streak had been resuscitated.
“Just the energy and the power of the group – it was the easiest marathon I’ve ever run,” Farley said.
Farley said the support was humbling.
“It was a selfish goal,” Farley said, “but it turned out to be so cool because it was about the collective group doing something cool.”
“That day was very special,” Culley said.
With the performance, Farley’s quest for 20 in a row at the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 9 was back on.
But Farley, at the suggestion of Culley – who is expecting the couple’s second son in August – decided not to wait that long.
In April, he marked 20 straight years of under-three hour marathons, completing the New Jersey Marathon in 2:56.
McGarrigal, a lifelong runner himself, said the streak is as jaw-dropping as it sounds.
“Even guys who qualify for Olympic trials and who are super-fast are like, ‘What? 20 years in a row? That’s really impressive!’” McGarrigal said. “I don’t know anybody else who has been able to stay that committed and injury free for so long.”
Farley is still going to Hawaii, but now he doesn’t have the pressure of the streak hanging over him. The experience will be a true celebration of something he thought he had lost on a November day in Philly.
Farley 1, Father Time 0.