How Greg Sankey's daily runs shaped the SEC's response to pandemic | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

The answer came to Greg Sankey during a run.

SEC university leaders and athletics directors had debated – and disagreed – last May about the proper date for voluntarily on-campus workouts to resume amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some wanted June 1, others wanted June 30, and others wanted a different date.

Sankey needed to get away from the phone calls, emails and interruptions that come with his job as SEC commissioner to think through the situation. So, he went for a run.

“On my run that morning (on May 22) – which I went like an hour trying to sort it out – the June 8 date is what I settled on, and then I started making phone calls as soon as I returned to present it,” Sankey said during an interview with the USA TODAY Network.

“The ability to go for a run and think through a problem without those distractions and disruptions, I found it incredibly beneficial.”

By that point, Sankey was several weeks into his streak of running every day.

The 56-year-old Sankey has run for at least 35 minutes per day for more than a year. The streak started on April 14, 2020.

Sankey had no intention of the streak lasting this long.

How Greg Sankey’s streak of consecutive days running began

Sankey is a member of Iron Tribe Fitness in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the pandemic, he had a routine.

He’d wake up at 4:40 a.m., go to a 5:15 workout, get cleaned up and go to Starbucks, where he’d read and prepare for his day, then go to work.

Like many other people, Sankey had his routine disrupted in March 2020 as the pandemic descended. His gym workouts stopped. He began working remotely and sleeping later. After several days of this, he evaluated his situation and considered a path forward.

Sankey previously had been an avid runner. He’s totaled 41 marathons, with most coming between 2005-10, before he shifted to functional fitness gym workouts.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey sits in the confetti after the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament Championship game at Bridgestone Arena Sunday, March 14, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

With the gym off the table, he re-embraced running.

“I enjoyed the mental aspect of running when I did it a lot,” Sankey said. “I think that’s just completely underappreciated. You’re away. You’re out there on your own. You might have music. You may have a podcast. Or, it just may be you and your feet falling and your breathing.

"It was just great mental therapy for me, and given what we were dealing with, I said, ‘I’m going to go for a run.’

“That’s really how it started, was a recognition of, I needed to do something.”

Sankey’s first run of the pandemic came on March 23, 2020. His goal was to run for at least 35 minutes, because 30 seemed a bit too easy, and to not skip two consecutive days.

The streak began a few weeks later. He had run a few days in a row and wondered if he could make it a week straight. When he hit his goal, he aimed for a second week without disruption. Two weeks became a month, and he had a streak on his hands.

Sankey usually runs in the morning. He’s listened to a variety of podcasts but finds he runs a bit faster when listening to music. His U2 playlist is a favorite.

On a good day, he can cover at least four miles in 35 minutes.

“The sense of accomplishment, the ability to think while you are active, it provided that for me,” Sankey said.

His physique benefited, too. The 6-foot-2 Sankey is down 30 pounds and took four inches off his waist since the pandemic started.

Sankey has resumed going to his gym, and he runs there on days he works out at Iron Tribe.

The day Greg Sankey’s streak nearly ended

Sankey’s streak fell into jeopardy on Aug. 10 – two days after the Mid-American Conference announced it was postponing fall sports, including football, to the spring.

Sankey expected the Big Ten and Pac-12 would follow suit.

The fall football season hung in the balance. All eyes were on the SEC.

Sankey also had his annual physical that Monday morning. He had to split his run into two sessions that day to accumulate 35 minutes to keep the streak alive.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks after the SEC football championship game between Florida and Alabama on Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta.

Then there was New Year’s Day in Dallas. Sankey was in town for the relocated Rose Bowl featuring Notre Dame against Alabama. The day’s cold weather caught Sankey unprepared.

“It was windy and rainy, and I hadn’t brought the right gear,” Sankey said. “I stood there at the doorway, and I had to force myself outside.”

He’s persevered through a sore hamstring and a knot in his calf to keep the streak alive.

How long will it last?

“I’ll do it as long as I’m healthy,” Sankey said, “but there will be a day where, that’s it.”

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.