Get on your Houston Hobby Horse…
Four nights running at Houston Hobby
Posted Saturday, 22 May, 2004
Night One… ‘Watchin’ them planes’
A few weeks before the Boston Marathon I set a PR. The distance was unknown, but it was definitely a personal best. I set a personal record for circumnavigation of a regional airport.
When you’re on the road traveling on business you have to get creative sometimes. It is the only way you will be able to will yourself into your shoes and out the door after a twelve hour day at a taxing client. You have to have a sense of adventure, (and humor).
You’ve all heard about the glamour of business travel, right? Lot’s of posh hotels, limousines, starlets and great food, right? Wrong! I’ve been doing it for twenty years and the truth is that it is exhausting.
Travel keeps you away from the family you draw strength from. It is plenty of bad food, sleep deprivation and wasted time stuck in cars and airplanes with your body cramping and sciatica crawling up the back of your leg like a gang of angry scorpions! When you’re trying to train for a race, it can be a real pain.
As with everything else, running becomes the life preserver you reach for to keep from being sucked down into the world of airport insanity. I see these guys in the airport lugging their laptops around, disheveled and overweight. They are trapped in the traveling life like zombies; like hamsters on a treadmill. I’ve seen guys get sucked in by the devastating opportunities for adultery and alcohol. Running is better choice.
Your runs, even in the jet-lagged evenings and the groggy mornings, even on the creaky hotel treadmills, allow you to keep your humanity. They are the light at the surface that you swim towards to keep from sinking into the abyss.
I came back that first night to my hotel right next to Houston Hobby Airport, and as I was parking the rental car a funny thought crossed my mind. “I wonder how far around an airport is?” Think about it. What would you guess?
Airports are fairly compartmentalized. They typically, (especially these days), have big fences around them. If you figure a runway is a couple miles long…then what would be the circumference of the whole shebang? Maybe three miles by four miles?
Hobby is a small, old regional airport. It was slated for the trash bin back in the seventies, but Southwest refused to be forced to move to the new IAH international airport. They actually took Houston to court and won. Southwest is still there.
I was looking for an hour or so run. I headed out. I ran on whatever road there was and kept the fence on my left shoulder, turning when it turned. Occasionally I would be forced to backtrack out of cul-de-sacs or cut across scary patches of ground. The whole time an occasional 737 would roar close by overhead.
The air around Hobby is dank with industrial smells and jet fuel, not the best for a run. Being from Boston, the sixty five degree air was Tahiti-like to me. The previous week I had been running on the ice in Quebec.
It was very dark. I ran mostly sidewalks and access roads with no street lamps. It’s an old neighborhood that has grown in. There are green bushes, trees, grass and weeds. At one point I found the safest footing was on the median of an access road. The median consisted of a number of elongated 100-yard ovals, like islands in the stream. I would have to dart like a frightened deer in the dark across the 50-foot gaps with cars careening down on me in the dark at 60 mph.
The neighborhoods around the airport are Korean War vintage, and interesting. They are mostly low ranches with bars on the windows. What are the bars for? My over active imagination had me wandering into gang territory. I’d be seen on the news the next day as that stupid Yankee jogging in the middle of the night around the airport. “Y’all aint from around here, are ya?”
The few pedestrians I passed were surprised but nice and commented that ‘they should be doing that’. I did get cat calls from a passing car, but I couldn’t tell if they were good or bad cat calls. Maybe it was the local custom? How should I know? I get yelled at all the time running at night.
Houston has the same problem as most of Texas; too much darn concrete. I think it’s because they don’t have frost. In the Northeast we have old asphalt sidewalks with holes and lumps in them from the field stones pushing up with the cold.
Why don’t I like concrete? It’s too hard on the legs, and this close to the marathon I was nursing some half-dozen aches from many hard miles. My first choice would be trails, my second is asphalt. Concrete is way up there in the punishment level, just below brick and granite.
The sidewalks around Hobby that I ran were old concrete-slab construction that had shifted over time. In some places they slanted away into the weeds at steep angles, at others they stuck up out of the grass like broken gravestones, while in others they had dissolved altogether and given way to the native vegetation.
Some of the roads are concrete too. The concrete in Houston gets a little slippery coat of some sort of mold on it from the incessant humidity. You have to be careful when it gets wet it gets slick.
After an hour I was starting to get worried. I was out of water and possibly lost. The long day was catching up to me. How could I be lost? The airport fence was still right there, and in a few more turns, there was the hotel a little ways in the distance. Lit up like the Holy Grail. Good thing it was a tall building or I might still be out there.
I rambled in sweaty and tired to crash into an uncomfortable strange bed. That’s how I set a PR on the first night of my business trip. Turns out, Hobby is about 9 miles around.
Night two…Careful, someone may steal the track!
The second night I was in a predicament. My training plan called for some speed work. One of the challenges of business travel is finding a track. Many times as I drive in from the airport I find myself looking around for stadium lights. Stadium lights mean there is a football field and chances are, around that field runs a track.
This day I got technical. I went on the internet to one of those satellite imaging sites and plugged in the hotel address. I zoomed out until I saw the unmistakable profile of the oval. I estimated maybe two miles from the hotel, behind what looked like a high school stashed in an industrial park.
That night, I rolled ‘home’ dead and exhausted and headed out for that track somewhere near the hotel. It was another moonless, windless 65 degree night. The route I explored was lined with those same concrete sidewalks and small strip malls with small stores. I passed a small car dealer ringed with concertina wire on an eight-foot fence. Planes still roared by every few minutes.
After a few rights and lefts and some indecision, sure enough, there was the school. I trotted down behind and, sure enough, there was the track. The only problem was that it was safely ensconced in a six foot shiny, black, chain-link fence.
Why do they lock the tracks? What the heck am I going to steal? It is probably another liability thing. You can picture the meeting; a cadre of county bureaucrats making the decision, “Better safe the sorry.” Now here I am sorry I just burned what little enthusiasm I had slogging over here for 20 minutes and being stopped at the gates.
Now it was decision time. I could feasibly run my speed up and down the industrial park (on the concrete). No, I was too tired. I needed the comfort of a track. I jumped the fence. I mean, I climbed the fence and flopped into the grass on the other side.
It was nice inside the fence, a little green oasis amid the industrial sprawl. A fox started out of the shadows and disappeared across the veldt. I guess he wasn’t used to seeing visitors this time of night.
It was one of those old black cinder tracks. I did some 400’s, but my heart wasn’t in it. After the first one, I took my shirt off. One of the things to remember about Houston is that it is very humid. Things don’t dry very well. This particular shirt was the same one that I had worn the night before and it was beginning to reek like a fetid dead animal, (to put it nicely).
Now I’m thinking to myself, “What am I going to tell the cops?” Sweaty, cinder-caked and half naked running intervals illegally on the school track in the middle of the night with no ID. They’d lock me up for sure.
I finished up, got out alive and dragged back to the hotel. It was far from inspirational, but I checked the box for another night.
Night three…La Cantina Bonita, welcome to my neighborhood.
I went out for an easy run through the old neighborhood behind the hotel, away from the airport. The neighborhood was laid out in ‘Leave-it-to-Beaver’ style.
The houses are cute, neat ranches on well trimmed quarter acre lots. The streets are laid out in grids. I ran a snake pattern, up one street, down the next, following the grid and taking in the ambience.
In Massachusetts it was early April. Here in Huston it was mid summer by my biological barometer. The Hyacinths grew in hedges and were in full bloom. The air was thick with pungent flowery perfume. The grass of the lawns was tall lush green and perfect. They were mowing it! I was still shoveling back home.
The streets were lined with pickup trucks. I guess everybody drives a pickup truck in Houston. The locals sat out on their stoops with melodic music, Mexican food smells, cold cervesas and good conversation. Some of them had a gregarious ‘Buenas Notches’ for the dopey Yankee ambling by. I did manage to scare the heck out of some poor lady walking. I didn’t mean to, but pedestrians just don’t pay enough attention sometimes.
That was a good night. Relaxing and mellow. I like the easy runs.
Night four…Park it!
The fourth and final night of my Houston adventure I again needed to find somewhere to do some faster work. I had some tempo on the schedule. One of the guys that works for me told me there was a park just beyond the little neighborhood that I had run the night before.
I set out to find that park. I like parks. Parks, in general, have grass and paths and make good places to run.
This one was really interesting. It was the neighborhood gathering place. There were young families walking in groups and kids on the playground.
The park was probably ½ square mile including a playground, a ball field, tennis a basketball courts, and some nice expanses of grass.
However, there was also a sense of rough edges. One of the dads walking with his family was carrying a baseball bat and I didn’t see any gloves... There was a crowd of young men with tough cars congregating around the basketball court. As the sun set, most of the families disappeared and the young toughs grew rowdy, but nobody bothered me.
There was an old asphalt path that ran around the outside that I clocked at a little more than 400 meters. On this I did my tempo runs.
There I was again, the Pillsbury Dough Boy zooming around the park, huffing, puffing and slinging sweat with a big smile for all the locals. They looked at me like one might look at an addled person, with a mixture of amazement and pity.
When my legs are moving and the happy chemicals are sautéing my brain, I don’t care if I look like a goofball.
There were other guys jogging the path. They were of the T-shirt and baseball hat genre. Nice guys, a little wary, but overall friendly. It seemed to me that they were just a little baffled by this apparition going fast-slow, fast-slow, fast-slow at their local park.
I have to admit that in early April my body hasn’t seen much sun, and as mentioned above my shirt was almost impossible to wear at this point. As I huffed repeatedly around the path, I must have seemed like some translucent maniac.
It was a good outing. I checked my box for tempo and lazily jogged back to the hotel to ride the elevator with some flight attendants who were horrified by my end-of-week rancidness.
On running and training on business trips.
Why not just stay in the hotel and watch HBO, or catch up on those 437 e-mails that you’ve accumulated during the day? Why not join the customer or your coworkers for a 12,000 calorie meal at the local eatery? Why drag your tired butt out against all advice into the teeth of a strange locale?
There are more good reasons to run than good reasons not to. The best reason is that if you don’t run you’ll feel like you haven’t run. Even if you only go half as far and half as fast. Even if you strap the shoes on just to jog twice around the parking lot. At least you’ve done something to break the pattern and keep yourself active.
You have to beware of the inactivity trap. It’s easy to say “I’m exhausted, I’m going to bed.” One night, turns into two, and then the week is lost and it just isn’t fun anymore. Don’t let the trip dictate your lifestyle choice to you. That’s yours and you have to get mad and fight the entropy to keep it.
A second good reason is that if you go for a run, typically you get to skip dinner too! One of the hardest things to do when you’re on the road is too watch your diet. I usually carry a bunch of energy bars and other portable sustenance, along with a water bottle. Traveling you can get dehydrated. Skip the buffet at the Ponderosa. Replacing a 12,000 calorie Nachos Grande with a 40 minute jog is a net win.
The third big reason is adventure. When you leave the hotel there is a sense of discovery, of treasure waiting to be dug. You can cover a whole city in a 40 minute run. You can see things from a perspective that you don’t get from the car windshield. Your shoes are your passport to something fresh and new. Sure, sometimes you get the uninspiring industrial park run, but other times you get the magical day break in the mountains run.
My advice to you is; don’t dread the business trip. Embrace it as an opportunity for adventure and discovery. When you’re on the road you actually have more time to do your thing than less. Don’t worry about the naysayers. Do it for you, leave the Nachos to them.