Running Weird in Austin

Running is a form of mental illness.

If the bumper sticker diagnosis is true, I was certifiable on Saturday. Why else would I trade a chance to sleep in on vacation–on my anniversary, no less–to get up at day break to run around a foreign city?

Yet there I was, judging the light through the paper blinds at 6:30 a.m, pulling on shorts and shoes and shuffling out the door.

But the first few steps reminded me why I run early: the world is still in quiet inactivity. A few dogs greet me, but otherwise the world is mine. Austin still sleeps, and the full flood the breath of flowers and plants fills me while the crunch of underfoot gravel fills the void.

After a few blocks, I slide on over to S. 1st street, down the hill I’ll climb again. The sign at the Texas School of the Deaf pierces the morning gray: 6:40, 75 degrees–it will be over 100 by the time Netherlands-Brazil kicks off.

I reach the downtown area, and deviate from plan. I had glanced at a google maps print out before I left and had a general idea of where to go, but this is why I like running in strange cities–learning the landscape in a way inaccessible by car. I have no idea where I’m going, just kind of winging it right now. I turn toward the Palmer Performing Arts Center where a photographer takes advantage of the golden hour of the morning. I wind my way through the park, up a hill, through the water park, around the pond, and to a dirt trail that passes a Stevie Ray Vaughn statue. I begin to see more and more runners, loony denizens of my morning tribe. The city is ours. The dirt path winds along the bank of the Colorado. A few kayakers appear on the water reflecting Austin’s skyscrapers in the morning light. At the Congress St. bridge, I rejoin the asphalt.

In his book “Slowness,” Czech author Milan Kundera likens traveling in a car to a form of ecstasy, where the body moves without the actual feeling of movement. A run is nothing like this, as a slow jog across the bridge allows me to ponder this and all the rods and the rudder and the wake of the green kayak fishing in the river. On the other side, I meet the main grid of the city. The numbers rise numerically. 1st street. 2nd street. 6th street, where the Everly statue commemorates a woman who shot a canon at Sam Houston to keep Austin the capital. Runners are scarce; morning workers assert their claim. 8th street, the lines on a man’s face sleeping on a bench. 9th street, women line up with lawn chairs outside of Consuela’s for a sale.

11th street. The State House, my turn around point. No cars allowed, but I trot up the hill, intricate tiles lined by memorials to warriors fallen to preserve the state in one form or another–Nation of Texas, CSA, USA. I turn west down 15th, looking for Lamar where I will turn South. I sneak 13th to Guadalupe, hit with a whaff of garbage. At 12th, I catalogue a rare book store for Nic and I to visit in the afternoon.

Lamar appears, but I am lured left by A greenway through Duncan park. The path snakes near a creek, behind buildings and under bridges and through tunnels, a hidden path winding through the city blind to the drivers above, promising a path to Town Lake. So much park space in this beautiful city.

I emerge back on the streets around 5th and dip under the train tracks, leaping and smacking the reflective blue signs in joy. I find the pedestrian bridge I saw yesterday, recrossing the Colorado, passing the well-painted Pac-Man graffiti on the rusty train bridge. On the way I meet small packs of runners just getting started.

At Barton Springs, I face a choice: turn left and be home in 15, or turn right and explore a little more. Somehow, a city run makes me an explorer, capable of so much more. This will add another three miles, and my legs will be a bit heavy, but as I pass the small markets, the RV parks, the iron butterfly bench at Juice Land, and finally the vast expanse of Zilker Park, an ocean of rolling green dotted with giddy dogs and frisbee enthusiasts, a new frontier I can’t begin to fathom.

Soon I am headed home, back down Barton Springs, across Lamar. Palmer appears on my left, and I marvel that I was so close when I had no idea where I was.

Soon I turn right down Bouldin, one last climb, a grueling burn after almost two hours and what has to be at least 8 miles. Running as a tourist always makes me run further than I would otherwise. My eyes trace the minute details of houses that would whizz by in a car windows: barrel cacti, monstrous agaves, million dollar renovations with modern lines, spiral staircases, courtyards, walkways, and faux-turrets next to older bungalows with DIY additions, plastic chairs, and shrines to the Virgin Mary. Deep in the corner, hidden from any car rider, sits a torso of some anatomical dummy, painted blue and planted as a garden ornament. Far out. What a weirdly beautiful town. I slowed to a walk for the last two blocks. It was nearing nine, and the city was waking up. Time for me to get out of these sweaty clothes and out if this state of mental illness for a few more days.

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