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The Running Man

Keith Boissiere Gives a Whole New Meaning To “Life on the Streets”

Photos by Christopher Myers

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 9/7/2005

It’s the weekend before city schools are scheduled to start for the fall semester and the Greenmount Avenue retail district in Waverly is bustling. As people shop and chat on the sidewalk near the corner of Greenmount and 33rd Street, a runner jogs by, unfazed by the activity going on around him.

His thin chest barely glistens with perspiration, although he has been running nonstop for about 30 minutes. The man’s skin is stretched taut over firm muscles and sharp bones, creating a slightly skeletal effect. If one looks closely at his shoulders, it’s clear that he favors one side, leaning slightly to the right, but his his worn white Adidas pound the asphalt rhythmically, strong and steady.

The man’s hair is braided in a dozen or so shoulder length cornrows, and his unruly beard is peppered with rebellious gray hairs— the only indication of his age. Other than his shoes, he wears only a skimpy pair of not so new navy shorts and dingy white socks that appear to be held up with rubber bands. But this runner could care less about what he looks like to other people.

Instead he’s focused on running. And not just the steps in front of him—he’s thinking about which route he will run the next day, or what time he will get up the next morning and prepare to do this all again. He runs along the solid yellow line in the middle of Greenmount for a few moments to avoid some cars before returning to his customary track two inches from the curb. As a No. 8 bus starts to roll toward him, he waits until the last possible second to dart to the left and out of harm’s way, up onto the sidewalk.

Further up the way, near Barclay Street, a teenage girl stands waiting on her ride. She seems indifferent to the runner as he whizzes by, until he passes. She gazes after him, quizzically. Perhaps she is thinking that the man must be crazy to be running in the middle of the street on a perfectly good Saturday afternoon. Or maybe she is wondering whether or not his thin 5-foot-9, 133-pound frame will carry him all the way to his final destination.

 

Though he can feel people’s eyes on him as he runs by, Keith Boissiere does not have time to get caught up in people’s stares. He does understand, however, that for the nearly 23 years that he has been running around the city, people have been wondering about him—if he’s crazy, if he’s homeless, if he’s running away from his demons. He says none of those things is true.

He has made a perfectly rational decision to run at least 20 miles a day, 365 days a year through the streets of Baltimore as a self-imposed fitness regimen. He has a home and a job, working as a carpenter, often building decks with his uncle. His floppy socks are actually expensive runner’s socks (the garden variety wear at the heel too easily) that he makes last as long as he can, and his shoes are dirty and worn because they have trod 1,200 miles in the last two months, which is about the time and distance at which he replaces them. Everything in Boissiere’s life—from his vegetarian diet to his rigorous workout schedule to his attire—is by his own design.

Back in 1984, when he was 32, he says he noticed that his body was beginning to deteriorate. He no longer had the energy and strength he used to have when he was in his early 20s. While most people would have chalked this up to getting older, he refused to accept that as an excuse. “I decided back then that I was going to stay in shape,” he says. He is now 53.

Boissiere was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and his speech still carries a Caribbean lilt. But the steel-drum melody of his voice provides a stark contrast to his remarkably even personality. Just as when he is running, he is overly composed while talking to a reporter. But when he starts talking about running itself, glimpses of excitement shine through.

While many novice runners begin working their way up by first jogging maybe two miles, then four, then six, and so on, Boissiere says he started out running 12 miles. “I wanted to start with double figures, but I didn’t want to just run 10 and stop,” he recalls. “Twelve miles made it a little more attractive.”

After a few years of daily 12-mile runs, he began to run 20 miles every other day. By the early ’90s, it was 20 miles daily.

On a typical run, he might leave his residence on North Arlington Street in Harlem Park, go up Pennsylvania Avenue to North Avenue, across North to Greenmount Avenue, which turns into York Road, and up York to Towson Town Center, where he will turn around. From there he runs back down York Road to Cold Spring Lane, west to Park Heights Avenue, and south on Park Heights to Reisterstown Road, left on North Avenue, back down Pennsylvania to North Fulton Street, and home to North Arlington. All of that will take him about three hours and 20 minutes. However, after his occasional runs to Washington, he’s a bit slower.

“It will take me about a week to recover” after that, he says, nonchalantly.

 

Midmorning before his Saturday run, Boissiere rifles through his one-bedroom apartment, eager to find the books that will give a reporter a frame of reference for his passion. The room is simple yet functional. He has taped pictures of his family on the outside of a china cabinet; inside rest pieces of pottery that are among his prized possessions. Running is his No. 1 obsession, then comes reading, then comes pottery, he says.

As he struggles with the heavy lid of a trunk containing books, scantily clad workout divas dance in posters plastered around the room. One word in black block letters leaps out from the tangle of women posing on exercise equipment: determination.

Boissiere digs through the books in the trunk, all of which deal with health and physical fitness, and pulls out a volume titled A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning, edited by Don Allison. “This is the definitive book,” he says.

Ultrarunning is a sport where competitors run footraces longer than the 26.2 miles that make up a classic marathon. The book deals with men and women who run 100 miles at a time, some of whom run ultramarathon’s against each other, sometimes running for 24 hours straight.

“But I have no desire to do that,” Boissiere is quick to point out. In all his years and miles of running, he has never been in a race.

He has carefully mapped 15 routes around Baltimore City, and he runs a minimum of 20 miles daily. About six times a year, Boissiere breaks up his routine and runs 45 miles to Washington—last time it took him about seven and a half hours to reach the steps of the Capitol, where he stops. (He takes the bus back home to Baltimore.) “Of all of my routes, this is my favorite,” he says.

“During summertime, I try to take . . . my 15 routes six times each, for the 94 days of summer,” Boissiere explains. “And the other four days, I try to do three runs into D.C., and I have one more day to do whichever route I want to do.

“During the other seasons, I do each of the 15 routes once,” he continues. “Fall, winter, and spring, one per season, and the other days I stay on one regular route.” Boissiere’s “regular route” is a run to Arbutus and back.

As he reaches out to caress the pages of the book, he inadvertently shows off his right index finger, the tip of which was lost in a bicycle accident when he was a teenager—a reminder of his no-pain, no-gain philosophy. In fact, this philosophy seems to have been imbedded in him at an early age: His father was a sprinter who forced Boissiere to lift weights from the age of 7. “I hated lifting weights back then,” he says. But he says that his formative athletic experiences have led him to his way of life, leaving the house every day somewhere between 1 and 2 p.m., no matter what the weather, and setting off.

Asked why he runs in the middle of the day, when the temperature is usually at its peak, he says, “I read a lot of stories about people getting attacked at night, so I don’t like to run in the dark.”

He does avoid midday runs when the mercury tops 90. If the temperature drops below 30 degrees, he runs in a sweat suit. If it drops below 15, he wears two sweat suits, even though he complains that a layer of sweat often gets trapped between the two suits, which can weigh him down. When it snows, he says, “if I can struggle down to the main streets, they’re usually clear enough.” Boissiere says he has not missed a day in 11 and a half years.

The weather may change, but Boissiere maintains more or less the same routine before every run. He does about 30 minutes with the free weights littering his bedroom and 10 minutes of calisthenics before taking his feet to concrete. This morning he woke up at 9 and ate about a half-pound of honey.

“Digestion gets in the way,” he says, showing a reporter around his kitchen. “I can’t eat before a run. I can only take liquids.” The 1,200 calories or so that Boissiere gets from his honey meal is enough to fuel his body for the run. Typically, he only eats one solid meal a day, generally after he returns. After coming back from D.C. last time, he says, he ate about a half-pound of tofu mashed up with a can of peas. He shows off the 20 or so packets of tofu, all cut into blocks, lining his freezer, with equal portions of pumpkin and mung bean sprouts. Boxes of rice pasta, dried pineapple, and corn tortillas abound.

“Sometimes I don’t eat too much,” he says. “So these things kind of collect here.”

 

Later, as Boissiere traverses one of his routes, a man sitting at his laptop in front of Sam’s Bagels in Roland Park acknowledges that he’s seen the running man, and that he thought he was homeless or crazy. Others, like a young woman who works at the Royal Farms near Loyola College, says she has seen him dozens of times before without ever really giving him much thought.

Others, once they hear a little more about him, are impressed. Lisa Martin, standing in a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot on York Road, says she used to see Boissiere all of the time while attending the nearby Mount Calvary AME Church in Towson. “I didn’t notice him a lot at first,” she says. “But after you get off of the bus at the same place at the same time, you begin to notice the people you’re always seeing in your surroundings. How come they’re here and I’m here always at the same time?

Kevin White says he sees Boissiere as he runs by the bus stop where White waits for the No. 8 bus to take him to his job at Ray Lewis’ Full Moon Bar-B-Que in Canton. “I used to see him running by Oldham and Eastern Avenue down to Lucerne,” White says. “That’s all you ever see him doing is running. I’ve never seen him walk.

“I don’t even know if he can walk,” White laughs.

Before hearing about Boissiere’s hobby, Michael Susko says he thought the ultrarunner was down on his luck. “It’s like an odd combination—like he’s a homeless person running,” says Susko, who does foster-care work. “You would have never guessed” that he runs 20 miles a day. Informed of Boissiere’s age, he quips. “I’m 52, and that is amazing.”

“People will stop me and ask me about running,” Boissiere says. “Sometimes cops will stop and ask me, and I usually try to give them some tips.”

At the least, he says, when people wave to him he will try to wave back. “I don’t want people to think I’m a stuffed shirt,” he says.

Provide almost any Baltimorean with a description of Boissiere and you can watch the light go on: Oh yeah, that guy. On hearing about how many people have noticed him running all around the city, and how many people marvel once they hear the full story, Boissiere seems somewhat touched, although he still presents an even temperament.

After all, he remembers a time when he could not run, or even walk for that matter. When he was 14, he was hit by a car and broke his right femur bone—he shows off two large scars where a rod once went through his right knee in an effort to straighten it out. “I spent four months in the hospital, and then it took a year to learn to walk again,” he says.

Suddenly it make sense why he favors his right side when he runs.

Most people with such an injury “wind up with one foot a lot shorter than the other. But mine isn’t too bad,” he says, pounding on his right thigh as if he can’t believe that it’s still there. “I’m just lucky to be able to do this.”

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