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Running to Discovery

Words and Photography by Kenaia Neumann

I pause my watch beneath Houston’s highway sky and look out at another spectacular dawn breaking across the bayou. This not-quite-river is thick with greenery, camouflaging the trails that lead into the city. I’ve been here for two or three months but I am still in awe of this postcard view.

As I continue my run, the herons standing guard on the edge of the water watch me watching the ground: in my first week here I nearly stepped on a coral snake. When I mention it to my mother in passing, she tells me “snakes are symbolic of important transitions.” 

It’s interesting to move in the middle of a pandemic, when ‘curbside only’ and ‘mask required for entry’ signs have become the norm. Normally, getting to know a new city requires meeting its people, eating the food and exploring local culture. Lacking those options, I’ve begun to explore the city on foot. I’m running anyway, trying to find creative solutions to a season of cancelled races, so why not challenge myself to find a new street every day, to keep my eyes open and learn about my new home? 

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Houston is color everywhere you look, from brightly painted houses to the dark ivy that clambers across brick and tile, as elegant as it is destructive. Tiny flowers bloom between sidewalks and metal fences, bursting from the most unexpected places and spiralling out of any attempt made to contain them. There are gardens, intentional and not, everywhere. I could reach between the iron rods of my neighbor’s fence and pluck fruit from a tree sinking under the weight of its own bounty. Tiny lizards take turns darting across the pavement, so many that on some streets you have to slow down in order to avoid squishing them.

Every day I arrive home with lists of things to look up. What is that building with so many potted plants and strings of lights, where a man sings every Friday night? There’s a scantly decorated truck on one corner that smells like most deliciously seasoned food. I add Tacos Chales to my mental list of places-to-eat-one-day. Next week, maybe can I figure out how to run from the bayou trails to the other side of downtown. Come to think of it, where do these bayou trails end, anyway? Though I spend hours perusing maps, instead of street names I’m beginning to identify street art, making friends with graffitied faces. I see paintings and political calls to action, creativity and beautiful compositions of color. Murals are abundant from Westheimer to EaDo.

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Running, you get this feeling that you are transient, in passing. You are a witness or observer, outside of the scenes unfolding around you. You are awake in the quiet before dawn, learning the streets as the old man in the house on the corner sits at his dining table with a cup of coffee, his wife still sleeping upstairs. You are free to explore, to pick a street and see where it takes you. There’s a filthy intersection where, if you only cross and dip through a hedge, you fall into a neighborhood full of those wide southern houses, with their flecking paint and sprawling porches, grassy yards and magnificent oaks towering over the streets. I’ve learned that when you’re searching for quiet, a jog through the mansions and great lawns of River Oaks will do the trick. Down one street, a statue of the Loch Ness monster appears to undulate beneath the grass. I cross beneath overpasses I’d be careful near at night, end up running by skyscrapers in the middle of nowhere. A raven-haired woman at a corner deli pulls a mask from her purse as I run by, that modern gesture of politeness. I feel safer, running, like I am invisible in the mornings before the dawn. It’s something about being in motion, I think, that gives me confidence to explore places I might not otherwise. I know, too, that I am lucky in feeling like this - the ability to explore a new city on foot is not a privilege afforded to all Americans.

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On foot you are privy to the things you miss in a car, on a bike. You become part of the simplest things, like the changing of the seasons. I’ve begun run commuting (something I’ve learned about Houston is that everyone’s had a bike stolen) and I’ve seen the days grow cooler, the dark come earlier. One night I ran home in the rain, backpack chafing against my shoulder and grinning wildly as my wet ponytail slapped against the back of my neck, my steps shattering puddles beneath me. Only running do you get to experience a city this way.

I ran past the bustle of bars down Montrose on another, milder night, shocked by the number of people socializing, but hit with the familiar ache of nostalgia. I feel that sensation of bearing witness again, watching couples clink glasses or friends placing arms around one another. I run by Agora, my favorite café, now and again to make sure their lights are still on. I am scared to find it on the lists of recent closures. My daily runs give me confidence in its survival.

Someday I’ll get to explore the rest of what Houston has to offer. I hope eventually I’ll eat at one of the many restaurants people rave about, I’ll go back to spending hours in coffee shops. But I don’t mind waiting. I don’t mind running, this beautiful method of getting to know a place. I am building maps in my head, learning the excitement of not having to consult Google before heading out for a 20 miler. In the dark I’m learning not to trip over the pile of concrete slabs that count as a Houston sidewalk. Today I might run across a new bridge at sunset, pause to watch it illuminate the highway for the commuters’ drive home. I will sleep smiling, knowing tomorrow I will find something else in this city that, step by step, I am growing closer to knowing. Such is the beauty of getting to know a place on foot.   

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Run Commute Collection

This season we’ve introduced our first-ever Run Commute Collection, featuring tailored staples for active transport made from Merino wool and developed with support from The Woolmark Company. Merino, Mother Nature’s performance fabric, is the ideal material for a run commute: breathable and wicking, with a sophisticated feel that won’t look out of place if you stop for coffee, it dries in a flash and won’t retain odors for the run home.

We tested the kits out on the roads in London and New York by commuters Leon Cerrone, Nicole Loher and Meggie Sullivan. Read more about the runners via the link below.