Running Tulsa

by Jessica Baxter


I set out in the summer of 2009 to become a runner—motivated, and shamed, by the marathon that my mother ran in honor of her 50th birthday. Afraid that I hadn’t inherited her tenacity, I told almost no one that I ran. I have been reading online some of the top advice of random people about starting a new hobby – one that I thought would be easy and would feel natural on my first try.

I even bought running shoes after extensively checking out my options at Shoe Hungry but was not ready to tell the sales boy I planned to run in them. I was so private, in fact, that I ran circles around a nearby track rather than risk being spotted on a Tulsa thoroughfare. Round and round Hoover elementary field I jogged, hurdling daycare kids on scooters to get my miles in.  In my breathless minutes of solitude, I sometimes daydreamed about running in other locations, but I feared other runners and clung to my safe, well-worn track. I imagined the seasoned runners scoffing at my newbie gait and whipping their blonde ponytails in my face as they passed. I knew that my mother and her friends ran on Riverside un-whipped by blonde ponytails, but Riverside seemed out of reach, fit only for the most elite runners. I longed to explore the side streets of Tulsa.

It wasn’t until I read a hand-me-down copy of Runners’ World that I found the inspiration I needed to venture away from my track. Michael Wardian, a champion ultra-distance runner, was quoted as saying, “It’s a lot different seeing a city when you’re running than when you’re a tourist–you’re almost a part of the environment … It feels more organic.”

Until that moment running had been little more than a self-centered exercise in exhaustion—perfunctory, headphones on and eyes down. I was beginning to enjoy my afternoon runs, but it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I could marry them with urban exploration. Using my running time to explore the city was tempting. Even more so that I might do it while camouflaged as ‘organic’ and ‘a part of the environment.’ Insecurities be damned, I started mapping my own private running guide to Tulsa.

At a pace of 10 minutes per mile, I began to explore my midtown neighborhood. I passed under the feet of the Golden Driller for each trip in and out, always glancing upward to read the upcoming events. On longer runs, I’d venture out to the 11th street portion of Route 66, a mile from my front door. Once I passed through a Tea Party demonstration held on the parking lot of the fairgrounds—a spectacle I would have otherwise missed. I would jog my way down 11th to Harvard, weaving in and out of used car lots. Then I kept going: under the awning of a pawnshop, through several intersections filled by distracted drivers and hardly the Route 66 postcard pictured by many a guidebook. Past the Burger King and its wafting aromas, smelling the flame broiled burgers mixed with the burning exhaustion of passing cars. Further still, past the façade of the University of Tulsa and sometimes the picketers outside, but never within its unwelcoming gates.

Time, miles, and races passed, and I eventually joined a running club and merged others’ personal running guides with my own. Like a tourist returning to a favorite destination for braver adventures, I ran farther north and south still. Under the Praying Hands, by homeless men bathing in water fountains, by the Cherry Street Farmers’ Market, across all of the convoluted one-way streets of downtown, past garage sales and cyclists and once, by a fox that was out for a morning stroll along the Arkansas.

Running provides anonymity in Tulsa. I slip quietly through never-ending traffic, so unnoticed that I have been dangerously overlooked by drivers. The construction workers near my house now recognize me, and sometimes they shut off a machine as I run by. I can look up to admire the roofline of a neighborhood church or imagine the glory days of neon signs and storefronts along 11th street without the slightest acknowledgment. Sometimes I reward myself with a tempo run through my favorite neighborhood, Lortondale, where I count the houses for sale and dream of snapping one up. With my running shoes on, I am no longer blind to the most charming details of Tulsa.

Today, unabashedly, I call myself a Runner. I can be found trudging up hills and speeding down the backsides any temperate afternoon. My running club can be spotted at a handful of strategically placed water holes in Tulsa, cooling ourselves like urban wildlife on every Saturday morning of the year. It’s my turn to call my mother and tell her about the day’s run that spanned a city bus route. That is, if she wasn’t there, running a faster pace than me.