Baltimore’s running man
Photos and text by Patrick Smith, Getty Images
It’s mid-morning in Baltimore, and surrounded by a single burned out ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ candle, nearly 50 liquor bottles perfectly line a staircase stoop. Black spray paint reading ‘RIP Keith’ contrasts red paint that covers boarded up windows as water, trash flows into the street in small streams that resemble the legs of a passing man’s frail-skinny-legs. This passing gentleman wears bright green gloves, two winter hats, one held together by safety pins, two shirts, sunglasses, and shorts despite the chill in the air. He’s isn’t sprinting, nor is he walking, but he’s moving at a pace that gets him recognized everywhere in the city, but not by his name which matches this roadside memorial of Keith.
Each and every year, people around the world make sacrifices so that they can train by running long distances with an end goal of achieving an Olympic Medal. Keith Boissiere has been running nearly every day for the past three decades – averaging more than 20 miles per day – simply because he cares for his health. His drive is what makes him known as the ‘Running Man’ and he isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone.
In Baltimore, Maryland, the skinny, bearded, soft-spoken man with the green hooded mask running on the pavement daily is enigmatic. Many residents only know him by his nickname of the ‘Running Man’ – but Boissiere, 64, is a green-card-carrying Trinidad and Tobago native living in West Baltimore. He has resided in the United States since 1974 where he attended Howard University and received a mechanical engineer degree.
It was around that time in his life that he believed that his body was weakening, so he became motivated to run as a way of getting fit. Much like the motion picture ‘Forrest Gump’ – he kept running further distances, as the exercise got easier.
With more than 15 different routes, and at his prime burning through sneakers every two to three months, Boissiere held a daily streak of twelve and a half years, which helped him earn the nickname of the ‘Running Man’ by residents.
“I’ve been through blizzards, ice storms, heat waves, everything just to keep the streak,” Boissiere said. “It was all about the streak.”
His fascination with ultra running, which is training at distances longer than a marathon, has even on occasion taken him on a more than seven hour journey one way from Baltimore to Washington, DC.
But in 2008, his distance dramatically shortened. “I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t know what was going on,” Boissiere said. “I was going down – it got to the point where I couldn’t walk half a block.”With no health insurance, he lived with the worsening symptoms until, “I reached the point I was near dead,”Boissiere explained.
Broken down and falling apart like the tens of thousands of infamous abandoned row-homes in the city, Boissiere eventually walked to the University of Maryland Medical Center where he was given the detrimental news that was suffering from severe benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is an enlargement of the prostate gland. Because the BPH complications went untreated, this caused urinary retention that had a domino effect on his health, and led to grave conditions, which comprised of congestive heart failure, aortic aneurysms, and an extensive list of other serious health related issues. Despite being discharged after a week, the carpenter, was deemed unfit to work and began collecting government assistance in the form of: Supplemental Security Income, the Food Supplement Program, and Medicaid.
When Boissiere thought nothing else could go wrong in his life, he battled worsening health conditions. He suffered with obstructive uropathy, essential hypertension, bradycardia, nonischemic cardiomyopathy, and vertigo, among other symptoms. Many of these played a role in his kidneys only functioning at thirty percent – and was diagnosed with Stage 4 of Chronic Kidney Disease. He underwent a procedure to install an arteriovenous fistula so that he could receive his first – and only round of dialysis – to date. Additionally, he was also placed on a kidney donor recipient list.
Through all of these troubles, Boissiere copes the only way he knows how – he continues to run – as the hospital encouraged him to do in order to aid his failing health. “I was always the type that liked to be improving and I figured if I stopped that I would rust,”Boissiere said.
To further prevent himself from deteriorating, Boissiere lives a simple, clean life. He doesn’t own a car, doesn’t do drugs, drinks alcohol only on rare occasion, isn’t religious, eats mainly as a vegan, and doesn’t have a computer, nor smart phone. Other than running, which takes him four hours daily, he regularly reads in his studio apartment, which is lined with multiple trunks that stockpiles what he estimates is thousands of books on every topic.
He says one should not concentrate only on physical fitness while neglecting the brain. What is important is, “Fitness of the body, fitness of the mind, and understanding and leaning what the whole world is about,”Boissiere said.
Alas, these goals of keeping his himself healthy are done in solitude. He has never been married, had any children, and his family members either deceased, scattered across the United States, or living in the Caribbean.
With zero support at home, most would assume Boissiere would be racing in marathons such as The Baltimore Running Festival, which attracts more than 25,000 participants each year according to Corrigan Sports Enterprises. His ease of training at long distances would make him ideal to have a successful professional runners lifestyle and easily achieve the highest accolades.
But the ‘Running Man’ has never once competed, nor has a desire to do so. He’s not out to emerge as the next the next best Olympian, become sponsored, or even have others run alongside him.
“I just don’t feel that there is any reason why I have to beat anybody,”Boissiere said. “When you’re competing you’re trying to impress people, I have nobody to impress but myself.”
And because he doesn’t adorn medals, that’s why many don’t know much about him when they see him grinding through the toughest weather conditions on the street.
“There’s a man who runs for the fun of it about 20 miles a day in Baltimore,”Ginnie Welsh said, as she described what she believes what most people know about him. Welsh, a Baltimore resident is one of the lead coaches for the Baltimore Road Runners Club, and says she doesn’t even know his name, and only recently learned of him despite being involved in a running club. Others who do know his real name recall him from their youth. “I remember seeing Keith when I was teenager,” Garry O’Neal of Northeast Baltimore said. “I thought he was homeless at first, until I kept seeing him.”
These generic comments are typically what the normal passerby knows about him – not much at all. While many only know the ‘Running Man’ by his nickname, the thin, muscular human that is always seen moving through ‘Charm City’ has more than one alias.
“Some call me black Jesus – and some people take that really serious to the point where they think I am a God – and that I am not human,”Boissiere said. “I don’t approve of that; I come from a country where we don’t worship people, we worship a God.”
Boissiere says many American’s praise sports figures and he’d rather not be idolized. So to help with that, no matter what the temperature, he always wears a green hooded winter mask to help discourage people from taking his picture and posting it to the Internet.
Conversely, what Boissiere doesn’t always understand is that people don’t revere him in that specific way. His drive and passion for his own health is often described as bringing positivity and strength to residents who coexist in a city where violence is often highlighted in the news.
“He’s been such an important part of our lives,” Curtis Meads said, who shopped alongside Boissiere in the OK Natural Foods store on a chilly November day. “In those moments when we feel tired, doubt, or relent, when we see him running, he reinvigorates us,” Meads continued. “If you ever begin to forget, when you look to the roadside, he’ll remind you.”
Yet the ‘Running Man’ isn’t one to brag about his accomplishments or mention his celebrity-like status. Every time he runs he is constantly acknowledged by passerby: Running down York Road in the Mid-Govans community school children stare at him, making the trek on Wilkins Avenue auto drivers honk, and on Belair Road he exchanges friendly hand-waves with all passing law enforcement.
“I always try to be friendly with the police,”Boissiere said. “I don’t support the negative attitude towards them.”
And maybe there is a reason for him being peaceful with all. He lives on the border of Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester: two menacing neighborhoods in Baltimore City. In 2015, these areas were the center of national news as riots and unrest occurred in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray. And recently, on December 4, three bodies were found shot to death less than a half-mile from Boissiere’s home.
“I look the other way,”Boissiere said, in speaking about the crime and violence he passes all over the city while on foot. “I just go on the assumption that if I don’t bother them, they won’t bother me.”
Behind St.Louis, Baltimore has the second highest murder rate in the country, per capita, and many believe has a far more significant problem. These challenges the city faces often stem on the very corners the ‘Running Man’ has the courage to run by.
“As far as him being a victim of crime, I think a lot of the crime is targeted,” Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton said. Fenton says stray bullets should be of a main safety concern for Boissiere. “When someone opens fire on a street, those bullets are not always hitting the intended target, and there have been a lot of people hit in the cross fire by stray bullets including elderly women and children,” Fenton said.
According to data in 2016 from the Baltimore Police Department, there have been more than 900 shootings, which includes fatal and non-fatal gunfire. In addition, the city surpassed 300 murders for the second straight year.
These incidents happen daily, not only where Boissiere lives, but all across he city, and is the reason Baltimore is dealing with continually dealing with staggering crime statistics.
“Baltimore is currently in its highest murder rate of all time – 1 out of every 2000 people in the city have been killed this year,” Fenton said. “That rate is obviously far higher in places like West Baltimore given that there are so many neighborhoods that do not experience shootings and homicides.”
These reported figures are often disclosed by police for contextual purposes, to help build public trust and to guide city official and law enforcement on how to bring change. While Boissiere ignores these and other issues in Baltimore, he does keep his own record of one thing: number of days run.
In the form of yearly journals, he writes short descriptions of his roughly every day runs in small spiral notebooks which include: the weather, location, and other types of exercise. Whether hot or cold, in the peaceful streets of the county or a problematic block of West Baltimore, it’s jotted down in ink.
However, there is one traumatic situation he cannot erase. In November 2014, Boissiere was attacked during a run that left him with a cut and bruise on his face.
“It was down right nasty, they jumped out of the car [and beat me up],”Boissiere said.
Baltimore native L’Oreal R. Hunter, who got a rare selfie picture with the ‘Running Man’ in May 2016 was angry and upset when she learned about the attack. “Everyone here knows who he is, and in all of his years of running, he’s never ever bothered anyone,” Hunter said. “It was obvious who ever did it were [criminals] because this city has always respected his devotion to running.”
The attack, which was highly publicized by local news outlets, is the main reason Boissiere has always only navigated the city in broad daylight.
This and other acts of violence are unfortunately what he ponders when nothing positive will come to mind on his more than 20 mile excursions, “After they beat me up, I have time to think about and understand what the whole plan was,” Boissiere said.
Fearful of possible similar situations occurring again, the aging Boissiere is not deterred, as he still tries to accumulate miles every day of the week. While he no longer has a daily streak because of his ailing health, and his pace has slowed, he takes to the streets whenever he is able.
Barriers such as rain, snow and hospital appointments often dictate his running schedule these days. Nonetheless, onlookers can still spot the ‘Running Man’ from West to East, and North to South, as he competes with himself to stay upright each and everyday by staying fit in a city plagued by: drugs, guns, crime, and violence.
Like the heroin epidemic that afflicts so many in Baltimore, Boissiere says he can’t quit his own addiction of running. “That’s what ultra running teaches you – you set out to do this distance: do it, make it, don’t quit,”Boissiere said. “You can’t quit now, you can’t quit ever – you just have to keep going despite the obstacles around you.”