The Cannonball Run

Ten competitors. One mile along the Katy Freeway. No cars allowed.

"I think it was a triumph of the human spirit," an out-of-breath Ramey declared before receiving the $8 trophy. "And I think it just goes to show that everyone can run to work if they really want to. And, you know, 26.2 miles, they say, 'Hey, it takes four hours -- I'll get to work at ten.' I don't think that matters, you know. I think what matters is that man has beaten beast."

Man may have beaten beast, but car flogged Ramey. For the rest of the day, she fought off a nasty spell of coughing. In "The Mixmaster," a Press article from last summer, Winifred Hamilton, an environmental health expert at Baylor College of Medicine, stood not far from where we raced and summarized why Ramey's "winning" method would probably be a real loser in the long term.

Ramey exults in her first-place finish.
Daniel Kramer
Ramey exults in her first-place finish.
"No, I can't go for that": After a dismal showing, a Hall 
& Oates breakup seemed imminent.
"No, I can't go for that": After a dismal showing, a Hall & Oates breakup seemed imminent.

"We are breathing all sorts of particulate matter," she said at the time, standing on an I-10 median. "Some of which goes into the deeper recesses of your lungs. We are breathing toxic, carcinogenic chemicals. We are breathing carbon monoxide and several other combustion gases. We're also breathing probably a little bit of asbestos, a little bit of lead that's still on the ground and is being kept airborne."

The proposed freeway expansion appears unlikely to improve the situation. Matthew P. Fraser, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, recently studied a computer-generated emissions analysis for I-10 between the Beltway and the Loop and found that the projected traffic patterns of 2020 could increase particulate pollution well beyond standards set by the Clear Air Act. Which means that if you took Ramey's advice, you'd get to work at ten along with an increased risk of cancer, brain damage, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. And you'd probably have to shower.

On the other hand, the cool and collected rickshaw rider came in last place, which may explain why so few people opt to trade in the family car for a rickshaw. He defended his position, saying, "When you're riding in style, you know, you just take your time."

Hall and Oates barely nosed out the rickshaw for seventh and eighth place, respectively. Hall accused a "worthless" and "out of shape" Oates of "dragging me down," while Oates complained that they'd given up a three-week gig at Joe's Crab Shack in Kemah to participate in this crap.

Argonn looked similarly disillusioned. "He probably won't breed for a long, long time, he's so depressed," says Butler.

Harkinson shook his head. "It just goes to show, you know, if you're going to ride a bike on the cold, hard streets of Houston, you better make sure it's a well-oiled and well-put-together machine."

He later expanded on that thought.

"Riding a bike on a sidewalk along a freeway, while probably the most direct route to downtown, is also a pain in the ass. Many of the curbs don't have ramps, which means you aren't going anywhere very fast," he says.

He's not the only one lamenting our booby-trapped streets. Rickshaws, stallions and stilts aside, for some Houstonians, our alternative methods are actually modus operandi.

Regina Garcia, who owns and manages El Meson restaurant, started commuting by bicycle seven years ago to have fun, burn calories and get an extra chance to be outside six miles every day.

"When I'm on my bicycle, I really love Houston," says Garcia, a board member of the Bike Houston alliance. "When I'm in my car, I'm bored, I'm stuck in traffic, and I don't like Houston... I'm kind of in a shell." She also teaches defensive cycling classes and says that freeway underpasses are among the Houston landscape's worst hazards.

Even the Segway has its share of local devotees. Take David Mytchak, for example. Mytchak, a 35-year-old software designer for a financial company, got his Segway in December 2003 and has been using it to commute six miles each way from his home to his office near U.S. 290 and the 610 Loop. In 2004, he put just 3,000 miles on his car, dropped a couple of pounds and had only one accident -- when a bicyclist ran into him.

"The only problems that I've had is, uh, you get a lot of comments. I'd say 90 percent of the populace thought it was really cool. And then 10 percent of the populace was extremely negative," he says. The occasional harassment included honking, middle fingers, shouts to get a car and -- his favorite epithet -- when some dude yelled "dork on a stick" out the window.

"I literally died laughing," says Mytchak.

Curiously enough, we didn't get that reaction. Besides the occasional double take or puzzled glance -- and applause from some guys outside Pep Boys -- rush-hour drivers, for the most part, paid little attention to our "parade of freaks," as Harkinson put it. It's clear that alternative travel carries its own set of dangers.

"On several occasions, I was nearly crushed by people turning off the access road in hulking Ford Expeditions," he says. "The lesson is, don't commute to work in any sort of unarmored vehicle."

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