In 2014, Forbes ranked Austin as the fourth worst city in the U.S. for gridlock, estimating that Austinites spent an average of 41 hours each year sitting in traffic. For some, the promise of congestion-relieving toll lane projects isn’t worth the wait. It’s more productive to take matters into their own hands. Or should we say, feet.
These two locals put the word “sport” back in transport and hit the ground running (and biking). They’re the ones you see breezing past you on the way in to work. The ones who make you question whether a car is really the fastest way to get from here to there. They’re the ones standing by the water cooler with an un-frazzled smile on their face. The coworkers who haven’t complained about their commute yet.
After spending 18 months recovering from a severe ankle sprain, Eric Hepburn bought his first pair of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes in the summer of 2009.
He had just finished reading the book Born to Run, about endurance athletes of the Tarahumara Indian tribe. Inspired by their story of perseverance, Hepburn, an IT director at the University of Texas School of Architecture, began walking the 1.7-mile commute from his home in Cherrywood (in Northeast Austin) to his office.
Over the course of the semester, he worked to retrain his foot muscles, leg muscles, and pain receptors by walking in the Vibram’s every day.
“One of the things about the book that really resonated with me was the idea that it doesn’t matter what you do, you need activity [in life],” Hepburn said.
“I had been without cardiovascular exercise for a year and a half. I had spent three months in a walking cast, two months on crutches, and the rest of the time wearing ankle braces.”
Since parking a car is a test of stamina in itself at UT, Hepburn was used to the idea of not driving to work, opting to take his bike or the bus instead. With the addition of walking, co-workers soon referred to him as ‘Eric, the guy who wears the shoes.’
Then, in the spring of 2010, he began to run. He started out slow, but progressively his commute times got faster.
Over the past three years, Hepburn says he has tracked about 84 percent of his runs through the Run Keeper app—racking up a grand total of 2,400 miles. Mileage that easily could have added up on his car.
He feels fortunate his job is one that allows him to show up at work with a bit of sweat on his face.
“I’m not showing up at a retail office where I have to be dressed to the nines and interacting with customers. I’m an IT person. People expect us to be slobs. (laughs)”
It’s been five years since he slipped on his first pair of Vibram Five Fingers, and he says his legs and ankles have never felt stronger. Now, there’s no other way he thinks about getting to work.
“In the morning, I put my running shoes on. I carry my clothes and lunch in my Osprey pack. And I run. If I’m running late, I try and run faster and hope I can clock an 8-minute mile so I get there in time. If it’s a more leisurely day, I run my 10-minute pace and everything is fine,” he said.
At work, there are no warm showers to greet him. Instead, Hepburn says, he stays in his running clothes for 15 minutes—until the sweat dries—and then goes into another room to change into his work clothes.
“This past summer was really challenging,” he said. Not only was it hot outside, but he was running longer routes to help prepare him for his first marathon—the San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon this past December.
“I told the people who have cubicles near me, ‘Hey, there’s no social shame. If I start to smell, just tell me and I will try and figure out some other way to do this.’”
In training for the marathon, Hepburn started running around the capitol on his way into work—taking his round-trip commute from 3 miles to just over 6 miles.
“The route takes me an extra 30 minutes, but for most people that’s just the difference between whether traffic was good or bad that day,” he said.
The reasons Hepburn continues to commute via foot are varied.
It’s holistic. It’s about respecting the environment, taking care of his health, and living by example.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he shuttles his 5-year-old son to and from kindergarten. Hepburn runs. His son follows along on his bike.
As other parents help their kids unfasten their seatbelts, Hepburn helps his take off his helmet.
For him, run commuting has become a meditative and spiritual practice. It’s a time and space to center himself in the transition between the two worlds of home and work. It’s a time to clear his mind.
“I still think of it as an experiment, even though I’m settled on it now,” he said. “It’s like anything in life. Once it becomes a habit, you don’t have to fight it anymore.”
If she hasn’t sped past you in traffic yet, chances are you’ve read her writing in the newspaper. Pamela LeBlanc has been the fitness columnist at the Austin American-Statesman for the past 17 years. She’s been a bike commuter for the past eight.
Three to five days a week, her mornings look something like this:
LeBlanc walks out to her driveway, tosses her work clothes in her cinder-block size, clip-on trunk, and hops on her bike. From her home in Allandale (in North Austin), she takes Lamar Boulevard down to the Shoal Creek Hike and Bike Trail to get work. Her round-trip commute from front door to desk is 14 miles—18 miles if she adds on a swim practice before work.
The weather is probably LeBlanc’s biggest opponent. She commutes to work year-round by bike— through the sweltering, 100-plus degree heat of summer and the abrasive, bone-chilling winds of winter. “It can be brutal. Spring and Fall are the best [times to ride], and August is the hardest month,” she said.
On cold days in January, she puts on wool socks, a knit cap under her helmet, and ski gloves on her hands—gripping her handlebars to stay warm.
“I’m not going to do anything dangerous,” LeBlanc said. If it’s raining and the road conditions are really bad, she won’t hesitate to take her car.
When she gets to work, LeBlanc rinses off in the Statesman’s locker room, where she stores her toiletries and shampoo. “I’m lucky that I can make it work,” she said of her job.
Her co-workers have become accustomed to her arrival attire. Sometimes, before she hits the showers, she’ll sit down at her desk, helmet still on and start reading emails. Staff members will come by, take one look at her, and say jokingly, ‘Yeah, it can be tough here in the newsroom.’
The ensuing laughter is a small price to pay for a form of transport that expends nothing but sweat.
Before she started biking to work, LeBlanc said she was filling up her gas tank every week. Now, she only has to fill it up every six weeks.
While riding on the Shoal Creek bike trail, she sees snapping frogs, snakes, nutria, owls, and the occasional gigantic turtle. “I see a lot of nature stuff [on my ride], but I also get an up-close view of the city. I get to watch the progress of big buildings going up that you can’t see from a car. When you drive, you’re in a bubble. When I ride my bike, I get to see the same people and exercise groups I’ve interviewed before—my community.”
Speaking of community, LeBlanc tries to arrange her interviews so that she can bike to them before going home. “It adds to my credibility as a fitness writer, because I’m trying to practice what I write,” she said.
For her, biking is a rewarding bonus exercise. “It makes me anxious to sit in traffic. This is a stress reliever for me. I see people stuck in traffic, but I just roll right past them,” she said.
Le Blanc estimates that her alternative way of commuting adds 10 minutes to her travel time—taking 30 minutes to bike to work rather than the 20 minutes it would take if she drove.
As a writer, that extra 10 minutes gives her an invaluable resource: time to think.
There are many benefits LeBlanc has found by biking to work. It’s a form of free exercise. It saves money. It’s her small way of doing her part for the environment. However, there is one not-so-convenient thing she admits about it: “You can’t just quickly go home if you forget something,” she said.
There’s also an added element of risk. In the past eight years though, LeBlanc says she has only had five close calls—either from people backing out of their driveways or just not looking where they’re going. “There are good motorists and there are bad motorists,” she said. “Just as there are good cyclists and bad cyclists.”
The number one reason she still does it: because it’s fun. “Riding makes me feel alive,” she said.
Want to try it?
Eric: “Just do it. Make a decision that you’re going to try it. Give yourself two weeks. Put all of the things you’re afraid are going to happen on the back burner and keep your mind open to learning from what you do.”
Pam: “You don’t need a fancy bike. A regular bike is fine. Start slow by biking to work just one or two days a week. If your office doesn’t offer showers, for a small fee you can park your bike at Mellow Johnny’s ($1 a day) or St. David’s ($20 a month) downtown, take a shower, and walk to work from there. With a little planning, you can make it work.”