Story by Loni Ingraham
During the morning rush hour, he turns up like clockwork on Charles Street, running south against traffic on the shoulder of the road, enveloped in steam.
He's not your typical commuter.
Taller than 6 feet, he is broad-shouldered, bare-chested and wearing running shorts that hug his body well below the navel. He sports a long, brown braided ponytail that bounces on his back as his feet hit the pavement, and he carries a black bag like a briefcase.
But like the drivers gunning their motors and jockeying for position, Dr. Ted Houk is just one more person on his way to work.
However, the 45-year-old primary-care physician who lives in Lutherville and has an office in the 7400 block of York Road near St. Joseph Medical Center, has them at a disadvantage.
It could be said that he gets 256 miles to the gallon during his daily commute.
He's talking about the amount of canola oil a person would ingest, not gasoline a car would consume -- though he certainly wouldn't recommend drinking any oil straight.
He does recommend the raw oats he eats for breakfast -- he ran out of time 25 years ago to cook oatmeal -- and the 4.5 cups of vegetables he tries to eat each day.
Many of the veggies come from the garden his family has maintained outside their home since they started participating in the green movement years ago.
"I have resided in the land of Birkenstock sandals since college," he said.
The long brown hair is a more recent affectation, one he adopted after he realized he didn't have a boss anymore.
"George Washington had a braid," he said. "I always braid it, otherwise it would be a hopeless tangle. But what I save in haircuts I spend on shampoos."
However, he doesn't have a mustache any more -- it felt like a caterpillar on his lip, he said.
Houk is out there on Charles Street rain or shine. "I get bragging rights," he said. "I ran the day tropical storm Isabel arrived, and I'm out there when it first starts to snow. You can either be sweaty or wet."
He runs because it's safer than bicycling, he said. He used to ride a bike, but after he moved from Hampden, where they had lived for six years, to Lutherville in 1995 and noticed he had gained weight, he thought "maybe runners aren't crazy after all."
Besides, he found it a little harrowing biking down Charles Street on the final hill after the Joppa Road bridge. "Everybody is going like crazy, and I used to cut down the middle on my bike," he said. "Running a little farther from traffic felt better."
He takes his running seriously. In 2001, he ran the Baltimore marathon in 3 hours and 58 minutes, he said, noting he believes the average is 4 hours and 22 minutes.
He runs because he practices "cheat the reaper" medicine, he said. He advises his patients to exercise and watch their diets to keep the Grim Reaper at bay; he is simply following his own recommendations.
And he runs because he believes in going green.
"I used to wonder how I could get people to abandon their vehicles," he said, "but now that they are being repossessed, it won't be voluntary."
No self-respecting crow would take the route Houk chooses. Although his house on Kurtz Avenue is about 3.75 miles from his office, he makes it a 5.5-mile trip.
Theoretically, he could run down Charles Street, turn left at Towsontown Boulevard and right at York Road.
Instead, he runs down Charles past the boulevard, past Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sheppard Pratt hospital, past Bellona Avenue and waits until he reaches Stevenson Lane to head for York Road.
Conversely, when he heads home from his office after treating his patients in St. Joseph or GBMC, he runs up York Road and then takes Dulaney Valley Road by the reservoir before he heads west for home on Ridgely Road.
"I get a ride if I have to be home for something with the kids," he said, which is no problem, because his wife, Pamela Jenkins, is also his office manager. "It's good to keep the money in the family," he said, adding that internists are undercompensated these days.
Their four children -- Cliff, 18; Sean, 16; Morgana, 14, and Orion, 10 -- all run a bit, some more than others, he said.
But not his wife.
"She has promised to, but she's not quite there yet. However, she walks in the neighborhood, and she'll run after an errant child."
"Between parenting, medicine and running, it's been very satisfying," said Houk, a Towson High School alumnus whose credentials include degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington Medical School, and a residency at Union Memorial Hospital.
When it comes to his 5.5-mile commute, he heads off the obvious first question by saying the bag he carries contains his scrubs, his cell phone and his keys.
He adds, "Yes, there is a shower at the office.
"But you can use rubbing alcohol to wipe down. The nurses at the hospital are so maternal, I have received their sniff test and passed."
In summer, he showers twice a day, "but the pheromones in male sweat are calming to women," he said. "I tell the nurses if they have a good day it will be my fault."
It takes him about 30 minutes to run home during the afternoon rush hour.
"Going home, I can pass hundreds of cars," he said. "Between Stevenson Lane and Fairmount Avenue, I'm always able to keep up with the buses. I pass a lot of large people eating fast food or waiting for a bus."
He runs bare-chested until the temperature falls below 28 degrees, he said. "The wind chill on a bike can be ferocious, but when you're running you're always hot."
He does not go unnoticed.
"The worst reactions are when somebody will yell, 'Put on a shirt' and shout some epithet," he said, adding that such people were probably forced to eat military-style at home.
But when his weight is down to 175, "the girls go, "Whoohee!' and take pictures," he said.
The main issue for him is the hope that everybody would be as comfortable with their bodies as he is with his.
He believes in people being themselves, he said. "This is me, no shirt, long hair, running down the road, saving gas, and being healthy.
"A lot of people say I'm their hero. I'm happy about that. But I'd rather people get out there themselves instead of admiring me."