Exercising body, mind at Hopkins Track: The emphasis at the university's Homewood Field is on daily exercise, not style. Gatorade and nylon running shorts really don't fit in here.

September 23, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

As morning's first light beams over the Episcopal cathedral's slate roof, dozens of intent exercisers pound and pace the terra-cotta Homewood Field track, a Johns Hopkins University landmark better known for its spirited springtime lacrosse contests.

Insiders tout their daily ritual as a Budget Health Club, a self-styled, voluntary phys ed class that flourishes without rules, dress code, membership fees or age limits. These ambulatory steeplechasers walk circles around the rim of an Astroturf playing field.

The pacers say they congregate at Homewood Field because it's a "highly charged space," an open-air athletic arena where the running track is soft on the feet and restorative to the psyche.

"It's my way to invigorate the mind and body," said Clarence Leisinger, a retired educator who has been fast-walking here daily for the past 10 years.

The heart of this early-morning constituency are people from the neighborhoods that surround the Homewood campus. Some pop out of elevators from the upper floors of the cluster of University Parkway apartment buildings that overlook Homewood Field. Others stroll down from the mock Tudor and Colonial housing terraces of the leafy and comfortable Tuscany-Canterbury community.

The very serious runners convene here in the dim morning, just about 6. By 7: 30 a.m., another group starts. One woman wears beige-toned Clarke's walking shoes. One gentleman carries a cane. Others wear floppy hats or grandfatherly caps. The emphasis is on daily exercise, not style. Don't look for Gatorade or nylon running shorts here.

"The morning crowd is very persistent. I come up here when it's pouring rain, and there will be people here," said Alejandro Tyler, a Hopkins freshman and serious runner from Fort Collins, Colo.

These punctual regulars have a nodding acquaintance with each other and feel reassured when they spot one of their own. The group may be unorganized, but within its ranks, a form of mental attendance is taken and noted.

The regular exercisers apply unwritten, semisecret nicknames to each other. There are tags such as Dumplin', Mystery Woman (a stylishly attired runner who is often swathed in black), Wrong Way (a runner who always goes against the preferred counterclockwise direction), Car Man (his car says he's a dealer), Brenda Starr, The Man, Chippendale, Miss Pittypat, Smiling Jack, Twinkle Toes, Chunky and Dog Man.

Dog Man, a daily fixture at the track, is a magician who often appears at children's parties with Kenzo the Clown, a popular South Baltimore entertainer.

Dog Man is 53-year-old Robert L. Touart, who paces his 7-year-old German shepherd-malamute, Wolfie, up and down the 28 steps of the venerable Homewood Field spectator stands, a poured concrete relic nearly 90 years old.

"I'm strictly a stair man. I do a little over an hour. Winter too. Unless it's one of those real icy situations. If I miss, I start to notice it . I've made some nice friends up there," said Touart, who lives on nearby 29th Street.

In the three years he's been a part of the scene, Touart has made some observations about the Homewood track gang.

He notes that those who arrive in "full regalia" -- headphones, Spandex pants, overpriced athletic shoes -- will probably not last in the long run, so to speak.

"They'll come a week and then drop out. Also the people who are always looking at their watches. They won't last either. The ones who hang in there are the Average Joes," Touart said.

The pleasant pace of this scene is summed up by the way one of the walkers tells when he has made his two-mile goal.

"I keep eight dimes in my left pocket and every time I do a lap, I move one over to the right. When all are moved over, I know I've done my two miles," said the Rev. Dale W. Dusman of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Paul and 20th streets.

Most days he walks with the Rev. Robert Mack, visitation pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor. They rarely discuss religion.

Homewood Field possesses a strong sense of place. It occupies a plateau atop a hill. From the top row of the spectator stand seats you can see the downtown buildings. Brick apartment buildings across University Parkway enclose the scene. The big electric light towers might be out of place anywhere else but this sports playground. The surface of the running track is coated with a soft, rubberlike material that gives off a pungent odor on hot and humid Baltimore day.

"For me, Homewood Field is a highly charged space," said William Keller, a university reference librarian who is writing a dissertation on urban sports arenas.

"It has all the ingredients. The shape of the oval goes back to the ancient Greeks. Facing it is a fixed structure for spectators. You need something for the eye to focus on, and the apartment buildings on University Parkway do it."

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