The perpetual runner

Fixture: Peter Taiwo's backward-running routine is familiar to Howard commuters. Now he's moving forward with an educational venture.

October 29, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Every weekday morning, hundreds of motorists traveling Route 108 in Howard County see a bizarre sight: A man running backward, never once looking at what's ahead, sliding his foot along the pavement and then tapping his toe to the ground, all the while punching the air in front of him like a boxer just before a fight.

He's there in heat and cold, rain and snow, peforming his routine: slide-tap-punch, slide-tap-punch, slide-tap-punch, moving east down the road or working the corner, amid the morning commuters who must wonder: Jogger? Boxer? Martial artist? Madman?

He goes by Peter Taiwo -- he says his real name, Cosmas Taiwo Chukwueke, is African, and too hard to pronounce -- and he wants you to know something: There's more to him than his penchant for running three miles backward every day in spandex tights and a sleeveless T-shirt.

Ten months ago, he took the biggest risk of his life. Despite having to support a wife and three young daughters, he says, he quit his job as a car salesman in Ellicott City to start a nonprofit after-school enrichment program called The Baobab Tree Project Inc. He designed the venture to help students use their creativity and build self-esteem.

But Taiwo, 40, is best known for running backward, a habit he says he picked up about 25 years ago when he was a student at a teachers college in his native Nigeria trying out for the boxing club.

"You get used to doing it," he says. "I tell you, it is about a four-hour exercise routine compressed when you run backward. It takes a lot. It is very tiring, and you are actually using a lot more muscles."

Taiwo is a big man -- 5 feet 8 inches tall, 235 pounds -- and it's almost all muscle. He runs with a mouthful of water every morning because it forces him to breathe through his nose. He says he goes through a pair of tennis shoes every 28 days -- not surprising, given how he drags one shoe along the ground -- and donates the old pairs to needy people in Africa. And he doesn't look behind him to see where he's going.

"Believe it or not," he says, "I probably know every pothole."

Former Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he used to pass Taiwo every morning around 7 or 7: 30 and assumed he was a boxer.

"Then I saw him in a store one day and I said, `What are you training for, a fight?' And he said, `No, I'm training for my life.' He said he was not training to box, he just wanted to keep in shape."

"It takes a lot of willpower to keep ex-ercising like that," Ecker said. "I know, because I try to exercise regularly, and some mornings it's tough."

Terri Wood, a 42-year-old Columbia resident who sees Taiwo every morning while driving her two children to school, says she can tell how late she's running based on where Taiwo is in his routine.

"Autumn leaves, he is there," she said. "Snowstorms, he is there. Ice storms, he's still out there."

She called Taiwo an "unknown celebrity" because so many people see him every day, but so few know anything about him.

"What's so wild is that he is so disciplined to do this every day, no matter what," she said. "I mean, doesn't he ever roll over and say, `I want to sleep in today'?"

Taiwo says he was one of 11 children, and a twin. When he was 10, he lost his twin brother to malaria during the Nigerian civil war, which lasted from 1966 to 1970.

After the war, he went to college, where he became an amateur boxer and first started running backward every day.

He taught for six years in Nigeria before moving to Europe and then the United States. He moved to Columbia in 1991 to work for his brother, who owned a business selling cars.

A public workout

When he first came to Columbia, Taiwo says, he started running backward around Centennial Lake. But the paths were too narrow and crowded, and he kept bumping into people and their dogs. So -- even though he says he's shy -- he moved his workout to one of the busiest intersections in the county, where hundreds of people can see him every day.

Every weekday morning, he starts at about 6: 50 at the southwest corner of Columbia Road and Route 108. He runs along Columbia Road to Ten Mills Road and back to Columbia Road, then down Route 108. He usually finishes his workout shortly after 8 a.m.

Running backward over the years has done more than keep Taiwo in shape. Doing his morning routine, he attracted the attention of a woman who later became his best friend and business partner: Anne DeLaVergne. DeLaVergne says she noticed Taiwo during her morning walks and one day mustered the courage to ask him: "What do you do, besides running backward?"

After hearing his story, DeLaVergne encouraged Taiwo to quit the car business and return to teaching. Together, they came up with the idea for The Baobab Tree Project. The baobab is treasured in parts of Africa, where it is a symbol of strength and age.

"He's probably one of the most brilliant people I've ever talked with," DeLaVergne said.

A new venture

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