Magazine: Running in reverse, Cedric Givens has befuddled onlookers for decades

March 8, 2013

On a bright winter afternoon, Cedric Givens, at 60, bounces down the steps of his house on Eighth Street NE, turns around on the sidewalk and begins running backward. He eventually turns onto H Street and heads west, passing trendy new eateries and bars, still running backward, but now on the street. Then he crosses over the H Street Bridge, continues past a slew of new construction projects and reaches what’s left of Chinatown. By the time he gets to Seventh and H in Northwest, Givens is in the middle of the street. He is also spinning in circles. Hopping up and down. Shouting.

“Woot! Woot! Woot! All right! All right!”

Along the sidewalk and in the passing cars and trucks, the reactions are mixed to the sight of this backward-jogging, hooting and hollering man wearing wraparound sunglasses, a gray sweatshirt, red mittens, black running tights and sparkling white New Balance sneakers.

“That fool be out here lunching again,” sniffs one middle-age woman. Some just shake their heads or look away. Many, though, are more receptive. Givens gets high-fives and smiles from pedestrians and encouraging honks from bus and taxi drivers. The construction workers at the massive CityCenterDC site holler back to him.

If you spend any time along this route, it is likely that you’ve witnessed Givens putting on his performance. If his name isn’t well known, his act is.

Givens has been making this same six-mile run, which eventually takes him past the White House and then back home, several times a week since Ronald Reagan was in office. In those intervening years he has seen his neighborhood turn from an epicenter of the District’s crack epidemic to a haven for hipsters. He has seen the city’s downtown transformed from sleepy concrete canyons to a bustling hub of commerce and entertainment. He has seen a black man reelected president. He has seen all of this glancing over his shoulder, careful not to crash into it.

Humans, of course, are meant to move forward. It explains our eyes being where they are and the direction of our toes. There is a logic to it. But Givens has no need for that logic. When he runs, he prefers looking at what he has passed by. Givens will tell you that he loves running this way, that he loves this perspective. What he can’t tell you, exactly, is why.

***

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Givens stretches before a run.
(Matt McClain)

It is early afternoon, and Givens is stretching before a run. He’s in the living room of his pristinely renovated home, where he lives with his wife of 33 years, Debra. The couple have four children together, and Givens also has two older children from a previous relationship. Debra is a security guard. He is a retired Metro bus driver who now operates those giant, space-agey mobile lounges at Dulles Airport that transfer passengers between terminals. Givens has spent his adult life moving people.

Debra Givens views her husband’s running obsession with a mix of wifely admiration and exasperation: “Sometimes I see him when I’m on the bus and I don’t say anything. I just sit there minding my own business and pretend I don’t know him. And everybody on the bus is tripping, saying, ‘Something wrong with that man.’ But it makes him happy, and I think it’s good for everybody to be healthy and maintain a good body. I told him, ‘Someone’s gonna get mad and hit your a– one day,’ but he’s not worried.”

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Not all onlookers think he’s crazy. Givens greets a passerby. (Matt McClain)

Indeed, Givens has managed to run backward for nearly 30 years without an accident. Other than a hamstring pull, he has been injury-free. He can’t even remember having a cold since the turn of the century. “I’ve got higher powers, man,” he says with a hearty laugh. “That’s why I ain’t been run over yet. God keeping his eye out on me.”

He hasn’t completely avoided insults, however. In a city of conformists, where lines are toed far more often than they are crossed, Givens can’t help but stand out. As he runs and spins and shouts, his hands raised upward and outward, he looks like a slow-motion whirling dervish, testifying to better health and a higher truth all at once. He also looks loopy. And not everyone in Washington responds well to that.

In addition to the eye-rollers and harrumphers, Givens has received his share of abuse from more aggressive naysayers. He has had trash thrown at him from passing cars. Someone once flung a metal fork that bounced off his leg. Occasionally he’ll hear a passerby shout that he needs to get a job. And he knows a lot of people think he’s crazy.

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Tourists watch Givens approach.                     (Matt McClain)

Givens occasionally wonders why his unique fitness regimen creates such inexplicable antipathy. But he doesn’t let it bother him too much. “I just keep on going,” Givens says. “Look here. A man my age ain’t supposed to be doing this. Once they see the shape I’m in, they think, ‘Well, he can’t be too crazy.’ ”

 

***

When he was in his early 30s, Givens would walk down to Eighth and H and wait for the X2 bus to pull up. When it pulled out, so did he, on foot. He wanted to race the bus — and beat it — on its route across town. The challenge, Givens says, wasn’t a fair one. He always beat the bus. To make the race more interesting, he decided to turn around and race backward. Givens still won easily, he says, but he had a lot more fun doing it. People started noticing and shouting out greetings and encouragement. He responded in kind. And he has been running in reverse ever since.

At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Givens has a chiseled physique and calves that could double as sledgehammers. In addition to his regular running route, he is an avid tennis player. He has run four marathons (those he ran facing forward), and though he has recently given up running road races, he still loves playing pickup basketball against guys a third his age. “Oh, I give those young boys the blues,” Givens says with a big laugh.

And then there is football.

Givens no longer plays the game, but he patrolled the field as a safety for Western High (now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts) in the early 1970s. It was as a safety that Givens first became comfortable with running backward. It is a backpedaling position in which the player is often running in reverse, surveying his opponents in a full-speed retreat before launching himself to tackle a player, pick off a pass or knock down a ball. In a game against Dunbar High School, Givens had two interceptions in the first half before breaking his arm. He also played in the D.C. coaches’ all-star game.

Despite his high school success, Givens wasn’t planning to go to college. But a coach at Baltimore Community College saw him play and persuaded him to head north. In Baltimore, Givens stood out as a starting safety and sometime kicker. As he remembers it, his play drew the attention of a scout for the University of Pittsburgh who recruited him to play in a class that would include future Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.

But Givens never made the move to Pittsburgh. He and his high school sweetheart had just had a baby girl, Torrie. He opted to stay in Washington and look for a job. Six months later he was driving a bus for Metro — a job he would hold for 25 years.

The decision to give up the opportunity to play Division I college football still tugs at him. He is happy with his life and feels thankful to have accomplished what he has. Yet at Pittsburgh he could have played on a national championship team. He could have attracted the attention of NFL scouts. He has no doubt that he would have been drafted. He and his family expected it.

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As he runs, Givens, who thinks he could have made it in the NFL, shouts out to folks on the street. (Matt McClain)

“I know I would have made it,” Givens says. “I was always where the ball was. I was the best tackler on the field. I would have started. And right now I’d be a retired NFL player sitting in a house in California.”

Even today, at 60, Givens thinks he could hold his own in the NFL. “I could probably play with these guys now,” he says. “All of these guys. I’m not bragging — it’s just fact. ”

Ashley Givens, 25, laughs when she talks about her dad’s competitive spirit. “In his eyes, no one can beat him at anything,” she says. “He does not back down.”

That competitiveness rubbed off on his kids. Ashley says her dad inspired her to run track in school as a sprinter. And his son Kyrie, 16, is an honor roll student and runs track at Dunbar High. The admiration for their father extends well beyond athletics.

“I get my determination from him,” Kyrie says. “My father is a really hard worker, and I respect him for that.”

“He’s really a great example,” Ashley adds. “He loves God and he loves his kids and he loves his health. I’m pretty sure he likes the attention when he’s running, but at the end of the day he’s a people person. And he never complains about anything hurting. He pushes himself to go out and jog because this is it. He jogs like there’s no more.”

After a career driving a Metro bus, Givens now operates a mobile lounge at Dulles International Airport. (Matt McClain)
A retired Metrobus driver, Givens operates a mobile lounge at Dulles.    (Matt McClain)

W hen Givens was very young, his father, John, died. He left behind a widow, Marjorie, and eight children in their small apartment on Church Street NW. The family was poor. Givens and his siblings went to St. Augustine’s grade school, where he helped pay his way by mopping floors and taking out the trash. His older sister Brenda remembers that he would also pull a wagon to the neighborhood Safeway and cart shoppers’ groceries home for extra money to give his mother.

“We never had that much,” Brenda says. “My mother was struggling. Cedric made it easier on her.”

When Givens was 11, his mother married a man named Paul Ballard. Givens and his brothers immediately resented him. “He would tell us what to do, and we’d yell, ‘You’re not my father! You can’t tell us what to do!’ ” Givens says.

Ballard was a strict stepfather but made great efforts to engage his new brood. He took the family out for long Sunday rides in the country in his car. He helped lead his older stepson’s Scout troop and took the younger ones fishing. But the boys never made it easy for him.

“We put this guy through so much, man, I can’t even believe it,” Givens says.

Already a promising young football player, Givens, then 13, started playing for the team at the Jelleff Branch Boys and Girls Club (now the Jelleff Recreation Center) at Wisconsin Avenue and S Street in Northwest. At the end of his first season, his stepfather attended the club’s annual sports banquet with him. All of the other awards had been announced when Givens was called up to the stage and named the team’s most valuable player. He looked out to see his stepfather standing and clapping as he received the award. That night changed their relationship forever.

“I felt so good, and we just talked all night,” Givens said. “That was one of the turning points of my life. He told me, ‘You can do anything you want to do as long as you’re doing the right thing.’ He was my father.”

Tears are streaming down Givens’s cheeks as he tells the story. Just four years later his stepfather would be dead.

“It’s emotional because of the turmoil I put this guy through,” Givens says. “And we got real close after that.”

In all, Givens knew his stepfather for just six years, but the impact, he says, was immeasurable. “A lot of the guys I was around then, most of them are gone. If he wasn’t in my life, I would’ve gone another direction. ”

***


Givens passes through Chinatown. He has run backward for nearly 30 years.              (Matt McClain)

Running forward, Givens was like every other runner. But when he turned around, people paid attention. He was noticed in a way that he hadn’t been before. Or at least in a way that he hadn’t been since his days as a football player in high school and college.

“Once you’re in the limelight, it’s hard to leave that behind,” says his younger brother Anthony, 58, an electrical contractor in the District. “I think he never really got that out of his system. That’s probably 50 percent of why he does it.”

But, says Anthony, the other 50 percent is that his brother has always been a committed, hard worker who never dwells on difficulty and sees everything in life as an opportunity. Running and staying in shape require effort. And effort has shaped Givens’s life.

If running backward brought Givens attention, it also helped him focus on what was important in his world. Running became both more pleasurable and more meaningful. He ran slower, but with a heightened awareness. For nearly 30 years he has interacted with his neighborhood, with his city and with people in a way he hadn’t before. He says he feels connected to everyone he sees on his run.

“People feel like they know me on a personal level,” he says. “And when I’m running, I’m really getting into it with the folks. To me, it’s spiritual.”

It leads, he says, to a regular conversation.

“I ask God all the time, ‘Why do you have me running backwards?’ ” Givens says. “But only God knows the answer.”

God may be the only one who knows, but Givens has a few ideas.

“You don’t realize how many people you are changing,” he says. “People tell me, ‘You’re an inspiration. You’re a legend.’ ” He laughs. “Maybe it’s the joy I’m bringing people. I don’t know, but it feels good.”

Joe Heim is an articles editor for the Magazine.

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Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine. He has recently written about the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence.
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