Hard Candy – Ten Things You Realize Before Sunrise in Gulfport

I run. Actually, that’s not quite true, because running implies speed, and I’ve had old men with canes and advanced osteoporosis beat me in races. I, uh, lope. So I’m not a runner… I’m really more of a loper. 
I lope best before the sun rises, for two reasons: one, if I don’t do it first thing, I don’t do it. Two, it’s the best time in Gulfport: dark and peaceful. I try to time my, er, runs, so that I finish up right as the sun streaks through the sky. I don’t have to be pleasant or “on” or working; I can take 45 minutes to try and breathe (it’s harder than it sounds, even at my snail’s pace) and ruminate on… things. I have a lot of noise in my head; I struggle with running so much that I have to focus on breathing and remaining upright, which kind of silences the voices, albeit just for a while.
Remember, I’m not a runner; my 5K goal is to beat the 5K time of an asthmatic 97-year-old coal-miner. As far as getting a medal goes, it isn’t very much of an achievement. But I do travel slowly enough to see things, yet just fast enough to clear my head. Here’s what I notice while most of Gulfport sleeps:

1. We have the cheekiest cats on the planet.
Most places, the cats scamper delightfully away as you run towards them, but in Gulfport? In Gulfport, the cats alternate between annoyed ambivalence and giving off a definite “I will cut you” vibe as I pass. One cat in particular, a fluffy white and grey thing who haunts Bo-Tiki’s sidewalk before dawn, plays a rather unnerving game of chicken as I approach. He stares at me with soulless anger, and this more than anything else causes me to step up my pace. Which is no easy task in that area, because believe it or not…

2. We have a hill.
Laugh if you must, but for this Florida girl, the run down to the water from my Tomlinson-area home is sweet. The run back is uphill. Seriously. According to Lola (the name I’ve given the annoyingly cheery voice on my Map My Run app), the beach path is 15 feet above sea level and my home is 38. I don’t need flood insurance, which is great, but that run home is not my finest hour. This is the stage in my run where I start to realize…

3. Our world is bigger than we think.
I mean, we’re pint-sized compared to most other cities, but running alone in the dark gives me a different perspective on how far I could get without a car if, say, we had a fire. It is exactly one mile from my house to O’Maddy’s, and it feels like forever on foot. I bike it all the time, and I walk it fairly frequently, too, but alone in the dark, when I hear my running app’s disembodied voice announce my one-mile mark, it depresses me. If zombies were chasing me, not only would I be too slow to make it to the next town, I lack the stamina to make it to the next town. Fortunately for me, Gulfport lacks zombies or any other prey-based criminals. It’s a good thing, too, because…

3. If you want to commit a traffic offense, do it around 6:50.
Since the time change, I can get away with running a little later in the morning, and that’s when I see the police leaving the station at the start of their shift.

4. Except please don’t, because crossing Gulfport Boulevard is scary enough.
And on that note, kudos to our mayor and city staff for getting a crosswalk with warning lights at Beach and Gulfport Boulevard. Now can we have lights at the one on 15th? Not that I want lights everywhere, because one of the coolest things about our city before dawn is…

5. Gulfport is super dark.
I mean, OK, compared to Ocala National Forest, no. But to a woman running before dawn? Dark. Not that I want more lights; I don’t. On a clear morning it seems like I’m looking straight through to the end of the Universe, with thousands of stars hanging in the middle of a whole bunch of navy blue nothing. This does not happen in Clearwater. Of course, all that dark can be a little unnerving, especially when you run by a park bench and it moves. Which brings me to…

6. Homeless population: one.
I run down Shore and Beach Boulevards, and a myriad of side streets, and while I see vans and campers in the beach parking lot, I’ve only ever seen one person sleeping without a roof over his head. Trust me on this; I don’t exactly travel fast enough to miss anything. It’s an odd combination of sad and scary to run by a bench in Clymer Park and see that someone’s made a nest. The reporter in me wants to stop and find out who he is and how he came to be sleeping on a park bench, but the survivalist in me feels as though waking a stranger on a park bench while it’s still pitch black out isn’t the smartest move. That’s not to say I don’t feel safe; I totally do. Usually my attention goes to the touches of whimsy and beauty that pop up along my route, even in the dark. And my unofficial determination is…

8. The Stetson area makes for some nice running.
I only know this because at one point it was my goal to make it to my friend Shelly’s childhood home by my halfway mark, and she grew up in that area. A side effect was noticing how many big trees hang over some of the streets. This week’s election aside, I think we overlook that quadrant of the city, which is a shame. It’s sleepy, unlike my other favorite place to pass, which is Shore Boulevard. That’s where I realize…

9. Williams Pier never seems to close.
No matter what time I trot by, I’ve yet to find it anything but a patchwork of bait buckets and five-gallon pails, cast nets, fish bits, and the requisite grizzled fishermen clenching cigarettes in their teeth. It’s the most active part of the city, which I don’t mind a bit on my otherwise-peaceful pre-dawn runs. Well, mostly peaceful, because…

10. Someone in the downtown area has a rooster.
Seriously, guys? A rooster? This is not Key West. Also, they’re mean. And illegal. And disconcerting as hell to hear when you are just getting into a nice, meditative groove. Thank god they can’t run. Can they?

Because if they can run at all, they can catch me.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.