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The Running Man of Commerce, Oklahoma

16 October 2015

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Charles Duboise bends over to lace his running shoes in the kitchen of the home he shares with his mother. He’s worn these same shoes every day for several years. He’s worn the same t-shirt for more than 15 years. Duboise is a man who cherishes routine.
It’s early in the morning and it’s already a stifling 88 degrees --- not unusual for Oklahoma in the dog days of summer --- and there’s no air conditioning, but Duboise doesn’t care. He barely notices the sweat as he pounds out another seven miles. When he’s finished, he snatches a notebook off a desk and flips it open. He writes the time and date at the top of the page, and logs his running time, his pace, and how many miles he’s completed that day. Then he slides the notebook shut. Duboise has only a few more pages left in this notebook before it is retired to a tower of notebooks he keeps in a corner of the room. The tower is more than four feet tall. Want an example of irony? Duboise runs on a treadmill every day, even though he lives next to Route 66, the most famous road in the world. Each day (except one) since the spring of 1991, the 48-year-old has run at least a few miles, often as many as eight or nine. But he’s never passed anyone on the road, and no one has ever passed him either, because he’s a slave to his routine: running on the same treadmill, in the same room, often in the same shoes. He once wore the same running shoes for more than a decade, an amazing and odd dedication to footwear that led to an appearance on Oprah, which not coincidentally was the only day in the last 24 years that Duboise failed to run. That’s 8,700 days of daily running. Ms. Winfrey flew him and his smelly shoes to Chicago in a snowstorm to tape an appearance on her show. “I only slept a few hours, I was so excited,” Duboise remembers, as he fires off every detail of his stay in that large Chicago hotel suite. “They let you get whatever you want in the hotel room: a candy bar, a drink from the little fridge, a fancy robe. It’s all on Oprah.” Why did Charles Duboise start running? In 1991, at 24 years old, he was 320 pounds. Someone gave him a treadmill and he decided enough was enough. Duboise began his two-legged crusade on a March day. It was cool and he didn’t run very far, but he did it. He did it the next day, too, and the next day, and so on. His body responded like a starving man getting his first taste of water. He lost 180 pounds in a few months and he’s stayed in shape ever since. He doesn’t look like a man approaching fifty. He says, “I feel better today than I did when I was 30.” The numbers are staggering, and Duboise, whose memory is like a steel-trap, can rattle them off:
  • 8,700 days of running as of September 2015
  • 70,300 miles and counting
  • If his runs were added together he would circle the Earth’s equator 2.8 times.
In the first few years of his obsession, Duboise exhausted several treadmills, sending ten of them to the trash heap. He runs in the same room and has the same basic view every day. “It never rains and on a treadmill you never stop or slow down,” he says. Finally in 2000 he rebuilt a treadmill and got nearly five years out of it. In 2005, after his appearance on Oprah, the people at NordicTrack contacted him and gave him a top-of-the-line treadmill. He still runs on that one. Duboise lives in Commerce, Oklahoma, a small town split in two by Route 66, which officially opened in 1926 and was one of the nation's first interstate highways. “The Mother Road” started in Chicago and wound its way through six more states before finishing in California. Though it’s no longer a major highway system, Route 66 is an iconic part of American history and the people of Oklahoma are especially proud of it. This includes Duboise, who operates the Dairy King on a T-intersection of Route 66 when he’s not running on the treadmill. Commerce is a town that continues to cling to life after much adversity. In the early 1960s the mining industry there expired. There are still a labyrinth of tunnels and mining shafts living under the soil of Commerce. In the 1980s the BF Goodrich tire plant shuttered its doors and laid off more than 2,200 people, and in the 1990s the “Wal-Mart Effect” crippled many small downtown retailers. Still, the town continues to soldier on, day after day, with a steadfast dedication that’s embodied by Duboise. It’s 9:30 am and Duboise unlocks the Dairy King. He flips on the overhead lights, slips behind the counter, and readies for customers. Who will he meet today? Where will they be traveling from? This morning he bakes a batch of his “Route 66” cookies, a popular treat he loves to hand out to visitors. His family has owned the business since 1980, when his father purchased what was formerly a gas station on Route 66. He lost his father seven years ago, and his mother is 90 years old, but she still works five days a week with Duboise at the Dairy King. Duboise will take his first vacation ever later this year when he plans to go on a cruise. Through the years he’s met thousands of people from all over the world at the Dairy King, but this will be the first time Duboise has left the United States. Route 66 is America’s great vein, a flat and dusty time machine that serves as a doorway to the days when it was the most traveled, best manicured, and most popular thoroughfare in the world. They called it “The Main Street of America” and it was a testament to this country’s technological ingenuity and pioneering spirit. Tens of thousands of Americans streamed across Route 66 to find new opportunities on the west coast, millions traversed it on family vacations, and countless loads of lumber and gas and food and natural resources were carried on it. It represented the greatness of America and the people who made it work. In the 1960's, "Route 66" was one of most popular television shows in the country. It was based on the road and told the stories of people who lived alongside it. These days, with wider, more direct highways available, Route 66 is, in many ways, a museum piece, and a quaint reminder of a simpler past. Yet Commerce and other towns that dot the map along Route 66 still welcome visitors who want to travel the famous route. Duboise welcomes the opportunity to greet those people, many of them from around the globe. The Dairy King has nourished people from Canada, Mexico, Europe, South America, Australia, Japan, and China, all of them anxious to travel Route 66. Duboise insists that everyone sign the guest ledger. He has ledgers going back three decades, with names of people from nearly every U.S. state and every country in the world. “Every time someone comes into the Dairy King, I tell them about Oklahoma. I tell them about the Indian tribes, the land rush, the history of Route 66.” Commerce itself has an interesting backstory: this is where Depression-era criminals Bonnie & Clyde were captured and shot after killing a local sheriff. It’s also where baseball legend Mickey Mantle was born and raised. For Duboise the past is interesting, but the present and future are where his eyes are trained. He can’t imagine living anywhere else, he can’t imagine working anywhere but the Dairy King, and he can’t imagine a day without running on his treadmill. “I think I’ve inspired people. A friend of mine started running because she saw me running so much and now she runs a 5K almost every weekend. Every day I don’t know if I’ll do it, but I do it anyway. It gets to be something I have to do every day.”Like reading about interesting Oklahomans like Charles Duboise?