Craft beer brewing rocket scientist helps blind athletes achieve their dreams

Jovan Abernathy is an international marathoner and owner of Houston Tourism Gym. To claim your free tour, contact her at info@tourismgymhtx.com

When I was waiting tables, many out-of-towners asked me the same question: "What do you Houstonians do? It seems all you do is eat and drink.'' I never took offense to this question because on many levels, it is true. But, I knew the thing that they didn't understand was that Houston's real tourism is our hospitality. That hospitality is provided by servers, bartenders, restaurant owners, small business owners, and whoever else I'm not mentioning. For a big city, our pace is a bit slower than New York, L.A. or Chicago…..because we are one of the friendliest large cities in the world. Let me tell you about this precious gem that I just met.

It was the fourth time I had been to the new brewery in Houston, True Anomaly. I pull up to the bar and hear a raspy, male voice ask, "What beer would you like?" I look up from the menu to see a bald "bartender" with an athletic build reaching to shake my hand. I oblige and we make our introductions. "I'm Ben, one of the owners." "Awesome, I'm Jovan. I own Houston Tourism Gym. I'm meeting some tourists here in a bit and I'll have the Spotts Park Pale Ale."

"Houston Tourism Gym, huh, that sounds cool," He's making small talk while pouring my beer.

"Yeah, its inspired of my international marathon travels." I reply.

"I run marathons!" he says proudly. "I've done 15 half and 4 fulls and I serve with Catapult as a guide for blind runners."

"What's Catapult?"

Let's stop here. Over my years training in Houston, I had seen blind runners being guided before. During my volunteering for the Houston Marathon, this year, I saw a blind runner being guided at Mile 9 where I was stationed. I never knew who organized the effort or how I could get into it, but I was intrigued. I saw this as an opportunity for this article and a reason to find out a little more about Ben.

Ben running the difficult Decker Challenge tethered to a runner.

"It's a non-profit, based in Houston, that assists blind and disabled runners to run distance races."

I feel the tears begin to well up in my eyes. I try to hide them. "I'd like to know more about how you got into that. Can I sit down and pick your brain?"

We made plans for the next Sunday.

The next Sunday.

This is how our conversation went.

Tell me a little bit about yourself: "Well, I grew up in Dallas. I'm 35 years old and I went to UT and Georgia Tech," he says in his raspy voice.

How did you get into beer brewing? "Michael, Tom, David, and I (the other founders) met at our internship at NASA in the mid 2000's. We formed friendships and found that we had a fascination with beer. So, we started experimenting with homebrews. We, being science nerds took to it quickly and found that it was 90% cleaning and 10% efficiency."

Yeah, I heard that you all were NASA guys. What did you do at NASA? I'm a rocket scientist.

Did he just say that he was a rocket scientist?

"Yes, and I still work at NASA." Needless to say, I'm impressed.

So, tell me how your brewery got its start. Well, we started brewing in a garage. Since we were home-brew and not in an actual brewery, we couldn't sell it. We would just invite over friends for BBQ's. They supplied the food and we supplied the beer. We were able to get feedback for our beers this way. We would also serve our beer at the Johnson Space Center Chili Cookoff every year. Let's just say, our tent was really popular.

Is your beer in space? (I'm being a little coy now.) Being that space exploration is half Russian endeavor, there is more vodka in space than beer. But, our logo is in space.

Very cool.

So how is it different to brew in a brewery with all the equipment than home brewing? It's better water. It's cleaner. We actually treat our water to taste the way we want it to taste in our beer. Water is the most important ingredient in beer. You have to start with good water. It's much like how a chef cooks a dish in a restaurant.

I knew exactly what he mean't. To make a great dish, you can't season the food afterward. A good chef knows that he must season every part of the dish before he cooks it.

But, what I really wanted to know about was how he got into being a running guide. I switch gears.

How did you get into running? I was always into sports, but, I thought running was not a main event, but a part of a sport ( just like Meb)Like you have to run in soccer. My girlfriend, at the time, wanted to run a half marathon for the first time. I agreed to run with her to support her. And I never looked back.

What's your half marathon time? About a 1:50:00. (That's one hour and fifty minutes for 13.1 miles or 8:50min./mile).

What's your favorite marathon? My favorite is the Decker Half marathon in Austin. It's really difficult. I like the challenge.

How did you get involved with Catapult? I saw them running in Memorial Park and looked them up on the internet. I felt that I had been involved in a lot of self serving endeavors and so I started with Catapult as a volunteer outlet.

I looked Catapult up. This is no slap dash operation. These runners are very serious about their sport. They are competitive and have goals to run in the Boston marathon. To be a guide with Catapult, you really have to commit. This is no Mile 9 at the Houston Marathon and brunch at Hungry's. Ben runs 12 miles most Saturdays and stays ready to run a half marathon at all times. He has to be ready because the competitive runners choose their guides to fit their goals.

Tell me about your first experience as a guide. His name was Nick. He had 6 kids. Super impressive and super competitive. He loved speed because he ran track, but he was not a distance runner. I was actually worried that I would slow him down. It turned out that he was not naturally a distance runner. He needed to slow down to finish the race.

Those negative splits are hard to master (a negative split is when a runner starts his race slower then finishes faster. It takes practice because of your excitement. It requires a lot of self control). Another catch was, they could not train together because they lived in different cities. They got to practice by running the 5K before the marathon together.

So what's next for you? I'm thinking a triathlon.

Have you ever thought about a distance race in another country? I haven't but that sounds cool.

I tell him about the Dramathon in Scotland and the Comrades in South Africa. He'll look into it, he assures me.

Remember I said that Ben still works for NASA… I had to contact him to get some pictures. He apologizes for being slow to respond because….wait for it…..he got called to go to Cape Canaveral to work. That's super cool mister.


Ben making first contact with a patron.

It's Saturday, back at True Anomaly. It's their grand opening. I steered my Up For Whatever Adventure (which went very well I might add) to the brewery to get some more pictures of Ben. I watched him as he worked. He was super friendly to his patrons making sure to introduce himself and shake everyone's hand. I saw him sweeping and doing whatever he could to help his team. I wondered what kind of self talk enables him to switch gears from rocket scientist to beer brewer to CFO to floor sweeper.

I wonder if I could ever commit to being a guide for blind runners. I'll look into it as well as that difficult Decker Half Marathon in December. But, for now, I'll just sit here and enjoy my Ben's IPA.

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Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

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