Subversive Agendas

I know it’s been far too long. In ways I’ve felt paralyzed by having too much to say, but too little time to write it – and also a feeling that I should be, so to speak, walking the walk rather than talking the talk. Hopefully I will be updating more regularly in the next couple weeks, but my intended purpose for the blog was always mostly as a real-time chronicle of the trip itself. I promise I will keep in touch here all summer!

The past couple weeks have been a little crazy, with rehearsals for the St. Matthew Passion at A&P kicking into high gear, and after a few very solid, consistent weeks of mileage in the 70s and low 80s, I lapsed somewhat. The way I see it, this isn’t a huge deal – in a sense, any training you do in the last couple of months before a trans-Canada run is already last-minute, and isn’t going to make a huge impact on your base fitness level. Fortunately, my base fitness is surely a hell of a lot higher than, say, Eddie Izzard’s was when he decided to run 50 marathons around the UK (in all seriousness, a constant source of inspiration). On the other hand, lately I’ve put in a lot of cross-training on the bike and in terms of strength training.

These changes in the weather have meant I can bike places instead of taking the metro, and it’s made all the difference in the world. In a period when I’m strapped for time, not only is biking downtown faster (I can cover the 5k to church in 15 minutes, a commute that would take me 30 by the bus or the metro), but I get in an awesome mini-workout while I’m doing it. Because of how short that trip is (and the fact that I’m always running a little late), I can really push the pace on it – especially taking my single-speed bike back up the hill on Parc Ave towards Mile End. Two trips downtown means a nice little 20k of speedy riding, and if you can’t fit in your run, that’ll at least keep you in shape (hopefully) – yesterday it didn’t even occur to me that I’d covered at least 20k on my bike until I was near the end of my 25k run (a run so effortless that my socks were dry at the end of it… that is truly unheard-of). I’m shooting to cover about 15 miles every day this week, for my highest mileage yet. Next week, I’ll take it a little bit easier (in the 70s) but finish with a long bike ride on the canal, and in the week before my departure I do not plan to run much at all. The concept of a “taper” might not really apply to such a long event, but I want to be well-rested and feeling 100% when I set out on the morning of May 1.

I’m definitely feeling a closer bond with bicycle culture than I have in the past, by the way. I have to admit that there have always been a few elements of bike-worship that have always turned me off. There’s something so fundamentally human about running that it is at once both democratic and kind of subversive: anyone can do it, anywhere. Nelson Mandela reportedly ran 10k in his jail cell, every day. When Charles Burkman set out from Halifax for Vancouver in 1921, he was out of work and wanted to see Canada. All he had to do was start walking. And then there is the case that long-distance running is what homo sapiens was evolutionarily suited to do. I guess the thing about cyclists is they’ve always got such freakin’ fancy gear. Sure, runners these days have got specially designed apparel, GPS watches, etc., but if you want to get into cycling, to take that first step, you have to make a huge purchase – the bike itself. When I started running, I didn’t even have a pair of running shoes. I ran in crappy casual shoes that I had worn out.

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Umberto Boccioni – “The Dynamism of a Cyclist” (1913). The velocity of man and bicycle is considered an ideal expression of the aesthetics and ideology of the Italian Futurists.

I bought my bike (a 1980s Supercycle Mirage, originally a 10-speed) for $80 last spring, and was promptly hit by a driver making a very abrupt and badly-timed turn through the bike lane on Maisonneuve. I was ok, but my bike was pretty messed up (broken derailer & switch levers, bent fork and front wheel), and the driver hit and ran. Words can’t describe how angry I was at the world after this. I had given in to something I wan’t even totally sold on (i.e. bicycle culture), and immediately “the man” comes in and crushes my vehicle (“the man” is relative: when you drive, it’s the guy in the big SUV; when you bike, it’s the guy in the car; when you run, it’s the guy on the bike. There is no one lower, more endangered, or more scorned, than the runner, who is hated for running on the sidewalk, in the street, or in the bike lane). I didn’t have money for another bike, and even if I did, I would feel irresponsible for just ditching my partially-OK crappy old road bike and contributing to the culture of waste and pollution that defines vehicular transportation.

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My bike after some work, but before other work.

I realized, I had made my choice when I bought the bike for $80, and I needed to follow through, so I took it to the bike co-op and started working on it. Bike co-ops like Right to Move (at Concordia) and the Flat (McGill) were intimidating at first, but ultimately I was impressed by the people who volunteered at and used them, who were willing to “teach a man to fish” and completely bypass the consumer culture that originally tainted the bicycle for me. I’m a terrible mechanic, but I invested many hours in nurturing my bike to a point that it was in better condition than when I first got it. I had to buy a few parts, but I figured, I’m probably not going to own a car for a long time to come, so it’s not the end of the world to spend about $100 on a vehicle in which I’ve invested so much time. I converted it to single-speed, put on a new chain, chainring, cranks, and saddle. I flipped over and sawed off my handlebars for reasons both ergonomical and psychological: my bike looks less like a victim than before. I painstakingly stripped off the crusty, decades-old decals so my bike wasn’t “labeled” and its minimalist aesthetic could speak for itself.

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… and, in its final form.

Perhaps there is a kinship between the worlds of single-speed/fixed-gear cyclists and of barefoot runners. Both seek to eliminate the clutter that’s accumulated around their respective sports, both on a physical/literal level and a symbolic or attitude-based one. That is to say, barefoot running is (or at least originally was) both a blow to consumer culture / the shoe industry, and a return to some elemental sensation which can be more pleasurable and more true to biological intention; likewise, proponents of fixed-gear/single-speed riding say that it’s a more fun and hassle-free way to ride, but the number of re-purposed and rejuvenated old bikes which have been converted to single-speed is also a testament to the aesthetics and the ethics of re-using instead of buying. Of course, both fixie riding and barefoot running have been corrupted and fetishized by niche subcultures (i.e. the more image-obsessed hipsters, and spiritual yuppies, respectively), but I believe that they originally sprang from similar, and intrinsically counter-cultural, impulses.

There is actually an anti-consumerist agenda to my own trip that I haven’t really talked about, and that it took me a while to really be able to put my finger on. When I first knew that I was going to run across Canada, it wasn’t easy to say exactly why, although a few reasons jumped out. And why was I so uncomfortable with the idea of using my trip to raise money for some worthy charitable cause?

Over time, I’ve come to realize why this suggestion of a charitable connection always seemed so not true to what I wanted to accomplish. The truth is, money cannot make you happy. End of story. There is no exception to this rule, like, “but what if you have a terminal illness, and a charitable foundation is able to provide you with free care?” Organizations like that do a very great and noble thing, and I am not suggesting that they are useless, or that they don’t contribute to the wellbeing of tons of people, or that it is in any way wrong to use a run across Canada as a way to raise money for one. However, my trip is about achieving happiness through a sense of equanimity and reconciliation with painful realities. Money can’t help you with that. And in fact, nothing and nobody can, except hard work that comes from inside you. But perhaps, if there is a way to help transmit that ethos to other people, you could do worse than run across Canada, all alone.

I guess it’s a similar concept to the David Lynch Foundation, that would pay a large number of people to meditate full-time, and thereby make some positive dent in the net negative energy of the world. It might sound futile, but I just think there is this logical trap you can fall into, where you think you’re helping so many other people because you’re raising money for a cause. That isn’t a subversive mission, because it’s rooted in the language of the condition it is ostensibly fighting… cancer and depression, for instance, are great evils, but to what extent is their proliferation a product of contemporary consumer culture, and the sicknesses and alienation we develop by being immersed in it?

I don’t have a full philosophy worked out here and I’m not pretending to. Just slowly chipping away at the question, “what exactly is the problem, and why do I feel so strongly that running across Canada will help solve it?”

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~ by edmundmilly on April 9, 2012.

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