Ascending & Descending on the air

My friend Scott Tresham interviewed me for his blog on the CBC Music site!

Also, for any aural learners out there, I had an interview with Jeanette Kelly for radio. Some edited form of that will be playing on her show, “Daybreak,” on 88.5 in the Montreal region, at 7:50 am on Monday. Wish Jeanette luck in her upcoming first 10k race!

Scott’s questions were so thought-provoking that I ended up going far over his length limit in my responses. (With miles, so with words.) Since I feel like the original responses are a pretty good encapsulation of the hows and the whys of this whole venture, I reckon it might be nice to just put them all up right here. So, enjoy that below.

Getting pretty pumped for this trip. My dad arrives in Montreal tomorrow – with the majority of my gear – and I’ve got a lot to get organized before Tuesday morning.


Q. Give me your “elevator speech” (i.e. if you had to describe yourself to a complete stranger in 30 seconds or less, what would you tell them?

I’m  a grad student in English Lit at McGill, but I work part-time as a professional singer (mostly choral work). I’m originally from New Jersey, but I’ve been living here for six years. Literature and music can never be totally separated for me, and I think I’ll work with both my whole life! So the concept of the “polyphonic novel” is a big deal to me.

Q. When did you decide to run from Montreal to Vancouver?  Why are you doing it?

The idea had been germinating in my head for quite a while, and I had actually never heard of Terry Fox until I started doing a little research on what it would be like. When the idea first occurred to me, it was one of those things that you say as sort of a joke in a conversation with a close friend, but once it’s been said, you can’t get it out of your head. I started thinking more seriously about a trans-Canada run during 10 days of silent meditation at the Quebec Vipassana Center in Montebello. The mental work involved in Vipassana meditation is something that I find extremely closely related to ultra-distance running, and I think both of those activities have given me whatever measure of peace and happiness I can lay claim to. This mental work is about perceiving things as they really are, without craving or aversion, and without thinking about the past or future, which have a disproportionate influence on our experience of the present moment. I think distance running is a potent method of reprogramming the mind’s conditioned responses to difficult situations, and the more I thought about how intensively I could work out my own issues in a solo trans-Canada run, the more it seemed like a gift of time that I needed to give myself.

I don’t believe that it is possible to help others, or even to refrain from bringing people down, without first achieving a certain level of inner peace; thus, my run may not seem altruistic in the sense that a charity run might seem, but I firmly believe that it is not a selfish act. The bottom line of what I’m doing is really an attempt to limit the power of the ego.

Q. I read on your blog that when asked how you plan to “do” the Rockies, you answered ‘up one side and down the other, I guess’?  Is that really all there is to it?

I suppose it’s possible to see a challenge like the Rockies in a few different ways. Whenever I find the work of running difficult, I like to tell myself that all it is is just putting one foot in front of the other. What could be easier than that, right? And the beauty of the notion is that it is true – running is intuitive and, in its best moments, mindless. There are a few wilderness skills that I’m learning, but I’m not overly worried about the effects of altitude, since even the highest point I’m running through (Lake Louise, around 5000 ft) is relatively low by alpine standards.

Q. Are you a musician who likes to run? Or are you more a runner who likes to make music? Maybe they’re equal passions? Is there a relation between these two disciplines?

In terms of my life thus far, I’m definitely a musician who runs. I started cello lessons when I was 3, and later went to boychoir school, whereas I did not run of my own free will until I was about 20. I had trouble running a mile in high school, but when I was about 20 something clicked mentally and it became easier and more desirable to run long distances. I steadily increased my distance until I became pretty comfortable running a marathon or longer with no taper. There’s certainly a similarity in the way I focus during long runs and the way I focus in singing a long concert, and perhaps those are the two things I most love to do. Singing and running are both physically and mentally demanding, and require no extraneous gear because they’re fundamental human modes of expression. But because of my late start with running, it’s hard to imagine I’ll ever be a runner in the same sense that I’m a musician.

Q. What’s that tattoo on your arm?  What does it mean to you?

I have a tattoo of Johann Sebastian Bach’s personal seal on my right forearm. Bach’s music has always been a source of inspiration and solace to me; listening to and performing it is like the silver lining of being alive. Bach’s genius apparently extended to graphic design, since his seal has the same densely-woven contrapuntal aesthetic as his music. People who don’t know Bach’s seal just think it’s a bad-ass looking design; people who do get pretty excited!

Q. Do you listen to music while you run?  If or when you don’t wear on i-Pod while running, do you hear/imagine music in your head?

Listening to music while running can be really awesome, but I’m trying to get away from it more and more because of the feeling that it’s rather like gilding the lily; I’d like to just take the one good experience (running or engaging with music) for what it is without needing the overstimulation of simultaneity. Vipassana also made me want to kick the habit of listening to music while I run, because it made me see the mental experience of running as a thing that should be taken seriously in its own right. Tunes do go through my head when I’m running in silence, often Bach fugues or just snippets from whatever’s in my head. All the same, music can be a huge morale boost when used judiciously, on a day that’s cold and dreary, or in extremely unpleasant weather conditions: when it’s snowing, windy and -30, I’ll suit up in layers of moisture-wicking synthetics and wool, put on goggles and a balaclava, and go for a run with my iPod blasting anything from Zelenka to Mystikal (besides baroque music, I love a lot of rap).

Q. You’ve got a long and challenging road ahead of you.  What would be your top 5 pieces to take with you, to help you get from start to finish.  Why?
I’m not taking my iPod with me, equally for reasons of mindfulness and safety. But those 5 pieces, in no particular order, would be:

1) Joby Talbot’s “Path of Miracles”: besides being an incredible piece of music and possessing the sort of dense, complex polyphonic texture I’m really into, it’s thematically related to what I’m doing. In fact, performing it last summer probably influenced my desire to do this whole project. The ethos of pilgrimage isn’t really about a destination, it’s a struggle to cleanse the mind. That’s what I’m doing. Even the movements map onto how I imagine chunks of my run, especially the endless flatness, heat and sunlight of the prairies (Leon) and the exhilaration of coming down out of the mountains for the “final descent” to Vancouver (Santiago).
2) Bach’s “Art of Fugue”: the ultimate display of technical mastery, yet also a piece that has somehow accumulated huge emotional and personal value to me. It just keeps going, and when I’m listening to it, so do I.
3) Zelenka’s “Missa Votiva”: Collegium 1704’s recording of this mass reveals an incredible piece of music, powerfully expressive and filled with so much life and energy. Music to move to.
4) Handel’s “Dixit Dominus”: Dixit Dominus is awesome for a tempo run or a 10k race, but dangerous for anything longer, because it’s so rocking. Pump up the volume and run fast.
5) Bach’s 6 Motets: as with all the music above, the danger is to have too much of a physiological/emotional high when you’re listening to the motets on a run. It’s only an hour of music, and if your energy peaks while you’re listening to them (and seriously, how could it not?) you could find yourself in a tight spot later on. I used to make these 4-hour mega-playlists of high energy baroque jams for my long training runs, but I realized it doesn’t work because you can’t sustain that level of excitement for so long. I’m running across Canada, so the name of the game is keeping a calm and quiet mind… forcing myself to go out slow, and trying to nurture a gentle glow in place of an explosion.


Buying things isn’t my favorite, but hey, if you’re running across Canada, you’re going to have to accumulate some cool gear:

Big thanks to my dad (who took this photo) for bringing this stuff up from NJ, and for all his help with logistics.

And, big thanks to both of my parents for the support they’ve given me in this whole enterprise. I know it’s a bit weird.

Can you imagine how you’d react if your kid wanted to do this?


~ by edmundmilly on April 28, 2012.

2 Responses to “Ascending & Descending on the air”

  1. This is thrilling to read! We are actually closer to St. Anne than Winnipeg, so could do either end! Can’t wait to meet you….Rebecca’s parents….Leona Woodmass. All the best on the road…I’ll be following you, and sending good vibes!

  2. Thanks Leona! Looking forward to meeting you out in Manitoba! You can get in touch with me through Rebecca, or here, or nefarious at gmail dot com (or facebook of course). If you’d be ok with putting me up for the night, let me know and send me the address – thanks a lot.

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