Entering Thunder Bay / Terry Fox / Ideology & Politics (June 10)

Arriving in Thunder Bay was a big moment, both in my lived reality and, I guess, symbolically. Not only was Thunder Bay the end point of a very challenging portion of wilderness stretches (maybe the most challenging of the whole run), and the end of 700 km along Lake Superior, but it is famous as the place that Terry Fox collapsed on the road, unable to go any further. For those (Americans) out there who don’t know about Terry Fox, I’d recommend you just read the wikipedia article before going any further – a lot of Canadians consider him hands-down the greatest Canadian who ever lived… it wasn’t just the fact that he was a cancer patient running across Canada with only one leg, or the money that he raised for cancer research, but also the sense of unity inherent in his whole vision of a trans-Canada run. Any way you slice it, this was a seriously incredible human being, and one I’d like to learn more about – therefore, a stop at the Terry Fox memorial was mandatory for me on my way in to Thunder Bay. All the same, it is frustrating to be constantly compared to him, because I’m really not trying to “compete” in any sense, and our missions are fundamentally different. More on that later.

The last day or so before Thunder Bay was really one of the most difficult stretches of the whole trip. I had assumed that the 90 km from Nipigon to Thunder Bay would be relatively inhabited/civilized, or at least have a few stores and gas stations, because T. Bay is one of the major cities of northern Ontario. I was caught off-guard by how empty it was, and I was starving when I finally made it to the outskirts of town! Starving and wet… in Nipigon, the OPP officers who pulled me over to check in with me (my mom had called them, worried about me, because I hadn’t been able to text/call/basically do anything in days, out of cell coverage and in the bush) suggested I hole up there for the night, because there was a storm coming and there was “really nothing between here and Thunder Bay.” The thing is, you just can’t believe that kind of negative talk every time you hear it, because the majority of times, whoever’s saying it is way less hardcore than you are: if you end up taking their advice, the storm will probably turn out to be some crappy little shower, or “nothing” will turn out to be only a few small towns with gas stations, etc. I had taken strangers’ advice in situations like this before and then reproached myself for not pushing forward when I had the energy, and so I was determined to move on from Nipigon at the time. Needless to say, the light sprinkles which were happening as the whole town of Nipigon gawked at the spandex-clad stroller-pushing dark bearded guy getting interviewed by the OPP quickly turned into more of a downpour, so I had to camp only about 10 or 15 km down the road. The worst thing about that was that the “nothing” those guys mentioned turned out to be just that, and all I had to eat was a 1 kg bag of trail mix and some candy bars. It was actually a lot of calories, but I had to ration that stuff very seriously over the next 24 hours! And I never wanted to eat that brand of trail mix again once I was done.

There isn’t much to say about that stretch, I guess. It was the beginning of a period of a couple weeks where I just seemed to be constantly getting soaked, and never able to dry out my slightly damp gear. It was also a time where I was compulsively eating as many calories as humanly possible. This was actually a necessary discipline I had to develop because of how much I burn every day (I maintain that 6000 calories is a good daily number to shoot for, to maintain my extremely stable weight of 162-163), but there were maybe some times when I overdid it and felt gross, in the interests of developing that discipline. It feels weird at first, because it’s often more than you want, in terms of pure desire in the moment. But I don’t want to come out of this run emaciated – it’s not for reasons of physical vanity, but because ultrarunners truly need core and upper-body strength to do what we do. If I lose that whole-body fitness, my spine is just going to lose its support and I’ll feel terrible. It might end up hurting me in the long run.

In Sault Ste. Marie, I twice patronized Scoops ice cream parlor, where I barely made it through the “P-Nutty Buddy.” I swear that cup weighed several pounds and it was only my endurance instincts that got me through.

All this perhaps to justify the epic repast I enjoyed when I reached the outskirts of Thunder Bay on a Sunday afternoon, and ate lunch at the Missing Horse Restaurant. First, I took the edge off my hunger at the adjacent convenience store with a banana, a half liter of OJ mixed with “Amazing Grass” green superfood powder, and a heaping cone of Rum-Raisin ice cream. Next, I went into the Missing Horse and ordered the following: bacon cheeseburger with fries & coleslaw, grilled cheese, hot dog, and a root beer float. The waitress was skeptical and told me their burgers were BIG – I told her my hunger knew no bounds. When I cleaned up all that, she gave me a free butter tart and I was generally applauded by all the nice folks in this restaurant. They gave me directions to run down scenic Lakeshore Drive, rather than the Trans-Canada, ’til I got into Thunder Bay, and to pay tribute to the Terry Fox memorial.

Want to hear something deeply, bizarrely ironic? The Terry Fox memorial, located at a highway rest area named after the man, is not legally accessible by foot or bicycle, but only by car. For some reason (and it isn’t clear why), Highway 17 suddenly becomes illegal to bike on about 20 km before you get into Thunder Bay, so the last run of Terry Fox’s life is not something that anybody can repeat. I ran on (parallel) Lakeshore Drive like people recommended, but when I reached the memorial, I illegally cut over onto the highway for a couple kilometers to see it and pay tribute. I’m glad I did.

National hero and martyr, he got up at 4 am every morning to lopsidedly “run” a marathon every day. It looks really slow and painful in all the video clips.

No matter what you do… it will never be this hardcore.

But I have problems with the resulting expectation that anybody who’s running across Canada (or doing anything like that) must be raising money for a cause.

Why I’m not “raising money for cancer,” or for anything else

I hope I’ve made it clear that I respect not only the athletic audacity and achievements of Terry Fox (and all those who have followed in his footstep), but also his commitment to fighting the cancer epidemic. At the same time, I am constantly feeling uneasy and frustrated when people ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing, and seem to expect that there’s a charitable motive behind my run. I’m not kidding at all when I say that  this question is literally the first words out of folks’ mouths about half the time. (“So, are you doing that for a cause or something?” / “Are you raising money for cancer?”) When I knew I wanted to run across Canada, that was all I knew… it was what I wanted to do, for a complex melange of reasons. I was obviously aware of this fund-raising precedent, something a lot of cyclists do as well, but it seemed somehow inauthentic for me to do that, and it took me a long time to figure out why I felt that way.

It is fundamentally a problem of ideology: the truth is, I just don’t think that money makes people happy. By writing this on the internet, I realize I’m opening myself up to abuse, but I don’t even think that money makes people healthy. The hard truth is that cancer, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are epidemics in today’s society not because there is too little money in the world, but because people have lost the art of healthy and balanced living. I have compassion for the people who suffer from these problems, but I don’t think that throwing money at cancer research can ever solve them. In the three decades since Terry Fox, do you think there’s more or less cancer in North America? I’m not an expert, but I believe the statistics would say more. I honestly believe that the only way to solve massive societal problems like this is on the individual level – by being an example of and promoting lifestyle changes… I know I’m not like some shining example of healthy eating on this run, but that’s because I don’t have a support crew and I need to get the calories whenever and however I can. On the other hand, it’s possible that by doing what I’m doing, and by shocking hundreds of people who drive by or meet me every day, I am changing their perceptions of what constitutes human fitness and human physical capabilities.

I maintain that running across Canada is not just an extreme athletic feat or some sort of Forrest Gump feel-good spiritual adventure or whatever (though of course it is all these things), but also a politically radical action. I’m reclaiming and repurposing public space which is normally used only by cars, and reminding people that it is actually possible to cover very great distances using pure human power. I think that running is always a radical form of exercise, because, at the most basic level, there is absolutely no need for any kind of gear or purchase. Of course, it would be an amazing and highly beneficial change in the world if everybody were to start commuting by bicycle instead of car, but even a bicycle is a consumer product and – eventually, at the end of its life – another piece of trash. Running from point A to point B is radical even if it isn’t really practical… it calls into question the whole structure of society. I would not want to sum up my whole mission in this sort of spiel, because it would sound like I had a serious stick up my ass! Talking about politics isn’t real life! And it wouldn’t even begin to capture all the reasons I’ve wanted to run across Canada. I mean, most of the people close to me are aware that the main reason I need to do this is to clear my own mind, to find some measure of peace and happiness. The real reason my run across Canada is not a selfish act, even though it isn’t about fundraising and might appear to be purely personal, is because I’m trying to repair myself to be a functional and helpful member of society… I want to be a teacher and help people, but you’ve got to help yourself first.

And this ties into why I’m not raising money for some charitable organization whose mission has more resonance in my life, too. Like, why not run across Canada and raise money for some organization that gives help to people who are seriously depressed, like I was this past year? It’s a tricky question. It has been done before, and I have immense respect for that whole enterprise… a guy who is anxious and depressed runs across Canada to raise money and awareness for the anxious and depressed. To me, that is powerful. That guy was obviously doing what he was doing because he found that running was therapeutic for himself. And yet, that project takes part in a social system I can’t put my faith in. Money simply will not ever make anyone happy, and change happens on the individual level, always. I always think of Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, and how he becomes frustrated with agricultural politics and the zemstvo movement: Levin realized that in order for his farm to flourish, he just had to buckle down, whip his serfs into shape and – pardon the colloquialism – git’r’done. You’re responsible for your own farm, and putting some work into it is going to benefit the whole country. I guess I’m a believer in that good old Thomas Jefferson kind of Republicanism. I like to think that my run across Canada is doing its own small part to impact people on a personal level: the many people I meet who decide to give running another try, or who think more critically about their own health and fitness for having met me. Or perhaps the people who realize that walking 2 or 3 miles to work is a totally feasible thing to do. Or those who are depressed and unhappy with life, who see me running 50 km every day and think, “well, shit, at least I don’t have to do that!” I’m sort of kidding there, but what I really mean is I think that the only contribution I’m capable of making to anybody is a non-monetary one: it’s just a little bit of inspiration, a little bit of a challenge. Another way of phrasing this idea could be: it isn’t possible to positively impact or change someone’s life without actually meeting them face-to-face. Personally, I think Terry Fox’s greatest contribution to the world was on a more human level than people realize, and obviously in a much bigger way than I can even hope to emulate. He met and inspired thousands of Canadians firsthand. He was pitting himself against a problem that was deep and existential, walking the path of an ascetic, yet also making the most of what little life he had left. He was proving that even when it seems that everything has been taken away from you (i.e. the loss of his leg), there is still so much.

Whew, I know this entry has been all mixed up, but these are things I think about a lot. Maybe they’re things I think about so much that it becomes increasingly difficult to put them into words the longer I wait, so at least this is a start. I hope this expresses some part of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Two quotes upon which to chew:

“Dreams are made if people only try. I believe in miracles… I have to… because somewhere the hurting must stop.” – Terry Fox

‎”Each of us possesses a tangible living soul. The system has no such thing. We must not allow the system to exploit us.” – Haruki Murakami


~ by edmundmilly on June 26, 2012.

One Response to “Entering Thunder Bay / Terry Fox / Ideology & Politics (June 10)”

  1. Awesome reading about all your adventures, Ned! Was just catching up on one post when I was happily surprised to get an alert about another new one! And yes, you definitely need to turn this into a book. I’m pretty sure that it has a more exciting (and certainly more well written!) plot than 50 Shades of Gray (though without having yet read the latter I cannot confirm). Keep on truckin’! 🙂

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