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Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

Photo: Brendan Cleary
Photo: Brendan Cleary

On Aug. 8, 2012, B.C. primary school teacher Ian Cunliffe commenced his bid to run 22 marathons in 22 days in order to raise awareness over the cuts to education. In a curious mixing of metaphors, Cunliffe hoped that his run would cause the public and the 41,000 teachers of the BC Teacher’s Federation to, “take a stand” against further government cuts. The focus of Cunliffe’s ire was Bill 22, which helped explain the number of marathons he was choosing to run. Beyond a narrow field of supporters, which included the BCTF leadership who managed the press release, Cunliffe’s quest ended how it began: in obscurity.

There are worse ways to spend an August. It’s probable that Cunliffe enjoyed the same intrinsic benefits that distance running has brought to millions of Canadians, albeit with slightly more fanfare. No doubt Cunliffe ended his run with a deeper appreciation for the vastness of his province that comes with plodding for just under 1,000 kilometres.

But beyond personal gratification Cunliffe’s run didn’t achieve anything.

No one took a stand beyond his union who were already planning aggressive job action for the fall. The Canadian public, fatigued by awareness campaigns (not to mention teacher strikes), hardly noticed and those who stumbled on the brief blog in the Vancouver Sun probably didn’t care. Like too many before him, Cunliffe’s quest was as meaningless as it was obscure.

Since the death of Terry Fox there have been countless campaigns to raise awareness for a variety of worthy and not-so-worthy causes. The best of them prove what’s possible: Alan Lock, the blind former Royal Navy sailor who rowed across the Atlantic and, of course, Terry Fox, who attempted to run across the country, provide excellent benchmarks.

But where the Fox family has been exceedingly careful about the way their son’s name is used to raise money there seems to be no such compunction by many who seek to blur the line between fundraising and supporting their own ecotourism aspirations. The line demarcating personal gratification and societal good can be awfully hard to define.

As mentioned in a previous blog, it costs ultra-distance runner Ray Zahab $3,300 just to register for the 250K Sahara Ultra. This doesn’t include airfare, accommodation, transportation or food. How much money goes to support this lifestyle versus the amount of money directed towards a public good, without open accounting, is impossible to discern. However, if Zahab’s website is any indicator, it may be a moot point, as fundraising activities appear to have taken a backseat to ecotourism for kids:

The i2P [impossible to possible] youth team will re-trace part of Ray’s expedition and run an average of a marathon per day for six consecutive days! The challenge will test their perseverance, resiliency, and dedication while they Educate, Inspire, and Empower thousands of students around the world!

If words like awareness and empowerment once had coherent meaning they certainly don’t any more. Countless runners and untold races that push every tertiary aspect other than the fact they’re supposed to be measurements of speed have only muddied the water. The underlying problem is that running is a sport that lends itself to exactly these kinds of hazy narratives. It is a sport that desperately needs to come back to earth. Whether or not running fashion reflects or aggravates the fragile psyche of the sport isn’t clear, but what remains clear is that runners festooned in hydration belts and headphones make it hard to take the sport seriously.

Unlike just about every other sport, with the possible exception of race walking, running comes saddled with a certain kind of insecurity that feels driven to justify itself because running for the sheer pleasure of it appears insane to people untouched by the nuance of an easy 10 on a cool Sunday morning. Hockey players never talk about “fore-checkers’ high” and lacrosse players never wax about the transcendence of their sport like some self-indulgent ’70s prog-rock band. But running culture has become fixated on everything that doesn’t have to do with putting one foot in front of the other.

Want to raise awareness and self-actualize? Just go run hard.