Running the Rideau Canal
My ethnographic experiment focuses on the experience of running alongside Ottawa’s iconic Rideau Canal. The nine-kilometer stretch from the University to Dow’s Lake and back, which took me close to an hour, with a few minutes to spare for stretching at the end. In the first ethnographic description, I used a personal and narrative tone, to allow the reader to understand my perspective as a runner, and to highlight the significance of such a unique and treasured running route in the middle of the city.
In the second version of the essay, I used the same setting in order to focus on other runners at the canal. This is a more traditional ethnographic writing style, focused on observing other people and their patterns of behavior. When I watch others run, I also speculate about their thorughs and about why they choose to run in the middle of the city.
When I write about my running experience, it is hard to find the right words and expression to actively represent the meaning of running, especially in such a vast environment. To ethnographically capture the experience of running through eyes, ears, feet, smells, and physical surroundings is difficult but surely enriching. Such an ethnographic account also provides something new to those that don’t necessarily connect with the art of running.
In the second part of my ethnographic experiment I began to analyze the art of running along the Rideau Canal, the use the space, as well as think about its runners as an image in the manner done by Lisa Stevenson. I use this imagistic technique because running is not easily captured by standard forms of representation.
I walked down Laurier Avenue and looked for the best time to cross down to Colonel by drive. This was where I met the canal and began my practice. Crisp air hit my dry face, air a little too cold to breathe and the will to run the Rideau Canal was partly motivated by the wind chill. I started by warming up, clearing my head of all thoughts and stepped forward, literally and figuratively. I put my phone in my pocket, checked the shoelaces on my neon orange new balance running shoes, and began running.
The intrinsic value and the art of running is not highlighted enough. Running helps me connect with myself, my sensory perception and my space. Running the Rideau canal is truly a privilege, in that this kind of course is rare: the ecological, natural value it contains does not compare to running on a treadmill at the Minto Complex. To be truly a part of the space is to be embodied and engage with the physical components of that space. Being outside, pacing forward, allows me to really immerse myself in the process.
It wasn’t until I started running that I began appreciating the beauty of Ottawa and the importance of the canal. What better ways to take advantage of the city and its beauty than by engaging with the asphalt of the sidewalk of the canal, leaving behind your mark on each inch of it as you glide forward for the next step and let the water move with you. As I ran I saw the evening traffic on Colonel by one side and on Queen Elizabeth drive on the other. Commuters and locals rushing to get home to dinner. I ran past other runners, I ran past the beautiful mansions in the Glebe and heard a biker behind me ringing his bell to signal his arrival alongside of me and the water.
I felt more alive, more connected and surprisingly more like an Ottawa citizen with each step forward. It seems that to most, running is painful, but for me it is an escape, even if it is smack dab in the center of the city chaos. Running is almost always a solo activity; there is a voice inside of you that decides to rise, tie your shoelaces tight and leave the house, many runners say that the first step outside of the house is usually the hardest. Perhaps the singularity of the art is what allows it to be so profound. The heart pumps fast, breaths become shorter, strides become longer, distance decreases, it all equates to letting yourself connect to your soul and to push your limits no matter what is weighing your mind down. Many times, during my run I thought to myself,” wow this view is impeccable, I am lucky to be alive right now.” Running along the canal, with its scenic outlooks and my mental drive to keep moving forward provided the value that the art of running holds, it was moments of pure contentment.
The engagement of the two factors are what motivates me to go back again and again and not one run ever is like another. Each run is its own, each day is different, each step comes from a different internal calling. The scenery and space instill the mental drive to run, and vice versa. Running along the canal was not exhausting, it is enthralling. The space itself contained critical notions of feelings. The spatial sense, contained bits of freedom, safety, connection, and openness. The Rideau Canal always feels like a happy place to run. The canal runs through the whole city, placed alongside it, provided me with a sense of movement quite like any other, emerging in different parts of the city. Running along the canal I saw bits of the entertainment district, educational institutions, government buildings, residential homes and condominium buildings. To be able to feel so secure amid city life is quite rare, it didn’t feel strange.
I first sat at a bench overlooking the canal, right underneath the Laurier bridge. Here I could clearly see the bridge, the parliament buildings, the coordinated chaos of busses and humans on Mackenzie king bridge, and, of course, the runners alongside the canal. Around 4:30 pm when the sun was setting, the air was cold and sharp and the city noises at the peak rush hour were stimulating to the ears. With every different point of the stretch I observed various behaviors. Here I noticed that the crowd contained more students, people were either beginning their runs from the campus and joining the canal from the pathway, or others had started their runs from locks at the end of the canal. Some people were also finishing their runs. It was a cold November day so of course, the runners were all fully clothed, wearing bright jackets and reflectors as well as hats and mittens.
I positioned myself next to Landsdowne park, alongside the canal, close to the bank street bridge. The bridges along the canal are all very unique and fascinating, giving a sense of being in Europe. Here I saw a dispersion of runners, people running in pairs, people running on both sides of the canal, and I saw groups. The air was a combination of smells of pine trees and cold, chilling wind. Groups of runners were what stood out, there was a large amount them. In the group one can tell that they are all associated and connected by the act of running. There is usually a leader of the group, one that is pulling and carrying forward their group. The individual runner, the student runner, the group runner, are all brought together by the canal. It is the space, that allows these figures to have something in common. The mutual understanding between the runners is important to highlight, usually when various runners passed one another I saw an exchange, an acknowledgement ending with a smile.
Dow’s lake. This spot had its own beauty, the sun was setting. It had many kinds of runners and the lake had a magnificent view. Here there were many fast runners—a lot of Carleton university students and couples. I also observed people running with dogs, and even some running in groups. Every part of the canal one can spot many runners. The passing by of each runner was important because each one of them has his or her own story, motivations and drives. I found myself asking many questions while I conducted this experiment, often wondering what the runner was thinking about, how long they were running, and why they chose to run with other people.
In each section of the canal, you could see that the environment was stimulating; the runners motivated and uplifted everyone. Sights of running groups reveal the beauty of the human connections that hold the city together. And each running act was individualistic, the canal’s status as a public space allows the runners to intersect with one another and feel like a part of something larger than themselves.
Throughout the course, we have read many different forms of ethnographic writing. In the process of assembling this assignment, I reflected on the various pieces of work we read and gained a finer sense of the complexities and challenges an anthropologist faces throughout their research, and especially when they gather their information and write it all up. Condensing information into a few pages and finding a framework for your observations is extremely difficult and overwhelming. This assignment as well as the overall course work in this class constantly challenged my intellectual abilities and made me ask new questions about positionality and, the act of writing itself. Conducting ethnographic observation was not too difficult since running is something that I do daily, but the process of putting my thoughts and observations into words, especially into a one-page entry, pushed me to work harder. This course has taught us that there are various ways an anthropologist can approach ethnographic writing, we have read long, short, explicit and implicit works, and each had its unique light to shine. Writing from a personal, sensorial aspect was exciting for me, but trying to alter the work and find a different vignette was extremely nerve wracking. In that sense, the assignment helped me appreciate the difficulty and the challenges embedded in the process of ethnographic writing.