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  • jillianmd4

The Portrait of a Park in 100 Runs Project

The first bullet in my publisher’s guide to book promotion is titled “Social Media.”

“Work your social media accounts to fan out news of readings, post the cover of your book, ask your community to review you on Amazon and Goodreads, talk about your awards and interviews…”

I hate social media. My Facebook account could be deleted, so seldom do I scroll my feed.I distrust the entire premise of selfies, friends and likes, and especially how this tilts us all towards narcissism. It is also worrying how difficult it seems to discuss anything nuanced on these platforms, without being thrown into a camp. And I especially resent the impending intrusion into my privacy.

I read on. “Now more than ever, social media plays a huge part in a book’s success. The current literary climate is very author-and-identity-focused … the more visible the author, the more visible the book.”

Shit. It’s bad enough being a writer, laying your innards out for public scrutiny, shivering only under the thin veil of fiction,' but now I must peddle my private life on social media accounts as well? I’m fifty-five, and a curmudgeon. I stand in favour of the reclusive-literary-genius trope. Besides, when can an author write if they must also shoulder 'marketing'?

To figure out how to do this, I watch YouTube videos and attend marketing talks at writing conferences. One speaker tells us to wake at four, as she does, to create YouTube interviews that "drive interest" towards her book. This woman has a full-time job, and children, and she writes, and she markets. It’s impossible. She must reside in that one percent of the population, the hallowed hall of 'short sleepers,' who thrive on four hours a night. Either that, or abuse amphetamines. Nonetheless, my publisher insists we are a team, and that my involvement is essential to my book sales.

“Find some way to make it fun,” advises a media savvy friend on a dog walk.

“Just pick one platform and work it,” says an author friend over coffee.

I decide on Instagram, as Facebook feels too political. Twitter is frankly terrifying; I might be a writer, but I can’t be that rapid-fire and cool. LinkedIn and TikTok and a host of other potentials don’t occur to me, probably because I’m middle-aged and not a traditional professional. But Instagram, as far as I’ve encountered it, seems blandly pleasant, and a little more impersonal.

Besides, the synergy of pairing words to images appeals to me. I will focus on my Instagram feed, which at present attracts roughly three likes per post. The question is, how to generate enough gripping content beyond pictures of my pets and garden?

At the time, the spring of 2020, I’d been taken with the idea that maybe I could be a runner. It was inspired by a fuzzy sense that doing hard things was cool, stemming from my university days when I commuted through Canadian winters by bike. Wouldn’t it be idyllic, to bound effortlessly down forest paths? But to bound peacefully, unencumbered by my children and neither of my two loved but mismatched dogs, one very old and crippled, and the other immensely young and enthusiastic.

The impulse to run also came from fear. I had been for years now my mother’s primary support in her long and painful Alzheimer’s journey. Exercise, research attests, was my first defence against dementia, for which I am at high genetic risk.

There is a beautiful old park in my community that I seldom went to because it wasn’t off leash. It’s called Bowness Park. More than a thousand years ago, the valley in which it resides was inhabited by the Blackfoot people, with the Stoney, Cree and Tsuu T’ina arriving from the sixteenth century onwards. After European settlers descended, the land was leased by the Cochrane Ranch Company. It went through several hands until 1908, when John Hextall bought the ranch and eventually donated his island cow pasture to the city of Calgary to be used as a park. Thus it became a Shangri-La vacation spot for Calgarians, with fairground rides, a mini golf course, café, a merry go round, and a diesel belching purple train.

Bowness Park survived the devastating flood of 2013 and is now rebuilt and rejuvenated. The rides and merry go round are gone, but the little train, newly painted red and run by battery, still chugs along, carrying children and parents around its track. It is a long island, with a narrow back channel running half its length, before widening into a lagoon used for canoeing and paddle boating. In the winter they turn the lagoon into an ice-skating utopia. A trail loops the park, along the Malachite green back channel, through old growth Douglas Fir, around the western tip of the island, and then under a canopy of Poplars beside the glacially fed Bow River. You round the eastern nose to run along the lagoon, with its geese, and ducks, and café, and finally end panting at the parking lot, where you get in your car and drive home.

I don’t recall exactly how the epiphany arrived, but being fast on the trigger, quick as lightning I’d declared this proposition on Instagram; I called it the Portrait of a Park in a Hundred Runs Project and promised to post a picture each time I looped the three-kilometer trail, thus capturing the personality and seasons of this old civic park. I compared it to Monet’s painting and repainting the same landscape in changing light, and said it was an exercise in noticing “the constant richness in our mundane, everyday lives.” I also vowed this would not be boring.

Then I panicked. One hundred is a lot of runs! Besides, I really wasn’t a runner. More of a rare jogger prone to muscle stitches, and once I’d even developed plantar fasciitis, trying to run too soon after a pregnancy. But there was no turning back now, having publicly declared myself, I’d look like an idiot if I didn’t deliver. So, I started.

For the first run, I used a picture of the red canoes waiting beside the boat rental hut surrounded by the arching green trees and reflected in the green water. I wrote the title The Portrait of a Park in a Hundred Runs Project, in red for courage, and after immense swearing and futsing about, managed to post it to my Instagram stories.

The run itself was just as painful. I had to stop and walk at least a dozen times along the three-kilometer circuit. There was not even a hint of bounding going on. I felt more like the jangling edifice in Miyazaki’s movie “Howl’s Moving Castle.” It was painful, not peaceful. No gliding along forest paths for me. But I’d look like an idiot if I didn’t continue, so I did Run Number Two a few days later.

I figured landscape photos would get boring fast, so I needed a photo of a person. I’m a little shy, and it seemed a weird intrusion of privacy to attempt this, but rounding the eastern tip of the island, I saw an old man with a wonderful, big nosed, characterful face, and a little itty-bitty dog. I ran past him but then I turned back. I explained my peculiar photo essay project. His dog, a Yorkshire Terrier, was named Rosa. Yes, I could take their picture. I took several shots with my iPhone camera and thanked him. As I turned to go, he said “You made my day!” Running west along the river, I felt elated myself.

The third run, I did a video of ducklings, it being early June. The fourth was of a young woman getting ready to paddleboard down the river. I ran twice a week, give, or take, and I stopped and talked to myriad people. Bowness Park is a highly multicultural park, especially on summer evenings and weekends, when families of all ethnicities gather for parties and picnics. My rule was that each encounter should leave the people involved feeling happier and more seen, and that I’d sacrifice the picture, if necessary, especially in the case of a language barrier. I took a lot of time explaining my project, showing them my “100 Runs” story on Instagram, and overwhelmingly the response was positive.

I became more and more confident in approaching people, downright brazen, and slowly my running got stronger too. I followed #pelvicstability to figure out a core exercise routine, and with an increase in deep core strength I ceased to feel like Howl’s Moving Castle, but more like an efficient, even well-oiled, machine. Not that I was bounding, mind you, my gait being as close to the ground and energy conservative as possible, but yeah, maybe I was gliding. Things got even better after I sorted out my post-run hip and lower back tightness with #fasciastretching. I learned about the ideal number of hashtags per post, and how to embed them invisibly in photos, and my likes and follows grew. By run number 20, I could circuit the park without stopping, though I joked, and it was true, that I really didn’t really like running till I hit run 65.

I ran through that often smoky Covid summer, going in the morning or evening to avoid the heat. Things cooled down in September, the smoke cleared, and the first yellow leaves started to fall from the Poplars. I was determined to not pause my project, but instead to run through the winter. Dressing in light layers worked fine, and after determining that running in ice cleats would give me shinsplints, I just ran in wool socks and my regular runners.

The Bowness Park staff do their utmost to keep the paths ice free and sanded, and by dint of staying mindful of the terrain under my feet, I never fell. I would run if it wasn’t below minus ten degrees Celsius, and each time I got out of my car I checked which way the lagoon flag was blowing and then would circuit the park, heading either east or west, so the wind would be at my back as much as possible.

The performance anxiety, the urgency to locate another non-boring photo, also lifted as I ran through the winter. I came to trust that I needed only a relaxed eye, and something would present itself. I even had a saying; “The park will provide.”

This proved particularly true on Valentine’s Day. It was grey and bleak and minus 8 degrees. The park was empty, the skating ice at this point destroyed by multiple Chinook thaws. I ran slowly looking for anything that might suggest love and romance, if nothing else, a heart shaped poplar leaf frozen in a puddle. But thenm partway down the back channel, the park provided. I came upon a beautiful couple, two women being photographed to commemorate the pregnancy of their child, the mother wearing a long mauve gown, surrounded by the snowy Douglas Fir. I explained my project, how they perfectly captured Valentine’s Day, and I got a great photo. We still follow each other on Instagram.

I ran on through the spring, another summer, into fall, and was nearing 100 runs. I felt perhaps unreasonably proud of myself and had a real affection for this funny project. A new mantra took hold of me - “But what if I could?” I was surprised to find myself attempting pursuits I’d never contemplated before. Belly dancing for instance, or how about bouldering?

I started doing interviews for my community newspaper, and contemplated writing an interview based book. Why this change in courage, I wondered. After all, lots of people go for a jog twice a week, so what was the big deal? Out of curiosity I did some research. The 100 Runs Project it turned out, had unwittingly employed all sorts of mechanisms that build confidence; I’d managed to stick to it, of course, due to public accountability (or the fear of looking like an idiot). Friendly, curious social interactions release positive endorphins for all parties, creating a sense of meaning. Doing hard, even painful things, teaches you what you’re capable of, builds resilience, and releases dopamine. Social anxiety can be eliminated through exposure therapy, or repeated practice, to the extent that I now loved talking to random strangers. In the same way, I became quite confident as to my “voice” on Instagram.

Most of all, the project created a frame within which I took incremental steps towards a goal, comparing myself not to others but only to my previous self and the previous run. I consider myself a runner now, and though I have no interest in marathons, and will likely never run more than a 10K, it’s something I turn to for peace of mind, of course for exercise, and I trust that it's staving off dementia.

Did this build a readership for my book? No, not particularly. I think publishers are too optimistic about social media as a marketing tool. Did I waste a lot of time scrolling and posting on Instagram instead of writing? Most definitely. I think I’m also more distracted now, and no doubt, more narcissistic.

As I completed run 97, 98, and 99 I thought about the final photo. What would be fitting, how would I wrap this up? I put off that last run, hoping for beautiful weather conditions, something to stand out and make it special. Maybe I’d write “100” with leaves, or have some strangers cheer as I filmed them, I wasn’t sure. But one grey afternoon in late October, I felt compelled to just get to the park and do Run 100, and then I’d pick my daughter up from school.

As I drove, shards of snow began to fall from the overcast sky. I parked and checked the flag, deciding I’d run west to keep the wind at my back for the long stretch beside the river. Moving along under the Douglas Fir, autumn leaves forming a tapestry in the ice of the back channel, I kept my eyes open for the picture, but nothing presented itself. Just the sifting, kind of meagre snow on the evergreens and undergrowth. But maybe that was fitting, maybe that’s what it was about, after all? Not about any outside recognition, no band playing, just me growing as an individual, incrementally, step by step. I came out of the evergreens at the end of the island and turned east, and then I saw it. Once again, the park had provided. Spray painted on the gravel path before me was a big red arrow, pointing in the direction I was headed. It was a perfect picture and the message, I thought, irrefutably clear.

Onwards ...

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