Sunday, September 11, 2016

On/In the Water 

The Donald D. Summerville Pool, image via BlogTO

A little known fact to those who don’t know Toronto is that the small collection of islands that shelter the harbour on Lake Ontario are inhabited and collectively, the islands are one of the best places to be on a hot summer day. As more and more Torontonians live in condos and apartments, more and more of them need a backyard. One thing Toronto has failed to do is maintain adequate green space for its citizens (which is why the idea of the so-called Rail Deck Park is so intriguing). A popular option for a lot of people living in the city who don’t have cottage-country-getaways is heading to the islands. A lot of people trying to get to the same place by limited means results in line-ups, and long line-ups for the city operated ferries are common. The water taxis on the waterfront are running constantly on the weekends and during the week, summer camps fill the islands with an almost midway like bustle.

View of Lake Ontario and the Toronto Islands from Corus Quay

In sixteen years I think I have been to the Toronto Islands three times. When I started biking for exercise, my main route to get out of the core was along the Lakeshore. When I lived in Parkdale, I knew multiple landmarks for doing 5, 7, 8, 10 km runs along the water. Running from Liberty Village I would experience the double sunset - run eastward and you’ll see the setting sun reflected off the downtown towers; run westward and you’ll see the actual setting sun falling behind Etobicoke and shimmering on the water. Unfortunately, my desk on the 26th floor looks north towards other taller towers, but reflected in the glazing of a new tower across from my office, I see the waterfront, Billy Bishop Airport, the Toronto Islands and the Lake beyond. I’ve come to realize how much of my happiness was dependent on the view of Lake Ontario. I also realized how close I live to the water but never experience it.

If you want to escape the clutter of cussing, fighting, yelling clatter and clang of your downtown neighbourhood, then all you have to do is hold water in an etherial embrace. My number of wasted weekends when I didn’t do anything of note was growing and the number of weekends left in the summer was shrinking. I signed up for a two day beginners kayaking course. Originally I only wanted to do the course solely so I could rent a canoe or kayak but in all honesty I needed the tutelage and two days on the water learning how to paddle and save yourself from drowning sounded like a good idea. It was definitely the best weekend I’ve had in Toronto in years. Two days on the water, paddling from one marina to another and out to the islands and back was a blast of sunshine and air I won’t soon forget. At one point, while learning how to maneuver the kayak laterally, I was struck by how familiar the paddle in the water felt. It reminded me of how you tread water when swimming. When you’re on Lake Ontario you realize how busy it is. Despite the business of the waterfront and the harbour (full of water taxis, ferries, sailboats, pleasure craft and even float planes), it was a welcome respite from the asphalt, glass and concrete of the city.

The Donald D. Summerville Pool, image via Swim or Die

In fact, all summer long, water has been my respite. Running in this summer’s heat hasn’t happened for me. The only thing running has been the sweat from my brow. I’ve taken to the pool more often than not. Late morning swims on the weekends at Regent Park and evening dips at the outdoor 50m Summerville pool at Woodbine Beach. Even the name, Summerville, could be a Beach Boys album. Swimming at Summerville is a double workout really. It’s a twenty minute bike ride to get there so you pretty much need a shower and a dip to cool off. Unfortunately, the ride back may or may not pass at least two great ice cream places which seems to have a nullifying effect on any exercise. One, named “Sweet Jesus” was a particular exercise buster. Like an exercise buster parfait, if you will.

One night at the pool, I overheard someone teaching someone else to swim and she said the freestyle stroke was similar to the butterfly in how the arm flows through the water in what some called a “key hole” shape. It should be noted that any knowledge I have of swimming has come from overheard conversations. As I set off for my next length I tried it and several lightbulbs went off in quick succession in my head. Not only was this a revelation but it seemed exactly how the kayak paddle moves through the water (think of the J-stroke in canoeing). For years I had misinterpreted the scooping movement, but now after having spent a weekend kayaking, I understood how it felt.
“If you want to escape the clutter, yelling clatter and clang of downtown, hold water in an etherial embrace.”
What fascinates me is the universality of “stroke” and “cadence”. When reading about “souplesse”, the French term for the motion a cyclist should aim for when pedalling, I was a little surprised that you shouldn’t “pull” the pedal upward. When I tried it myself, it struck me as oddly similar to running; knees up, reaching the foot forward on the downward push with a slide and flick on the upward section of the pedal (while clipped in of course). Running on my forefoot, in an effort to correct my foot’s tendency to roll inward (pronate), I reach out, pointing my toes on the first part of the stride and flick my heel as close to my butt as possible (like trying to kick your own ass). The forward part of the stride of a really fast run, reminds me of the reach in swimming the front crawl, where you stretch and extend your arm as much as possible. Now, when kayaking, I’ve noticed the rhythm you achieve when you really get moving is very similar to swimming, especially when you feel “above” the water and every stroke is aiding the next. Momentarily, it’s as though every effort is meaningful, every strain pushes the boat along just as when swimming when you feel atop the water rather than in it, just like running when I feel I’m only skimming the ground or like biking when you gobble the road beneath you like there is no bike and it’s as if you’re flying.

For a hack like me, finding that pace, cadence, rhythm is exhilarating even if I can never maintain it. Not finding it is really frustrating. Again, it’s similar to other sports where stroke is crucial if elusive. Golf and swimming even share a stroke rate metric (SWOT) and I’ve sucked at hockey long enough to know when you strike the ice just ahead of the puck, something good happens, and just like golf, if you strike it too far ahead, it’s a complete disaster. I imagine it’s the same with a tennis serve or backhand. It’s still true that more running/swimming/riding begets better running/swimming/riding but this discovery of finding that feeling of hitting your stride applies to so many things is reassuring and in a way, makes me a little philosophical. There is something Zen about it. The artistry and mindfulness of sweeping is when there is no broom, there is no floor, and all you’re left with is the gesture and a clean mind. I’m sure I got that wrong but when there no longer is a road, a bike, or even a pool, it’s the repeated and concentrated gesture that focuses the mind and releases the body.

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