A Tale Of 9 Cities (Chapter 8)

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Bridge in fog
Bridge in fog- hard to see the far bank

Looking back now, I can see the idea behind the 9 City Bridge Run was brilliant, but while it might have been brilliant, the execution was terrible.

Let me rephrase that: the intention was sound, but with an absence of supporting strategy. Of course, I knew I needed promotion, I knew I needed to connect with an engaged community, I knew I needed a channel for communication across the appropriate medium, and I also knew I needed a tangible means of engagement by others who wanted to get involved. And while I knew all of this, how much of this did I execute well, if at all? If I can be completely honest in my appraisal of my performance, I would have scored highly for the intention, and  maybe with a few additional points added for encouragement, but a big fat zero would be awarded for execution.

This book is more than a narrative of my travel journal. The methodology is to use active learning to highlight a concept I have called Backswing. I undertook an endeavour, which even though it has been underway for several years remains incomplete and a work in progress. Enough distance has been travelled for me now to have a sense of perspective of how to learn from what took place. A lot happens inside the space of a decade, and my aim is not to include every event within these 100 chapters, but rather to construct a framework through which I can help you identify, explore, understand and embrace this concept of Backswing.

If you are reading this on my blog, it is likely that this sentence will be removed before this is published as a book at the end of June 2016. The purpose of pushing out these chapters as blog posts is to solicit feedback and invite your participation in the creation of this book. I expect that 50 or 60 of the chapters will be published by the end of May at which time the entire book will have been completed in draft. My intention is to self-publish the book in New York at an independent bookstore in the Lower East Side of New York where they have a publishing machine inside the store. I’m guessing I will do an initial run of a limited number of copies, and then look to republish.

What is worth noting is that my sense of execution now is considerably more evolved that what it was in 2009. It is not as though in 2009 I was an idiot with no experience of planning or execution. I had a wealth of experience by then from a previous life as an Australian Army Officer. For a range of reasons, some personal and many completely unrelated to the endeavour itself, the level of difficulty had been raised to a difficulty which I was not completely prepared. That is life. Often, things are not exactly as we would like them to be, but there is little choice except to crack on.

These first 30 chapters will set a construct for understanding Backswing as a concept. This will be examined with a little more scrutiny in the following 30 chapters in terms of how it was specifically applied to the journey that became known as the 10 City Bridge Run. The next 30 chapters will deconstruct the Backswing concept more fully as a practitioners guide, and with the final ten chapters summarising what Backswing means for us as a concept.

I made plenty of mistakes along the way of this journey. It was always motivated with the best of intentions, and as you can read in the earlier chapters, it was done responding to the hardship experienced by others. Some of the decisions I made were laced with stupidity. Self-funding the entire journey for the 9 City Bridge Run was perhaps one of those decisions.

“Was it worth it?” One perspective would be that it was a complete waste of time and money, however that would not be entirely true. Even mistakes have their value. They might not be pretty, but there is value if we are able to learn from them. The question is how much cost can we bear before the value is diminished by unacceptable losses that we can’t recover from. The fact that I am writing this book and looking to the future with a sense of determination to make change happen indicates to me that the journey has been worthwhile.

For all of the feelings of inadequacy I might have had during the journey, this was outweighed by the enormous sense of enjoyment that was entirely liberating when running. This liberating sensation kicked in easily within the first 100 metres of beginning the first leg of the 9 City Bridge Run in San Francisco, and was mirrored by a feeling of accomplishment when wrapping up the last leg of the 10 City Bridge Run in New York many years later. On the balance, it was a painful and unpleasant experience, but worthwhile in spite of all the gnarly struggle I encountered.

I am going to come back to this chapter and edit it with more relevant experiences from the 9 City Bridge Run that saw me travel through San Francisco, New York, London, Oxford, Dublin, Tokyo, Canberra, Alice Springs and finally Sydney. It is not a travel diary, but for the purposes of this blog I had to get the reflection which I wrote above off my chest before I can better document this experience.

This Tale of 9 Cities was a mixed bag. There were good, intriguing and otherwise downright frustrating experiences along the way. I still have a lot of video footage from those times, particularly some of the interviews in Oxford which contain priceless reflections to transcribe. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the value of the words people had spoken.

I found great expressions of support along the way. For example, in New York the Australian Embassy was incredibly supportive, but it was almost impossible for people to understand where the idea of the journey would land by most people, myself included. This impacted on how people were able to engage, and I am largely responsible for not being clear enough in my intention to open the door more to the participation of others.

But here is the question: was it a journey of missed opportunities, or a necessary quest in order to get to this point of knowing what an epic journey entails?

Ironically, if I had encountered success in 2009, I might have been cheated of this opportunity to explore the concept of questing and Backswing in greater detail. It is a useless hypothetical, but it is interesting to consider what might have resulted if I had been outrageously successful in my efforts back in 2009.

The trip to Dublin was probably a low point. I went there specifically because the organisation I have mentioned earlier that I commenced the journey to support had recently opened an office there. I have no idea if their operations there are still active, and to some degree that is immaterial. What is worth reflecting on is the unfortunate dependency of not for profit organisations on fundraising. Fundraising too often becomes an outcome in itself at the expense of a focus on impact that matters.

I travelled to Dublin from London, and had booked on RyanAir which was the cheapest carrier. I missed my flight to the airport by a minute because of some transport issues. Except for the fact that I was footing the bill for the entire endeavour, it wouldn’t have annoyed me so much. If I was just on some holiday adventure I probably would have been more prepared to roll with the punches. What really annoyed me was the same lack of concern from the staff team in Dublin as I had encountered in San Francisco from the organisation I was seeking to support. It seemed apparent that they could care less if I arrived or not. Missing the plane meant having to return to London for the night and attempt the arrive the next morning when I would run the same day I travelled only to return to London on the budget airfare the same day. I had intended to travel that evening to stay fresh for the run ahead, but instead arrived in a pretty tired condition.

Arriving in Dublin, I wasn’t really surprised to learn no one had offered to greet me at the airport. I found my way to the office, feeling unwelcome in a city I was only visiting because of my feeling of duty to support the organisation I had partnered with in Sydney. When I found their office, the staff couldn’t have been less interested that I was in town to see them. The staff were all Australian, and ironically focused on mental wellbeing. It was a classic example of the institution being All Backwing. A massive “No Hit” that ranked right up there with the many missed balls I encountered along that journey. The saving grace was that another Australian friend of a friend was also working in the same building but with a different organisation and had read the situation well enough to know that sitting down with my for a short conversation was something of value he could provide.

Dublin was full of treasures, and I encountered the Chester Beatty Museum that to this day remains perhaps among the finest collection of classical art I have seen in the world. But this was mixed with a horrible sense of loneliness. I felt as though I had no right to express this feeling of loneliness because I doubted people would understand why I was undertaking such a ridiculous and ill-conceived excursion.

The point of the 9 City Bridge Run was to use running as a stunt to raise awareness of wellbeing as a counterpoint to depression and suicide. While I had some meaningful conversations along the way, it was my own reflections on a personal level that made this worthwhile. I learnt a lot even if no one else was listening.

Returning to London, I encountered a profound conversation with a complete stranger not associated with my efforts. He was a taxi driver who listened as I explained what I was doing in London and spoke about my aspiration for the run. He was very moved, and reflected on the importance of this journey as if that one conversation was the singular qualifying response that compensated for the lack of engagement with pretty much everyone else. He was an ordinary Londoner, but his gesture was remarkable. The taxi fare was five quid, and as I went to pay he refused to take my money it saying that he would make up the fare from his own purse. More than that, he pulled a five quid note from his pocket and offered it to me in the hope that somehow it would make a difference. He insisted that I take the note which I still have in my possession to this day. He was right. It did make a difference.

This book is ultimately about making a difference through creating change. Backswing is not a binary concept, and it needs to be considered in many dimensions. Small gestures of kindness like that shown to me by the taxi driver have an asymmetrical impact, and in themselves are the antithesis of Backswing. The point is though that small gestures of kindness on their own are not enough. Similarly, the impact of the institution can create a dynamic sense of synergy with exponential influence, but where Backswing is present can dull any momentum and kill of hope and dreams.

The homeward leg of the 9 City Bridge Run was a lap around Sydney Harbour, in fact the same route which my mean-spirited nemesis had sought to deny me back in 2007. I had run that route literally dozens of times in training, and I knew every turn and almost every tree and rock intimately. Even though it was familiar, this time it was different. Standing outside of Sydney Town Hall before commencing the journey, I felt incredibly pathetic because I sensed I had made almost zero impact through my efforts. All I had were stories of hardship and missed flights. The city was busy, with buses and people darting up and down George Street, but it seemed that no one was listening.

No one was listening. I imagine that would be a crushing feeling for people standing on the precipice of suicide, their conviction of a life which amounted to complete futility. Moments later, a decision and then their precious life would be extinguished. I believe that this is the tragedy of suicide: we live in a world with no shortage of problems, and the greatest wasted resource is the connection we have with each other. It was as though I had to go through this god-awful tribulation to fully understand what that felt like.

Running down the worn goat track woven through the fern-covered banks of Sydney Harbour somewhere between Waverton and Wollstonecraft I heard the tranquil dribble of the spring which gurgles a slow stream of water in the cool of this hidden nursery. It was a moment in time to remind myself that in spite of everything, beauty could be found anywhere. I was happy in the moment that I was alone, concealed by nature, and protected from the unseeing eyes of the maddening crowd who otherwise would have crucified my morale on those last few kilometres of a global journey.

We don’t know the consequences of our actions. Much like the taxi driver in London, I don’t know what his story was or how his life might have been changed by the opportunity to offer me his graceful act of generosity. If we do feel we are caught up in Backswing, sometimes it is worth noting that there is a bigger picture we can’t see at that moment. Seek improvement always, but never abandon hope either.

And so this was an experience of disenchantment. I wrote a reflective paper about my experiences, and that perhaps best summarises my experience. It is enclosed an an annex to this book (included with the next chapter for the purposes of this blog).

There was an overarching context to this Tale of 9 Cities which is not mentioned in my notes written above. It was during this misadventure that my struggle across the next five or six years really began. In no small way do I attribute my ability to grasp the idea that enabled me to undertake the 9 City Bridge Run was from the fruits I experienced as a participant in the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. What might seem like Backswing in a given moment will later be realised as a necessary event towards what is necessary for you to do.

The Tale of 9 Cities was about plumbing the depths of failure. At the beginning of that year I rejected an offer to rejoin the army that was made from a very senior figure within Australian society. Backing yourself takes guts and brings with it unwanted and unintended consequences, and in this case it meant slipping into an extended winter of financial hardship.

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