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Following the Feet of Those Leading Us

As a runner, I like to get off concrete or asphalt as often as possible and head out on a trail. A trail can be anything from a wide, groomed, cross-country skiing trail to a rough, single-track trail better suited to deer or foxes. Trails with a high number of obstacles—sharp bends, inclines, rocks, roots, mud, low-hanging tree branches—are often described as "technical”, in that they demand a higher level of skill and agility to negotiate successfully.

Technical trail running at speed requires second by second co-ordination between your eyes and your feet as you identify obstacles like tree roots and boulders in front of you, pick a line through the obstacles, and will your body to co-operate in following that line. It’s not just about having the dexterity to move your feet to places where you can safely put them down, but having what’s called "proprioception”—that sense of how the moving parts of your body physically relate to one another in space. If I’m going to leap to the left with my left leg to avoid a rock at the same time as I drive forward with my right leg to continue my forward motion, my upper body and arms will need to be positioned just right.

Running on a highly technical trail is exhilarating—in part, I’m sure, because the risk of serious injury is always present. All you need to do is misjudge the amount of effort needed to leap over a boulder or catch your toe on a tree root and you may be looking at a broken wrist or sprained ankle. As I add more birthdays with each passing year, I also like to imagine that technical trail running helps defend against Alzheimer’s disease in the same way that learning a new language does— by activating parts of the brain that don’t get daily use. If nothing else, the experience of engaging in an all-encompassing physical and mental activity in an environment of natural beauty takes me to a place of deep serenity.

That is, if I’m running alone. But sometimes, in a trail race, I find myself stuck in an echelon of other runners travelling at the same pace as me down a single-track trail. Then, you can’t see far enough ahead to pick a line; all you can see is the backside of the runner ahead of you. What do you do in that situation? Sometimes all you can do is watch the feet of the runner leading you and mimic their movements, hoping and trusting that their skill level matches or exceeds yours—because if they take a tumble, you will have only a split-second to react to avoid joining them in a heap on the ground.

And so it often is in our pursuit of justice for victims of violence. When we cannot see the way forward clearly enough to plot our own course, we are wise to follow the feet of those leading us. Heroes like Harriet Tubman, known as the Moses of her people, who dedicating her life to the saving of the lives of others and led as many as 19 rescue missions on the Underground Railroad. Nelson Mandela, who (after persevering through 27 years of imprisonment) unified a nation divided by apartheid and brought reconciliation between races through his patience, wisdom and willingness to sacrifice for others. Viola Desmond, the Rosa Parks of Canada, whose personal courage led to the dismantling of the segregation laws in Nova Scotia. Romeo Dallaire, Canada’s tragic hero, haunted by his feelings of guilt for not having done enough to stop the killings in Rwanda in 1994, even though he stayed on to save as many as he could after he was ordered home. Even Gary Haugen, who transformed his experience as a human rights lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice into the design of an organization dedicated to justice system transformation. It’s an organization I’m honoured to lead in Canada.

When you’re in a race, you always run to win, even if it is just to beat your PB (personal best). You may wish to call on all your personal strengths and abilities in order to accelerate to the max and tackle each obstacle with abandonment, but there are times when circumstances or wisdom force you to fall in line behind other runners. At those times the best strategy is to watch their feet in order to anticipate the challenges that lie ahead. In the race to rid the world of violence and oppression, there’s much to learn from paying attention to how those who have preceded us have run the races set before them.

Ed Wilson is an avid runner and serves as IJM Canada's Executive Director.

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