Rickey Gates: The Conceptual Runner

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Conceptual Runner

Combining endurance running with photography, exploration and sociology, Rickey Gates' #everysinglestreet project could help you see your local community in a new light

After nearly a decade competing on the national and international mountain, trail and ultra-running circuit, Rickey Gates combined his love for storytelling and photography with long-distance running to create incredible, unique projects. Not content with running across America, he also ran every single street in San Francisco and is currently taking on the 50 classic trails of North America. 

A deeply curious individual, Gates has an immense interest in the inner workings of society, self, nature and the human potential. We caught up with him for a chat covering everything from route planning algorithms to the emotional impact of exploring the often overlooked underbelly of the city he calls home.

'I wanted to know how I could explore a city as immersively as a trail or a mountain range.'

You recently ran across America. When you finished that journey, you started another one by running every street in San Fran. What inspired you to make that your next project?

There are two distinct moments that stand out as inspiration for my San Francisco project. The first was simply sitting (which I was doing a lot of and getting quite good at). I was on a patio above the Berkeley Hills in the East Bay near San Francisco. I sat up there for a couple weeks looking down on a population of several million and the buzz of infrastructure shaping the landscape - the earth, the sea and the sky. The human hive. It was up on that patio when I knew that my run across the country was incomplete without a deep exploration into what a city actually is. 

I wanted to know how I could explore a city as immersively as a trail or a mountain range. And that’s when the second moment occurred. I was walking through San Francisco with some friends when the question came up: how many miles of street are there in San Francisco? The answer? 1260 miles; about the same distance as going from Denver to San Francisco. I knew what that was like. I knew I could cover the distance in about six weeks…. so I got to planning. 

© Rickey Gates
'My friend took great interest in the project and set to work developing an algorithm that might help me plan my route efficiently as possible.'

Can you explain how the #everysinglestreet concept worked? I know you referred to the process about hitting every street as a postman problem - what do you mean by that?

When I came up with the idea, I didn’t realise the mathematical problems posed by planning the most efficient way to run very strert in a city. It was only when I mentioned it to a friend, who also happens to be a PhD Mathematician, that the understanding of this as a complicated equation took root. 

My friend took great interest in the project and set to work developing an algorithm that might help me plan my route efficiently as possible. After 70 or so emails and a lot of trial and error, we had an algorithm that I could translate into directions on my phone… sort of. 

There were still a couple of factors that the my friend’s algorithm couldn’t compute which would throw off the equation and render the remainder of the route useless. So, in the end, I only used his algorithm for approximately 50 of the 1370 miles that it took to cover every single street of San Francisco. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the top of Twin Peaks, the entirety of the project took 47 days. 

'I wanted to experience it all and in doing so, it meant also confronting the social and financial outcasts of our society.'

What were some of the biggest challenges?

Route finding was a constant challenge at the beginning of the run. I really didn’t think about how complicated it might be to try to run every single street in a neighborhood! Inefficiency can add miles to your day and when you're already covering 30+ miles per day, you want to do it right. I got the hang of it towards the middle and by the end I was a pro. 

What became the biggest challenge was coming face to face with so much poverty. I wanted to experience every aspect of the city - the wealthy neighborhoods, the government housing projects, the industrial portside, the hills, the towering downtown buildings - I wanted to experience it all and in doing so, it meant also confronting the social and financial outcasts of our society. 

When you are forced to walk past or through a homeless encampment (or in my case, hundreds to perhaps thousands) with fresh eyes, a certain reckoning ensues that makes you question a lot of things on both a personal and societal level.

© Rickey Gates
'Having this simple goal - to literally cover every single street in a given area - forces you to see places you simply wouldn’t go otherwise.'

You know San Fran well, but what were you most surprised to discover that you didn't know or maybe overlooked about the city? 

I’ve always known that San Francisco was super diverse. There’s Chinatown, Little Italy and The Mission, Japan Town, etc. But I never knew how deep that diversity truly went. Most of San Francisco is off the tourist map - it is simply people living and working. But we humans want to congregate around people that are like us, so you have all these little pockets of different types of people all throughout the city, shoulder to shoulder.

The #everysinglestreet project is now being adopted by people who live in other cities. Why would you encourage others to do it? 

I think that everybody should do this project. I called it #everysinglestreet and not #runeverysinglestreet because I don’t want it to be exclusive to runners. It’s not about that. It’s about exploring and if that be walking or on bike or skateboard or wheelchair, that’s just perfect. Having this simple goal - to literally cover every single street in a given area - forces you to see places you simply wouldn’t go otherwise. It challenges your preconceived notions of a place and the people that live and work there. 

'Foot travel is... the best way to get to know people.'

Running seems to be your primary mode of exploring. What do you appreciate about traveling by foot?

I appreciate the speed of traveling by foot. I think it’s about as fast as you can go and still take in the world around you. Even a bike is too fast at times. I also like how humble foot travel is. It’s the best way to get to know people. Check out my website to see how you can get involved.

Rickey Gates’ debut book Cross Country, invites you along on his 3,700 mile journey across the United States through over 200 photographs and stories of the individuals he meets on the way.

Cross Country was released alongside TransAmericana, a feature-length film produced and directed by The Wandering Fever and his sole sponsor, Salomon. Watch it in full below.

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