Voice-Over Narration as an Active Agent in Film

December 9, 2009

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I wrote this essay for my MHIS 429 Topics in Film/Video course this semester at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Special thanks to Sarah Wichlacz for her essay titled, “Issues of Narration: Voice-Over in Film” which definitely helped me in the writing of my own essay. You can see her very well written piece at http://sarahwichlacz.com/?p=74

– FlashAddict

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Voice-Over Narration as an Active Agent in Film

The use of voice-over narration can and has been used in film to help convey greater depth and meaning to the audience. Whereas on the one hand, there are some who see it as a crutch when the director or writer is unable to move along the storyline effectively within a given scene; yet on the other however, when it is used effectively, voice-over narration can be inserted as an active agent to help provide greater impact and understanding to the audience in a way that a complex actor’s performance or scenery cannot convey. It is within this context that this essay will explore individual examples of voice-over narration from select films in which both sides of the issue will be explored; by not simply analyzing each voice-over narration example as either good or bad, but looking deeper at how the context and overall delivery affect the films, scenes and actors within.

To begin with, a proper definition of voice-over narration in film must be established, “Narration, or voice-over, is used in both documentary and fiction. It may be used to deliver information, provide the point of view of an unseen character, or allow an onscreen character to comment on the action.”(Ascher and Pincus 493) Put more simply, “A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates (‘tells’) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof.” (Bal 5) By using this standard, multiple methods of providing voice-over narration in film can be utilized to help tell their respective stories, “In documentary filmmaking some of the key stylistic questions relate to how much the filmmaker attempts to control or interact with the subjects, and to the way information is conveyed in the movie.” (Ascher and Pincus 332)

The style adopted by U.K. documentarians such as John Grierson in the 1930s and 1940s is a kind of hybrid that can involve staged events and real people (non-actors)…Many of these films use a ‘voice of God’ narration-the authoritative male voice that provides factual information and often spells out the message intended for the viewer to take from the film. (Ascher and Pincus 333)

On the other side of the spectrum, Ascher & Pincus further explain:

Cinema vérité (also called just vérité or direct cinema) films attempt to spontaneously react to events and capture life as it is lived…Many of these films use no narration or interviews and attempt to minimize the sense that the material has been influenced or interpreted by the filmmaker. (Ascher and Pincus 333)

Within this context, one of the most notable examples of the use of voice-over narration can be seen in the opening of the film, Citizen Kane (1941), “The film’s plot sets another purveyor of knowledge, the ‘News on the March’ short. We’ve already seen the crucial functions of the newsreel in introducing us both to Kane’s story and to its plot construction, with the newsreel’s sections previewing the parts of the film as a whole.” (Bordwell and Thompson 105) In essence, this scene of paramount importance was purposely written by Orson Welles in order to allow the principal characters follow-up with further details later on in the film in their own flashback narrations.

The reinforcement of the scenes, characters and events detailed in this brief montage showcasing Kane’s life over the span of only a few minutes is accentuated, as referenced earlier by Ascher and Pincus, via the deep authoritative voice in which the booming male narrator speaks, which was quite representative on the actual newsreel footage of the era. In other words, by creating a fictionalized representation of a factually based newsreel within a film and having a similar sounding voice actor provide the narration within it, Welles provided the audience with further reinforcement of the importance of Charles Foster Kane on a global scale, in which he truly was within his own Xanadu.

Further evidence of life imitating art and vice versa comes from the voice-over narration within the film, Little Children (2006) which featured the deep resonating male voice of Will Lyman as the film’s narrator. Lyman’s voice was already recognizable, even his face wasn’t, for the 125 episodes of the PBS documentary television show Frontline (1982-2009) that he has narrated. With such various titles as, A Death in Tehran (2009), Breaking the Bank (2009), and Black Money (2009), Lyman has narrated multiple episodes for the series, while remaining unseen to the audience, in which investigative journalists scour the globe looking for corruption, abuse of power and instances of government, humanitarian and ecological tragedies.

To that end, Little Children (2006) director Todd Field must have realized the impact that Lyman’s voice would have on the film’s audience as an implied and trusted broker of knowledge and wisdom. “In the history of the documentary, this voice has been for the most part that of the male, and its power resides in the possession of knowledge and in the privileged, unquestioned activity of interpretation.” (Doane 369)

One scene of particular note from the film is where the character of the husband, Richard Pierce, shows the length to which he will go in order to satiate his obsession. The scene opens up with him in his work office as his secretary heads home for the night and now suddenly alone, Richard decides to indulge his favorite pastime of late, masturbating to pictures of the internet sensation that is Slutty Kay. In comes the booming, authoritative and faceless voice of narrator Will Lyman, as the audience begins to realize the level of Richard’s obsession at not being able to truly connect with her.

Lately, Slutty Kay had become a problem. He thought about her far too often and spent hours studying the thousands of photographs available to him…Though as close as Richard sometimes felt to Slutty Kay, as much as he believed that he knew her, he could never get past the uncomfortable fact she existed for him solely as a digital image. The panties were an attempt to solve this problem, maybe a sniff or two would hurry things along so he could get back downstairs to his real life, where his wife was waiting for him; her impatience increasing by the minute…(Little Children)

To that end, the scene changes to his home office as he now tries to put on her soiled panties over his head in order to accentuate the experience, as the frame changes yet again to show Richard’s wife coming upstairs as Lyman explains her growing impatience and finds him masturbating while breathing deeply into the soiled panties. Lyman’s matter of fact and monotonous voice-over breathes, for lack of a better term, immense irony into the scene and provides a very functional backdrop in order to place such an absurd setting as a woman walking into her husband’s office and finding him masturbating to a Polaroid of a naked woman while gasping into a pair of soiled woman’s panties. “The different components of the cinematic narrator as diagramed usually work in consort, but sometimes the implied author creates an ironic tension between two of them.” (Chatman 484)

An additional aspect of voice-over narration is when the director or creative vision behind the film as a whole provides the narration themselves. Take for instance the case from the film, A River Runs Through It (1992), in which director Robert Redford took on the persona of the book’s original author, Norman MacLean, and provided the film’s flashback voice-overs.

…films often create the sense of character-narration so strongly that one accepts the voice-over narrator as if he of she were the mouthpiece of the image-maker either for the whole film or for the duration of his or her embedded story. We put our faith in the voice not created but as creator. (Kozloff 45)

After auditioning several different prominent voice-over actors, Redford was not happy with any of the takes and as a result, he decided to try it out himself. Given Redford’s long standing stature within the film industry and recognizable voice, what followed was that he was able to further personify the essence of what the author and main character experienced while growing up in small-town Montana, the trials he went through with his younger brother Paul and how the quiet and serene beauty of glacier fed streams full of trout could help heal the soul. This was especially evident in the final scene of the film in which the viewer sees what is now an elderly and frail looking Norman MacLean fishing the river alone, with Redford’s voice-over providing the full meaning as Paul reflects on his life.

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.  Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters. (A River Runs Through It)

The next logical focus to explore is whether or not to use voice-over narration at all and how the format is different from written media for example, “Unlike in literature, in film the distinction between telling a story through verbal narration and showing it on the screen through images and action is not so easily discountable.” (Kozloff 13) A case in point for this argument comes from the multiple versions of the film, Blade Runner (1982), in which it has gone from its original theatrical release to being re-edited seven times to its most recent ‘Final Cut’. The most obvious change that was made from the original film was the removal of Deckard’s voice-over and while this had already been removed from an earlier 1992 ‘Director’s Cut,’ this final version of the film was also the only version that director Ridley Scott had complete artistic control over.

The climactic scene of the film in which the removal of the voice-over warranted greatest scrutiny was the scene near the end of the film, where on the original inception of Deckard’s monotonous voice-over was further evidence, although somewhat ambiguous, of him being a replicant (a humanoid looking robot who cannot show or feel emotion), from a viewer’s perspective, the use of the voice-over caused more controversy than it was worth according to prolific filmmaker, Frank Darabont:

There’s one area where I thought the voice-over was so clunky; it landed with such a hollow thud, was the ‘Tears in Rain.’ I remember when I first saw the movie, I’m in the theatre and I am so drawn in by what Rutger Hauer is doing and I am so drawn in by what the theme of the movie has brought us to, this magnificent moment where he is letting go of life…‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, all these moments will be lost, in time, like Tears in Rain. Time to die.’

And right as I am just…it’s like having sex and someone dumps cold water on you. Right at that moment where I am at my most emotional crescendo as a viewer, here comes this thudding, dunderheaded voice-over, ‘I don’t know why he saved my life, maybe in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had before.’ Yes, I know that, thank you. Thank you for kicking this beautiful, delicate, emotional note that we were achieving right in the nuts. (Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner)

Conversely, in the subsequent versions of the film in which Deckard’s monologue has been removed, greater emphasis has been placed on Rutger Hauer’s performance of Roy when he releases the dove as he dies and it flies up to the dark and stormy clouds above. Layered over all of this is the minimalist orchestration by the film’s composer, Vangelis and the slightest of crescendo booming sound as Deckard slowly closes his eyes and deeply inhales as he bears witness to his former foe’s final testimony; all of which is realized without the use of the voice-over.

At the end of the shooting cycle and on the bottom of the cutting room floor, directors, editors and screenplay writers have debated the merits of inserting or removing voice-over narration in film for decades now. In some instances, overall theme, plot and character development or simply personal taste can dictate whether or not to use voice-overs to help provide the audience with a greater understanding of what they are seeing on the screen. To that end however, and when it is an active agent in the storytelling process and manufactured to cater to the targeted audience in subtle and imperceptible ways, then voice-over narration can help bridge the gap between what can and cannot be shown on film. But if it is used in a contrived and convoluted manner, then the opposite can occur and further alienate the audience from being able to fully appreciate the level of understanding that the filmmakers are trying to achieve.

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Works Cited

A River Runs Through It. Dir. Robert Redford. Allied Filmmakers, 1992

Ascher, Steven, and Pincus, Edward. The Filmmaker’s Handbook. New York: PLUME, 2007

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David, and Thompson, Kirstin. FILM ART: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Chatman, Seymour. “The Cinematic Narrator.” Braudy and Cohen, 473-86.

Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika, Frank Darabont, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_nsSxblpoI

Doane, Mary Ann. The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980

Kozloff, Barbara. Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Little Children. Dir. Todd Field. New Line Cinema, Bona Fide Productions, Standard Film Company, 2006.

Wichlacz, Sarah. 27 May 2006. Issues of Narration: Voice-Over Film. http://sarahwichlacz.com/?p=74

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July 29 – P90X Legs and Back / July 30 – P90X Core Synergistics + Hiking

August 11, 2009

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I have been lax in updating my blog due to it being hot out and also being tired following my workouts, so here goes…
– FlashAddict

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balance lunges – 20 each side with 10 lbs x 2

calf raise squats – 10 lbs x 20

reverse chin pullups – did 20 pushups instead

super skaters – 20 each side

wall squats 90 seconds @ 90 degrees

wide front pull-ups – 20 pushups instead

step back lunges – 10 lbs x 15 each sie

alternating side lunges – 10 lbs x 10 each side

close grip overhand pull-ups – close-in pushups x 10

single leg wall squats – 1 min ow

dead lift squats – 10 each leg

switch grip pullups – right cross pushups 10

water break

three way lunges – 5 rounds each leg

sneaky lunges – 12 each leg

reverse grip chin-ups – left cross pushups 10

chair salutations – 1 minute

toe roll iso lunges – 15 eacjh side

wide front pull-ups – 10 pushups

groucho walk – 45 secs

calf raises – 15 slow / 10 fast x 3 (out, mid, in stances) with 10 lbs

close grip overhand pull-ups – 10 pushups

80-20 siebers speed squats – 20 each side

switch grip pull-ups – 14 pushups

cooldown

1:09:30
877 calories
133 avg
158 max

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thursday
core synergistics
1:07
861 calories
137 avg
168 max

Burnaby Mountain Trail GuideBurnaby Mountain Trail Guide

I followed the same route as before and I did 1 minute sprints followed by 2 minute recovery walks all the way up Burnaby Mountain!

hiking
1:06
999 calories
148 avg
171 max


P90X Shoulders & Arms + Hiking up Burnaby Mountain + Heat Wave = Done for the day…

July 28, 2009

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I originally was going to do the Grouse Grind today at around 11am, but after looking towards the North Shore and seeing the haze and smog cooking off of the mountains, I decided to wait until later on in the day to try and workout…big mistake, cause when I started working out at 4pm, it was like 33 degrees…
– FlashAddict

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Alrighty then, I started off today’s workout by doing the P90X Shoulders and Arms routine so here is the breakdown:

Total Time:
1 Hour 11 Minutes

Total Calories Burned:
908 cal

Average Heart Rate:
136

Max Heart Rate:
167

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The workout routine consisted of the following exercises in the following order:

alternating shoulder press – 20 lbs x 10

in and out bicep curl – 20 lbs x 16

two arm tricep kickback – 20 lbs x 10

alternating shoulder press – 20 lbs x 10

in and out bicep curl – 25 lbs x 12

two arm tricep kickback – 25 lbs x 8

ballistic stretch

deep swimmers press – 25 lbs x 8

full supination conccentration curls – 20 lbs x 12

chair dips x 25

deep swimmers press – 20 lbs x 8

full supination conccentration curls – 25 lbs x 12

chair dips x 15

ballistic stretch

upright rows – 20 lbs x 10

static arm curls – 25 lbs x 16 (too much)

flip grip twist kickbacks – 15 lbs x 6 (too much)

upright rows – 25 lbs x 12

static arm curls – 20 lbs x 12

flip grip twist kickbacks – 10 lbs x 10

ballistic stretch

seated shoulder flys – 15 lbs x 10

crouching cohen curls – 15 lbs x 14

lying down tricep extensions – 20 lbs x 14

seated shoulder flys – 10 lbs x 16

crouching cohen curls – 20 lbs x 8

lying down tricep extensions – 25 lbs x 10

ballistic stretch

straight arm shoulder flys – 15 lbs x 12

congdon curls – 15 lbs x 10

side – tri -rise – 14 each side

straight arm shoulder flys – 15 lbs x 12

congdon curls – 15 lbs x 12

side – tri -rise – 20 each side

cooldown

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After the P90X routine, I got into my car and drove to the bottom of Burnaby Mountain and hiked up back to my condo, then jumped on my bike and went down to the base again to pickup my car – dear lord it was hot and muggy coming up the mountain, but I tried my best to come up at a good pace. I also did several 1 minute sprinting intervals at various points of the ascent to work my cardio even further.

Burnaby Mountain Trail Guide

Burnaby Mountain Trail Guide

I started off at the Pipeline Trail and then onto the Power Line Trail all the way to the Trans Canada Trail and then coming up appropriately named Cardiac Hill to finish off the hike – I then ran on the SFU perimeter road to my condo building and grabbed my bike so that I could head down and grab my car – from the base of the mountain back to base again gave me the following stats:

Total Workout Time:
1 Hour 8 Minutes

Total Calories burned
1090

Average Heart Rate:
148

Max Heart Rate:
172

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So, by combining both workouts, I ended up working out for 2 Hours and 19 minutes and burned 1998 Calories!!!


CrossFit Mashup WOD Today + Kayaking yesterday = Johnny sweating all over the place

July 27, 2009

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Well, Vancouver is in the midst of quite the heat wave – was over 30 degrees both yesterday and today with a projected high of 33 for tomorrow = HEAT WAVE
– FlashAddict

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Today’s workout of the day was a mashup of the CF WOD posted and a few other items I threw in there to mix things up. All told, here’s how things broke down:

Started off with 20 minutes on my recumbent bike – 5 minute warmup – 10 minute high intensity – 5 minute recovery

Then I did 30 Turkish Get Ups (15 lbs weight)- these seriously get your heart pumping fast and hard – along with 30 Burpees.

I then turned on the P90X Ab Ripper X video and blasted through that routine to finish things off and cap an all-body workout.

Here are my stats:

Total time working out:
1 hour and 15 minutes

Total Calories Burned:
935

Average Heart Rate:
133

Max Heart Rate:
167

Also, my girlfriend Raewyn and I went kayaking up Indian Arm again and were severely beat down by the heat, wind and salt water to the point that we were on the water for only an hour and a half. It was so hot out there that we were losing energy to paddle! All in all though, it’s a great place to get out on the water and have fun in the waves, I highly recommend it.


Monday’s Bike Ride from SFU to downtown Vancouver

July 23, 2009

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Forgot to put in the fact that I rode my bike from SFU to downtown Vancouver – only one way though, cause I had to then take the bus to Richmond to meet up with my brother to pickup my car – all in all it took me 52 minutes to get there – not too bad…
– FlashAddict

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http://maps.google.com/maps?f=d&source=s_d&saddr=9266+university+crescent,+burnaby,+bc&daddr=6600+union+street,+burnaby,+bc+to:1340+East+3rd+Ave,+vancouver,+bc+to:333+seymour+street,+vancouver,+bc&hl=en&geocode=&mra=ls&dirflg=w&sll=49.278669,-123.008251&sspn=0.103141,0.264187&ie=UTF8&ll=49.276429,-123.008595&spn=0.103146,0.264187&z=13

Walking directions to 333 Seymour St, Vancouver, BC, Canada
18.6 km – about 3 hours 38 mins
Suggested routes
9266 University Crescent
Burnaby, BC, Canada
1. Head south on University Crescent toward E Campus Rd
0.3 km
2. Turn left at E Campus Rd
13 m
3. Slight right to stay on E Campus Rd
57 m
4. At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto University Dr E
1.5 km
5. Slight right to stay on University Dr E
0.3 km
6. Continue on Burnaby Mountain Pkwy
2.0 km
7. Turn left at Hastings St
12 m
8. Turn right to stay on Hastings St
0.2 km
9. Turn left at Duthie Ave
0.3 km
10. Turn right at Union St

Destination will be on the left
1.0 km
5.6 km – about 58 mins
6600 Union St
Burnaby, BC, Canada
11. Head west on Union St toward Kensington Ave
0.2 km
12. Turn left at Kensington Ave
0.3 km
13. Turn right at Curtis St
0.8 km
14. Continue on Parker St
3.1 km
15. Turn left at Boundary Rd
0.7 km
16. Turn right at 1st Ave
3.4 km
17. Turn left at Commercial Dr
0.2 km
18. Turn right at E 3rd Ave

Destination will be on the left
0.5 km
9.2 km – about 1 hour 51 mins
1340 E 3rd Ave
Vancouver, BC, Canada
19. Head west on E 3rd Ave toward Clark Dr
57 m
20. Turn right at Clark Dr
0.2 km
21. Turn left at Grandview Viaduct
0.4 km
22. Slight right to stay on Grandview Viaduct
0.2 km
23. Continue straight onto Terminal Ave
1.3 km
24. Turn right at Quebec St
0.3 km
25. Continue on Expo Blvd
0.5 km
26. Turn right at Abbott St
0.4 km
27. Turn left at W Hastings St
0.5 km
28. Turn right at Seymour St

Destination will be on the left
71 m
3.9 km – about 48 mins
333 Seymour St
Vancouver, BC, Canada

29.5 Km Bike Ride + Back Squats at CrossFit = One Tired Johnny…

July 23, 2009

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I felt ambitious today, so I rode my bike from on top of Burnaby Mountain all the way to the CrossFit Gym near Clark and Terminal in East Vancouver. Once there, I did an hour long workout there that had me doing 3 reps of max back squats + Weighted Pull-Ups and then back on the bike to ride back to Burnaby and up that long a$$ mountain…I R TIRED :S
– FlashAddict

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Total Time:
3:47:06 – even more impressive was the fact that it only took me 30 minutes flat to get from the bottom of Burnaby Mountain to the peak, especially after 3 hours working out already!

Total Calories Burned:
2756 (Holy Crap that’s a lot!)

Max Heart Rate:
167

Average Heart Rate:
130

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=d&source=s_d&saddr=9266+university+crescent,+burnaby,+bc&daddr=6600+union+street,+burnaby,+bc+to:1340+East+3rd+Ave,+vancouver,+bc+to:6600+union+street,+burnaby,+bc+to:9266+university+crescent,+burnaby,+bc&hl=en&geocode=&mra=ls&dirflg=w&sll=49.274189,-122.990398&sspn=0.103151,0.264187&ie=UTF8&ll=49.274077,-122.990398&spn=0.103151,0.264187&z=13

Walking directions to 9266 University Crescent, Burnaby, BC, Canada
29.5 km – about 6 hours 13 mins
Suggested routes
9266 University Crescent
Burnaby, BC, Canada
1. Head south on University Crescent toward E Campus Rd
0.3 km
2. Turn left at E Campus Rd
13 m
3. Slight right to stay on E Campus Rd
57 m
4. At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto University Dr E
1.5 km
5. Slight right to stay on University Dr E
0.3 km
6. Continue on Burnaby Mountain Pkwy
2.0 km
7. Turn left at Hastings St
12 m
8. Turn right to stay on Hastings St
0.2 km
9. Turn left at Duthie Ave
0.3 km
10. Turn right at Union St

Destination will be on the left
1.0 km
5.6 km – about 58 mins
6600 Union St
Burnaby, BC, Canada
11. Head west on Union St toward Kensington Ave
0.2 km
12. Turn left at Kensington Ave
0.3 km
13. Turn right at Curtis St
0.8 km
14. Continue on Parker St
3.1 km
15. Turn left at Boundary Rd
0.7 km
16. Turn right at 1st Ave
3.4 km
17. Turn left at Commercial Dr
0.2 km
18. Turn right at E 3rd Ave

Destination will be on the left
0.5 km
9.2 km – about 1 hour 51 mins
1340 E 3rd Ave
Vancouver, BC, Canada
19. Head east on E 3rd Ave toward McLean Dr
0.5 km
20. Turn left at Commercial Dr
0.2 km
21. Turn right at E 1st Ave
0.8 km
22. Slight left to stay on E 1st Ave
3.2 km
23. Turn left at Gilmore Ave
0.7 km
24. Turn right at Parker St
2.4 km
25. Continue on Curtis St
0.8 km
26. Turn left at Kensington Ave
0.3 km
27. Turn right at Union St

Destination will be on the right
0.2 km
9.2 km – about 1 hour 59 mins
6600 Union St
Burnaby, BC, Canada
28. Head east on Union St toward Grove Ave
1.0 km
29. Turn left at Duthie Ave
0.3 km
30. Turn right at Hastings St
0.2 km
31. Turn left to stay on Hastings St
12 m
32. Turn right at Burnaby Mountain Pkwy
2.0 km
33. Continue on University Dr E
1.7 km
34. Slight left to stay on University Dr E
23 m
35. At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto E Campus Rd
88 m
36. Turn right at University Crescent

Destination will be on the right
0.3 km
5.6 km – about 1 hour 23 mins
9266 University Crescent
Burnaby, BC, Canada

P90X Core Synergistics WOD

July 22, 2009

I figured that I would give my legs a bit of a break today, seeing as how I biked over 26 km yesterday, so I decided to do the P90X Core Synergistics workout for $hits und giggles – here are my stats:

Total Time:
57:33

Total Calories Burned:
815 cal

Max Heart Rate:
169

Average Heart Rate:
142