Long-Distance Running for the Writer

I’m not a runner. I enjoy running, and over the course of my life have, in fits and starts, behaved in a runner-like fashion. There was a year or so in middle school when I was obsessed with it, but since then have run only spontaneously and sporadically. A month here, a few months there – and in between, periods of sloth in which my running shoes collected dust beneath my bed or in the back of my closet.

Again: I’m not a runner.

My girlfriend, though – she’s a runner. She recently ran the Boston Marathon, and she has that thing inside of her that gets her heading outside at six in the morning (a Saturday morning) to run ten or fifteen or twenty miles in the worst of New England’s winter frigidity. And all of this while I’m sitting there at the dining room table with a cup of coffee and a blanket wrapped around me, preparing to start my day of writing (and therefore not stray from the table for the next four or five hours – except, of course, to pour myself some more coffee or grab a banana).

No, I’m not a runner. At least not that kind of a runner. But maybe someday I will be. I’d certainly like to be. My girlfriend knows this, and with her runner’s spirit and zeal, she went ahead and signed me up for a 10K in June (after which she promptly began to convince me to consider running a half-marathon in August).

And so I’ve started to train. I’m taking it slow, as the experts advise. I’ve got a three-month schedule, with daily runs (and a handful of what are sure to be much-needed rest days) all mapped out. And, just a few runs in, I’ve already discovered that approaching running like this – methodically, with numbers and a schedule and a dash or two of science – satisfies the writer in me in ways that my past haphazard flirtations with the sport never could or did.

What’s more, between running myself and talking to other runners about their beloved sport, I’ve found that there’s a lot to be learned about writing from long-distance running. The lessons of the latter can be carried over to the former, and though they’re applied differently, the tools required to run twenty miles or to complete a novel are surprisingly similar.

Here are a few things that you might find useful, whether you’re preparing for a run, a novel, or some other kind of long-distance project:

1. Just Do It

I know this is a trademark of Nike’s, and for that reason, I hesitated to use it. But these three little words truly do best capture what I’m trying to say. Just do it. By which I mean just get out there and run, or just sit down in your chair and write. Those miles won’t run themselves, and the first draft of that novel can’t revise itself. And the more you dawdle, the more you gnaw on your fingernails and worry about how difficult and painful it’s going to be? Well, the worse it probably will be.

It’s like swimming in a cold ocean or lake. If you linger on the shore, dipping your toes and trying to psyche yourself up, you might never work up the guts to actually get in (and even if you do, you won’t be able to concentrate on anything but how cold it is). The trick, as everyone knows, is to charge the water full tilt and just dive on in. Your adrenaline masks the cold, and by the time that dissipates, you’ve already adjusted to the temperature, you’ve already begun to enjoy yourself. So just do it. Start running. Get writing. Jump in – the water, it turns out, is fine.

2. Find, And Respect, Your Pace

If you’re planning on running any significant distance, you need to find a comfortable pace and keep to it. Maybe your iPod shuffles to a song that always gets you amped up, or maybe you’re feeling so miserable that you think you’ll just start sprinting and charge through the last couple miles. BAD IDEA. Don’t do it. Find your pace, and respect that pace.

The same goes for writing. Not respecting your own, unique pace is a recipe for misery. Oh, so Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days? And Mrs. Permanent Residence on the New York Times Best Seller List published her first book when she was just 19? So what? That’s not you. And neither is the guy with the statuesque physique who blows by you – twice – on your crawl of a run around the block, his forehead and armpits inhumanly free of sweat.

3. Finish What You Start

Whether it’s your breakfast, a difficult patch of your training schedule, or the first draft of a manuscript, it’s a good idea to finish what you start. As any runner or writer will tell you, it’s not all smiles, sunshine, and rainbows. Maybe it’s pouring out, or maybe you had an exhausting day of work and the last thing you want to do is put on your running shoes and head outside. Or maybe 30,000 words into the first draft of a novel, you find yourself plagued with doubt about the legs this story really has – and maybe there’s another, exciting, seemingly perfect idea nagging at the back of your brain, begging you to write it.

While there’s something to be said about knowing, for the sake of your mental health, when you ought to just take a nap or ditch a not-so-good story, as a general rule, don’t. The best advice I could give an aspiring novelist is to learn how to turn off your brain and just write, write, write until you can write “The End.” Only then should you go back and begin to pick apart what you actually put down, change things, reshape – revise.

I find that it’s only once I’ve got a complete first draft (sloppy and rough as it might be) that I actually know what kind of story I’m trying to tell. And once you know that, revising can be a thrilling, fascinating, fun process. And even if you ultimately decide that the story isn’t worth pursuing, the experience of finishing what you’ve started will – I promise – teach you an enormous amount about writing, both how to do it and how you, uniquely, do it.

It’s the same with running. You had a bad week and want nothing more than to sleep in and be lazy all weekend. But you get out there and run your miles, knowing that you’re working toward a larger goal, that you’ve just taken one more important step toward finishing this amazing thing you’ve started. And by making sure you take every one of those steps, by refusing to let yourself give up, the finishing will be all the more fulfilling.

4. Love It

Amor Vincit Omnia. Translation: Love Conquers All. It’s also the only thing that’s going to conquer 26.2 miles or the seemingly daunting revision of that rough, sloppy first draft of a manuscript. Sure, you can abuse your body and force it past its physical limits. You can sit down at your laptop and hammer out a bunch of stories or even a whole novel in a marathon-like writing session.

But that lack of love? It’s going to show. You won’t have a smile on your face as you cross the finish line. There won’t be any pride to feel on top of your soreness and stiffness and aches and pains. Your characters will be flat and boring. The dialogue will lack energy. Your plot will sag. As Ray Bradbury, that marathoner of a writer, said: “If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art” – so, you know, at least spend nine days on your novel.

And if you really do lack the love, if you know you don’t possess that sustaining passion, then what are you doing running a marathon or trying to write a novel in the first place? There are plenty of other ways to stay fit and get your daily dose of exercise, and, as any writer will tell you, there are (unfortunately) about a billion better ways to make a steady income than sitting at a desk and writing down what you dream up.

Here’s a bit of wisdom from Charles Bukowski, taken from his poem “so you want to be a writer?”:

if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

[. . .]

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

(Click here to read the poem in its entirety — and, while you’re at it, check out the rest of Maria Popova’s amazing site.)

If you do have the love, don’t let yourself forget it. You can’t afford to. The love is what you will – and must – fall back on when you encounter tough odds or an unforeseen obstacle. A 90-degree Marathon Monday when you’ve been training in below-freezing weather for four months. A cramp at the bottom of that last big hill. A string of rejections from publishers. A difficult day with a story. The love is what’ll get you back out there, pounding the pavement again. It’s what’ll get you sitting back down the very next day, eager to tackle those difficulties, loving every minute of it.

Happy writing — and happy running, too.

2 thoughts on “Long-Distance Running for the Writer

  1. This exactly describes my experience with running. Last year, in the height of finishing the first painful draft of my YA novel, I signed up for two 5Ks out of the blue. I found that I was far more likely to run if I followed a training regimen than if I left it up in the air. I finished both 5Ks, and the first draft of the novel. Both made me feel incredibly accomplished. But after you’ve finished, you must keep going!

  2. I couldn’t agree more! And you SHOULD feel incredibly accomplished. It’s also interesting how, when you’re immersed in a writing project, you often shun any and all “distractions” — especially one like training for a race, which takes up a sizable chunk of your time and energy. But often, if stuck or doubting yourself, expending some time and energy elsewhere is the thing you need to do. You’ve got to finish what you start, of course — but sometimes doing that requires taking a step back.

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