My fortieth year marked a number of important firsts in my life. In addition to the biggest — my marriage — I finished my first marathon, the Lost Dutchman in Arizona, and my first book, The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid, which will be published by Scribner in June. While I’ve long been a recreational runner and occasional writer, it was only when spending hundreds of hours training for marathons and writing a book that I was struck by the parallels.
Most obvious is that both require daily effort over an extended time, all focused on a goal that can seem impossibly far away. Thankfully, there are the daily challenges and — on good days, at least — accomplishments that can provide more immediate gratification.
Runners are familiar with the sensation of finishing a demanding hill workout, legs burning, gasping for air, perhaps even feeling a little sick, but proud to have taken another step toward the marathon start line. Similarly, there’s the satisfaction that comes from losing oneself in an intense writing session, focused on the task at hand, sometimes not even daring to get up and grab a snack so as to not lose the flow, only to eventually crash at the end of the day (or in the lonely solitude of a late night), exhausted and spent, yet proud that a day’s labor has yielded a concrete result.
Like most professions, writing can bring plenty of highs and lows. I’ve confessed to a few writer friends the occasional fear of opening emails with feedback from my editor, unsure if his observations will validate my most recent efforts, or amount to a body blow that will knock the wind out of me. My friends can all relate. I’ve found that the “runner’s high” after a long workout is the best remedy for overcoming some of these inevitable “lows.” What had been a consuming worry as I pulled my running clothes on over my almost always sore body would almost invariably seem more manageable when I stepped into a hot shower and felt my muscles relax after a tough run.
I suppose now is the time for full disclosure. I also do CrossFit, that fitness discipline that many people love to hate. This should be the final piece of evidence needed to prove that I’m a masochist, but a psychological exploration of my workout preferences will need to wait for another day. And yes, I’m often reminded of how the communities tend to view each other. “So, you’re just training to be slow” is a favorite barb tossed at me by one of my CrossFit coaches; by contrast, when runners learn of my CrossFit habit they almost always furrow their brows and cite the unfortunate consequences of “bulking up” and failing to log enough weekly training miles. The high priests of each cult are likely both right — if one’s goal is to excel at either practice exclusively. But I’m not a fitness monogamist, and enjoy each discipline’s pleasures (and pain).
Back to running and writing, though. Running — especially two-to-three-hour long runs on the weekends — can provide a rare opportunity to be alone with one’s thoughts or an audio book. I like to alternate between the peaceful sounds of nature and the company of books as I stride down the C&O Canal towpath, slicing between the Potomac River on one side and some of Washington, D.C.’s most beautiful monuments on the other. It’s amazing how much easier it is to become absorbed in a great book when one has three hours of undivided attention — and the guaranteed wakefulness that comes with running — as opposed to a few exhausted minutes reading in bed at night before discovering that one has been trying to make sense of the same paragraph for ten somnolent minutes. I’ve found that the quiet reflection of a run, marked only by one’s rhythmic footfalls, and the timeless insights that reveal themselves in the best literature, can be of equal value as I wrestle with questions about human nature that my book has me thinking about.
Some days, writing comes easily and the words flow effortlessly onto the page. Likewise, some runs are blissful, as though I’m floating weightlessly above the ground, barely exerting myself, one mile blurring into the next, almost magically. Other days, perhaps after a few too many wings and pints of Guinness (a healthy diet is one form of masochism I don’t enjoy), I feel like I’m running in quicksand, every hundred meters dragging on interminably.
Doubt plagues both writer and runner. Will I ever finish this book? I’ve been stuck on this page for days. There’s no way. The same anxieties often invade a long weekend marathon training run. Not long ago I was struck by a sinking spell on the second mile of my 21-mile run. Dizzy and light-headed, with the daunting prospect of 19 miles remaining, I worried that finishing the run was about as likely as climbing Mt. Everest. Thankfully, I fought back my jitters by telling myself that my sudden lethargy was probably the result of a spike of insulin triggered by pre-run carbs, which resulted in low blood sugar. So I sucked down some GU energy gel and felt great about a mile later — indeed, for the rest of the run.
Deep down, runners know that despite months of training and hundreds of miles of pavement pounded, race results can sometimes be out of one’s control. Injuries can derail the most disciplined runners before they even reach the start line. And even after the gun has fired, variables can conspire to make meeting one’s goal all but impossible. My wife, Marcy, who trains with Capital Area Runners, did everything right to prepare for the 2015 Boston Marathon, but when race day rolled around she was greeted by driving rain, temperatures in the 40s, and unrelenting headwinds (since almost the entire Boston course goes from west to east). All you can do is what she did: run the race with maximum heart and courage and hope for the best. Her 3:38:52 was more than respectable, given the circumstances. As she lay shivering in a nearby hotel room after the race, she could be proud that she left everything she had on those wind-swept and rain-spattered Boston streets.
Writing a book can be equally unpredictable in that you can spend years utterly consumed by, and devoted to, a project — and do a good job on it — only to discover that sometimes circumstances out of your control can interfere with the outcome. A nonfiction writer can diligently plug away on a book, laboring tirelessly, and in anonymity, day after day, month after month, and then learn that a subject that may have galvanized the public six months ago is no longer considered newsworthy. Either that or the writer’s masterpiece lands on the desk of a reviewer who, for any number of reasons — valid or less valid — takes a dislike to it and torpedoes its chances.
The final parallel between running and writing is the most important. With both practices, no matter how good you feel, or how bad — and no matter how easily or how painfully the miles or words come — the most important thing you can do is lace up your shoes and step outside into the pre-dawn cold, or report for duty at your desk, take that first step, and then the next, write that first sentence, and then the next, and just keep going.
I’ll never be a great runner, and it remains to be seen how many people will read my book. Still, both running and writing can produce some satisfaction that comes from tenaciously pursuing one’s goals — even if one doesn’t qualify for Boston or land on a bestseller list. Back when I ran the Lost Dutchman Marathon with Marcy (it was her seventh marathon, my first), my goal was simply to break four hours. I was cruising with three miles left when both legs simultaneously seized up in excruciating Charlie-horse type pain. My steady sub-nine minute miles suddenly slowed to a limp. I had almost exactly 30 minutes left to run three miles and break four hours. Something that ordinarily would have been easy seemed impossible when each step forward was agonizing.
I persevered, though, and chugged toward the finish, where I clocked in at 3:59:47, exceeding my goal by 13 seconds. Then I immediately limped to the aid tent with the help of Marcy, who, in stark contrast to my hobbled state, appeared to be in fine form, little the worse for wear! Legs covered in ice packs and still locked in painful spasms, I nonetheless felt as good as I ever have.
My writing has also finally yielded a concrete dividend, as just the other day I received a box full of galleys of my upcoming book. What had for so long seemed a distant abstraction — actually finishing a book and seeing it on bookstore shelves — suddenly appeared real and attainable. There’s still some work to be done, but I am now on the home stretch of the publishing marathon, and my hope is that seeing my book in a reader’s hand someday will feel as satisfying as crossing that finish line in Arizona… minus the excruciating pain.
Will Bardenwerper’s book, The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid, will be released by Scribner on June 6th, and can be pre-ordered here:. You can follow him on Twitter @wbardenwerper.