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Run, Writer, Run

15 things writers can learn from runners

Chris Makepeace as Rudy Gerner in the 1979 film “Meatballs.”

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I’ve been sitting on this one because I know no one needs any more talk about running and writing. It’s all been said (and far better), the metaphor overworked, and I’m hardly a fitness expert or mental health professional. In fact, I am in zero position to dispense any advice. Lord knows I’m just another jerk.

But the fact is, running’s saved my life — and my writing — thanks to Ben Tanzer, whose wonderfully wise, hopeful, and meditative 99 Problems pulled me from a very dark place and got me moving. Ben! Thank you! (When you have anxiety and depression, at some point you may start to believe it when people around you throw up their hands and say, “Maybe you just have a shit personality.”) If it weren’t for his book, I don’t know what. Do yourself a favor and read it, and then read Devin Kelly’s essays of gorgeous, aching profundity and Brian Oliu’s, too, for good measure.

This is not that. I didn’t start running until I turned 40. In high school, I quit sports teams to focus on extracurricular partying and spent the heft of my younger years in a similar fashion. I had no endurance or stamina. I was low, like, all the time. When I’m low, my feet are cinder blocks. Sadness is paralyzing. The last thing I want to do is engage my body. To feel anything. This is the cycle. Countless are the times I’ve said running just isn’t for me. But then Tanzer came along with his Chicago snapshots and his cheerful outlook, and then what did I have to lose, so I smoked a last cigarette and bought myself a pair of running shoes.

Everything hurt. But I always, always felt better after a run, the way I feel better after I’ve written, so I eked out a practice. That year, I ran my first half marathon — slow, injured, doped on ibuprofen. But I did it. And then at the end, I devoured a glorious Nathan’s hot dog at Coney Island.

I’m getting ready for another race on my 46th birthday later this month, so training is on the brain. One regret (of a million regrets) is having waited 20 years between reading Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner in a college British literature class and hitting the pavement. Who knows if it would have made a difference. Hindsight is a bitch, so it goes.

Running scrapes the plaque that clogs my mind and my heart. When I don’t run, the buildup slows me to a crawl then to a halt. There is no choice in the matter. I take it like I take my Lexapro: to stave off the ever-encroaching, gaping black hole. There is nothing graceful about it. Sometimes after a long run, I piss blood. Or I’m gripped by exhaustion. My fingers blanch with Raynaud’s. There is no winning. There is only one step then another.

So maybe it is cheesy and overdone, but every goddamn metaphor is true. The discomfort, the vulnerability, the brutality, the elation. If you don’t believe me, read Haruki Murakami on his ultra-marathon journeys. Now there’s a brilliant masochist. Anyway — here’s some of the bullshit I’ve gathered:

A little grit goes a long way

I’ll never be long and lithe or destined for athletic greatness. My legs are stubs, my sports bras Old Navy. And I’ll never be the writer that bangs out a flawless first draft. Everything I do takes hours (years) of work. But what I lack in elegance and ease and talent, I try to make up for with scrappiness. I think about that kid in Meatballs with the bad hair and the bad clothes, the loner who ducks through the woods and scrambles beneath branches to the finish line. I hear Bill Murray calling me Rudy the Rabbit. I picture his megaphoned hands: “Wun, you wascal wabbit.” I imagine him forever calling after me.

Steal time and secure it

I’m pretty sure it was Meg Wolitzer who said, “No one is going to magically grant you the time.” At the time of her workshop at the 92nd Street Y, I was a frazzled mom of nonsleeping toddlers. But the notion of doing first and asking for permission later, of prioritizing and not letting yourself get bulldozed by the avalanche of life, lit up something inside me. With writing, it meant waking up at an ungodly hour before the house arose to steal a handful of minutes. Likewise, I try to schedule my runs. Because you don’t miss a doctor’s appointment on the calendar, do you?

Forgive yourself

I’m supposed to be on a run right now, but it’s hot as hell and the dog’s at my feet and if I get up then he’ll get up and want a walk, want to eat and play, so I’m going to take a pass today, and that’s okay. The trick is not letting life derail you. Just because you deviate from the regimen doesn’t mean you throw in the towel. Not so fast, slacker.

Stretch

At my age, I have to iron out the kinks before I go anywhere. It’s a whole process. Foam rollers. Yoga mats. A couple of years ago, I started Julia Cameron’s morning pages. I was in a funk at the time—shocker—stalled on multiple fronts, and the prospect of facing a white page filled me with dread. When every interior voice swore I was wasting my life, morning pages allowed me to get out of my own damn way by tricking me back to the page. It helped me clear my throat. Loosen my joints. Set up for a more successful session.

Pace yourself

Sprint out of the gate, and you’ll have a hard time sustaining. (See also: my abandoned manuscripts.) For me, the hardest part of a long project is staying with it once the novelty wears off, when I’m in the soggy middle, tired or bored, rapidly losing steam. Like everything else, it’s mental. Telling myself “Ease up, bub, this shit takes time” allows me to anticipate the lulls so I can scrounge up enough juice for another page. Another mile.

Breathe through it

Stitch in the side, thigh-burning hills. It’s all about weathering the discomfort. When your ass falls asleep in your chair. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Use a mantra if that helps. Mine goes like this: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Fuel up

Gummies, beans, gels thick as peanut butter. There is physiology, and there is bribery. The perennial carrot. At the next traffic light, shoot some goo. One more sentence, bust out the 70% dark chocolate salted almond bar. Reward your work with snacks. Keep filling the tank.

Embrace setbacks

Two sprained ankles, two Achilles tears, chronic IT band injuries, a bout of plantar fasciitis, tight hips, throbbing shoulder pain, a broken wrist, and 20-year-old knee surgery. I’ve lost months of running, spent years not writing a word. Along the way, I’ve amassed a roomful of rejections. Like scars, they are what make me.

Dress for success

Gay Talese can keep his cufflinks. I don’t think I’ve worn pants with a fly in two years. Pandemic chic is my writing look. As for running: I like my ankle socks thick, my shorts short. I want to feel the wind.

Be present

Inevitably, there are hills. Rather than psych myself out, I try to not get ahead of myself. This can be tough; I am restless, often looking for that exit. But the real writing only begins in revision when you go back in, see what you’ve done, and sit quietly in the heart of each scene as you unfold it.

Visualize

At the same time, it can be instructive to picture the finish line. How to stay open to possibility so the story doesn’t feel overdetermined while also holding a loose, indeterminate sense of an endpoint? That’s the kick.

Go for flow

An awful word. Like getting my period in eighth-grade gym. David Jauss wrote a whole essay on it. Verlyn Klinkenborg calls it a misnomer. We’re all so distracted and tethered to our phones that interruption has become integral to the process. It’s damaging to suggest writers roll up their sleeves and instantly find themselves on the river. And yet. When some of that external hum quiets and the busy falls away — when running becomes a form of meditation, it’s the ultimate gift. To be fully inside of a moment, where there is nothing else around you but the rise and fall of your breath, the rhythm of your prose. Rare, maybe. But worth striving for.

Get high

Of all the drugs I’ve loved, I love endorphins the most. After a run, I know it will be a good day — or at least not a terrible day. A runner’s high fills me with hope and possibility and a sense of capability. Often this means I will teach better. Parent better. Write better.

Trust your gut

There are times your body will let you down, but it will also sustain you. It will betray you, and it will startle you. Listen to it. Trust it. That’s intuition. Call out your own crap. Follow where it leads. You know, you know, you know.

Stay the course

If someone with my questionable discipline and skill can stick with it, anyone can. Running (and writing) is individual. There is no comparison; there is only you, in your body, alone with your story. Maybe you’ll pair up with an accountability partner to keep you on track. To cheer each other on. It can get lonely on the road. Maybe you like the solitude. All I know is I wouldn’t have completed a single longer project if I didn’t have this parallel outlet. At some point, you reach the place of no return. You’re five miles, 50,000 words in. You tell yourself just past that tree or signpost or the curve in the road. You whisper to yourself: “Go on, get there.” You breathe into the center of your ache until it morphs into energy that releases into your blood. Sorry, you’re a runner now. Whatever you’re working on, you’ll see it through to the end.

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