A few years ago, after a long break, I took up running again. Not long afterward, I began writing my first novel. I have been surprised by how the two endeavors dovetail and inform each other. Here are seven things I learned about writing from my running.
- Run your own race.
When you’re running a race, there are a lot of other people around you. Some of them are faster, some are slower. They are right next to you. You are very aware of who is passing you. But if you get too caught up in that – try to catch up with someone, or beat yourself up because that kid just passed you – you will hurt yourself in the long run. Everyone has his or her own pace. You need to run yours. I remember a really hilly course I ran. On one particularly steep descent, I heard footsteps behind me, loud and fast. My immediate impulse was to try to match them. But I held on, repeating my running mantra, run your race run your race. She flew past me. But on the next hill, guess what? She was walking, and I cruised right up and passed her. Some people go fast and then slow, others keep an even pace throughout, some fly past and just keep going. Know your pace, and trust it. Some people are going to write more. Some are going to get recognition that you won’t. Some are going to sell many more books. Trust your own path. They’re running their race, you run yours.
- You have to work as hard as you can. And then work harder.
Long distance running has taught me so much about pushing myself. When you’ve been running for two hours or more, your body is aching, you’re hungry and so, so tired. Really any excuse to stop sounds good. But you have to push through that and keep going. You will be stronger for it. Right now I’m editing my first novel. It is darn hard. I’m tired. I’ve been working on this book for almost two years, and I’ve also got three kids, a marriage and a demanding job. I write in the early morning, before everyone is awake, which is also when I run. That means I am tired all the time. But it’s worth it to get this right. This book is what I am offering the world of myself. It is worth it to spend the time to make it worthy of the world. Of me. So I’m going to keep going.
- Give yourself treats along the way.
Now, one thing I noticed as the runs got longer was that a little treat partway through helped keep me going. I like gummy bears. I keep them in my pocket, and when I’m really struggling, I get a gummy bear. I try to space them out, no more than one per mile, and I don’t start them until at least mile four. It makes them more special that way. Similarly, chocolate really helps the writing, I find. I also like to chew gum. I have a pretty writing space, which I spent time and a little money to decorate in a way that is pleasing to me and only me. I have favorite pens and notebooks, and I keep them around me. These little rituals around writing make it more special to me, and make me feel good about the process of it. They help me keep returning to the page when it gets hard and I’m tired and just want to stop.
- Notice what is around you
To me, one of the best things about running is being outside. I run on a trail near my house, through woods with big old trees, lots of birds and squirrels. If you’re running and you’re not paying attention to the world around you, you can get hurt. You can trip and fall. More common, you can miss the best part of running – being out in nature. I try really hard not to spend my run ruminating over problems. It’s great for that, too, of course. But I also want to see what is happening right then. Is there a deer? Are the crocuses starting to peek through? Staying in the moment is the best way to enjoy a run and coincidentally, the best way to enhance my writing. It’s no surprise that large parts of my novel take place in the woods. All that is happening around you in the world is great fodder for your creative mind. Let it in.
- Take care of your body.
When I’m running long distances, I have to drink lots of water, all the time. I have to eat good, healthy and filling meals. I have to get lots of rest. If I don’t do those things, my running suffers. The impact is immediate – had a stressful day at work and didn’t drink enough water? The next morning’s run is miserable. Similarly, if I’m sick or not getting enough breaks, my writing suffers. My mind isn’t as sharp, and I don’t have the energy to do what I need to do. Taking care of my physical health is essential to getting good work out of me.
- Set interim goals.
Two years ago, the idea of me running 13 miles was laughable. I was running a few times a week, 1-2 miles each time. Then I decided to run a 10K, which is about 6 miles. It seemed really far and scary, but I gave myself interim goals. I had a running plan. I increased my runs each week, in number and length. And because the course was hilly, I made myself run lots of hills. Once I’d done the 10K, a half-marathon didn’t seem out of reach. Again, I came up with a running schedule that seemed ambitious but not impossible. I scheduled the runs for times that worked for my life, and increased my mileage each week. Similarly, with writing my book, I gave myself monthly goals. I set these based on what I thought I could accomplish, pushing myself just a little. I didn’t beat myself up for not writing more; as long as I was hitting my targets, I was doing what I needed to do.
7. Acknowledge accomplishments.
When you finish a race, sometimes you get a medal. I know it’s kind of silly; “everyone’s a winner!” But it’s nice to see those medals hanging from the mirror in my bedroom, reminding me of what I accomplished. I ran my last race with my two best friends, and afterward we got massages, took naps and then had a fantastic dinner. When I finished the first draft of my novel, I also took a nap (notice a theme here?) and that night, opened a bottle of champagne. Celebrate these moments. I think tangible reminders of what you’ve done are great. When I sell my novel, I’ve decided that I get a piece of jewelry. I don’t know what it is yet, and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but I want something that I can look at and say, “I got that when I sold my first book.”