What I’ve Learned About Writing From Long-Distance Running

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From Writer Unboxed:

The morning slides right off me, pooling into my cooling sleeves. Sunrise is an hour away, and already it’s close to ninety degrees, with humidity in an astronomical percentage. My body feels heavy. My brain feels heavier.

I’ve had few truly enjoyable early morning long runs since the summer began.

Some seasons are like that.

I have to remind myself of many things when I walk out the door, headlamp strapped on, hydration belt positioned on my hips, to begin my warmup of calf raises, high knees, and skip-strides. They become mantras as I slog through the miles, one at a time, the end so far removed from the beginning I can hardly imagine it.

As a (amateur) runner who logs anywhere from 55 to 65 miles every week just for fun (I know), I’ve learned a lot about writing from my long-distance running habit. It may seem strange to equate the two—one is incredibly active, the other not so much. But both use the same kind of persistent focus. Both require stamina and dedication. Both are incredibly difficult to finish strong.

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing from long-distance running.

Run the mile you’re in. Write the chapter you’re in. I don’t walk out the door for a twelve-mile run already thinking of the twelfth mile. The run would be doomed before it began. I focus only on the first mile. And then the next mile. And the third, and on and on and on.

So often, we start a story and we already can’t wait to get it done. Part of the excitement of writing is the vision we have for the end product. But if we keep our eyes focused on The End and how far we have left to go, instead of where we actually are in the project, we can easily lose our focus and our enthusiasm for the project. The finish line is so far away! We still have to get through the Fun and Games section! And the Bad Guys Close In! And the Dark Night of the Soul and everything that comes after and…maybe we should just quit. We’ll never make it.

It’s important to write the chapter we’re in. Resist the urge to measure how much farther you have to go. Find your stride in this chapter and watch the words, one after another, propel you along the path of progress.

Every day is different—some days are great, others are slogs. A coach I know tells his runners, “Today’s legs are not yesterday’s legs.” Meaning: We may not be able to perform today at the level we did yesterday.

We’ve all heard the saying “comparison is the thief of joy.” That’s true when comparing ourselves to other people, but it’s also true when comparing ourselves today to ourselves yesterday. Not every day will be a perfect productive day where we write two thousand perfect words. And we can’t put that kind of pressure on ourselves.

Some days we’re tired because we didn’t get enough sleep. Or we did too much people-ing and feel completely burned out. Or the kids are home for the summer and really like to talk and there’s no quiet corner in our house where we can find a minute to think, let alone write.

Some days are slogs. Some seasons are slogs. It’s important to remember they’re only days—or seasons. In the same way today’s writing isn’t the same as yesterday’s writing, tomorrow’s writing won’t be the same as today’s. So if you’re having an awesome writing day, be grateful. And if you’re not, have hope. Every day is a new day.

Endurance requires training. We don’t just decide we want to run fifteen miles and get out there and run a record-breaking fifteen miles without any previous running training. We also don’t just decide we want to write a book and then write a perfect book the first time we try. It takes time to build up the skills and focus to write an entire cohesive piece of writing—whether it’s an essay or a book or a short story. Nothing comes out perfect the first time.

We train. We study our craft. We develop the weaker muscles so we can write strong. We grow in our skills, and we never stop learning how to write better. Growth takes time and patience.

Sometimes you fall, but you get back up. Not everything goes the way we want it to. Sometimes our books are less successful than we’d like them to be. Sometimes we’re practically invisible. Sometimes critics say really difficult things. Sometimes we don’t know if we want to do this again. Sometimes we say the wrong thing or we take a wrong turn or we fail at something that mattered.

Falling down—making mistakes—are just opportunities for growth.

We’re human. We trip every now and then. We do our best to see the cracks in the sidewalk and all the uneven places, but no one is perfect. Let yourself feel the stun of the fall. Keep breathing. Peel yourself up from the pavement. Jog (or limp) back home. And get back out there tomorrow and do it all again.

You won’t love it all the time. Sometimes it’s too painful or it’s too dark or you’re so burned out you can’t remember why you started writing in the first place. I’ve been there. I’ve asked myself the questions, Why am doing this? Who really cares? What difference does it make?

During these difficult days, I fall back on routine. I sit down and write at the same time I always write, even if it’s the last thing I want to do. Even if all I’m writing today will be trashed tomorrow. Even if it feels like I will never ever love it again.

The hardest part is getting started. Once I get started, I feel better. I put one word in front of the other, and I make some progress, even if it’s just the progress of establishing routine and consistency. That’s important progress, too.

It’s okay to give yourself a break. I know I just espoused the virtues of pushing through resistance and writing even when you don’t want to…but there is a flip side. It’s okay to take a break. Sometimes we need a break. We’ve been overtraining, working too hard, skimping on recovery and time off. We don’t write our best when we’re burned out.

We also don’t write our best when we feel like we’re missing out on something important just to write (or run). In the same way I have to adjust my running schedules for things like birthday parties, holidays, book signings, special days with my family and friends, I also have to adjust my writing schedule for the same. Routine is good—and often necessary as a baseline. But we can’t get so obsessed with it that we lose sight of the delicate balance between work and play.

A change of scenery can be helpful. In the fall and winter seasons, I run in the dark. It’s hard to run in the dark every single day. And just when I think I don’t have it in me anymore, the seasons change and I get out at the same time, but it’s summer and the days are longer and I get to see the spectacular sunrise. It’s magical. And beautiful. And invigorating.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed