I ran in my second half-marathon on Sunday: 21 kilometres through the eerie quiet streets of Sydney with the only other sound the rhythmic breathing of others, feet hitting bitumen and the occasional shout of a spectator. Roads normally only for cars like the Cahill Expressway were closed to traffic and filled with other runners, all of us puffing towards the distant finish line. When I wasn’t focused on putting one foot in front of the other I gazed around in pained wonder. Who were all of these other people?
People crazy enough to get up at 5 in the morning on an overcast Sunday and slog through the streets of the city with thousands of others. Crazy enough to spend months logging long and shin-splinting training runs, to have eaten a plate of carbs and drunk a litre of water before going to bed by 9pm Saturday night. To have laid out their shoes and socks and shorts and sportsbras and singlets and special energy gels the night before, as carefully as a bride lays out her dress on the eve of her wedding. They are everywhere. It is strange to count myself among them.
But perhaps not so strange, I’ve been thinking lately, with my second novel coming out in August. There are symmetries between long-form writing and long-distance running. Others have written about them before: Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote a memoir of distance running in 2008, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He writes:
“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned from running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate – and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in by abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.”
Australian writer Benjamin Law talks about this kind of thing as well: how exercise and writing feed naturally into each other. He said in an interview in 2013: “Writing involves you being completely, revoltingly sedentary while your brain works overtime. But when you exercise, it’s the complete reverse – you more or less become brain dead while your body works like a bastard to not drown/collapse on the treadmill/die. Then after I exercise, I always come back to my laptop and it’s like I’m seeing the story for the first time. I know what I need to do.”
My first half-marathon was in 2003. I wasn’t writing, I had just moved to Sydney and I was 25. I had lots of time to fill, since I didn’t have a job or any friends. But I didn’t have a plan or a schedule to train to, and I just ran – regularly – and up to two hours at a stretch. The race itself was awful. I was exhausted halfway through and pushed myself just to finish, wishing every moment that I could quit. When I did finish in 2 hours and 14 minutes I said to my partner – “Never again.” I hated every second of it. Why do something that you despise?
Back then I had desire but little discipline, and I didn’t yet understand the way that regular consistent work pays off. If I wasn’t good at something immediately, what was the point? If I had not become a writer, I don’t think that I would have the same focus that I do now. I am 12 years older but I ran 16 minutes faster on Sunday, finishing at 1 hour 58 minutes. Here are ten things writing has taught me about distance running – in no particular order.
- I’m not in it to win it. I’m never going to be the fastest runner or the most erudite, celebrated writer. I’m not motivated by competing with other people, but I am motivated to see myself improve.
- Big goals are best approached in bite-sized chunks. When writing a novel I try to write 1000 words every weekday. When training to run 21 kilometres I run 5-10 minutes longer every week.
- It is a solitary exercise but it helps to have friends doing it as well. I have writer friends and runner friends, and with both I can commiserate when things are tough, and celebrate success. No one understands you like another person going through a similar struggle.
- Some days it is wonderful and easy, others it feels as though I am moving through a swamp. A croc infested, smelly, malarial swamp. I never know what kind of day it is going to be.
- I need goals in order to get anywhere. A short story by the end of the month, a novel by the end of the year. A 10K in June, a half-marathon in September. They need to be realistic though.
- I need endurance and every bit of stubbornness I can find in order to achieve those goals.
- Exercise improves my work – they feed into each other. My best ideas for writing come when I’m running.
- If it isn’t hard, I am not improving. If it isn’t hard, I won’t have the same sense of achievement when I am finished. Good things come from being challenged.
- This is what I need to run: running shoes, some quick-drying, stretchy clothes. This is what I need to write: pen and paper or my laptop. The less complicated my requirements, the easier it is to not have excuses.
- The joy of an empty stretch of road is like the joy of an empty screen on my laptop. Both are silent, open, and full of possibility.