How Long-Distance Running Has Made Me a Better Writer

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to sit down and write something that wasn’t about what I’ve been reading or a big announcement about the book I’ve been working to publish for the last three years.  I don’t really have time now either, but I’m making it, because I’d really like to be more active on the blog.  So here I am, going back to writing about running.  Did you miss it?

I started running in the spring of 2013.  I’ve blogged about it off and on for the better part of two years, but most of that was focused on being injured, on feeling tired and fatigued.  I lost any sort of excitement that comes with writing about running, so I stopped writing about it.  I needed to start loving it again before my words spilled out into the world.  So instead, I wrote characters who were runners.  I couldn’t just stop talking about it all together!  It’s basically the only time I go outside.[1]  In any case, my training has ramped up in the last nine months since I stopped writing about running, and it’s been teaching me a thing or two about writing.  What could running possibly have taught me that I couldn’t have learned elsewhere?  Let me count the things.

It taught me to push boundaries

My writing used to be boring.  There, I said it.  I could write—I have knowledge of grammar and syntax and I read a lot.  I know what stories are supposed to sound like.  But I was writing basically the same story over and over with a different cast of characters.  I wasn’t pushing myself in any way.  That has been changing.  For the first time, I explored a part of my own identity that I’ve always hidden from, even as I made jokes about it.  Being biracial in a blond-haired, blue-eyed town was the thing in my childhood that I wish I had been loud about, rather than hiding it away.  There is so much about my grandparents, about my ancestry, that makes me both proud and angry, and it took me 27 years to actually start exploring that.  It’s a boundary that I wanted to push, that I had to knock over.  FIGHT AND FLIGHT means more to me than a lot of other stories I’ve written because I bled all over that manuscript.  Not only does it explore being a biracial teenager in a predominately white town, but it also delves into rape.  PTSD.  The things that go bump in the night, the things that haunt people.  It felt good to write about things that people don’t want to talk about.

Running did that for me.  That sounds really stupid, but I fought through an injury for two full years.  It took three months of trail running and excruciating cross-training to build up the strength to stave off the overuse injury I’ve been literally running from.  Once I knew I could run a half-marathon without pain, all I wanted was more.  I wanted to run longer.  I wanted to run faster.  I wanted to push my body to the point where I thought I was going to break, and then keep pushing.  It sounds a little masochistic when I say it like that, I’m now seeing.  But it doesn’t change anything.  The sore muscles make me understand that my body is working.  And the clear mind makes me understand that I can truly do anything I set out to achieve.

It taught me to make my goals long-term

If there is one parallel I can draw here without too much explanation, it’s the similarities between publishing and long-distance running.  Nothing happens overnight.  Right now, I’m training for my first marathon.  I’m in week ten of an eighteen-week training plan, and this weekend, my long run is eighteen miles.  I run four days each week, my weekly mileage bouncing between twenty and thirty-five miles.  I had to make that commitment in order to achieve the goal I set for myself—no one told me I have to do this.  I could have done an easier training plan, but I wanted to be in the best shape I possibly could.  I wanted to be ready.  And in eight weeks, I believe I will be ready.

Writing and publishing are so similar it’s almost funny.  Anyone can decide to write a book, just like anyone can decide to run a marathon.  But the people who cross the finish line are the people who prepared, who worked hard for it.  I used to be the queen of short-term goals.  I would write something, and then when I got bored, I’d quit.  When I didn’t find a literary agent who was begging me to sign with them on the first go of querying, I stopped.  I didn’t query for two years after that.  I didn’t understand how publishing worked, just like when I started running, I didn’t understand that if you run and don’t ever cross-train, you end up with IT band syndrome.  Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.  But if you really want something, if you really want to one day be standing at the starting line in Boston on Patriot’s Day[2], you have to work.  You have to work HARD.  It’s the same with publishing.  What I should have taken away from the lack of bites on my query is that a) the query was pretty rough, and b) the manuscript needed some work.  But that book?  The one I was querying in 2013 that I gave up on for two years?  It comes out in the spring.  And no, it wasn’t luck.  It was WORK.

It taught me about cross-training

Remember in the last paragraph when I said that when you only run and never cross-train, it’s more likely that you’ll end up with IT band syndrome?  IT band syndrome is an overuse injury which indicates that the muscles in your hips and core aren’t strong enough to support your knees, so the tendon at the knee-joint becomes painful and inflamed.[3]  In order to heal, you have to stop running and start cross-training like crazy to strengthen the hips and core.  I started with squats, lunges, and planks and have continued by completing Tone It Up video workouts twice a week.  And now I can run without pain.  But I can’t ever stop cross-training, otherwise it’s almost guaranteed to return with a vengeance.  Life is all about balance, right?

This is where my metaphor gets a little murky, but bear with me.  I wanted to write New Adult, because Ihad read that it was an up-and-coming age group and several agents I was interested in represented it.  Also, I could relate to the college-age mindset, even though I’ve been out for several years.  So I went about querying my work as New Adult.  Want to know the problem with this?  I hadn’t read any New Adult!  I was reading mostly Young Adult and just figured it was similar but with slightly older characters.  Nope.  Wrong.  My reading of Young Adult books was like running.  I never branched out, and it was holding me back.  So, for a while, I forced myself to pump the breaks on Young Adult and read outside of my comfort zone.  I read some mysteries.  I read some true crime.  I read some New Adult.  I read some literary fiction.  I read some memoir.  I read some magical realism.  Then I went back and read some more Young Adult, and I kept mixing it up.  I needed to cross-train by reading outside of my normal genre, my comfort zone.  I have some sci-fi on my to-read list, and some non-fiction, too.  I need to stay inspired, stay healthy.  And reading—constantly, voraciously, widely—it’s the only thing that I can find that truly makes me a better writer.  You have to read good writing to be able to produce good writing.  That’s what I’ve learned.

I could go on, but this is already long enough.  Long-distance running has changed my life for the better, and that includes my writing.  My body was made to perform for long-distances—I can see that now that I’m training properly.  It’s the same with my brain.  Poetry, short stories, essays—I can write them, but they don’t hold my attention.  I need to be able to plot out something over the course of 70,000 words.  I need to have the space to show the little things, the flaws in normal people, the magic of love and the depth of fear.  Running has taught me to hucker in for the long haul.  I feel pretty lucky to have a hobby that can do that.

Do any of you have awesome hobbies that help you write?  I want to hear about them!

-A.

 

[1] Okay, okay.  This is categorically not true, if you want to get technical about it.  I have a dog, therefore, I go outside about every 2-3 hours.

[2] For those unfamiliar with this reference, that would be the Boston Marathon.  It’s the ultimate goal for me, the pinnacle, the one ring.  I don’t know if I’ll get there this year, but I’m really just getting started.

[3] I say this like I’m a doctor.  I’m not.  I’ve just talked to several about it.

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