A runner’s guide to writing

running

I run and I write.  One makes me thin and the other makes me fat and so they somehow equal each other out.  Until recently I did both of those things in small doses.   And then over the course of the last couple of years I decided to run an actual Marathon and write the word equivalent of a marathon – a book.   After a year of training I completed the Dublin Marathon last year, and earlier this year was given a book deal to write a non-fiction memoir based on my blog.

It was an intense experience. The sweat and tears, the self-doubt and crippling fatigue, the cramp and exhaustion, the aching limbs and the alcohol deprivation. The Marathon was really tough too. 

Tough gigs but with extraordinary rewards. And I realised that both projects were very similar – both in terms of what they took out of me, and what they gave to me.  As a result of both, my muscles are tighter, I’m older and greyer, and have taken up some interesting habits (iced bath anyone?).  I’m not just physically fitter but mentally fitter – and although I have a medal that hangs on a ribbon in the kitchen, I also have another medal which is not on view: an inner medal that has given me confidence.   I am on the last legs of the book. Manuscript complete, doing final edits. But as I write towards the finish line, I realise how much my marathon experience helped me through this book experience.

Training for, preparing for and running that Marathon taught me a lot about running, shredded feet and the intricacies of peeing in public, but it also taught me about my own strength, determination and inner-butt-kicker.

I had always been a runner, and I had always been a writer.  But I was not a marathon runner and I was not a book writer.  The most I had ever run was the annual women’s mini marathon on 10km – that was the limit I had set myself.  Mostly I ran little runs around the park, because my busy life meant I couldn’t schedule in regular exercise classes (official reason).   And I also limited myself by telling myself that was all I could do (real reason).   Likewise I wrote short pieces like blogs and newspaper articles because my busy life meant I couldn’t schedule in longer pieces of work (official reason).  And I also limited myself by telling myself that was all I could do (real reason).

There is nothing like a 16 week colour coded spreadsheet with your weekly running plan to show you that the only limits you should be setting yourself are the sky.   There is nothing like being offered a book deal and a 5 month deadline to show how to push those limits.

I always dreamed of running a marathon and I always dreamed of writing a book, but for many years I assumed they were and always would be, dreams.   I was writing a novel, but in a hobby sort of ‘ah sure this old thing’ sort of way.  I had always talked about doing a marathon but in a ‘oh yes I’ll try and fit that in next year, when the kids are older, when I’m fitter’ sort of way.

But life took several turns and circumstances allowed me to say, with fear-laden determination, “Feck it. Let’s do this.”   Over the last two years, I worked my fingers and toes to the bone, and I crossed the finish line of one, and am about to cross another and my fingers and my toes still (relatively) intact.  (The main difference between a marathon and a book, is that as far as I know, you tend not to loose many finger nails writing, whereby loosing a toe nail is a rite of passage for runners). 

So I realised that training for a marathon is very similar to writing a book.  Many people make the assumption that the first thing you do to prepare for a marathon is buy a decent pair of trainers. No. This is like getting a manicure to start writing. The first thing you do is get A Plan.   And the plan for both is very similar.

Find-a-Friend

The daunting challenge of running a marathon requires endless, endless, endless hours pounding the streets, building up your mileage experience. The daunting challenge of writing a book requires endless, endless, endless hours pounding the laptop, building up your word count.  Both are made easier with company. I joined a running group (and had a running pal / mentor / cheerleader) so that many of the runs were about laughter and toe-nail demise-swapping stories. Joining a writing group (or having a group of writing friends  mentors / feedback-giving cheerleaders) is equally important so that despite writing being solitary, it doesn’t have to be lonely. No-one else can run the miles for you and no-one else can write the words for you, but the journey can be dramatically enhanced with company.   I had a marathon training expert who helped me focus, gave me support and answered all my silly questions. I also had a writing expert (in the form of Vanessa at Inkwell) who helped me focus, gave me support and answered all my silly questions. (Once I got the book deal I then also had an agent and a publisher to give me the equivalent of an energy gel drink when I began to hit the writing wall).

Break It Down

It really helped to break it down into sizeable, manageable chunks, and set goals.   Thinking of 26 miles every time I went for a run would have crippled me without the toe strain. Breaking it down into a series of little runs that just sort of grew without me noticing into big runs gave me focus and a chance to breathe.   Breaking down my book into sizeable chunks and chapters also kept me focused. For the marathon, I literally had an Excell Spreadsheet with the number of runs and mileage for every week laid out for the 16 weeks. I had something similar for writing. Know when and were and how much you can and will write. It means you have goals but most important, you also know when you can rest.   Stephen King explained that he wrote every day, including Christmas Day.  This frightened me and made me think I couldn’t be a writer. (I had children and parents to look after, not to mention a job). The marathon training schedule showed me that the days marked ‘Rest’ are as important as the Run Days.

Commit

The marathon wasn’t a sprint. It was a marathon. The end wasn’t the race, it was the whole training and process.   If I thought about the 26 mile finish line on that first training run, I’d never have made it out the door. Similarly, you can’t look at a 70,000 or 90,000 word target when you try and get those first words on a page.

You are in it for the long haul. Just as there are runs that are life-affirming, and writing bursts that make you want to burst into song, there are runs that are painful and soul-destroying and take every ounce of energy and commitment, and days you cannot string two thoughts together. Sometimes I couldn’t do it, and just stopped and trudged the walk of shame home (every runner knows the walk of shame – you are in running gear but you are walking. You have failed. It is always a long walk home).   There were plenty of days when writing 500 words was a test of endurance, and somedays I did the walk of shame to the fridge to pour myself a glass of wine having shut down the laptop. But the difference for a marathon runner and a book writer is that you have to learn to push through those bad days and keep going.  Setting goals of 10km, 10 miles, 16 miles, 20 miles; 500 words, 1000 words, a chapter, half way is the only way to make progress.

One step at a time, one word at a time.

Build your skills

One of the most important part of my marathon training was not even about running. It was  learning how to nourish myself so that I was able to run.  I had to learn how to fill myself with enough energy in advance of the run to keep me going, and I also had to learn when to replenish just before I depleted during the run.  I had to develop techniques that would rejuvenate my mental battles when things got tough. But most of all it was just the basic art of training.   It is the same with writing.  Nourishing yourself with books and keeping well are as important as the training.  Every blog, every article, every thrown away scrap of a half-written story, every completed-book-in-a-draw-that-will-never-see-the-light-of-day is part of the training. All those long runs, all those short runs, all those articles, all those blogs, all those drafts and false books are part of building up our skills and endurance and experience.  Every step counts. Every word counts.   I had to know what it felt like to hit the running wall but run over the top of it before I started the actual marathon. And so it helped to know what it felt like to have writers block and write over the top of it before I started my book.

Know self-doubt is part of the process

The whole way through that marathon I didn’t know if I would get to the end. Even when I got to 18 miles, especially when I got to 21 miles. When I saw the finish line about 200 metres away, I still didn’t know if I would make it over the line.  My legs hurt but my brain hurt more.  I had done so many mental battles over that marathon, I was exhausted.  I had hit the wall at 22 miles but with the help of my running friend, training, and cheerleaders on the route, it took every ounce of my will to keep going.  During the writing of this book I have cried and thrown things and banged my head on the laptop. I hit the wall of writers block, but with the help of writing friends, training and cheerleaders, it took every ounce of my will to keep going. For the Marathon I got a medal, and for the book I got a publishing deal.

I have a poster on my fridge drawn by a friend’s child that she waved at me en route on Marathon day. It says in huge coloured-in letters ‘Run, Alana Run’.   And as I turn the corner to face into the last mile of my book, as every bit of me aches, and I can start to see the finish line, those words also read to me, Write, Alana Write.  Except this time the only iced thing I’ll be having at the end is a long chilled Gin.

This was first published on http://www.writing.ie

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