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Blog

The Real Race

Alissa Wilkinson

Lolo-Jones-profile

I started running seriously about a year and a half ago, as I was beginning my MFA thesis, which means I was digging deeply into old drafts and seeing my old writing faults everywhere I looked. On a whim one night, I signed up for a half-marathon that was four months away, Googled a training schedule, and started getting out on the road to pound out miles.

My life—which at the time was in various states of emotional and professional turmoil, and some of those linked to one another—fell into a rhythm of work, writing, and running. Whenever I wasn't at work, I was either at my computer or out on the pavement.

Five half-marathons and thousands and thousands of words and only a few mini-breakdowns later, I'm still surprised to realize that, for me at least, consistently running is far easier than consistently writing. In fact, running is almost comically easy: it’s just one foot in front of the other, and a lot of ignoring the voices in your head. There’s no grammar or style or word choice or any of those things to attend to. All runners engage in the same general muscle movements: the legs lifted and placed down, the feet striking pavement, the arms pumping back and forth. Sometimes I run past a person whose stride has been altered by injury or some kind of muscular defect, and his gait is noticeable only because it is different.

That means that the main difference between me and Haruki Murakami, who runs marathons and ultramarathons and wrote a book about running and writing called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is just that he’s repeated the same muscular motions, the breathing and pumping of limbs, a lot more than I have.

Murakami also has a great deal more practice than I do with writing. He has been writing for three or four hours per day for decades. I suppose that means he also has developed the muscle for discipline. Reading his book on this point, I found this passage:

To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.

When I started writing, I “relied on a natural spring of talent,” especially since I was mostly writing short informational pieces. But when I decided to dig deeper and dredge another hole called “creative writing,” one in which I had to work with my own stories and my own material, I discovered that I’d exhausted my source—my natural spring—and now was going to be forced to do the hard work of sitting down and writing every day.

That is a real drag on the ego. Someone who sprints and then decides to train for a marathon will hit a wall around mile four, and might get discouraged. And someone like me has her identity rocked when she can’t do something well on the second or third or even tenth try.

I can tell you this: her tendency is to try to find a shortcut, or just quit. Usually the latter.

She has to take a hard look at herself and get ready to fail and then keep going. She has to be ready for sore muscles, and a bruised ego, and maybe even injuries, and the possibility that she might never be as good as the other guy, the hard truth that it’s possible she’ll never be a standout. Or she may write for years before she has anything to say. She might have to write from fear, and through fear, before she is ready for the real race.