Writing as a marathon

My best friend Liz is training to run her first marathon.  On Wednesday she blogged about it, and the way training changed her mindset and her priorities.  For the first time, she says, she started to think about herself as an athlete.

I watched her run her first real race in early May, and seeing the way she glowed after finishing inspired me to take up running, something I spent years swearing I would never do.  I’m far from marathon training, but I’m working my way up to levels I never thought I could accomplish.  It’s taught me a few things that I can apply to other areas of my life, like my writing.

One of the things Liz taught me is the power of how we think about ourselves.  When she first started running, she was doing it to keep fit.  At some point during her training, she started thinking of herself as a runner, and that brought about a major change.  She started reading magazines and buying products aimed at runners.  She got familiar with major races, and learned runners slang.  She went from running for fitness to accumulating “base miles” and setting “PR”s (personal records, for the uninformed).  She saw herself differently, and that changed her goals and her outcomes.

I’ve also learned how much work goes into training for a marathon.  Marathon runners don’t spend months on the couch and then suddenly pump out 26 miles.  They spend four months in rigorous training, running almost every day, working their way up to that pace – and before those four months of training even begin, they spent at least two months getting their “base miles,” twenty or so miles a week that are intended to build bone density, joint strength, and otherwise condition the body to prepare it for distance running.  By the time she finishes the 26.2 miles of the Philadelphia Marathon, she will have run more than 1,000 miles to prepare for it.

I apply these lessons to the work of aspiring writers.  Are we really “writers?” Are we living that life, or are we dabbling? Are we training for the big race, or just dabbling when the mood strikes?

For years I called myself a writer, and truly I have written on and off in some form or another since I was about nine years old.  But I don’t think I really thought of myself as “a writer,” the way Liz thinks of herself as “a runner.”  I’ve taken steps to fix that recently.  I switched this blog over, for instance, to become focused primarily on my writing.  I subscribe to and read blogs by agents and other writers.  I follow agents and writers on Twitter.  I have a subscription to QueryTracker.net, and I have sent more than fifty queries in the last twelve months.

There are other things I can do.  I should subscribe to Writer’s Digest.  Whether the articles are always valuable, receiving it will be a monthly reminder that I am a writer.  I should start attending workshops and the meetings of my local writer’s group.  I’ve considered going a few times but always made excuses.  It’s time to get serious about that.

Most importantly, I need to write, and to read.  I need to get my base miles.  I’ve been more disciplined about that recently, but I’d still say I’m only about a third as committed as I should be.  I’m more than halfway through a new novel, and just this week I finished the rough draft of a short story I’ve been struggling with for years.  I intend to have that polished within the next week, show it around a bit for feedback, and start looking for a place to publish.  Because as long as I have been writing, I have never had any fiction published anywhere.  I’ve never run a sanctioned race.

Writing, like running, may start slow and may be painful in the beginning.  The key is to stay with it, to set goals and stick to them, and to keep practicing every day.  Just as one can’t leap off the couch and run a marathon, one can’t sit down and pound out a novel in one week and expect to be successful.  We must be serious about our training, put in the work, and then we’ll see the benefits.

When I watched Liz run her first race, I noticed the difference between the early finishers and the stragglers.  The early finishers blew through their 10K as if it barely required any effort.  Sure, they were exerting themselves, but it was a level of exertion they had conditioned themselves to be comfortable with.  They breathed easy, and when they finished they looked satisfied and proud.  These were the people who trained.  Far behind them, the final finishers were red-faced, walking in, holding their sides and gasping for air.  They finished, but just barely.  That race took everything they had, and left them physically and mentally exhausted.  These were the folks who hadn’t trained as hard.

I go back to writing, and I look at the way different writers finish a novel.  Those who have trained still find it exerting, but when they finish they are still comfortable.  They are ready to look back and revisit, to polish the work and make it the best it can be.  Those who haven’t trained enough are exhausted.  They are glad to have finished, but they don’t have the strength to look back at what they just did, they just want to collapse on the sofa.  Chances are good that their writing, like the races run by those last-place finishers, is sloppy and inconsistent.  There’s another important distinction between the early and the late finishers, too: the early finishers won, or came close to it.

So what do you think?  Do you think of yourself as a writer?  Do you treat yourself as one?  Are you doing your miles? For you non-writers, what aspects of your life can you apply these lessons to?  What roles do you apply to yourself, and what work do you need to put in if you want to be successful?

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Chris
Chris is an author, artist, personal trainer, and long-time nonprofit fundraiser. His work has appeared in The Nib, GOOD, the Huffington Post, Salon, MTV, and numerous other publications. Chris lives in New York City.

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