Running Down a Dream: The Parallels of Writing and Running

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For eight years, I have read nearly every word in BRO. Each month just before press, I search for typos, rewrite clumsy language, and double-check URLs and race dates. I have read hundreds of stories about talented and driven athletes who compete in extraordinary races, bagging peaks in the dark, running ultramarathons, biking up and down the South’s most serious mountains and it makes me wonder: why do people push themselves to such extremes? And how do they find the strength to accomplish these hyperbolic and slightly crazy feats?

I ran a bit in college, enough to keep off the whiskey weight and not one step more. I never enjoyed it—I found it boring and hard—but I got through it with the help of a lot of terrible late 90s pop music (think Britney Spears, Ricky Martin) and the promise of the satisfaction I felt afterward, pleasantly lighter in body and mind. But running never really stuck for me—it was always boring and eventually I abandoned it for the entertainment and distraction of step class and Body Pump.

Then, six months ago, when my life reached record levels of stress and I woke up every morning wondering if I would make it through another day of infuriating, thankless, underpaid work, if I could handle another six months of squeezing novel writing into evenings and weekends, I made a quick, life-saving decision: at noon, instead of heading to the gym for another rousing round of Zumba, I put on my shoes and I hit the streets.

For me, running starts like this: exhilarated, I lace up my shoes, stomach fluttering with excitement—how far will I go? What will I see? How will it feel? I set off, heart pounding.

Writing is the same: grab a pen, brain pounding with the unrelenting hope that something truly magical could play out on the simple, beautiful lines of a college-ruled notebook. I scrawl feverishly, hand cramping as words stack up.

And then, whether I am writing or running, the same thing happens: shit gets real. The questions start racing: why am I outside running when I could be inside eating Cheetos? Who am I to think I have the strength to run this race, write this book? And the killer: am I done yet?

The first year I spent writing my novel, I was terrified and lost, deeply afraid that I’d never succeed at the one endeavor I’d always aspired to. Every night over dinner I told my husband it was only a matter of time till I failed. Every night he said the same thing: “Well you can always give up. Pass the salad?”

This statement was my fuel. I would not quit, and so I kept going, kept putting one word in front of the other.

Different people get through the wall in different ways. Darren Dahl, journalist and runner, says that the Shut In Trail Race almost defeated him, but quitting was not an option. “On the last, impossibly steep mile up to Mount Pisgah, my tank was completely empty—but I never even considered stopping or turning around. Sure, maybe I wish the outcome had been better in some way. But I finished, and that means a lot.”

Jennifer Pharr Davis, a writer and hiker who set a Fastest Known Time for thru-hiking the A.T., said that she succeeded in that epic undertaking by reminding herself that she was out there to find her best on the trail and to do that, she had to keep going, no matter what. “I told myself the love was greater than the pain—my love for the trail, for my endurance, for my husband who was helping me along—and that the passion and joy I got from it was more meaningful than the physical hurt I was experiencing.”

I’ve been working on my book for 5 years and have racked up 20 agent rejections. I’ve had some dark moments, but as with Dahl, quitting is not an option. Every time I feel discouraged, I double down on my efforts. As Bettina Freese, freelance writer, bodywork instructor, and mom, says about her writing, “The only way through the wall is to keep going.”

This, however, does not mean I do not occasionally want to toss my computer out the window, throw a few punches, scream like a madwoman. And so I run.

“Running and writing go together for me like peanut butter and jelly,” says Dahl. “I often find inspiration and solutions to my writing problems while trail running.” For me that’s a very good day of running. I’ll happily settle for coming back sweaty and calm enough that I no longer want to set fire to manuscript pages.

I still find running hard. But there’s a beauty in it I’d never noticed before. The satisfaction of moving your body through space. The disappearance of worldly concerns. The simplicity: running is nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other, over and over. It’s a meditation, just like writing.

Pharr Davis, by all standards a champion, offers a somewhat surprising explanation of her career. “For me, running is performance art, beautiful and rhythmic. If I didn’t see it as art—if it was just exercise—I don’t know if I would do it. Very few people write or run to be truly the best. They do it because it’s what they love.”

Running and writing, mountain climbing and biking, and countless other sanity-testing pursuits (parenting, anyone?) are all the same: challenges we cannot undertake unless we are in love with them, committed to the heartache, physical slaughter, and endlessness that each endeavor offers. It’ll be great to finish my book, but I no longer fixate on the horizon. What I yearn for, what I strive for, is the work itself, the daily joys, surprising and beautiful, and the inevitable frustrations, humbling and human. And so we keep going.


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