Run, Write, Repeat

What Runners Can Learn from Writers (and Vice Versa)

A lot of runners are also writers. The most notable contemporary runner-writer, perhaps, is Haruki Murakami, the celebrated Japanese novelist. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami explains how running and writing appeal to folks like him: “I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself,” he writes. “To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring.”

I can relate. I started writing seriously when I was nine years old, and I fell in love with running two years later. Decades of writing and running along parallel tracks have taught me that, not only do the two activities nourish the introvert’s soul in similar ways, but the formula for success is similar in both. Here are four lessons I learned as a writer that have benefited my running:

Small progress adds up.

In the past 22 years I’ve written 33 full-length books. When I say it like that, my productivity seems almost superhuman. But let’s dig deeper into the numbers. An average-size book contains 70,000 words. Twenty-two years is 8,030 days. To write 33 full-length books in 22 years, then, all I needed to do was write 287 words per day.

Small progress adds up. A writer who wants to achieve big things doesn’t have to big things every day, or any day. They just need to do something every day. And it’s the same for runners. Peak fitness is big, but attaining it doesn’t require “epic” training efforts. Small daily progress will suffice.

First drafts always suck. 

Every time I sit down to start working on a new book, I tell myself that surely this one will be easier than the previous ones, given the vastness of my experience. But it never is. Grinding out that next first draft is always just that—a grind—and the result always sucks. That’s okay, though, because time is on my side. I can keep revising and revising until the final product appears to have been written by a different and much better writer than the hack who barfed up the first draft.

Again, running is the same. The you who crushes big workouts at peak fitness seems like a different and much better athlete than the you who suffers through pathetically slow “easy” runs in the early days of a training cycle. That’s how effective the process is when given time to work its magic. You’ll be far more patient with those creaking first steps in the process if you remind yourself of this fact. No runner or piece of writing starts off great. In both athletics and the literary arts, greatness emerges through iteration.

Read great writing if you want to be a great writer.

Writing and reading go hand in hand. As a lifelong book lover, I strongly believe that, next to writing itself, reading is the most effective way to get better at writing. But not just any reading will do. It’s almost impossible for any writer to produce writing that’s superior to the writing they read, for it’s by reading that a writer learns what great writing looks like. Even a genius can only do so much that’s never been done before. For the rest they depend on absorbing best practices as exemplified by other writers.

The running equivalent of this phenomenon is learning and emulating the practices of the world’s best runners. Seventy-five years ago, elite runners trained very differently than they do today, and they were a lot slower than today’s elites. If you’d been running back then, your development would have been limited by the unavailability of better examples of how to train optimally. Here in the third decade of the 21st Century, however, there are no such limitations, and yet very few nonelite runners emulate elite best practices to the degree they could. That’s why I teamed up with elite running coach Ben Rosario to write Run Like a Pro (Even If You’re Slow), which you should definitely read if you haven’t already.

Find your voice.

One major difference between writing and running is how they’re judged. In running as in other sports, performance measurements are ruthlessly empirical: first place, second place, last place; 40 minutes, 50 minutes, 60 minutes; and so forth. Writing is far more subjective. There are those who try to rank writers, but I believe all such efforts are misbegotten. As a reader, I judge books, articles, poems, plays, and essays on a simple, binary scale: worth reading/not worth reading.

And what makes something worth reading, largely, is originality. Runners score no points for being different, but writers do. There are many writers out there whom I judge to be far greater masters of the craft than I will ever be, but that doesn’t bother me because my writing is unique. Throughout my career I’ve worried  little about being scooped, resting easy in the knowledge that I have my own special ideas and style, and I always will. Iron War, Diet Cults, Life Is a Marathon, Running the Dream, and The Comeback Quotient aren’t the best books ever written, but they are books that no one else (much less artificial intelligence) could have written.

Is running really so different, though? Although performance measurements in running are mercilessly objective, each athlete is unique—biologically, psychologically, and situationally. For this reason, the optimal formula for performance is also unique to the individual, at least in its particulars. As a coach, I don’t impose a one-size-fits-all formula on my athletes. Rather, I approach each partnership as an ongoing search for the athlete’s personal recipe for success—a process I regard as a precise analog of the process of “finding one’s voice” as a writer.

Run, Write, Repeat

If you’ve ready this far, you might be interested in an event I’m hosting. Run, Write, Repeat: A Dream Run Camp Retreat, will take place August 15-18 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Cohosted by myself and Emily Pifer, author of the award-winning memoir The Running Body, the retreat will feature intensive writing workshops, group trail runs, great food, and more. To preserve the intimacy of the experience, we’re limiting enrollment to twelve runner-writers, so if you don’t want to miss out, reserve your spot today!

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