On Perseverance, Running, and Writing a Novel

A year ago, I didn’t think I was capable of a sustained 5-minute run. Today, I ran my second uninterrupted 5km. This september, I’ll run my first 5 mile meet.

A few years ago, I felt a sense of accomplishment if I managed to write a mere two short stories in any given year. Last year, I wrote a hundred thousand words. This year, I’m on schedule to write 125.000, and I’m a week from finishing my first novel.

These two things are closely related.

I began running last January. Years of advice to exercize more–or indeed, at all–had gone unheeded. My closets were overflowing with the expensive attributes of every sport I had abandoned. It was only when my doctor told me that my current cholesterol levels would necessitate medication in a few years, that I overcame my deeply ingrained reluctance to spend any of my precious free time exercizing. The choice for running was easy: it takes little to no prep, and can be started simply by stepping out our back door.

I bought running clothes and shoes at a specialized store, and accepted their 5km interval training schedule with gratitude. And on January 10th, I went out into the cold, and embarked on my first run.

It became immediately clear that I was badly out of shape, but equally clear that it would take very little to become more or less fit again. The running intervals in my training schedule grew longer, and where at first I struggled to manage six repetitions of two-minute intervals, I soon grew comfortable with ever longer stretches of running. But still I shirked from longer, uninterrupted runs; I was training for 5km, but didn’t actually believe yet that my interval training was really preparing me for sustained runs without rest.

Until I began to notice something oddly interesting.

When I started out running short intervals (1 and 2 minutes), my mind was focused on completing the next minutes, on the clock, and on the break ahead of me. This brought a certain restlessness, stress even, to my runs. But as the training schedule progressed, and my prescribed intervals grew longer, it became increasingly difficult to focus on the expectation of the coming break, because at 3 and 4 minutes, breaks are a long time coming. Instead, I was forced to focus on the running itself, putting one foot in front of the next, keeping my eyes on the horizon.

Entering the zone.

The sweet spot turned out to be 5 minutes (and longer): much too long to keep my mind on completing the interval, on waiting for the break. Once I got to that phase of my training schedule, I began to experience the zone, and the buzzing of my sports watch that signals the end of an interval began to come as a complete surprise. More oddly still, once I got to this point, I entered my rest intervals (walking instead of running) actually eager to reach the buzz that signaled the next running interval.

It got even better when I bought my Trekz Titanium headphones, and downloaded my favorite playlists to my watch. With long running intervals, and my all-time favorite songs in my ears, running became became about running: put one foot in front of the other, repeat.

And now I’ve completed my first two 5km training runs, and feel confident that I can extend those to 6, and 7, and 8.

It can hardly be a coincidence that this year has so far seen my highest writing productivity as well. Because the similarities are legion.

Running is about putting one foot in front of the next, and repeating. Writing is about putting one word after the previous, and repeating. While running, focusing on speed, pace, expected total running time, personal records, actually makes running harder; staying in the moment makes it easier. Steps add up to meters; meters to kilometers. While writing, focusing on a target, on writing speed, on the quality of the writing, makes writing harder; simply stringing words together makes it easier. Words coalesce into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, scenes into chapters.

In both activities, the magic word is perseverance: the willingness to keep at it, to keep repeating the smallest, most basic steps in the process, and trusting that those will add up to the desired result, be that a 5-mile run or a novel.

I used to worry that I’m a short story writer, that I wouldn’t have the stamina, couldn’t sustain the necessary perseverance to complete a novel. But I can run 5km, and I can complete a novel.

All you need is faith that the process will ultimately yield the result. And that faith is easy to obtain. For what is a 5-mile run but a lot of paces in succession?

And what is a novel but a long sequence of words?