What Marathon Training Taught Me About Writing

Remind me to tell you about the time I tried to run up a hill like this the day after I gave blood. Fun times.

A few years ago, I decided to sign up for a marathon training program to raise money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. The program was much like others – they put us into training teams and set out a weekly training regimen that included Saturday runs of increasing lengths in the eucalyptus-scented Golden Gate Park. Because I had NEVER run for exercise before and because I am not exactly what you would call a natural athlete, I was put in the next-to-slowest group, the Rosa Motas. (We did our namesake no great homage except in our faithfulness.)

Each week, I did two training runs – usually up Lake Street in the Richmond District to my church, St. John’s. (I am sure everyone at Bible Study loved my scent . . .for the record, I didn’t smell like eucalyptus.) Then, on Saturdays, we’d assemble near the windmill by the Pacific and begin our run – 4 miles, 6 miles, and on up to 17 miles, which is the longest run I was able to do before my hips decided to remind me I had not been a distance runner for good reason.

But I didn’t quit the training – or the accompanying fundraising goal I’d set for myself – and six months before Hurricane Katrina I began and completed a the Mardi Gras half-marathon in New Orleans’ Super Dome, my 70-year-old fellow Rosa Mota by my side.  Mom met me at the finish line, and we went immediately for beignets.

I hold this as one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. 

The Rosa Motas of Writing

I spent a lot of time in conversations with writers (it’s one of the best parts of my jobs), and over and over again, I hear people saying, “Well, I’ll write when I can really commit to it.” Or “I’ll write when I have a great idea.” Or “I’ll write when I have more time.” Or “I’ll write when my platform is built.” Or “I’ll write when I’m not so afraid of what people will say.” (I could go on.) While I completely understand each of those statements and have said them to myself on more than one occasion, the truth of the matter is that they are all excuses. If we want to write, we will find a way to do so, even if we are the slowest writers in the training program.

If you want to be a writer, I mean REALLY want to be a writer, there is only one requirement – you have to write. But you have to commit to it regularly, at least weekly, and you have to stay committed even when things are hard, busy, stressful, or uninspiring. There’s no other way. I assure you there’s not because if there was I would have found it.

If you want to write but aren’t, I encourage you to have a real heart-to-heart with yourself and consider these questions:

  • What are your priorities? Where does writing rank in them? Are you willing to shift them to give writing more space in your life? If not, then do you really want to write?
  • Why are you writing? Are you writing to tell a story you need to tell? Are you writing simply because you just love it? Are you writing to bring awareness to a problem or injustice? Are you writing to fulfill a goal? Are you writing to build a career? Are you writing to get wealth, fame, or the affirmation that you are good enough? (Note, if you are writing for this last reason, I urge you to put that aside. Writing will likely give you none of those things, and if you look for it to do so, you and your writing will suffer.)

If you find you have good reason and are willing to make enough space in your life to write – and only you can do that – then consider the ideas below as a way to help you get into training.

Becoming A Marathon Writer

In the 21st century world, plenty of folks will tell you have to be a writer for the short-term, how to finish your book in three days or blast out of a book in a month. I don’t disparage those other folks. We all write for lots of reasons, but I am not one of those people. I believe writing is part art, part craft, part discipline, and part prayer, so when I talk about being a writer, I’m talking about the long-haul, the marathon, the distance runner for life kind of writer. 

So if you’re looking to go into this writing life for the long-haul of finishing one book and making it just as great as you can, if you are looking to build a habit of writing that you can wear for the rest of your life, if you are looking to use writing to build a career that is built, at least in part, on the quality of your words, maybe these ideas will help:

  • Start slow. When I did my first timed run for the training program, it took me something like 40 minutes to run three miles. (I could have walked them faster.) I never got very fast, but I built up my stamina and was able to run three miles without getting too winded and eventually to complete 17 miles through the city of San Francisco with only feeling kind of like I was going to die. But by starting slow, I was able to keep training. If I had tried to do 10 miles the first day out, I would have quit right away.
  • Set a schedule. Two weekdays and Saturday, that was the schedule I needed to keep up to stay on top of my marathon training. Some weeks, I skipped a weekday, and on Saturday, my body told me how bad that idea was. When I kept to the regimen, I found that I didn’t resist doing it nearly as much as I had at first because it got easier. The simple schedule of doing the work help me do more of the work.
  • Incentivize the work. The single most important thing kept me going during this time was that I had made a commitment to the AIDS Foundation to fundraise for them, and I couldn’t very well ask people for money to support my training if I wasn’t training. Do the same for yourself. Tell the people you love that you are writing and want to do so on whatever schedule works for you. Set a goal of a certain number of words or pages by a certain date and then give yourself a reward. (A trip to New Orleans is not a bad incentive for finishing something.) Put people and rewards in place to keep you going.
  • Remind yourself of your why. AIDS began in the city of San Francisco, and when I was living there, my friends and neighbors were still very much reeling with the reality and the aftermath of this disease. So every time I thought of quitting, I remembered my friends’ whose partners had died in their arms, and I thought of the bone-thin men I saw at the market. If they could fight this disease, look for a cure, battle the stigma of it, I could put my feet on the pavement three times a week. Hold your why close – write it on an index card and hang it where you’ll see it – and let it drive you forward on the days when you feel like TV sounds better.

Now, of course, you don’t NEED to write, and the fact of the matter is that maybe now isn’t the time for you to do so because of life circumstances. But if you want to write, if you want to build a habit of sharing your words with yourself and maybe with others, only you can decide to commit and keep going. . . and man alive, do I hope you do it!