Writing and Running

Jazz Half Marathon, October 2012
Jazz Half Marathon, October 2012

Almost sixteen years ago to the day, in early March 2000, I ran my first marathon. It was grueling and painful. It was in pre-drought Los Angeles, and it rained on me the entire time. THE ENTIRE TIME. Four hours, fifty-two minutes, and change.

When I finally crossed the finish line, my brother Jerry and his family were there, with a foil thermal blanket the race organizers had distributed. They wrapped me up and escorted my hobbled self to the Westin Bonaventure, where I choked down a bagel. I was very emotional, and wanted to cry, but my tear ducts wouldn’t produce. They couldn’t summon any water.

After it was all done, I thought to myself, Well, that’s not something I want to do every year. The halfway mark felt pretty good, though. So that’s how I became a half-assed, half-marathoner. Later that same year, I ran two half-marathons. And I proceeded to run many more over the next decade plus. I think I’ve run more than twenty half-marathons, but I’ve lost count.

But there’s a second part to that initial thought: I don’t want to do this every year. I foolishly told myself I could do it every five years, instead. So I did. I ran the New Orleans Mardi Gras marathon in February 2005. I don’t remember much about that race, other than finishing in 4:52 and change, again. This time it was fiancé Tim greeting my hobbled self at the finish line, and helping me get up the stairs to our second-floor apartment.

By the time I began training for the 2010 Houston marathon, I had finally learned a few things. I did my long runs with a running group, and paid a little closer attention to my training. I wanted to beat four and half hours, and I did: I finished in four hours, twenty-nine minutes and change. That year, it was my sister Julie and her daughter Emilie meeting me at the finish line. Her fiancé, Jim, (now her husband) ran a few miles with me in the last leg, and that provided a big boost. I also saw former President George H.W. Bush, somewhere between Mile 18 and 20, in a less-crowded part of the race. He had come out to cheer on the runners, which, regardless of your political leanings, was pretty awesome. Running within a few feet of a former POTUS, who was cheering you on, was a real rush, to put it mildly.

And I wasn’t hobbled after that race.

There was no marathon for me in 2015, but there’s a reason for that. That’s where the writing comes in. About two months after I ran Houston in 2010, I began writing The Incident Under the Overpass. It began almost as a lark—I’ve always wanted to write a novel, can I do this? I can run marathons, after all. I figured it would give me something to focus on and work toward before my next marathon.

Well, of course I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Because writing is like running in this way: in order for it to feel like anything remotely natural, you have to do it often and repeatedly. And writing is NOT like running in this way: when your mind wanders, your readers will notice.

That’s one of my favorite things about running—letting my mind wander. But in writing, it’s only productive up to a point. A very limited, personal, point that you probably won’t want to share with any other sentient being. For two and half years, my writing wandered: I would write a little bit, take a break, for weeks, or months, then go back to it.

By the time I figured out I would have to be more disciplined, both in my writing practice and my approach to the story, a funny thing happened. I realized finishing The Incident—bringing the whole thing to completion—was WAY more important to me than honoring my silly pledge to do a marathon every five years. I remembered the commitment I made before the Houston race, and how it paid off with a personal record and no injuries. I wanted to apply that commitment to my writing.

Because here’s the thing—I will always be an average runner. I have strength and stamina but I don’t have anything extraordinary to contribute to the sport. I will always be limited by my stature and physical make-up, and that’s okay. I enjoy running for its own sake.

While I may not be an extraordinary writer—yet—I have to believe that I have it in me. The work I’ve put into The Incident Under the Overpass has made it a decent piece of genre fiction, in my humble opinion. And I don’t feel like I’ve reached the limits of my imagination. If I keep at this, who knows?

Haruki Murakami has written a much more ponderous reflection on the intersection of running and writing in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. And he’s a much more successful writer and runner than me. He’s also been working at both longer than I have, too.

I think that’s what has changed for me. The intersection. Running and writing are intertwined, now. I think of Houston 2010 as my last race as a non-writer. I ran the 2012 Jazz half marathon (pictured above) the day after my Robert Olen Butler epiphany—the realization that I would have to write every day. I was actually kind of bummed about it and didn’t run the greatest race.

And just because I didn’t run a marathon in 2015 doesn’t mean I’ve given up entirely. I’d like to make New York 2020 my last marathon. By that time I will have published three novels (I write with conviction), and should be hard at work on my second trilogy. While I don’t expect to see George H.W. out there, who knows? Maybe by that time, the social media buzz will be: extraordinary author Anne McClane runs New York in average time, but with above-average gusto.

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