Monday, 13 May 2019

A marathon, not a sprint Sheena Wilkinson

a marathon, not a sprint? 
One of the most common metaphors used about writing novels is to compare them to running – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, people are fond of saying when they consider the long painful process of planning, writing and editing a book of maybe 100,00 words.

It wasn't an image that meant much to me. Running wasn’t on my radar. I couldn’t bear to run a marathon or a sprint; I had never run the length of myself since I left compulsory school PE behind in 1987. If I ever gave a thought to marathon runners, it was only to ponder on what a crazy, punishing thing it was to want to do. Not at all like the delightful and entirely reasonable challenge of writing a book. 

But occasionally on my daily forest walks (always when approaching a slight downhill) I would feel the urge to run – only a few steps – to see if I liked it. I did. (At least until the path started to climb again at which point I would go gratefully back to a walk.) On a writing retreat in Shropshire, where nobody knew me, I decided to try running properly. I downloaded one of the many Couch to 5K apps, and off I went.

the forest where I walk and now run (a little) 

 I thought it would be easy. I walk at least five miles a day, often more, in hilly country, and consider myself fairly fit. The first week demanded only 60-second bursts of running interspersed with walking. Surely this would be, as we say in Northern Ireland, wee buns for someone like me? It wasn’t wee buns. The first couple of weeks were as tough as anything I’ve ever done. I was huffing and puffing and looking ridiculous and feeling foolish. The only consolation was that I was hundreds of miles from home and nobody knew me. I could give it up as a bad job and hardly anyone would know. 

But I didn’t want to give up. I used to be a terrible quitter – that’s why I wasn’t published until I was 41, giving up on project after project because I couldn’t stick it out. And someone I loved was training for the Belfast marathon: where I was struggling to run for two minutes, he was doing twenty miles. I gritted my teeth and kept on. Week 3, Week 4. It was getting harder but something was happening. I certainly wasn’t experiencing the runner’s high I’d heard about, but I wasn’t hating everysingleminute. I still lived for that friendly encouraging voice in my ear telling me I only had sixty seconds left, but now occasionally I was surprised by her instead of frantically checking my phone convinced the app had stopped working because I must have been running for H-O-U-R-Sand I was going to die if I had to do another step. (Self-dramatizing lot, we novelists.) 

nice and flat round the lake...

But I am used to things being difficult. To books that won’t behave. To impossible deadlines. To the grinding disappointment of spending two years writing a book that your agent can’t sell. To days when your words plod and stumble and don’t break free. Maybe running was a bit like writing a book? 

I haven’t quit. Running for twenty-five minutes became easier than running for one. I saw my marathon runner complete the Belfast marathon in a fantastic time, and though I’d never aspire to do anything like that, I no longer think it’s crazy. Or at least no crazier than writing a book. 

If a novel is like a marathon, my first couple of weeks were tortured haikus. Even now, the most I have run without stopping is twenty-five minutes. A short story perhaps, and rather a breathless one. But soon I’ll be running for 5K and I now get why people do it.

As for the marathon runner? Funnily enough, he’s writing a book. He'll probably be very good at it -- marathon running has taught him a thing or two.


Penny Dolan said...

A great post - and I was with you every step, from my very desk.

Seriously, I'm full of admiration for all running enthusiasts, esp the bold Couch-to-2K people, but do wish someone would bring out an easier, gentler walking version.

Like that line "I used to be a terrible quitter" - could be a useful daily mantra for some of us. Ahem.

Love your forest photos too!

Andrew Preston said...

A marathon. Phew, respect.