Dorothy Parker famously said: ‘I hate writing, I love having written’. I don’t feel like that about writing, I love the whole messy business of it (well, apart from the fact that the glee of ‘having written’ quickly subsides to the reality of editing – I’m not so keen on that part), but I definitely feel like that about running. And during a recent huff and puff around the park, which I was pretty close to hating, I reflected on some similarities between the two pursuits.
- The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better you get.
- Having an end goal really helps.
- You should do it even (in fact, especially) when you don’t feel like it.
- It doesn’t always have to be brilliant; the runs that you cut short because it’s just too painful today, the story that doesn’t go anywhere despite your best efforts – they’re all still credits in the bank and you’ll have learned something that will help you later.
- Even a little bit is better than none at all.
Sometimes it’s beneficial to embrace the ‘little bits’. Often when I’m ‘supposed’ to be working on a bigger piece (like at the moment, when I’m trying to write Novel 2), I find myself compelled to write short stories. I used to get annoyed with myself about this, but now I welcome it. Short stories are, for me, good exercise. They’re my training for the big event (the novel is my marathon). I find short stories (like training, sometimes) harder. One story I wrote last year (Circling – you can read it here on this blog, folks!) loitered in my head for SIX YEARS before I committed it to paper, and even then, it took me four months to write (well, most of it came in two feverish bursts, four months apart). But none of it was wasted time; it all helped to build the writing muscle.
I’ve found that running helps me be creative. Whether it’s the change of scenery, the break, the fresh air, I don’t know, but ideas come to me quite often while pounding the pavements. This is annoying as it’s not practical to carry a notebook.
This time two years ago I was training for the Moonwalk (a 26-mile walk around London in aid of Breast Cancer charities), which meant regular 17- and 18-mile walks, often in remote places: the North York moors, Dartmoor. Farnham. I started carrying a Dictaphone to capture ideas. Unfortunately this won’t really work with running, since after 2 or 3 miles I can usually barely speak, let alone record a coherent sentence.
Unlike writing, I came to running late; I’ve only done it with any regularity in the last 18 months or so. The recent ‘This Girl Can’ Sport England campaign is aimed at people like me, of course (although I do wish they’d used ‘woman’ rather than ‘girl’). Wobbly bum? Check. Red, sweaty face? Check.
What held me back for so long from any kind of sport? Fear. Fear of being what I was told I was as a child (clumsy, uncoordinated, awkward, NOT GOOD AT SPORT. PE was the only subject in school I ever got a ‘C’ in; I was mortified. Memories of the humiliation of netball team selection still have the power to bring me out in a cold shiver). Fear of being less than brilliant.
Twenty years ago I was dating a guy whose ex-girlfriend, Nicola Brooks (I have no idea why everyone always referred to her by her full name), became the object of spectacular envy from me. She had broken his heart. She was gorgeous (I was not). She was, like him, A Runner. I was totally intimidated by her flat stomach, tanned runner’s legs, fresh face (oh yes, he kept photographs). I didn’t even own a pair of trainers.
‘Sporty women’ have plagued me ever since – including events too recent and too painful to write about without them stinging (check back in another twenty years) – bringing out my sense of inferiority, that little voice that says, ‘why bother? You’ll never be as good as that’. ‘Those’ women will always beat me, so I may as well get out of the race.
18 months on from starting to run, I’ve done a half marathon, plus various other races ranging from 5k to 10 miles, but still don’t feel I can call myself A Runner. Similarly, I’m having a novel (two novels, in fact) published, but still cringe when I call myself A Writer. Does everyone feel like this? Is it just women who are so self-critical that they can’t give themselves credit for their achievements? Or is it just me?
I’ve decided to try really hard to give myself a break. If you run, even to the end of the block, you’re a runner. If you write – be it a piece of flash fiction or a three-volume opus – well, you’re a writer.
Reading certain authors makes me at once joyful and despondent (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt) because I know I will never write even a sentence as beautiful as some of their creations. I will most probably never be an ultra runner, either. But so what? I’m doing my best, and I’ll get better, and I’ll never, ever give up. Because chasing your own best is the real measure of success, and as with so much in life: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.