I’m a writer who runs, and a runner who writes. Over the years, I’ve come to know hundreds of runners and a few writers, but not many others who do both. Turns out, there are plenty of us.
Running and writing are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity. They are seemingly miles apart on the spectrum, but in reality, not at all.
For both, you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.
Plenty of well-known authors figured this out long before I did. Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and Malcolm Gladwell to name a few — running plays a role in the words they so beautifully string together. Ann Lamott even alludes to the correlation in her classic book on writing, “Bird by Bird”: “It really is like running,” she says. “It always reminds me of the last lines of Rabbit, Run: ‘his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first, but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.’ ”
That’s how writing works for many runners. Recently retired pro runner Lauren Fleshman has found writing a valuable tool for her day job. “I began thinking of running as a creative outlet during a writing workshop I attended in 2009,” she says. “It changed my relationship with the sport and better equipped me to ride the highs and lows of the profession.”
As she struggled with injuries that often sidelined her, Fleshman found writing filled some of the void. But it grew into something much greater than that. “Running gives me the space to be creative by tuning out the rest of the world,” she says. “Writing is a way to process and guide my running goals. In a way, writing is a photo album of my running career because I’ve recorded so much of it that way.”
Former Irish Olympian Ro McGettigan, who partnered with Fleshman to write the Believe running journal series, has slowly grown more comfortable wearing her writer’s hat. “Just as many runners don’t consider themselves runners, I didn’t consider myself a writer until recently,” she says. “I felt like an impostor — I had no confidence in my writing.”
She found, though, that her anxieties about writing were a good lesson for her as a runner. “It helped me understand my running insecurities,” she says. “Both pursuits are a never-ending process of learning.”
I met McGettigan recently at the Wilder Running and Writing Retreat in Bend, Ore., the brainchild of Fleshman and writing instructor and human rights advocate Marianne Elliott. We were among a group of 30 women, hybrid runner/writers all of us, there for four days of digging deep in both arenas.
Elliott carries a “writer who runs” identity and found that applying her philosophy of running to her writing freed her up to push on with a book she was struggling to finish. “I thought of running as a practice, a way of staying well physically and mentally,” she says. “With writing, I got caught up in the outcome — getting my book published — rather than the practice. Running helped teach me to look at it differently.”
Running also, she says, has helped her learn to get comfortable with suffering. “There’s always going to be some degree of discomfort with running,” she explains. “But as you push on, it goes away. The same can be said of writing.”
Arlene Todd, an associate vice president in an L.A.-based PR firm, came to the retreat because of her admiration of Fleshman and with a focus on running. “Running is where I decompress and bring awareness to my life,” she says. “When we started moving through the exercise of writing, however, it brought me unexpected freedom.”
Todd says that one of the key take-aways for her is that with both activities, you get out what you put in. “It’s not just about the quantity, either, but the quality of the time you spend on them,” she says. “Now I’m aware that the benefits of writing are as good as those of running and I need to do both. You can get that runner’s high in five minutes of writing.”
During the retreat, Fleshman sought to create a space where participants could dig into both the agony and ecstasy running and writing can deliver. “We deliberately chose attendees who had expertise in one area or the other, but not both,” she says. “This made it easier for everyone to be vulnerable and explore.”
From my perspective, this was the perfect mix. I went into the retreat more comfortable with my running than my writing. I’m still in that space, but I learned how easily I can apply my well-honed running skills toward my writing practice.
One foot after the other; one word after the other. Sometimes it’s not pretty, and sometimes it can be maddeningly difficult. But I’ll always show up.