The Marathon Is Special
There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. [Haruki Murakami, writer, and runner]
Out of all disciplines, all the sport we have available, a marathon seems to be a very special race; not simply because of the length and the stamina required to 'go the distance' but also because it has become an incredibly popular distance for runners.
A marathon: the queen of all disciplines.
42,195 meters, 26.2 miles, is a long way to run. And the professional marathon runners complete it in two hours and just a few minutes, pushing their bodies to the limits.
Perhaps this is why it is so popular? The extreme endurance?
But I think there is more than that. While we amateurs cannot compete with sprinters on speed at short distances, we can all be challenged at the marathon distance because the only challenge is the length of the race itself.
Whether you complete the run in three, four, or even five hours, the important part is to cross the finish line.
I am a marathon runner, now.
But that wasn't the case a year ago; I really didn't think I would be saying this.
And I write.
And it is as a writer, that I want to share my experience with you on how I achieved my marathon-runner status.
Just as you will someday achieve your 'author' status.
Running a Marathon; Like Writing a Book
Why would anyone write about a marathon on a site focused on writing?
Well, I strongly believe that running a marathon has many similarities to everyday life and, in particular, to the writing process. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this.
After all, life is like a marathon, and writing a book reminds me of it in many ways.
As you write, or take on any challenge, I urge you to consider a few, practical rules about running a marathon.
I've now completed two full marathons and one half-marathon and I want to share with you what I learned along the way.
1. Attitude is Everything
You need to believe you can do it. You can complete a marathon. And you can write a book.
And believing you can do it isn't about superficial 'wishful thinking'. Your belief should be fixed on your real strengths, and your will to prepare.
But it starts with a positive attitude, and saying to yourself:
I can do it.
And then it just needs a little time.
For your marathon, you'll need to give yourself about 15 weeks if you are fit, and longer if you're not a regular runner or you're carrying a little extra weight.
It's better, if you can, to give yourself at least six months to make sure you can enjoy the process, and you're not rushing.
It's the same for your book, the more you write, the more you are in a routine and can complete more quickly.
But give yourself time to enjoy the process.
A marathon, just like any other challenge in your life starts with a decision.
People say that a goal without a plan is just a wish. Thus, it is important to have a goal but it is equally important to have a plan.
2. Make a plan
My marathon training took me exactly six months. I divided it into two parts: 15 weeks of preparation to run a half-marathon and then 15 weeks of preparation to run a full marathon.
And I made a very detailed plan.
Using a general schedule that I downloaded from the internet for free, I started running three times a week. The plan is really straightforward: all you need to do is to run a certain number of kilometers with a particular frequency.
But what is crucial in this exercise is to teach your body to deal with the prolonged effort of running.
So many writers tart off with great enthusiasm for their idea and their book, but that fizzles out. Pace yourself in writing as you would in running; planning wisely assures a high quality of writing throughout the whole process.
3. Work on your Motivation
OK, so we have a decision made and a plan ready. But it's also important to know why do you want to do it, so let's discuss your motivation.
It is important to monitor whether your motivation is high, not only at the beginning but also at every other stage of the process, because this will be a source of your strength.
As you prepare for your marathon, you'll reach some difficult moments, as you will in the race itself, but a strong motivation will help you to stay focused and to complete. Whether that's your run, or your book.
For me, the main motivation was related to fitness. I've worked as an academic for years, which meant I spend most of my day in front of the computer, and I needed an activity to keep my body fit.
Also, my husband started running with me the moment we enrolled in our first half-marathon -- what better than to stay accountable with a partner?
Last, but not least, I was determined to complete something epic before my 35th birthday. I felt this strong need to call myself a 'marathon-runner', and I wanted to challenge myself and experience something more extreme than I had done before.
Becoming an author is a strong enough motivation by itself, but it's actually sharing your experience and thoughts that should be the priority for you.
At the end of the day, some people will love your writing, and some will hate it; the important part is to be true to yourself.
As long as your book comes close to expressing what you think and feel, you will find the people who think like you, and who will buy it.
4. Get The Right Gear
So many people stop at this point: they make a decision, they feel motivated, they buy expensive gear and...they never start running.
It is important to have proper running shoes and comfortable clothes, of course, but apart from the basics, the rest matters very little.
Obviously, if you have uncomfortable shoes it will rub and hurt, and soon teach you a lesson. But limit your gear to the necessities. If you eventually get a habit of running, you can always buy some new stuff later and if you get stuck here, it'll be a waste of money.
And there's no need to buy expensive stuff -- ordinary running shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt will do the trick. The important part is to start running.
As it is with writing. Yes you can get software, tools and gadgets, but you can write with a pen and paper.
The important part is to start writing. Get rid of excuses and just write!
You know what you want to write about, you have a plan and a strong motivation so go one step further and start writing.
5. Just Start
There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.
While this Norwegian saying is overused in every country with poor weather, I strongly believe this is the case with running.
I'm judging this from the perspective of a person who's lived in Italy (with extreme heat) and in Poland (with extreme cold) and I can assure you that attitude and motivation is everything (back to number 1!).
I run in every possible weather conditions, including deep snow. The weather factor helps to keep my morale high because I am doing it, despite the conditions. Going out in the rain makes me feel satisfied that I can do it. It makes me stronger. And, at the end of the day, you are drenched the moment you leave the house irrespective of how far you run, so what's the difference?
I personally hate the heat so, in the summer time I run in the early morning (preferably) or late evening (not my favourite time). Spring and autumn are perfect for me.
Alternatively, if you live in a place with really difficult terrain (or extreme weather) find an indoor gym, but try not to cancel your training due to something as trivial as the weather.
This rule is all about excuses. We have so many of them in our lives. Ask someone any tough question and you will hear,
It's too late, it's too early, I'm too busy, I have no time, I am too lazy... and so on.
But when you think about it, you know that any excuse, even the best one, will not do the job for you.
Zen philosophy says you only need 21 days to make an activity a habit. Three weeks is a long time but I can assure you: after a couple of months of regular running your body will begin, not just to be used to it, but to begin to need it.
And after a two or three weeks of a regular writing routine, you'll find it helps keep you focused and get clarity on your thoughts.
All you need is to stick to your routine, remember your decision and think about your motivation.
And, for heaven's sake, start running! Or writing!
6. Breathe Deeply
Running, like many sports, is all about breathing. Your muscles need oxygen, and breathing is crucial to this process.
I found this part to be the most difficult one. When you start running your heart rate rises and you feel as if you need to breathe faster, and faster, and faster. But it is all related: when you breathe fast, your heart rate rises.
The whole point is to find your own pace. Start slowly and increase the speed up to the point when you feel comfortable with your breathing and your pace. OK, so you won't be able to run like a sprinter, but you'll be able to run far.
And the more you practice, the further you'll run.
It's just the same with writing. Forget what other people are doing; it doesn't matter how fast they write -- or whether your pace is the same. It's about finding the pace, and the length, that is right for you.
As a rule, I was running between 6 and 12 kilometers, three times a week, alternating a fast and a slow pace.
Every weekend, I would run a longer distance, starting with 10 kilometers, increasing this to 35 kilometers in preparation for the marathon.
And I noticed my body and how my eating and drinking habits changed. I was sleeping better and I was getting more pleasure out of the long runs.
I was also watching how my breathing calmed, and how relaxed I was even when I was running.
The running was crucial, not only to my health and the focus I could give to my job, but also it to my self-confidence.
As an aspiring author, you'll need self-confidence more than oxygen, but the technique is the same. Breathe, practice, and extend your practice. And gain confidence as you go.
7. Expect a Crisis
Sooner or later, the crisis comes.
We all know its symptoms: fear turning into panic, overwhelming anger flooding your brain, you're so sick and tired of the effort, you doubt everything, and you find an excuse to stop.
We've all been there and whether you run a marathon or write a book, the crisis will come. Expect it and learn how to deal with it before it paralyses you.
In my first marathon, I had a fantastic first 10km, and then I struggled with a 'brick wall' for the next 15 km.
The reason was pretty simple: I hadn't practiced the ascents, and I wasn't used to the terrain for this marathon.
I was scared when the crisis started and was furious about my breathing problems. But I developed a strategy to deal with it: focusing on 1km after another. It was very simple and very effective -- I cut off all thoughts of fear on how would complete the next 25km and just focused on one kilometer. It normally takes me around 6 minutes to run a kilometer -- a distance I could see and control. Kilometer by kilometer, I completed the full marathon.
A strategy of focusing on the present, the things you can control and the things you are familiar with is very helpful in long distance running. It is also a great survival strategy for anything as it comforts you and helps finding strength.
Instead of worrying about the next 50 pages of your book, focus on the page you will write today. You have a plan, and you can stay calm about the rest of your book. When the time comes, you will focus on and write, every chapter, but there is no point worrying about the whole book every day.
8. Wise Partnership
They say running is an individual sport, but I've experienced that it's quite the opposite. When my husband joined my morning or evening running the whole activity changed. Not only did it become one more thing we could do together, but it was, and is still, a great lesson in partnership.
When you run together you practice so many more things than when you run alone. It starts with good communication, supporting the effort of the other person, helping and motivating them to run regularly.
You also learn to share your resources, control your own needs and negotiate someone else's needs.
And there is an overwhelming sense of triumph when you complete a race holding hands.
While intense training is messy stuff, full of sweat and effort, I can assure you that crossing the line with a beloved person is very, very romantic.
And with a book? Well, find a partner as well. A friend or a professional, someone who is writing as well, and who can contribute valuable opinion and ideas.
And if you don't have a single person, use a 'team'. When you've done your first couple of chapters, send them to a few people to get their opinion. Don't put too much weight on it, but try to consider it friendly guidance.
This will also help you to deal with external reviews and get used to critics, because they will definitely come.
9. Find a Community
In both running and writing a book, a community of people interested in the same activity is helpful. Not all people need it, so I treat it as an 'extracurricular activity', but most people find it useful.
When you run with a group, it helps your motivation, and the feeling of being part of a larger community is beneficial for your mental health. Simply put, a sense of belonging to a group of people similar to you is good.
I remember that running my first half-marathon opened my eyes to people similar to me. Sometimes you discover that your new routine and interests -- running or writing books -- cuts you off from colleagues, co-workers, acquaintances, and even friends. This isn't always the case, but if it happens to you then make sure you have a new group of people who understand your emerging passion.
Writing a book (just like running a marathon) isn't something that most people do, so don't worry if you feel some isolation. Find a group of aspiring authors in your neighborhood or find a community online to help support you.
10. Enjoy Your Victory!
It is very important to focus on the run and on making progress, but it is also important to enjoy and celebrate your victory.
Having a dream, making a plan and executing it is not your target. Your target is completing a marathon. Or a book -- not just to outline or to 'think' about it.
While your practice will bring you a variety of personal gains, it's crossing the finish line that makes this whole business worth the effort you put in.
I cried and I laughed when I crossed the finish line of a full marathon for the first time. These emotions are hard to compare to anything else in this world. I felt an amazing sense of completion, satisfaction, pride, self-confidence, happiness, and exhaustion, and all in one second! Such a mix is something really special.
The moment you cross the finish line is exhilarating.
You will remember it for the rest of your life and in the dark days it will shine brightly as proof that anything is possible.
Quite obviously, the moment you are crossing this line is also a moment when a small thought says in your brain:
But after a week or so you start planning another race.
Publishing your first book brings a similar mix of emotions.
And it is very important that you celebrate it. It's your victory!
11. Plan Your Next One
Resting after this extreme effort is crucial. Some professionals say you should rest for at least ten days after a marathon.
And, believe me or not, it's very difficult to go back to your training after a break like this. The sense of completion is somehow discouraging.
I've found that it's important to plan your next move. Either your next marathon or another long distance run. (or another book!)
Some people move up a distance to ultra-marathons, some go back to half-marathons or color runs. Or switch to another (similar) discipline like triathlon.
Like a blogger writing a book, or a short-story writer moving to a full-length novel.
It's totally up to you. Whatever excites and motivates you.
I Did It!
Completing a marathon was an amazing experience for me. Completing two marathons in five months even more so.
I am now focusing on adding weights into my training under the supervision of a professional trainer. But one thing is certain: waking up in the morning, getting my running shoes on and just run in the woods is something special.
There really is nothing like it. I absolutely love running and you will too!
My advice to writers is, when you publish your first book, take a break. Relax, travel, meet your friends and let your mind calm down. After a few weeks, you will be ready to take on the next challenge.
Whether that's running or writing.
This article was written by Agata Mleczko, PhD. Agata is a traveller, writer, and marathon runner. In the academic world she worked on migration studies and identity issues of the young generation. Her current job combines two passions: travelling and reading (and writing about them on her blog). She often plans her trips to places she's read about and, last spring she completed her journey around the world. And, of course, she always carries running shoes with her so she can run in amazing places she visits.