7 ways that writing and running are similar

Runner icon

For three decades, I ran to compete, to relax, and to exercise. I pounded the pavement, the sidewalks, the trails without a thought about consequences until my damaged feet and aching knees told me to stop. I did that 30 years to the day after I first slipped on a pair of running shoes.

At first, I felt relief. The time I spent not running went into options: rest, recovery, writing. I finished the book that I always promised myself I would write. Then I started on a second book. Exercise tumbled off my list of priorities.

Not long after it did, I acquired my first full-blown case of writer’s block. The words and ideas stopped coming. Sitting in front of a keyboard invited agony — I stared for hours at a blank screen hoping the look on my face was not just as blank.

It was during one of these stare-downs that I realized the problem. As with running, writing requires a “training” method. Just lacing up the shoes and hitting the road without preparation invites injury; it makes sense then that sitting down to write without preparation can cause aggravation, too.

So, before you start to write, have:

A plan — Blogs, books, tweets, and treatises require distinct writing styles. So, settle on a style to suit the need. Be true to your voice, but do the research; determine word counts and writing time. Knowing parameters helps keep a project, and your temper, under control.

Good equipment — In running, comfort is king. Good shoes and loose togs satisfy this royal priority. For writers, good equipment, and a dependably cozy, ergonomically suitable place to write do the same. The key is to minimize the distractions that interfere with creativity.

Goals or routines — Set a goal and stick to it. As a writer, I aim for a minimum of 1,000 good words at a sitting, regardless of topic. Goals and routines help us measure distance and progress. Of course, nobody starts running 10 miles their first day; one works up to that. The same with writing: start small, then expand the goal as time and tolerance permit.

Accountability — Did you miss your goal for the day? Make a reminder. Did you exceed your goal? Reward yourself. The final arbiter stares at you in the mirror. Be able to stare back without regret.

Variety — For a while in my running routine, I chose the same route, but that only hindered improvement. Writing the same way every day can hinder as well. If prose is your passion, dabble in poetry. If long-form writing dominates your routine, break out with short stories once in a while. To help, keep a writing journal — a space to experiment with other styles.

Partnerships — Running, like writing, is a solitary pursuit. Having a partner, on the other hand, can spur you to work harder, especially if the other person is somewhat better than you. Partners discuss ideas and nudge each other through daunting projects. Partners offer perspectives that solitude does not permit.

Healthy habits — Runners and writers need fuel. Lacking that, runners hit a wall and writers hit a blank. But not just any fuel — junk food begets junk writing. The mind is more efficient with a healthy diet. Additionally, sedentary lifestyles diminish brain function. Exercise regularly; walk, run, bike, stretch, whatever. Writers will find the words come easier when they’re healthier.

Editor’s note: This piece is an updated version of a post I wrote for the Society of Professional Journalists.

My mother’s luck

Friday the 13th icon

My mother’s birthday fell on a Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Other people cringed at that; she shrugged it off.

Luck, whether bad or good, she insisted, was a byproduct of preparation. So, she crossed paths with black cats, walked under ladders when convenient, swept broken mirrors into the trash without concern, and never hunted for oddities in a patch of clover.

Her dismissiveness regarding superstition impressed me, emboldened me. I, too, count to thirteen without pausing at twelve.

But I think luck found her anyway, and maybe sought her out. Little else would explain how Japanese fighter planes missed strafing her childhood home near Pearl Harbor, or how she thwarted a black colleague’s likely lynching in Alabama by recognizing the voices from under the white hoods of their assailants and shouting their names, or how a tornado late one night in St. Louis missed her house but flattened the one next door.

Or how my mother managed to carry one child to term after three miscarriages and two warnings from her doctor to not continue trying.

Most of us tend to measure our lives against the final tally of blessings bestowed upon us, whether they are considered gifts or rights. We rely on the certainty of an unsubstantiated, ulterior force at our spiritual helm steering us toward a future greater and richer than we may deserve.

My mother was not so sanguine on these accounts. She possessed faith and a spiritual awareness, yet her favorite phrases were, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “God is a busy man, and there are people way worse off than you. Work hard to make your own miracles.”

With her, not even blessings were left to chance.

Indeed, she suffered disappointment. Her marriage and health began failing around the same time and for the same reasons: too much alcohol and too little commitment. The frames she bought to hold pictures of grandchildren eventually held other memories. The golden years she aspired to spend in travel went instead toward caring for her own parents, one of whom lived past 100 and the other nearly so.

“Good god, I hope I don’t live that long,” she told me after her own mother’s memorial service.

Soon after, her turn toward mortality began. A long Pacific cruise tested her frailty and put her in the hospital for months. After returning home from that, a few months later, she suffered a heart attack and several small strokes.

At hospice, during one of her few lucid moments, she turned to my uncle who was visiting on her final birthday and asked, “I’m not going to get better, am I?”

He said no.

She sighed and after a long pause said, “That’s fine, that’s fine.”

My mother’s birthday fell on Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Today would have been the twelfth.

I imagine she’s somewhere shrugging it off.