Writing on Running

Ever finish a book and just feel… electrified by it? Like you couldn’t stop reading, but were torn by the knowledge that if you kept reading it, it would eventually end, and then… then what?

Totally going through that right now. I know that I write fiction (and blogs, which are, I suppose, an odd form of ‘creative nonfiction,’ a term that still weirds me out), and I know I said I was going to write about what I was reading in that field, but I just finished an incredible nonfiction book (creative nonfiction, since we’ve already gone there) that has made my mind race a hundred miles an hour and my nerves ache for something crazy and primal and insane.

Let’s start this from the long, convulted route:

Last year, I watched a video from Runner’s World in which they interviewed Flea, who was running the Los Angeles marathon for the first time, and wearing these crazy shoes that looked like the toe-socks I used to wear all the time during ballet barre (true story, not to break anyone’s heart, but we dancers don’t always wear our proper shoes in rehearsal). Flea, in his late-40s, randomly decided to run the marathon after training for only a handful of months, in part to raise money for the Silverlake Conservatory (a non-profit music school for kids that Flea co-runs in LA).

What motivated him to start running? He read a book that inspired him and made him think about running in a different way. The book? Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.

While I wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in this book, I was definitely interested in Flea’s story. I’d just done my first half-marathon (walked it), and I was feeling ready to start running. Flea’s interview and his infectious enthusiasm were the things that pushed me over the edge into Runner-Land.

And finally, a full year later, I decided to check out this book at last. As I mentioned, it’s not the type of book I typically read (I tear through books similar to what I write: lots of YA paranormal stories, for the most part), but I decided to give it a try, since I’ve started to seriously get back into running (that’s another long, convoluted story for another day, the injury that kept me off the road for the better part of 6 months).

By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked. The book, while packed with factual information and statistics about running, runners, and even evolution, is also fascinating. It tells the story of Caballo Blanco, an American who embedded himself in the world of the Tarahumara, a native people living in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, who also happen to be the most insanely good runners of all time. It’s not only skill that makes them so amazing at their art: it’s endurance, perseverence, and also just pure joy.

The book does more than just tell the story of some wicked good marathoners though. McDougall weaves in facts about the science of running, and why the American approach to running (i.e. our obsession with gear and artificial improvement) clashes in so many ways with that science. It tells the story of ultramarathoners, native people who live to run (and live because they run), and opens up an entire world of questions about running.

What got me in the end (spoiler alert!) was the unifying reality of why we run. Sure, there’s competition in a marathon, with prize money and corporate sponsorship and fame to the winners, but there’s also that incredible feeling of running in a pack of other runners, of being shoulder-to-shoulder with people you haven’t ever even spoken to, yet who are tied to you forever, even if just because of those hours you’re racing together. It’s the surge of pure energy that comes from running that unifies us, that breathes life into us (even when we feel like we’re going to run out of breath).

For me, writing is not just the act of sitting down at my computer or notebook and making words happen in an order that forms a story. To write, I need a soundtrack. I need music that moves me, propels me forward. I need snacks to munch on (seriously, writing makes me so hungry, I can’t explain it). I need the right location for the moment, whether it’s my office or a coffeeshop or a restaurant who doesn’t matter if I’ve got my notebook open while I’m sipping a glass of wine.

But I also need mental clarity. I need a mind that is open, and less anxious. Sure, writing helps clear out anxiety, but the writing that’s going to be readable, that generally has to come from a clear and open space. Running, even with my busted-up back and my pathetic excuse for lung capacity, gives me that clarity.

Just like I sometimes need to slip away into the woods, or off to the beach, or to a really quiet library with really dense carpeting, just to clear my head so I can focus on writing, I’m beginning to feel like I need running in that way. It’s time with me, the road, my Fire-Island-dance-club running mix, and my characters, running along beside me, and whispering me their secrets between intervals.

I ate up every single bite of this book, and as I finished the final page, I felt this rush of energy, like I couldn’t tell if I wanted to immediately lace up my running shoes and hit the pavement, or if I wanted to drive off to Cook Forest with my notebook for the night, or if I could get all of my thoughts to settle down into a straight line long enough to write this blog entry. (I guess it’s clear which of those I finally decided on ;))

One of the most fascinating things to me about writing is the different process we all go through. Every writer has his or her own method – this comes up regularly at our NaNoWriMo Write-Ins, as we compare and contrast methods to make the writing work. For me, it’s become more and more clear how much I need to tie into both my physical and mental well-being in order to make the word-magic happen. I am incredibly grateful to have found this out, and grateful to have found a book that’s helped me get even closer to putting all the pieces together.

Even if you don’t presently run, check this book out. It’s inspiring any way you look at it, and who knows, one of these foggy mornings, I might see you out there with your characters, chasing their stories across the pavement too.

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