Learning from a marathon runner who hits the wall

[This blog post appeared on the International Christian Fiction Writers blog on August 21, 2017.]

I’ve got a mate who runs marathons.  Why is anybody’s guess, and his constant invitations for me to join him are politely left to rush by.

It’s quite an achievement running forty-two kilometres. Pushing through the pain, wringing every ounce of effort out of yourself and doing something very few people achieve.  I do admire him for it.

One of the most fascinating parts of running a marathon is known as hitting the wall. My mate talks about hitting it just past the halfway mark.  Everything about his experience says to give up; to walk; to even stop.  His legs are screaming for a break from the lactic acid and muscle cramps.  His lungs are screaming for relief. Even though he’s got the ability and the tools – and he’s already run half the race – things happen to him that make the finish line feel like it’s further away than when he started.

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And he talks about feeling like he’s running in jelly.  He’s got the movement of running, but doesn’t feel like he’s getting anywhere.

Writers hit the wall too. Our lactic acid might be family time that encroaches on writing. Our muscle cramps could be the pull of work or church over writing. Or our energy burnout could be when our ideas or storylines just run out of petrol. Or we’re over halfway but just can’t seem to find a way to finish the book.

It’s happened to me a number of times this year – when everything about my writing experience says to give up and stop. When my brain wants a rest and my bank balance tells me I should be doing extra work that actually pays the bills. When my ideas have run out of petrol and my characters feel like they can’t move on.

And it feels to me like the finish line – holding the final manuscript in my hands – is further away that when I started.

Now, my mate just laughs when I talk about writers hitting the wall, but there are things that he do that I’ve implemented this year.  And they’ve worked.

  • Keep moving.  A runner needs their feet to keep moving. That movement is important as stopping the movement makes it 1000 times harder to restart.  I’ve done that this year, at times I’ve just kept moving. That could be as simple as giving my protagonist another character trait, adding 200 words to the manuscript.  Or editing another chapter or scene. Or simply reformatted one exchange of dialogue.  That movement is important as I can look back and see that I’ve done something.
  • Focussing on the finish line. At times this year, I’ve just taken a deep breath and visualised typing The End at the tail of my manuscript. That disassociation has been enough to push me on and to spur me into action.
  • Breaking the race down into chunks. This is the opposite of the previous point. One things my marathon running friend does is run the next 1km, then the next, then the next. I’ve done that – written the next scene, then the next scene, then the next scene. And when I’ve looked up at the end of the week I’ve written another 3,000 words.
  • Enjoying the process. My friend says he tries to breath in sync with his steps or count out as his feet pound away. He enjoys the process of running.  That’s what I’ve tried to do this year.  I’ve written a particularly difficult scene and enjoyed the words as they’ve come, or the plot point as it’s unveiled itself. I’ve gasped in surprise when a character says something I wasn’t expecting or smiled when the protagonist got out of a jam even I didn’t expect him to get out of. It sounds crazy, but it’s FUN!

Writing a piece of work – any work – is hard. Especially if it’s something you’ve drawn from the depths of your experience or character. You’ve pushed through the pain, wrung every ounce of effort out of yourself and done something very few people achieve.

And, like my friend, I admire you for it.

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