50 Miles of Writing
When I do an ultramarathon or a long course triathlon, people always ask me how I
can keep going for that long. How do you wrap your mind around something that
big? These are the same questions that I get asked when people who are starting
on their first novel wonder if they will ever get through it. I think the answers are a
lot the same.
When I ran my first marathon, I remember realizing that 26.2 miles was pretty
close to the edge of human endurance. I read articles in Discover and in Runner's
World Magazine that both indicated humans developed over hundred of thousands
of years to run around 25 miles and no more than that. If you look at the number
of marathoners who develop serious injuries, you start to get an idea of the
problem. If you're an elite marathoner, you can't run more than one really key
marathon a year. You can try, but then you'll get injured and you'll be out for six
months to a year and who knows if you will ever get back. The last time I ran a
marathon was in 2006, and I ended it thinking that I would never run another one.
Actually, I haven't. Marathons are races. Marathons are about what time you get,
about pushing yourself every moment of every step for 26.2 miles. You are never
good enough in a marathon because there will always be someone who is better.
Even if you hold the world record, you will never be good enough. Look at poor
Paula Radcliffe, who showed she was human in the Athens marathon, and then was
mocked for it.
Marathons are the short stories (YES! Short stories in my view!) of the running
world. Short stories have to be perfection. Every word has to matter. You have to
do be doing many things with every sentence. It can't just tell the place. It has to
have voice and character. It has to have foreshadowing and tension. When I
started writing, everyone said that you should start with short stories, so I did. But
guess what? The short story markets are limited. There are some on-line venues
opening up, true, but the traditional magazines accept a couple stories a month.
Out of how many submissions? I don't like the pressure. I like to write a story
that's just a story, not a thesis on nuclear waste or a proposal for political
responsibility. I like to write a story that relaxes me, not a story that makes me
think I should be taking notes for the test later on.
When I started writing novels, life became easier. Strangely enough, the same
thing happened when I gave up marathons and did a 50 miler instead. Why? How
can this be? Because when you run a 50 miler, no one cares what your time was.
No one asks. They only ask if you finished. I love this. I love that while I am
running a 50 miler, I don't tell myself that I have to work harder, go faster. I tell
myself, just keep going. If you can't run anymore, stop and walk. I can eat a
candy bar while running a 50 miler. No marathoner actually does anything but
drink Gatorade and maybe glug down some of that gooey stuff in a shiny foil pack.
You can't. You can't think about that. You're not enjoying the moment. You're
If you're running a marathon, you write down your splits for each mile. You are
always trying to keep ahead of that person. In a 50 miler, there is no competition.
You may hate the person in front of you because they are happier than you are, but
you don't care if they beat you. If you run a 50 miler, you can't think about all 50
miles at once. You have to think about a few minutes at a time. Maybe you can
think about a whole mile. But if you think about how much you still have left to
go when you're at mile 30, for example, you can become pretty discouraged.
It's the same with a novel. Yes, some people claim that they write an outline and
hold the whole novel in their head. I hate these people, and sometimes I envy them.
But that is when I am in a marathoning mood. When I am in the 50 miler mood, it
doesn't matter what that guy does. It only matters that I keep going, one way or
another. No shortcuts, no jumping into the back of someone van's. No giving up
unless you realize that there is no way to finish this, that you're better off trying
again another time. But you'd better remember if you do that that it still won't be
See, when I run a marathon, I am always trying to get under 3:30. I never have
done this, but I always try. 3:30 is the 8:00 minute per mile mark. Some people
argue that anything over 8:00 minutes per mile is really just jogging. I don't want
to be just a jogger. But when you're doing a 50 miler, no one is going much faster
than 9:00 or 10:00 per mile. You are supposed to jog it. It's a long time, but it's
not stressful in the same way. Your heart rate stays really low the whole time.
Which isn't to say that you're not going to hate part of it. You will. You will
wonder if you were sane when you signed up for it, if the people around you
should all be committed. You will hurt. But this is all very much like writing a
novel. Only writing a novel takes a lot longer.
Like in a 50 mile race, the first fifty pages are often easy. I told myself the first 15
miles that I couldn't start thinking about pain because this was the easy part. And
it was. After that, it gets to the "medium" point for about 10 more miles. This is
another fifty pages in terms of writing. You've set out your world and your
characters. You've got an idea of the problems that are coming. You might not
know if every word you write is the right one, but you think that it's close to the
right one. It might not be this scene, but it will be something like this scene that
Then you hit mile 25, and the race moves from medium to medium-hard. This is
the part of the novel where you start to think about writing another novel that you
have in your head. You don't want to get up and turn the computer on every day.
You're not sure you know who the good guy is and if there is a bad guy anymore.
You wonder if you set it up right, if you wrecked it all in the first part of the race
by going too hard. You remember that you've written a novel before, but that was
a different novel. This is a novel that you're not ready to do. You were smarter
then. You were in better shape.
Mile 35 is the hardest point. This is the part of writing where you are pretty sure
that you've taken a wrong turn somewhere, about 20 miles ago. Or that the race
has turned into a 100 miler instead of 50. You can't possibly wrap up everything
in the next 100 pages. You hate this book. You hate yourself. And so it's time to
walk. Writing a novel (and for some reason this came as a surprise to me recently)
is not a race. No one cares how long you took to write it. It might take you twenty
years to finish your book. That doesn't matter. Sure, you may have a contract that
says you have to write it by next year, but the reality is, no one writes the book but
you (ask George R.R. Martin about this, or Brandon Sanderson or Patrick
Rothfuss). You have to decide where it goes and when it is finished. You decide
how long you have to walk in order to get the strength up again to start running
again. Maybe you'll do some shorter stuff in between. Maybe you won't.
You think that no one has ever been able to write a novel before, that it is secretly
aliens who are doing it all and it's the humans who have been taken over by them
who are getting credit for it. But it's one sentence at a time. Sometimes, if you're
lucky, you'll get through a whole paragraph or even a scene. You'll see it in your
mind, and write frantically, and then when you come to the end, you're exhausted
and you can't see how you can keep going forward. So, stop and rest a while. Go
back and do some light editing. Walk until you're ready to move on. Read some
books to fuel your creative mind. Don't think about the whole novel, whatever you
do. Just keep moving forward.
Then you hit mile 45. It's only 5 miles left. You can conceive of going 5 miles.
Five miles is your easy run. You can't see the finish line yet, but you can imagine
it in your mind. You aren't getting faster. But you don't have the fear of not
finishing. You're going to make it. Your hurt all over, but you've hurt before.
Hurt won't kill you.
And then, the last mile comes. It's harder than you thought it would be. But at
last, you see the end. You can't sprint it. You're not smiling. But at last you get
there, stop, and know how amazing you are that you did not give up, you did not
quit. The novel may not be perfection. You may have a lot of places you think
back on that need to be fixed up, that could have been better. But the novel isn't
that kind of race. It's the parts that you did well, that surprise you when you read
them (did I do that?) that are the things you want to remember. And if you're
really lucky, you didn't injure yourself and you can run again next week, if you
feel like it. But only then. You deserve a nice, long recovery.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison