The artistry of the endurance runner

We’re pleased to bring you this guest post by Megan Nix, an editor at DiningOut Magazine and a student in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. You might recall that we mentioned Megan in connection with the Fourth Genre prize. You can follow her musings at

A few weekends ago, I watched Luke, my fiancé, complete his fourth marathon. As usual, it was disgusting. The bloody nipples sending streaks of pink down white t-shirts, the limping, the cringing, the bodily fluids made shamelessly public where the soiled sock meets the ankle. At mile 22, Luke passed me with a pale grimace/smile and without stopping, sang at me, “I’m losing my miiiind.” The next morning, as he was getting off the couch with the hips-first slow rise of a woman nine months pregnant, I asked him if this was his last one. “No way,” he said, with the same crazy-eyed grin. “It’s worth it every time.”

The rest of the weekend, while pulling him in and out of the car by his armpits, I reiterated: “You’re crazy.” But I understand him. Running and writing or being an artist of any kind require the same masochistic streak. We train ourselves to surge uphill against the I-can’t-do-it hurdle and the where-the-hell-am-I-going-and-why debate. Any artist who has struggled to produce goes through the same torture as a runner: we must be self-productive in a world that wills us to blindly consume. We struggle to swim upstream against laziness, bad literature, and the temptation of too much fried food. The muscles of the body and the brain are more similar than we might think; our awareness of failure produces odd exercises. Not only do we push ourselves to fatigue in order to regenerate energy, we hurt ourselves to feel most alive.

We’re affected by the weather, but we must convince ourselves that we’re not. We have electric highs and confounding lows. Then there’s the issue of time. When will I have time to organize my mountains of notes, my life, and still have the time to train? I learned from Luke the art of scheduling, that producing what you’ve set out to create must be a priority. On his oversize desktop calendar, the runs shout out the mandatory miles: 8, 12, 7, 21. If I wrote this many sentences on so many days, I might have written three books in the last two years. When he double knots his shoes and starts his watch, I ask him if he’s ever reluctant. “Every time,” he says before I see the back of his soles under his flexed and fluid calves.

If I could run marathons, I would. I love the acrid taste of challenge balanced by the hush that ushers up from fallen carpets of leaves and snow. I crave tension made physical: when capacity and intent bring out their fisticuffs as aches and cramps. The secret to running is it’s a craft: keep training, and intent will win. While I’m 26, with four knee surgeries under my skin, at least one more on the way, and a doctor who told me I’ll probably have arthritis by the time I’m 30, I don’t want to stop running until he (or my body) tells me I absolutely can’t. As an athlete/artist (are they separate?), I am striving to touch the things that have been relegated to an out-of-reach shelf: the impossibility of a perfectly functioning body, the ideals, the big questions with no answers. At the end of the race and the end of the essay, there’s a sweet soreness born of completed exertion. This painful pleasure becomes an addiction.

When I told my brother I was going to grad school for writing, he said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I ask Luke the same thing before all of his long runs. What we share is the belief that nothing worthwhile is effortless—you suck and you soar and you have no control over when you do which one. Writing is an emotional rollercoaster; running is a physical one. At a literary reading a year ago, the successful fiction writer Ron Carlson warned, “You are never writing alone. Doubt is before you, after you, and sitting right beside you the whole time.” Every runner races the same demon. They, however, continue to tie their shoes.

And so I love watching marathons. Here we have big and small, first-timers and professionals, all pushing their flaws towards a nearly inhuman goal: 26.2 miles. By our society’s standards, there’s something wrong with people who set out to complete such a punishing task. You could call it unhealthy or hubris. This last time, embracing Luke in his pain and quiet glory at the finish line, I realized what it’s called:


3 thoughts on “The artistry of the endurance runner”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Megan — I loved this! You said it all so well. Since I’m running my first marathon this June, I will re-read this post several times for inspiration.

    Let me add that I started running back when I was starting my first novel, specifically because of the metaphorical parallels. Running demonstrated to me — a slow and untalented athlete — the ‘law of accumulation.’ No matter how slow or reluctant, those footsteps add up. Especially in the first year, when I couldn’t run more than 2 or so miles, that impressed the hell out of me. I used my runs to motivate my writing sessions.

    A few years ago, my metaphor hit a pothole — knee problems, including mild but chronic pain. I used it as an excuse to mostly quit running. But after my husband (an avowed nonrunner) completed a first marathon last year, I decided to try again. This time around, the writing lesson for me has been that pain and aging are inevitable. Just like rejection. Just like doubt. I barely worry about the twinges anymore. I go slow. I do exercises to build up compensatory muscles that help my knee. I run with a friend who can distract me over the miles.; we take breaks often. If I get to marathon day and find that I have to walk the last few miles, then I’ll walk. I’ve accepted that this will NEVER be easy, and easy isn’t the point. I share my story not because it’s about running, but because it’s about writing.

    Thanks again, Megan.

  2. She’s cute, she’s young and she lives in Colorado with an athletic fiance. She’s also talented and wise beyond her years. What’s not to hate? Megan, this is beautiful!

    My cousin is an Army reservist who’s recently been called up for duty. In a recent correspondence, I asked him how he was feeling about being deployed to Iraq at age 40. He told me he looks forward to the opportunity, that he signed up for this life because he’s the type of person always looking, “to see what I’m made of.” As I type this, he is struggling through two months of training alongside 18 year olds, readying himself for the danger and challenges that lie ahead, relishing every painful step, every fearful moment. He is my marathon runner, the guy who laces up his boots and marches on, even when he’d rather be drinking a margarita on a beach somewhere.

    The human race seems made up of two kinds of people: risk takers and the risk averse. The risk averse plod along, take safe jobs, never venture far from their comfort zones and from what I can tell, live contented lives. I know and love many of them. Writers, real writers, are not risk averse and rarely content. They are the ones who, as Carlson says, “stay in the room,” the ones who place one word in front of the other over and over as they strive to create something that’s at the very least entertaining and at most profound, who put it out there in black and white for the world to read and critique. We are the risk takers, the warriors of our species, as are all artists and athletes and soldiers and entrepreneurs, those willing to try against all odds of success, and when rejected, to try again and again, even as the prospect of falling flat looms.

    “You suck, you soar and you have no control over when you do which one.” This is my new favorite quote. I’m going to put in on m Facebook profile (crediting you as the author, of course).

    Thank you for this inspiring and insightful essay. Reading it made my day!

    Toni M. Todd

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top