Andromeda | Writing Lessons from a Thousand Mile Run

“So you’re here to run,” said the Boise physical therapist who was taking a look at my uneven calves—bulky gastrocnemius on the left, more developed soleus muscle on the right—while listening to the story of why my husband and I were in his state, our forty-first in ten months, for just long enough to get a few days’ rest.

“Yep,” I winced as he squeezed a spot above my ankle, or more precisely, cankle. (No amount of exercise, this year had taught me, would ever make me willowy.)

I’d decided to visit this doctor just in case my right leg, sore for the last several weeks, was on the point of doing something inconvenient, like suddenly failing to bear my weight. The right soleus—that long muscle that runs down and alongside the shin—had become more pronounced over the last several months, a fact which gave me the creeps.

Here’s the thing: your body is always changing. Usually you can’t see it. Even when you can—as in the case of weight loss—you don’t have the “before” and “after” images directly in front of you at all times. But in this case, with two calves, only one of which had changed shape, the evidence was clear. A little change in my gait multiplied times many footsteps—at least 1 million on the right leg alone during the last ten months, in which we had run about a thousand miles—had sculpted a strange new calf I barely recognized.

Again: kinda creepy.

But also:  kind of cool, in a way I’ll connect to writing.

The doctor assured me: my oddball right calf wasn’t really a problem. “That’s your stability right there,” he said, kneading the slow-twitch, fatigue-resistant soleus. “One of the most powerful muscles in your body. And yeah, it’s gotten pretty well developed. But there’s nothing wrong with it.”

After a treadmill test, the PT made some recommendations for how to balance my gait better, including reaching out just a touch farther on each stride with my right toe. Could such a small change really re-shape my leg? Yes, possibly, given that tiny motions had been the cause of the muscle change in the first place.

Reckoning with my reshaped soleus prompted me, that very week, to think about how small changes add up to big, noticeable, undeniable changes over time.

I’ve always used running as a metaphor for writing, usually in relation to single events, like training for the marathon. This year-long running trip was different from single event-training in almost every way. And so, my metaphors and “lessons learned” have expanded. These are the new (and not-so-new) ideas I can’t wait to apply to my writing life when I resettle in my next hometown following four years of travel.

To know thyself, keep more stats

If you’d asked me, before this year, how much I ran weekly, I would have said “maybe 15 miles” and more on the run-ups to long-distance races. But then I pored over some old records and found that on average, adding in the many days or weeks when I barely ran at all, my weekly average was only 10 miles. This worried me, since our plan was to accelerate up to the point where we’d run 50 miles in a single week. Which leads me to wonder: do I overestimate how much writing I do, by looking at the happy, productive weeks and not factoring in the off-task weeks and months? No more. Long ago, I kept better track of hours and wordcount. This summer, I’ll be downloading some new apps and getting back on the analytics train. (I’m also going to return to the habit of using focus apps and the Pomodoro method, involving scheduled work and break periods, to keep the hounds of distraction at bay.)

Make it non-negotiable

Brian and I still can’t believe all the running we did this year, in every condition, from heat to rain and snow, from blissful moods to really crappy ones (everyday marital arguments and running are not necessarily incompatible), in beautiful places but also gritty locales, in the dark if need be, and nearly always in conflict with other items on our to-do lists. The key was we had a plan and extremely clear parameters: run at least two good trails in every state, run X miles per state and X miles per week, finish in less than a year. An injury: I walked through it. A surgery: I recovered from it. A death in the family: I ran, purposefully, as a way to cope with it. Maybe it’s just getting older, but at some point you learn to see setbacks and obstacles as commonplace rather than unconquerable. The most important thing is to end the negotiation process in your own head. Write up your contract: So many words per year? A new book every two years or five? Or maybe you just want to finish something you’ve been revising and polishing forever. Decide and commit.

You can do way more than you think

When we developed our plan to run increasing mileages, ultimately ramping up to weeks of 40-plus and then 50 miles, we really weren’t sure we could do it. I am not a natural runner and I wondered if it would simply be physically impossible. I’d never tried these kinds of mileages and certainly not on rocky trails, at high altitudes, and so on. I feared the prospects of injuries. But the trick with running is simple: build slowly. Occasionally take some breaks in order to heal, and then build to the next level. You can add other strategies, like learning to fuel better (which we did). I still don’t think we hit the upper limit. In terms of writing, I don’t know what my maximum writing wordcount might be. What I do know finally, for the first time in my life, is that yes, you really can do more than you think, as long as you break it down to small steps, have a plan, and take care of yourself along the way.

It never gets easy, you just learn to ignore the voices in your head

In a year of dedicated running, my fitness level changed. But one thing didn’t. I never got to the point where any run felt easy from the start. Nor did I get over my nearly daily anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to finish long runs. Chronic self-doubt is illogical and just plain annoying. But you know what? The voices in your head don’t matter as long as you don’t obey them. As a writer, after more than two decades of publishing, I am still haunted by the “I can’ts” and “I shouldn’ts,” the “This won’t work” and the “Here comes criticism.” But as long as my behavior doesn’t change in the face of doubt, who cares what the voices say. In the case of running, I now know that no run feels really good for the first two miles. In the case of writing, I now know that every new book is as hard or harder to write than the last, especially if you are venturing into challenging new creative terrain. The only thing wrong with things being hard is the idea that they shouldn’t be hard.

Ease is overrated. Challenges, on the other hand, transform us—in small but considerable ways. That’s as it should be.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of Behave. Her next novel, set in Asia in the years 1934 and 2029, will be published in 2018. Meanwhile she is writing two nonfiction books, including a memoir about running public lands in all 50 US states during a year in which she grappled with mid-life health and aging issues.

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