The comparison occurred to me midway through a painful thirty minute jog. I was working my way through the Couch to 5k programme for perhaps the fourth or fifth time. I love running; I’m just not terribly good at keeping it up. I feel the same way about writing. It’s been a constant in my life, from my childhood playwriting stage, to my short stories, to the uni essays and blog posts, with several aborted starts at novels over the decades. But it’s never been a consistent habit, never something I’ve managed to commit to wholeheartedly.
I love the thought of running, and of writing. Sometimes I even love the first few minutes, before the pain and the despair take over. Because both these things are really hard. They seem simple but it takes strength to keep going when you feel like a puce blob and you have a stitch, or when you know with soul-crushing certainty that every word you are typing is utter crap.
I’m not claiming to have figured it all out, or to be any kind of expert, except maybe at trying and failing over and over again. And through my many, many failures, I have gradually learnt that the one and only thing which actually matters is that you keep on going through the fear and the malaise.
There are two enemies to overcome – inferiority and superiority. There will always be somebody who runs circuits around you while you puff doggedly away, their pert bottom receding into the distance as black spots dance in front of your eyes. That’s life. Likewise, it’s dangerous and pointless to compare anything you write to anything anyone else has written. Learn from them yes, but you can’t be Hemingway. And there’s no point trying – even Hemingway didn’t want to be Hemingway.
But the more insidious danger to both the runner and the writer is superiority. Bear with me here, you might have to have a grandiose and embarrassingly egoistic streak to get this. As soon as I’ve been doing anything successfully for a few days, my narcissistic brain immediately jumps to the inevitable end conclusion. Ran five days this week? Great, let’s start planning for the ultra-marathon. Written every day for ten days? Brilliant, time to research how to sell that non-existent novel to a publisher. Yes, ambition is good. But the thing is, it’s so damaging to be only focused on the end goal. The small day to day advances and successes are forgotten and all you can see is how far off and unachievable that final summit seems.
When it’s going right, both writing and running help me focus on the present. It’s the closest I ever get to inner peace. I try to use running as a mental health exercise, a type of meditation. And no matter how bad and painful things get, I can always cling to the knowledge it will be over soon and afterwards I will feel amazing.
The trick with both is to focus on keeping going, step by step, one foot in front of the other, one word after another and trust that you will reach the end somehow.