Notes From a Hired Pen

On running and writing

Baring a freak leg break, I’m running the Chicago Marathon on Sunday. It promises to be a painful experience that will most likely end with me shedding tears as I cross the finish line, after which I will promptly ask for a beer.

“Why do it?” I’m asked. I have a list of reasons: I write about running so I should run races; it allows me to eat cheese without getting fat. One reason that’s not on that list, though, is crossing a finish line. For me, the only purpose of entering a race is to force me to get out on the road four days a week.

I don’t run with music. I don’t run with a partner. I run with myself, and my brain. That’s what I need – that quiet, alone time, and the clear mental space that pounding the pavement brings. I’ve always needed that. When I was a kid, for example, I jumped at the chance to mow our lawn. The extra allowance was nice, but what I really wanted was to walk in endless circles because it was an excuse to daydream.

I’m not the only writer who feels like this. Novelist Haruki Murakami wrote a whole book about it: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Runner’s World has a series called “I’m a Runner,” which asks a famous person about running. I’ve written one, with comedian, writer and Monty Python member Michael Palin. In at least one way, we’re the same. We run to clear our head, maneuver around mental blocks, and to come up with ideas. In Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, James B. Stewart wrote “At some point well into my research I develop something like impatience to get to the keyboard. Standing in the shower, going for a run in Central Park, I find myself fantasizing about possible leads. My friends find me preoccupied and absent-minded. That’s generally a sure sign that it’s time for me to write.”

I’ve got that antsy feeling. I spent most of this training cycle with the same story idea I’ve thought about on and off for the last two years in my head. I’ve filled a binder of notes, started and stopped on the narrative a dozens of times. Putting into words has been difficult – it just worked better in my head. I guess it wasn’t quite ready to debut yet.  It needed time to stew in my head on those long, lonely runs.

After Chicago (and the beers and the burgers that will follow), I’m taking a short racing break. I’ll still run, sure, because I need that time for myself. But I’m antsy to get to the keyboard. It’s time to start writing.

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