Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

What marathon training taught me about writing a novel

"I began to think that if I could run 26.2 miles, maybe I could also finish the book I’d been working on."

Advertisement

I grew up with the impression that marathons were a spectator sport. The Boston Marathon ran by my doorstep, one of the three-family brownstones on Beacon Street, at approximately the 22.5-mile mark.

For the old-timers of the neighborhood, “Marathon Monday” was the day to set up a beach chair and chat with neighbors. For us kids, it was a day off from school – the start of April vacation, and a chance to spend the long afternoon outside.

We counted ourselves lucky if we caught the moment the elite runners, all muscle and grace, flew by. It was like spotting a shooting star – a thrill and then gone. But for us, the real marathon – the marathon worth watching – didn’t come by until later, long after the elites were at the finish line, the photo of the winners, heads crowned with laurel leaves, already on their way into the next day’s Boston Globe.

The real marathon was about the sloggers. Those who pounded down Beacon Street hours into the race – all shapes, sizes, and ages – their gates anything but graceful, some limping, some stalled by cramped legs. It was the sloggers who stopped at our water stands and reached for our Dixie Cups. It was the sloggers who we cheered on, calling out the names scribbled on their T-shirts.

For the past decade, my husband and I have been bringing our kids to that same spot on Beacon Street on Marathon Mondays. This year the coronavirus has postponed the race until September, disappointing thousands of runners and requiring them to extend their training during a time of crisis. The ones who can run in the fall will show great resilience. I’m looking forward to cheering on that hopeful crew at the back of the pack more than ever because now I know what it’s like to be one of them.

I’ve been a jogger for nearly 30 years. I’ve always loved the simplicity of running, its meditative quality, and the freedom of being outside. Yet, I never called myself a real runner, and I never thought seriously about running a marathon. Perhaps it was the prodding from my brothers-in-law who are avid marathoners or because I was about to turn 49 that made me sign up to run my first marathon in Dublin last October.

I knew immediately I’d need a training plan. I found a 16-week-long, day-by-day checklist of the miles you need to log to get ready for race day. Marathon plans are mercilessly blunt. It offered no silver bullets, no shortcuts, no quick wins. You just had to do the miles.

Halfway through my training, I realized I had so much to learn – how to fuel and hydrate to sustain long distances. How to stretch and cross-train to build muscle to support my knees. How to find a pair of running shoes with enough “give” so I didn’t lose my toenails.

I found running buddies – a few friends who ran races with me during those training weeks, and my husband, who surprised me with the news that he, too, had signed up for the race. But most importantly, I leaned on the voice inside my head that said, “Don’t think, just run. Just do the miles, and you’ll get to the finish line.”

Advertisement

The miles started adding up. My body got stronger. The more I ran, the further I could run. Suddenly I was able to run 12, then 15 miles without spending the rest of the day in bed. I started to believe I could actually complete the race.

The week before the marathon, however, my feet were so inflamed by plantar fasciitis (a common injury among runners, especially when building mileage quickly), I thought I might not be able to run on race day. I tried to stay off my feet as much as I could to heal. On the morning of the marathon, my husband and I started out at a steady 10-minute-per-mile pace. But by mile 16, my feet began to throb, and I slowed down while my husband raced ahead.

I’d heard that at some point, the race becomes mental. I found out that’s true. “What’s 10 miles?” I told myself. “Just two laps around Spot Pond!” I thought, envisioning the hilly, tree-lined route near my house that I had run so many times. I ultimately crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 45 minutes. That moment was pure joy. I had done something hard. I had done something I hadn’t thought I was capable of. And I began to think that if I could run 26.2 miles, maybe I could also finish the book I’d been working on.

I started writing a historical novel a few years ago, inspired by the life of my grandmother. My day job and my children competed for my time – and often won. I knew I had a story to tell, but doubts about my ability to tell it occasionally set me back. Even though I earn a living as a copywriter, I’d often wonder if I had the right muscles to go the distance of writing a book.

When I got home from Dublin, I decided to apply to a local MFA-level program devoted to revising a novel. There was no guarantee I’d be accepted, but first, I had to apply. And to apply, I needed to finish the draft of my novel. The deadline was less than four months away.

Advertisement

I knew that the only way to finish the draft was to approach it like a marathon. This meant that I could no longer write just when it was convenient – when the laundry was done and the kids were otherwise occupied. I needed a regular routine. I needed to do the miles.

I was already a member of a local writers’ studio. I replaced the hours I’d spent running with hours holed up in the quiet room, tapping out long tracks of print.

I noticed that the more often I wrote, the easier it was to sit down and write. Little by little, I was building writing muscle. Sometimes the writing flowed. Words came fast, and the story and characters revealed themselves more easily. Other times, it felt like I was writing in circles, getting nowhere.

I found my writing buddies – two friends who were equally committed to finishing their novels. Every few weeks, we handed each other new chapters. This gave us the accountability and feedback we needed to push ahead.

We got to know each other’s stories and characters so well that giving feedback became easier. I trust my writing buddies’ comments because I know they’re grounded in a deep understanding of my characters and their desires.

On Valentine’s Day, I finished the first draft of my novel in time to apply to the program. Regardless of whether I’m accepted or not, I have reached a milestone, and I’ve learned some lessons about writing along the way:

Do the miles – Make the time and find the place to write, and do it regularly and often. I’ve learned to trust the writing process and believe that sitting down and writing is like putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you get somewhere.

Find training partners – Find people you trust to read your work, cheer you on, and help you course-correct when you’ve gone off track. My writing buddies and I meet regularly, give feedback, and hold each other accountable to deadlines.

Run your own race – Don’t worry about those people who pass you by. And definitely don’t define yourself by the elites – those writers at the front of the pack, whose book covers are stamped with awards. I tell myself that although I’ll never catch up to them, I still have a story to tell and still find joy in the meditative act of writing.

 

I know I have so much more distance to go and that there are no guarantees. The path forward is simple and impossible at the same time: Keep slogging away, and we’ll get there.

 

—Elizabeth Christopher is a copywriter working in the tech industry. She is also the coordinator of the Writers Studio at Follow Your Art Community Studios in Melrose, Mass., and is writing a historical novel.

Advertisement