Running and writing are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity. They are seemingly miles apart on the spectrum, but in reality, not at all.
For both, you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.
—Amanda Loudin, Washington Post
On October 7, 2017, I was fortunate enough to run the St. George Marathon for the very first time. Since I ran the race while I was in the middle of preparing for this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was impossible for me not to see the similarities between marathon running and marathon writing.
Not everyone enjoys running, of course, but over the past several years it’s become a big part of my life. It’s also become an integral element of my writing process. Even if you have no interest in ever running a marathon (or even a 5K), if you’re “competing” in the 50K/30.0 “marathon” of NaNoWriMo, you’re still a marathoner in my book.
Why? Because they’re similar in so many ways.
1. You must prepare.
Marathons aren’t run on race day. They’re run in the months (or years) of training that lead up to race day. The race itself is essentially the final exam after many hours of practice, and just like NaNoWriMo, it’s basically pass or fail.
There may be some people who can just waltz up to a marathon starting line and, without any training, run the race. These people are freaks of nature and we will not speak of them again. Similarly, there are people who can begin pecking away at their keyboards on November 1 without preparing at all and still finish a novel by November 30. These people are freaks of literature and should be applauded.
Nothing will guarantee that you’ll succeed in either endeavor, but preparation sure can help. If you’re running, preparation means miles—and lots of them. You can do tempo runs and hill work and fartlek training (it’s probably not what you think), but distance is the key. If you’re writing, you can do all sorts of things to get ready for your NaNoWriMo “marathon.” You can brainstorm, outline, “snowflake,” create character bios and write character monologues. You can work on developing good writing habits—after all, each novel you write is “training” for the next one. You can read extensively in your genre. All of this can help contribute to your success between the “starting gun” at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and the “finish line” at midnight on November 30.
By the way, for all the talk about “writing sprints” during NaNoWriMo, I’m not a big fan. Slow and steady finishes the race, whether you’re running or writing. Lots of practice actually helps you win.
2. You must begin with the end in mind.
When starting anything monumental, it’s critically important to have a goal. With NaNoWriMo, as with a marathon, you have a built-in baseline. If you don’t write 50,000 words or run 26.2 miles in the time allotted, you can’t count it as a “win.” In race terms, that’s a “DNF,” or “Did Not Finish.” As a point of pride, nobody wants a DNF on their record.
For my first marathon, I was just hoping to finish, but I had more ambitious goals my second time around. My target was to get close to a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, with the understanding that I would go for a BQ in my next full marathon. I actually missed that goal, but only because I overshot it and ran the race faster than expected. That’s the good kind of goal-missing, and it’s more likely if you’ve put in adequate preparation beforehand.
Five years ago, I just barely managed to complete my first NaNoWriMo, verifying my word count at 11:55 p.m. on November 30. I prepared a little better the next few years, setting and reaching higher goals each time. You never know what you can actually accomplish until you really put the effort in. And whether it’s a race medal or a pile of words to craft into a finished novel, the result can be very rewarding.
Just keep thinking about posting this to all your social media accounts on December 1:
3. It’s all about pacing and consistent effort.
I run pretty fast for an old guy, but I know my limits. I wanted to be realistic when I was game-planning St. George, so I picked a pace I knew I could handle … and then pushed it just a little further. The difference between training pace and race pace comes from adrenaline and willpower. It’s amazing what the human mind and body can accomplish when they conspire to psych each other out.
The baseline target pace to win NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words over 30 days—and that’s if you write every single day. It’s a great idea to set your goal a little higher than that, and supplement your daily writing with some additional “marathon” writing sessions throughout the month. Then (and this is the key to finishing NaNoWriMo) make sure you stick to it.
If I don’t hit my goal on a particular day, I make up for it the next day. Or the next. You have to make it a priority, which almost always means giving up other things. I don’t watch TV during the month of November. I don’t read anyone else’s books. I even cut back on my mileage.
In addition to adrenaline and willpower, you’ll probably need caffeine. That’s a big component to success. Your mileage (of any kind) may vary, of course.
Here’s another trick: When you hit your daily goal, walk away. Literally stop in the middle of a sentence, close your file and shut off your computer. Stopping in the middle of things (in medias res, so to speak) gives you somewhere specific to pick up during your next writing session.
4. Sometimes, things go wonderfully wrong.
Anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo multiple years knows that feeling of nervous excitement that comes on the day before the challenge begins. It’s very similar to what a marathoner feels right before a big race.
My goal for the 2017 St. George Marathon was to finish in 3:30:00, which would bring me within five minutes of a Boston Qualifying time. When I boarded the bus for the starting line at 4:30 in the morning, I was feeling great about this target. Then I realized I was missing my safety pins. Then I lost my phone. Seriously. I managed to get new pins and find my phone, but then my watch lost contact with the GPS satellites just minutes into the race. Because of this, I had a difficult time tracking my pace. The result, and I’m not making this up, was that I ran the first half of the race much faster than I’d planned.
That might sound like a good thing, but actually it was a real concern. I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to maintain that pace for the duration of the race. My worry was that I’d bonk at mile 18 and have to walk the rest of the way. A race-ending injury was also a real possibility.
We’ve all had writing projects that go pear-shaped. Anything can go wrong, but sometimes, when things go wrong they actually go right. Here are a few possibilities, and the obvious solutions:
- Problem: There’s “no there there”—you simply can’t squeeze enough words out of the story idea you picked. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. (There’s nothing in the rules that your 50,000 words have to form a single, coherent project.)
- Problem: You lose interest in your story. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. If you don’t have a new project at hand, free-write (using writing prompts, if necessary) until something catches your fancy.
- Problem: You get partway through your draft and realize your book is morphing into something completely different than what you planned. Solution: Go with it. In December, you can revise the earlier chapters to match the later ones.
5. You will feel self-doubt.
A I mentioned, when I hit the halfway mark on the St. George course I experienced a major moment of doubt. I must’ve looked a little lost, because a woman running beside looked over and asked me if I was doing okay. According to her race bib, her name was Bonnie. I admitted to her that I was going way faster than I had intended. Bonnie’s reply: “That’s a good thing, right?”
Maybe yes, maybe no. I told her I was worried I would crash and burn. Wisely, Bonnie asked me what my gut—and my body—were telling me. I did a quick self-check. I was feeling pretty good for having just run a pretty fast 13 miles. When I told her so, she looked over at me and said, “You got this. Go for it!” I’d never met this person before, but her little pep talk was the turning point for me in that race. I give Bonnie a lot of credit for helping me realize I could do what I’d set out to do.
Whether you’re doing your first NaNoWriMo or your tenth, at some point you’ll probably question whether you can finish or not. Find your Bonnie. Talk to a friend—writer or non-writer. Write your next 1,667 words and then treat yourself to ice cream. See a movie or get a pedicure. Then get back to your keyboard and finish your dang novel. You’ll thank yourself, afterwards.
One of the best T-shirts I saw at the St. George Marathon said “I can do hard things.” Writing 50,000 words in a month is hard. But you can do it.
6. The accomplishment is permanent.
There’s no such thing as a “participation trophy” in competitive running. You don’t get anything just for showing up, but you often do get a medal for finishing. Similarly, you get exactly nothing for starting NaNoWriMo if you don’t finish it.
As with any competition, it’s all about the numbers. The registration cap for the 2017 St. George Marathon was 7,800 runners. About 6,000 made it to the starting line, and exactly 4,723 crossed the finish line under their own power, within the time limit.
A 26-year-old man from Lindon, UT, finished the race first, setting a new course record of 2:14:44. Yikes! The very last person to finish before the cutoff was a woman in her mid-40s from Idaho. She finished in 4,723rd place with a time of 7:27:29, and she was as deserving of his finisher’s medal as the guy who came in first. Both “won” in the sense that they ran the 26.2 miles in the required time frame. And nobody can ever take that away from them.
Numbers matter in NaNoWriMo, but mostly in determining who wins and who doesn’t. It makes no difference whether you write an hour a day or whether you produce those words in the first 24 hours (or even the last 24 hours). If you crank out 60K, 70K or even 100K words, you’re no more a winner than the person who writes exactly 50K. And once you’ve verified your words and received your winner’s certificate, it’s an accomplishment you can claim forever.
According to one estimate, about half a percent of the U.S. population (or around 1.6 million people) has finished a marathon. Believe it or not, being a NaNoWriMo finisher puts you into an even more exclusive club. According to the NaNoWriMo organization, roughly 384,000 people attempted NaNoWriMo last year, but only 34,000 won. (As far as I can figure, about 66 percent of participants were from the U.S.) The average win rate over the past five years is just 12.5 percent.
You can be part of that 12.5 percent. Don’t settle for being a NaNoWriMo starter. Be a finisher!
If you’re working furiously toward your 50,000 words, keep going! If you get stuck, I encourage you to put on your running shoes and go run a mile or two. Even if you don’t get the inspiration you need, you’ll be one or two miles closer to running your first marathon!
(For the record, I finished the 2017 St. George Marathon in 429th place out of 4,720, 40th in my age group, with a personal-record time of 3:16:57. I also qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon with a “cushion” of over eight minutes.)
David Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.