The Mark Blog

Writing and Running

Image: Judy Evenson

Running is something that, like writing, I simply can’t put my finger on. It’s probably because it’s so precious, so close, something I love so much, that I can’t see it objectively enough to name why. I’m not particularly fast, I’ll never place in any category for any race, and I sometimes wheeze—but it makes me so happy. As author Benjamin Cheever says, I run “for the joy in it.”

I’ve been thinking about running even more than I do normally because I’m in the heart of training for a 50k race. I’m mentally preparing myself for this distance, longer than any I’ve ever run before, by thinking through the logistics as well as daydreaming about the glee of it. To train physically, I’m putting in my time on the trails, and trying to be alert to signs that I need rest and recovery.

It’s funny to me that two of the ventures I love most—writing and running—are so different. One entails trotting around outside, in the fresh air, feeling my entire body. The other is characterized by hunching over a laptop, indoors, tapping out words, often unconscious of my physical self. Of course, as others before me have pointed out, there are also many ways that these two activities are analogous. Each can be intensely solitary, though I also believe deep friendship and intimacy can grow from sharing miles and writing. And both require endurance—the long haul of writing and revision, and the long haul of time, miles, and hills.

I’ve discovered that there are many writers who run/runners who write. These include, to name a few, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, Benjamin Cheever, journalist Nicolas Kristof, Mona Simpson, and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean. Many of these writers have written about their thoughts on the union between running and writing, with these general senses emerging, each of which I can relate to:

Running is a way to discipline the body and, therefore, the mind. Running is a way to free the mind entirely. Running is a way to create structure in the day. Running is a way to build endurance. Running is a way to move rhythmically. Running is a way to release frenetic energy. Running is a way to increase energy. Running is a way to find quiet.

In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes, “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue… I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”

So, while I don’t know what Murakami’s void, or anyone else’s, feels like, I know that when I reach mine it entails a greater capacity for clarity. I am in my body and beyond it. I think and I don’t. I see, hear, feel, and yet there’s absolute silence, stillness—nothing and everything. When I return home, I know more and I know less, which I think is a good place from which to begin writing.

Writers on Running:

“I do about four hours [at the typewriter] then I go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another.” —Don DeLillo

“I don't think I would ever actively think, Oh, I'm going to fix this sentence in this way or I'm going to start my lead in this way… It's like meditating. What you think about while you're meditating isn't itself creative. It's the fact that your brain can cool off for a little bit.” —Susan Orlean

“Talent's important in both endeavors, but in both writing and long-distance running, talent becomes less and less important over time. I'm a much more successful runner now at 60 than are many of my peers who were faster than me in high school. And I'm sure I've had more successes as a writer than many more talented people. I just spent more time writing. Stephen King once said that a writer is somebody who writes for two hours a day for ten years.” —Benjamin Cheever

“We share an interest in rudimentary forms of transportation.” —John Cheever on his love of walking and bicycle-riding, paired with his son Benjamin’s passion for running

“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much?... How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?” —Haruki Murakami

"The mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.” —Joyce Carol Oates, in “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Literary Feet”