At the state park where my wife and I run, the ultimate test is a mountain that leads to a radio tower, affectionately known as the “tower of terror.” A mangled deer leg greets me at the mouth of the trail, but I don’t need to be warned. Rocks jut like spiked steps. Years of storms have littered the trail with snapped branches and split limbs. A fire road cuts through the center and ends at the red and white tower, but rangers don’t frequent the splintered side paths. Those veins belong to mountain bikers who pine for bumps, even arranging errant logs into jumps. Halfway up, the grade eases. I lengthen my stride and settle into a rhythm, but there is another bend. Focused to the point of tunnel vision, I am startled by a deer’s snap of low growth. Runners are tightly wound.
In college and high school, I trained for the half-mile, a fevered whirlwind around the track. I was never a natural runner. I only joined the track team after a few too many dislocated shoulders ended my years as a relief pitcher. Running was supposed to be a way to stay in shape for basketball, but as that wobbly shoulder also helped end my college basketball career, running took over.
Runners obsesses. I kept graph paper charts of distance versus time, with far more acumen than I could ever manage when I limped through AP Calculus. Tall and thin, I was physically ready for middle-distance, but as someone who entered the sport late, I had a lot of catching up to do. I never eased into running; I sprinted into it. I would get sick at the end of half-mile races. I had trouble pacing myself; my first quarter mile was slow, but my second was an all-out, God-help-me burst past confused leaders easing from confidence, on through the finish line, past the bow-legged state official, and onto to the grass, where my lunch made a second showing. Afterward, icing my shins and nursing chicken broth, I would wonder why I put myself through such pain for so little glory. I was a good runner, good enough to make a Division III team. But for what?
Writers often ask themselves that question: why am I doing this? At some level, the answer is simple, at least for me: around my first year as an undergraduate, I fell in love with writing. I had always been interested in storytelling and reading, but those college years were the first time I thought of craft, revision, and audience. Now writing feels natural and necessary.
While writing Ember Days, my second book of short stories, I fully settled into what Andre Dubus called the “vertical” method of writing. I stopped forcing stories through sheer accumulation of pages. I became more comfortable with sitting at my desk and simply thinking. I might grab The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake off the shelf to awaken my ideas, but I also might take The Control of Nature by John McPhee. I have learned that the best stories find their writers. Fiction can’t be tricked.
At the same time that writing shift was happening, I tired of my typical runs. Like many trails in northwest New Jersey, these park routes were vestiges of the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. The abandoned cinder beds are lined with torn-up rails, discarded and overgrown with brush. Streams calm over pebbles. Nice scenery for a relaxing jog, but I wanted more. I turned from LSD — long, slow distance, as my college coach called it — to sprints. Anaerobic bursts. Windsprints in unmowed grass. Mountain bikers and horse-riders at the park looked at me as if I had lost my mind. When the fire service’s controlled burn charred the land black, the smell marked my throat and lungs like charcoal. I longed for water, but rejected rest. Sprints are a short performance. I can’t carry speed for long, but I began to crave those sharp moments.
These short sprints evolved into a desire to cover more ground, despite it being the dead of summer. I always loved running in the heat. It is an interest that goes against all good sense, but I am a stubborn fiction writer. My soul loved the challenge; my knees not so much. The mountain taunted me, and I had to take it. Runners are a dramatic bunch.
Pained knees. Sore quads. A shaky back. Add heat to that litany, and the blessed exhaustion of having twin newborns, and I had the recipe for some athletic, natural hallucinogens. Some days the ascension up the tower folded me. Other days the heat alone sapped the strength I needed to kick around the curves.
Those runs exhausted me, but changed my writing. I would normally have espresso-tinged coffee to keep me awake at my desk, but the exhaustion from running that mountain had put me in a strange state. The stories I was revising for Ember Days were about emotionally strained people living in geographically taxing environments, including the central New Mexico desert. I was able to settle into other settings and different voices when my body felt shaken.
Long runs tend to brew essay or story ideas, but the fast work of training — sprints, hills, lifting weights — simultaneously sharpens and blurs those ideas into actions. Training sharpens ideas by cutting away the chaff that tends to accumulate during that long time on the trail, where the mind can wander; training blurs those ideas to the surreal places where art is made. Since my body craved sleep, I could slip from the rational mind that stifles fiction.
Not being the fastest runner used to frustrate me when I reached the most competitive races, but I now see it as a blessing for writing. Through the unfortunate, small-minded quirks of secondary school rites of passage, athletes and artists are stereotypically divided. We know this is not true. The athletic and artistic modes are creative, progressive, and sustaining. I was happy to see Runner’s World recently profile fiction writer Jamie Quatro, an avid runner who said:
Running isn’t about what distances you’ve raced, or even if you’ve done a race…Not enough of us are talking about what a holistic sport it is, or should be. It’s about staying fit and pushing yourself to achieve and surpass goals, sure; but it’s also about personal and spiritual growth, creativity, mental clarity, and emotional stability. I find these things in running.
Quatro notes the “amazing things that can happen on a run. Especially when I go straight from writing to running, all these solutions will occur to me.”
Another fiction writer, Andre Dubus, made running a regular part of his life, and explained what he had gleaned from reading about the methods of Ernest Hemingway: “I learned about writing every day, stopping writing in half sentence, while you’re going well, then do physical exercise, come back to it the next day.” The younger me might have spent hours at the desk, angering sentences into completion. The older me — a father and a husband, someone who no longer lives for only himself — knows better. Rather than being a distraction from writing, life is what enables writing.
The constant desire to be a faster, better runner has helped me channel competition as a writer without being sidelined by it. My hunger is different than ambition. I know that I am ultimately only racing against myself. I have a long way to go, and a lot to learn. That hunger brings me back to the desk to work at this strange art, the rewards of which are not easily measured in minutes, seconds, or steps.
Image Credit: Flickr/Loren Kerns.