“Most of what I know about fiction, I learned by running every day.”
– Haruki Murakami
It had been a long, self-defeating eighteen months of avoiding writing. During a particularly challenging 2017-18, poetry had stubbornly evaded and, unsurprisingly, angered me.
“Read,” others had suggested. “Read until you feel inspired.”
But reading did not make me feel inspired. In fact, for every book that sparkled with sheer brilliance, I became seized by jealousy, convinced that any ability I’d once had with words had now abandoned me completely – just as everything else had.
Everything apart from running.
Running and Writing: Forging the Links
Ever since I’d first squeezed on a clunky pair of Skechers aged 16 and wheezed through a pathetic attempt at a jog with my father one day after school, running had become the other great love in my life. No matter how hard I found those first few runs, the rush I’d get afterwards from expending the anger I’d built up behind the school gates was like a release I’d only ever previously experienced through the cathartic effect of a good writing session.
And so, despite one day being found out and jeered at by the bullies who eventually discovered my after-school hobby, something in me wouldn’t quit. I continued to lace up my trainers despite the taunts. Instead, the headphones became a firm fixture and I carved out new routes out of sight.
Ten minutes became fifteen minutes. Fifteen became twenty. By the time I’d got to college, finally free of the bullies, I was out running miles most days alone and a good deal more confident. When I had a problem to unravel in my brain, I ran and I wrote. If I had a sudden flash of inspiration, I ran and I wrote.
With both pursuits, I was disciplined, determined and I endured. Both brought me an inexplicable sense of release; they allowed my thoughts to flow freely and gave me a world to escape to away from the stresses of everyday life.
On nearly every run, I’d have to stop not because I was tired, but because there was a line of poetry or a fictional character that had surfaced in my mind. Through running, I could more easily tease the words from a cool stratum of untrodden grass, or roll words from the ragged mists spreading over the surface of the river at five in the morning.
Eventually, I came to realise that running and writing had begun to intertwine.
Real Writers, Real Experiences
It turns out I am not alone in using running as a way to create the perfect mental space for writng, away from stress, distraction and relentless self-criticism. When my body feels free and empowered, thoughts ring with a possibility that doesn’t happen when I’m too busy criticising myself in everyday life. I’m far more likely to take a playful, curious approach to ideas when I’m bouncing over marsh grasses or scuffing the gravel of the running track than I am when staring at a blank Word document and fast losing hope.
In fact, there’s a whole anthology of poems, The Result Is What You See Today, which showcases some outstanding examples of work by writers who are also keen runners.
I recently asked other writers to share their experiences of running and writing, and whether it influences their approach to the creative process. I was unsurprised to find that there were many willing to share their own experiences.
Chris Nichols, Founding Partner of Gameshift, is a 5K runner who trains mostly on the treadmill. “I find treadmill running very meditative,” he says. “I can do a lot of creation during training.”
‘Meditative’ is a word which seemed to appear often with writers.
Senior freelance writer Leigh James says, “There’s something about running that sets the mind free. It can breezily meander through ideas. By the end of a run I’ll have a clearer train of thought, the words flow more easily, and I can unlock a problem to a brief.”
I understand what Leigh means by being able to unlock problems through running. If I have a tough decision to make or am struggling to articulate something, writing will help my mind to untangle. I imagine it in a similar way to tugging the knots from fairy lights; eventually there’s that satisfying release and an orderly swing of bulbs as the tangles finally swing free. Likewise, by the time my running shoes have squeaked to a halt on the front doorstep, I usually find that my thoughts are in a far more cohesive order than when I left.
The writer Louise Walsh agrees. “I found running meditative and creatively inspiring, particularly with my first book when I was running five or six times a week. Sadly, due to niggling injuries, I find running problematic so I try to walk as much as possible. Not quite the same, but still good!”
Other responses likewise seem to echo the same sentiments:
- “Not running, but I do find that being ‘on-the-hoof’ – a good walk – lubricates the creative spirit. Troublesome lines are resolved, and poetic ideas find their way to the fore.” (Roger Hare, writer)
- “All my poetry is brewed and reshuffled while I run. The tangles just fall away, and things surface. The hard bit is keeping hold of it all until I can write it down, particularly on a long run!” (Ankh Spice, writer and editor)
- “I find that most of my best fiction ideas come to me while I run – I normally come away with a new idea of where a character is going!” (Dr George Sandifer-Smith, HE lecturer and writer)
- “I find it helps overcome work challenges, thinking around blockages and helping to design learning solutions. When planning sessions, I find it helpful to go for a run, and once I’m back I’ve got new ideas, clarity and drive.” (Mike Shaw, senior L&OD professional)
- “Most of my creativity occurs during or after my daily walk, or for a sea swim in all weathers. Especially for haiku.” (Jim Young, writer)
- “I’m a keen daily walker, and the many miles adds to my creativity. I would be lost for words if I did not walk.” (Julie Pritchard, poet)
The writer Jamie Woods also recorded his experiences running and writing in his ‘Janathon’ blog posts here, and it made me realise just how much of the running community actively engages in the writing process through blogging. There’s something about running and blogging that makes you more acutely aware of your surroundings on every run; the whole time, your mind is a video camera, collecting in detail everything you will craft into words later.
Search ‘running blogs’ and you are likely to find thousands of people doing exactly that. And perhaps it’s this act of staying aware of your surroundings and taking in every little detail in order to write about it that makes it such a meditative process.
Inspiration Strikes (While Wearing a Pair of Nikes)
Back to that eighteen-month Writer’s Block I mentioned at the start. I was still running during that time. I’d decided to train for another marathon to help me cope mentally; if I couldn’t write a book, I could at least empower myself by raising money for charity and achieving regular milestones. The increasing mileage and intensive training plan gave me a distraction from the demons in my head that jabbered endlessly throughout the rest of the day.
And all of a sudden, I realised: quiet. This was it. The only time that little voice fell silent was when my feet were hitting the pavement at five in the morning: just me, the road, and the rising, vanilla-coloured light.
I stopped on the top of the hill, 4 miles into my run, and saw in my mind’s eye a small, sprite-like character clinging to my shoulder like a contented child, post-tantrum. Running was the only time she fell silent. I realised she had always been there, this little demon. I’d just never thought about turning that voice into a real, writable character.
There, on that hill at sunrise, after a year and a half of sadness, confusion and a refusal to write, I began planning my second poetry collection. The name surfaced in my head almost instantly: Small. I’d never been able to engage with the Ana or Mia characters some therapists had talked about.
But Small felt real. And Small had a voice that needed my pen.
With Small now in the editing process and due for publication with Parthian Books soon, I understand what Louisa May Alcott meant when she said, “Finished my thirteenth chapter. I am so full of my work, I can’t stop to eat or sleep, or for anything but a daily run.” Running is as intrinsic to my writing routine as setting up my desk and opening my laptop.
And during times where either my desire to write or run leave me, I have slowly learned to trust that so long as I still have passion for one of these pursuits, the other is never really far away.