12 Things My Awful Marathon Taught Me About Writing

I ran my first marathon in 2012.

Held at the end of July, the 24-Hour Around the Lake Marathon in Wakefield, MA, was not what I pictured when I thought about my first marathon experience. It was, quite frankly, one of the loneliest and most desolating things I’ve ever done, but also one of the proudest achievements of my life so far.

But the lessons learned apply to more than just running—here are some writing nuggets I picked up while struggling through 26.2 miles. 

12. Don’t pick the first bright idea that comes along. I registered for the Wakefield marathon because the timing was right—I wanted to finish a marathon before the end of July. (Hey, I had a beach vacation coming up in August. Sue me.) Also, Wakefield is a very reasonable perice, in an age where most marathons cost well over $100 just to register (forget about food and equipment). However, running a marathon in 75-degree weather with the dewpoints hovering in the mid-70s and 80s was… less than ideal.

11. When you commit to an idea, get the details right. The Wakefield registration packet said the race started at 7:00 sharp. What I forgot to ask was crucial: AM or PM?

Turns out that one way the runners escaped the heat of the July day was to start at 7:00 PM and run through the night. Which brings me to…

10.  It’s okay to take a detour or two. After our start at exactly 7:00 PM, the group of about 500 or so runners shuffled together along a scenic path on the shores of Lake Quannapowitt. Since my goal was simply “Don’t die,” and I wasn’t exactly running to qualify for Boston, I would pull out my phone at times and take pictures of the beautiful sunset.

Like this picture, taken at mile 8.
Like this picture, taken at mile 8.

9. There are always bigger fish than you, even when the pond seems small. I mentioned that the name of this race was, in part, “24-Hour Around the Lake.” This meant that the weenies only doing the marathon (me) were joined by ultrarunners who had registered to run the 12-hour race, and uber-ultrarunners who had opted for the full 24 hour race. That meant I was surrounded by people who’d been training for years to be able to run for 24 hours without stopping (except for bathroom and quick walk breaks).

So it is with writing. Be careful, and resist the thought that you’re the top writer in the room just because your latest short story was accepted to the first literary mag you pitched. You never know what kind of writing talent is sitting next to you at a writer’s conference, or on the train, or in the airport.

8. Great practitioners come in all shapes and ages. One of the more notable runners in our group was an out-of-state businessman who claims to have run hundreds of marathons. When I saw him in person, he was getting on in years, bent and stooped, and not someone you’d think was an accomplished runner. But as the starting gun sounded, he was off, just like the rest of us. I lost sight of him for about four hours.

When I hit the wall at mile 22, he shuffled past me, head held low, like a water buffalo trotting up a riverbank.

If I’d had the strength (I did not), I would have kicked myself for even thinking words like “bent” and “stooped.” Ouch.

7. Don’t be a fitness (or writing) snob. Just don’t. Like the aforementioned point, you can’t judge a marathoner’s finish time by the shape of his or her body. Similarly, some writers are plotters. Some are pantsers. Some use Scrivener, some use plain old Microsoft Word. Some have thousands of Twitter followers, some have a small handful. Don’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge an athlete’s ability by their looks, and don’t judge a writer until you’ve read their work. (Or, you know, if you’re the judgy sort, just keep it to yourself.)

6. Get as much real-world writing experience as you can. High-summer marathons are tough, because most of us train indoors on treadmills when the weather sits at above 90 for most of the day. But when the hot, humid air hits your lungs and you’re gasping at mile 5 you think, “Maybe I should’ve given outside running a go.”

Real-world writing situations teach you skills you otherwise won’t even know that you don’t have, such as how to write emails that contain all the information your recipient needs to know, how to respect rules and avoid vagueness, how to write with different brand identities, how to turn around work at a moment’s notice, how to play nicely with businesspeople in publishing whose goals might not match yours, and more skills you’ll need when you’re in the publishing industry marketing your own works.

5. Gnats taste like chicken. This one has nothing to do with writing. Just wanted to throw it out there.

4. It can be a horrifically lonely experience. At about 10:30pm, the first marathon finishers began to peel off the course with their medals. I was still going. At 11:30pm, the vast majority of the marathoners crossed the finish line. I was still going. It was dark. The trail around the lake was dark. There wasn’t a soul around, and by midnight, when my legs felt like fire, I wanted to quit. And because the course was composed of 8 laps, I had 8 opportunities to quit. I could see my car from the finish line. There were Porta-Johns and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I almost quit each time I came within sight of the finish line.

Writing is about the easiest thing you can quit at. No one seriously thinks you’ll make a living doing what you love… until you do.

This is me at the finish line, double-fisting watermelons. With a cup of M&Ms and a PB&J sandwich balanced in my lap. And a liter of Gatorade at my feet.
This is me at the finish line, double-fisting watermelons. With a cup of M&Ms and a PB&J sandwich balanced in my lap. And a liter of Gatorade at my feet.

3. When you finish, treat it like the achievement it is. At my marathon, the finishing time flashed up on the screen as you crossed the threshold (you had a microchipped timing tag on your shoelaces). My time wasn’t what I thought, and I didn’t give myself time to celebrate before I began mulling over all the times I could have pushed harder, trained more, run through the pain. It took waking up the next morning and my leg muscles feeling like tenderized veal chops to make me realize, I just ran a marathon and I’m still alive. Pretty cool.

When you finish your novel, or your latest WIP, don’t beat yourself up because agents didn’t get into a bidding war to represent you, or because the time it spent on Amazon’s bestseller list was when your extended family ordered 50 copies of it. You did it. You really did it. Enjoy it!

2. Do it for the right reasons. I thought a marathon would help me lose weight, tone up and be ready for the beach. Wrong! You have to eat to fuel your runs, eat to recover, and even eat while you’re running to keep your energy up. Don’t run marathons to lose weight, folks. It ain’t happening. Instead, run because you love running, or you want to tick it off your bucket list. Those are great reasons.

Similarly, writing novels takes too much time, is too exhausting, takes far too much practice, and comes with too large a risk for failure to do it just for the money, or for the fame you’re hoping to get. Only write because you love it, because in the end, writing will cost you way more than what “just” a good paycheck can ever replace. Make sure you do the writing for the right reasons.

1. Always plan for another one. You’ve got more than one book in you, and most marathoners have more than one 26.2 in them. It’s okay to dream about and plan for the next one, and no, you’re not crazy.


How have major life experiences impacted your writing? Share your story in the comments!