On running and writing

by SJ Griffin

Somebody told me a joke about runners once. How do you know if someone’s run a marathon? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

I ran the Athens Marathon in 2010. It’s the original marathon. It follows the route that Pheidippides took in 490BC. Of course the story is disputed but the popular version is that he ran from Marathon (do you see what they did there?) to Athens with the news that the Persian Army had been defeated. He ran 42.195 kilometres or26 miles and 385 yards and when he had delivered his message, he died. The brave hero in my story, that would be me, doesn’t die. That’s one of the problems with a first person narrative, you can’t kill all your darlings.

I expect Pheidippides, Dippy to his friends, ran through fragrant olive groves and luxurious vines under a beating sun. I ran along a dual carriages way, past dead dogs and a Hilton Hotel. The sun still beat though. One of my legs is longer than the other, although not an interesting freakish way, so at mile 23 my longer leg stopped listening to messages from my brain in a last ditch attempt at some semblance of self preservation. This was expected and accepted, so I coped with it and loped on. At mile 25 and a half I learnt more about myself in ten metres than all the previous miles, feet, inches, centimetres, furlongs, whatever that I have travelled up to that point.

And what I learnt was this:

There is no point looking for yourself, you can’t find yourself. You have to make yourself, yourself.

I could probably have read that in a book, I think the Dalai Lama for one is pretty big on it. But experiencing it, that’s what made the difference. He’s pretty big on that too.

What has this got to do with writing? You may well ask, so I’m going to pretend that you did.

When I first started to run it was horrible. I ran for a minute and walked for four until I had done that for 25 minutes. I did that three times in a week. Then I ran for two minutes and walked for three, then ran three walked two, and so on until I could run continuously for 25 minutes. When I say run here I mean hobble, wheeze and sweat all at the same time. It wasn’t pretty. It was, in fact, about as pretty as the first short stories I wrote seriously. I don’t mean the Tales of Sunny Farm that I banged out on a second hand typewriter when I was nine, they’re cute. I mean the ones that I wrote in my early twenties when I thought I was somebody and that somebody was the love child of Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Attwood. This is, of course, impossible and I am not suggesting that any kind of liaison has ever happened between Ernest and Margaret. Heaven forfend. Those early stories hobbled and wheezed and sweated. But time went on and I trained more and more by getting out there and practising. I put in the miles, learnt to do other things that would get me into better shape. I’m talking about writing here but the same is true of running. And then eventually, after eleven months, I ran a marathon, pretty much the same amount of time it took to write The Vanguard. But this is probably just one of those coincidence things people are so keen on.

There is an odd thing about a marathon. I think anyone, with the right approach to the right training, could finish one. Anyone. Never mind about the time it takes, never mind about the state you get to the end in, we’re just talking about getting over the line at some point. Anyone can do that. But most people, the overwhelming majority of people, don’t. I’m sure we could write a book about that. Hey, that’s another thing anyone could do, with the right approach to the right training, but they don’t. Ah, coincidence, you tease me.

But how has this got anything to do with making yourself, as opposed to being all Beat Generation and finding yourself? Well, I have come to believe that finishing a marathon, or more importantly doing all the training to be able to finish a marathon, then lots of half-marathons, was instrumental in my sudden ability to apply myself enough to finish a book. Because I think it occurred to me at 25.5 miles that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do what I wanted to do. Or anyone’s help. Or anyone’s approval. I also realised that when something’s that simple it generally means that there won’t be any short cuts, no magic bullet, no secret formula.

I also worked out that if you just concentrate on being the person you want to be, that will be the person you are. So, you want to write a book, write a book. You want an literary agent, write a book. You want people to read a book you written, write a book. You want to win a book award, write a book. You want to write more than one book, write a book. You want to see something most people can only see at mile 25.5 of a marathon, write a book.