Going the Distance, an essay by John McCarthy

Mid-foot strike. Circle breathing. An explosion of words ready to rattle inside the steady skull. There is a synchronous, quiet glide. Most of the time, I am not thinking about anything on a run. Only when I stop, and a softer breathing pattern returns, do my thoughts start to fall back in some sort of order. They come to rest after ten miles of existing in fragments. Maybe it is the dopamine and serotonin erupting from the craters in my synapses, but there is a moment of clarity, an awareness of an ineffable epiphany, that makes me excited to sit down and write—after stretching and showering, of course. 
I am not a casual runner, nor am I a casual writer. Averaging about 45-50 miles a week, I try to write as much as I run. I have talked with other writers who say they use running as a way to organize their thoughts, a way to write mental drafts; but at a 6:30 minute a mile pace on a ten mile run, I find it difficult to concentrate on anything but the rhythm of breathing and the cars that might not believe everything they read when they arrive at stop signs. This intense concentration focusing on instincts, combined with extreme exertion, is a way to clear the mind of any worries or esoteric problems that may lead the mind into frustrating tension. Once the mind has been cleared of this haze and pollution, the articulation becomes easier to access.

When I start to write, I feel the tingle of the lingering adrenaline. Combine it with a little caffeine and I am able to channel, much easier, whatever conduit allows the words to come out of me. It is not important what you write; it is important that you take the time after exercise to write. Finding time, to write and run, is the first obstacle. Oregon’s legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who also was the inspiration for the Nike brand, once said “There is no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.” It is the first arrow I pull out of the quiver when describing why I spend so much time running and writing, and why you should never have an excuse.

There is always time. To me, the axioms “I don’t have time” or “It’s just not the right day to start” are the grownup versions of “The dog ate my homework.” Only the seed of motivation has to be present. And if you write immediately after a run, delayed onset muscle soreness probably has not set in and your body should be doing a pretty good job at nestling itself into a content concentration. Do not think about popping ibuprofen or any other NSAIDs.

Ostensibly, you want to write without distraction. Writing requires a conduit for the internal. Any physical distractions are an inhibitor to that process. Running calms the body, pushes away obstacles; running is a balm for the body’s physical anxieties. Endurance running clears a rootless trail for enduring writing.

All sport is a mode of catharsis, a way to punish and pleasure your body. But there is something about running that sets it apart from other forms of athleticism—isolation. This factor of solitude is why running and writing form a dialectic that compliments the other as all the miles and drafts compile and stack toward an omega point—a completed manuscript or a competitive race.

Runners training for a marathon want to push their bodies the farthest, the fastest, for a lack of better term, toward transcendence. They believe in their own egos that they can be something greater than themselves. This is why we write, too. We write in hopes of composing the most tragic or euphoric, or wholly complete representation of ourselves. To do this requires isolation and a willingness to judge and punish yourself. The mindset required for these pursuits makes the process of running and writing indistinguishable.

We plunge into solitude like we need it. Running and writing become a habit; maybe a vice to someone on the outside looking in, but a productive one. We train because we want to run sub-5:00 in the mile. We write because we want to have our work appear in a place of reputable print. To do this requires solitude, a shrinking away from a normal routine. We create our own routines rooted in solitude. It becomes another world within the world. The amount of self-induced isolation required for optimal running performance and great writing are two different extremes of the same solitude. One is immensely physical, the other mental. We learn from each one to cultivate a greater product and a greater balance. 

I think it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge that said “poetry is the best words in the best order.” The same goes for your performance at a race. All the best training sessions performed at the right pace, in the right order, leading up to that race. As a cross country coach, I get to construct training plans for motivated kids. Each macro-cycle is like one poem in a manuscript. My runners do two workouts a week, a long run on the weekend, with recovery runs in-between, and they record all of this in their own training logs—personal manuscripts detailing individual goals.

Running and coaching are crafts that must be revised. I make edits all the time to the schedule for my runners, as well as my personal training regimen. I want them to set personal bests at our important meets—conference and nationals. I want them to come home with the medals. As a coach, it is my job to reach for this. As a writer, it is my job to isolate myself to make sure the product I am showing the world is legitimate. Watching my runners, they want the same thing with their performance.

Failure happens when we fail to do workouts in the right order, or add too much mileage too soon or too little. I find this carrying over to my writing when I receive rejection letters. Did I send a draft out too soon? Did my punch come too soon in the poem? Did I peak too early? The converse is success; when I receive an acceptance letter. That’s when I know I did things right. I know the training schedule was laid out in the best order. When you achieve a personal best in that local 10k you have dedicated the couple months training for, you will know you did things in the right order, too.

Find the time. Be willing to sacrifice comfort for failure. Lace up. Write it all down. Let your lungs expand. Words are miles, and it is how we measure the distance of our minds.  

John McCarthy’s poetry and fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Salamander, The First Line, Popshot, The Conium Review, and The Lindenwood Review, among others. He lives in Springfield, Illinois where he is the Assistant Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program. He has been a regional judge for the national Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and volunteers at the Vachel Lindsay Home. His website: johnmccarthylit.com