Last weekend, I ran a 10k in Fargo, ND. The race is part of Fargo’s annual marathon week, which in addition to a full marathon also includes a 5k, 10k, half-marathon, and marathon relay. My brother Bob—who has participated in everything from marathons to triathlons—convinced me and others in our family to first try running in Fargo in 2012, and it’s now become an annual family event. Over the years, I’ve run the 10k several times, the four-person marathon relay once, and the half marathon once. This year, as I prepared for the 10k on many a windy afternoon in Mandan, I found myself reflecting on the similarities between writing and running. Both are pursuits that require dedication and perseverance, and while they may seem daunting at the outset, both are also ultimately achievable.
In life, we often find ourselves facing what I call the Mount Everest problem: a tendency to view an overwhelming objective in its entirety rather than breaking it into manageable components. Unfortunately, this often causes us to despair of ever reaching our goal—or even worse, never attempt it at all. If, however, we focus on achieving incremental progress, we can accomplish more than we ever thought possible. In 2012, I began my runner’s journey by participating in the Fargo half marathon. I’ve never considered myself an athlete (the closest I ever got to sports was the high school chess team), but my brother gave me a simple and direct training plan. The reason many people struggle with distance running, he explained, is that they make it bigger than it really is. They try to run five miles, but then blow all their energy in the first hundred yards. Instead, he explained I needed to focus on reaching consistent, manageable goals. The first week, he had me run twenty minutes for four days, thirty minutes the fifth day, and rest for two days. I repeated the routine for week two, and on week three he increased me to thirty minutes for four days, forty minutes the fifth day, and two days of rest. Over the next several months, we incremented in blocks of ten minutes every two weeks, and in no time at all he had me knocking out hour long runs (seven to eight miles) with ease.
Shortly before the half marathon, however, I became massively sick, the cumulative effect being an unexpected lapse in training. I remember showing up at my brother’s house a week before race day, full of excuses as to why I could not run. My brother gave me the really, shithead? expression—and that’s when I knew I had to go through with it.
So I ran the half marathon, every inch of it, and when people asked me how I did it, I said it boiled down to a simple scenario. I knew I could walk for two hours—I’d done this plenty of times—and therefore determined it was not that much different to run for two hours. When the gun went off, I set a relaxed pace and asked myself one simple question: Is this a pace I can sustain for two hours? And I did, ultimately finishing the run in two hours and four minutes.
Writing a book, then, is like training for a half marathon (or any distance run). Even a thousand-page behemoth like War and Peace was only written one word at a time; what matters is not the magnitude of the task, but dedicating effort on a regular basis to achieving it. One page becomes two, two become four, four become eight, and soon one has a manuscript. And, just like in running, the “muscles” we use for writing become stronger the more we exercise them. Last year, a good week of writing for me amounted to 1,000 words a day, four days a week. Now, I can now get close to 1,500 words on a weeknight, and even more on weekends (I wrote 6,000 words last weekend, and that was after I finished the 10k). However, even if I only wrote 1,500 words four times a week—perhaps ninety minutes of work a day, easily accomplished once one kicks the Netflix habit—that would amount to 6,000 words a week, 24,000 words a month, and 288,000 words a year. Warrior of Light was only 180,000 words, so there you have it—a completed manuscript in under eight months. But it doesn’t matter whether one’s goal is five thousand words a day or five hundred words a day; what matters is one’s ability to consistently meet the goal, and in doing so accomplish a much greater task.
As I ran the 10k this past weekend, I thought of an interesting lesson I learned from a Navy SEAL. In this exercise, he asked a group of us to raise our hands as high as we could. Then, after we had their hands up, he said, “Now go just a little higher.” Every person in the room (myself included) managed to raise our hands at least another inch. This should have been impossible, because he had already asked us to raise our hands as high as we could. The point of the lesson was that we often limit ourselves to less than our full potential, holding back without even realizing it.
This year, I will admit the thought of walking during the 10k crossed my mind. Since I’ve been traveling across the state to attend book signings, and spending the time I do have at home working on book two, I didn’t get as much running in as I have in the past. My farthest run this spring was four miles about a month ago, and in the interim I’d been doing about three miles on a good day. But when the race started and I hit the pavement, I thought of the half marathon from 2012. I thought of publishing Warrior of Light last fall. I thought of the Navy SEAL. I thought of writing this blog. And I asked myself: Do you really think you’ll tell them that after all these years, all these races, that you just decided to walk this time?
No. Not a chance.
So I ran.