Monday, August 21, 2017

Learning from a marathon runner who hits the wall

I’ve got a mate who runs marathons.  Why is anybody’s guess - I told him the industrial revolution gave us ways to go anywhere in a 42-kilometre radius - and his constant invitations for me to join him are politely left to rush by.

It’s quite an achievement running forty-two kilometres. Pushing through the pain, wringing every ounce of effort out of yourself and doing something very few people achieve.  I do admire him for it. 

One of the most fascinating parts of running a marathon is known as hitting the wall. My mate talks about hitting it just past the halfway mark.  Everything about his experience says to give up; to walk; to even stop.  His legs are screaming for a break from the lactic acid and muscle cramps.  His lungs are screaming for relief. Even though he’s got the ability and the tools – and he’s already run half the race - things happen to him that make the finish line feel like it’s further away than when he started.

And he talks about feeling like he’s running in jelly.  He’s got the movement of running, but doesn’t feel like he’s getting anywhere. 

Writers hit the wall too. Our lactic acid might be family time that encroaches on writing. Our muscle cramps could be the pull of work or church over writing. Or our energy burnout could be when our ideas or storylines just run out of petrol. Or we're over halfway but just can't seem to find a way to finish the book.

It’s happened to me a number of times this year – when everything about my writing experience says to give up and stop. When my brain wants a rest and my bank balance tells me I should be doing extra work that actually pays the bills. When my ideas have run out of petrol and my characters feel like they can’t move on.

And it feels to me like the finish line – holding the final manuscript in my hands – is further away than when I started.

Now, my mate just laughs when I talk about writers hitting the wall, but there are things that he does that I’ve implemented this year.  And they’ve worked.
  • Keep moving.  A runner needs their feet to keep moving. That movement is important as stopping the movement makes it 1000 times harder to restart it.  I’ve done that this year, at times I’ve just kept moving. That could be as simple as giving my protagonist another character trait, adding 200 words to the manuscript.  Or editing another chapter or scene. Or simply reformatted one exchange of dialogue.  That movement is important as I can look back and see that I've done something.
  • Focussing on the finish line. Marathon runners often disassociate from the pounding beat of their stride and focus on the finish line. It helps break the dawning thought that they're in pain now, and is a reminder of why they're doing what they're doing. At times this year, I’ve just taken a deep breath and visualised typing The End at the tail of my manuscript. That disassociation has been enough to push me on and to spur me into action, because I now have the end goal in frame.
  • Breaking the race down into chunks. This is the opposite of the previous point. One things my marathon running friend does is run the next 1km, then the next, then the next. I’ve done that – written the next scene, then the next scene, then the next scene. And when I’ve looked up at the end of the week I’ve written another 3,000 words.
  • Enjoying the process. My friend says he tries to breath in sync with his steps or count out as his feet pound away. He enjoys the process of running.  That’s what I’ve tried to do this year.  I’ve written a particularly difficult scene and enjoyed the words as they’ve come, or the plot point as it has unveiled itself. I've gasped in surprise when a character says something I wasn't expecting or smiled when the protagonist got out of a jam even I didn't expect him to get out of. It sounds crazy, but it's FUN!
Writing a piece of work – any work – is hard. Especially if it’s something you’ve drawn from the depths of your experience or character. You’ve pushed through the pain, wrung every ounce of effort out of yourself and done something very few people achieve. 

And, like my friend, I admire you for it.

About David Rawlings

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, I am a sports-mad, married father-of-three with my own copywriting/communication business who reads everything within an arm’s reach. I can see a typo from across the room and always – always – make sure my text messages are grammatically correct.
My manuscripts have finalled in the ACFW's Genesis competitions and the OCW's Cascade Awards.

And now I'm working with the Steve Laube Agency as my agent to find that elusive first publisher.


  1. David, great post! Writing a book can definitely feel like a marathon, especially when the end seems nowhere in sight. I like to break things down into smaller, achievable chunks. Putting one foot in front of the other is how we make it to 'the end'. Thanks for sharing your helpful analogy with us. :)

  2. True words, David. I've run a few marathons myself, and your analogy is perfect. There's also the beautiful sensation of 'the second wind' which occurs *after* hitting the wall. Suddenly, a wave of energy rushes through your body, the pain disappears, and you feel like you could run forever. These are the moments I live for in writing as well. The ideas flow up like a fountain, and nothing matters but getting the words out as quickly as possible. It's effortless. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Love that notion of "the second wind", Jebraun. It's fabulous when you step away from your desk and know you've hit your word count for the day, or written a particularly good scene (or sentence), or whatever.

      BTW Jeb, welcome home. I loved vicariously journeying with you through your US vacation. It was lovely seeing you have such special family time with your girl and mom! And the Jurassic Park ride - what a hoot that BIG drop is!

      "Do the next thing" - is a wonderful principle in writing, well, in most things, and it's a practice that I'm consciously engaging in most days and it helps break down the 90,000 word count bit by bit.

      Great post, David. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    2. Thanks Jebraun. Love the idea of a second wind - I write at night, and for me it usually kicks in around 10pm!

  3. Hi David - great analogy! I've felt like I've hit the wall these past few months, but like you say, have kept writing, even if it's making sure my blog posts are up to date, etc. Thanks for sharing - and encouraging us :)

    1. Thanks Carolyn. Yes, even the platform-building is movement of sorts. For me, even focussing on that for 20 minutes is enough to make me feel like I've achieved something.

  4. Thanks Narelle - a couple of times this year it really has been "one foot in front of the other" but at least I'm still moving!

  5. I think I'd rather write a book than run a marathon ...

    I like the reference to running through jelly - moving, but not feeling as though you're getting anywhere. I think that's where I am. Thanks for the encouragement to keep going!

  6. Me too Iola. In fact, I have.

    I think the key to it for me is movement - even if it feels like it isn't going anywhere. I was stuck on my Manuscript #3 storyboard for a while but kept chipping away at it. Today I finalised it, so I now have a plotted novel I can start filling in! Wouldn't have happened without pushing through that running in jelly period of time.