Some children take quickly to organized sports and thrive at them, dribbling soccer balls and basketballs with equal ease and talent. I was the little fat kid reading in the corner. I was chosen last for all the teams and routinely beaned at recess, with dodge balls, insults, and, occasionally, a fist or two.
So it came as little surprise to me that when I grew out of my baby fat, track would become my athletic endeavor of choice. Endless patience, the genetic gift of my father’s short, muscular legs, and a desire to be alone made me the perfect candidate for the one event nobody else wanted: distance.
Because who remembers the distance runners? Sure, we know the sprinters: the flash and dazzle of FloJo, the spirit of Jesse Owens, and the ego of that Jamaican dude, Usain Bolt, who did his little lightning-strike victory move after each heat during the last Olympic Games. But who remembers Bill Rodgers? Katherine Switzer? Joan Benoit Samuelson? Ringing fewer bells? Yeah, I thought so. See, here’s the thing about the distance runners: they last. They don’t succumb as frequently to career-ending injuries. They know about pacing and training. They know how to entertain and inspire themselves lap after mind-numbing lap, mile after tedious mile, on days when pounding sun softens roads, releasing the nauseating stench of tar, on days so cold their nostrils freeze and the snow squeaks beneath their feet, on rainy days when soggy socks give them blisters.
Want to talk about transferable skills? I became a writer, another move that surprised no one who knew me. I tried on various short formats, but as usual, these did not appeal. I wanted again to go the distance with a novel. Then more novels. As with the 10K race, my favorite distance, I’d finish one book, rest; write another, rest; the whole of my writing life becoming the sum of each “race.”
I hadn’t realized how closely the internals of the writing life resemble long-distance running. You have to get the pacing right so you don’t burn out (or succumb to an embarrassing and frustrating bout of quad-lock I suffered from pushing too hard in a Central Park 10K). You need the patience to edit, round after round, even as the commas are swirling around your head, doing dirty things to each other. You need the fortitude to survive criticism, promotion, marketing, apathy, poverty, disgruntled spouses, computer errors, and the vagaries of Amazon pricing.
One factor, however, didn’t translate so smoothly. The solitude. Yeah, like many of us, and a number of diagnosed sociopaths, I sit alone in a room and stare at a screen for many hours a week. As I mentioned before, the sitting alone and staring part comes naturally for me. But to complete a novel, sell it to the marketplace, and sustain a writing career takes teamwork I hadn’t anticipated. I needed a critique group. Beta readers. An editor or two. Not to mention a cover artist, a partner who gets why I spend so much time with imaginary people and hasn’t yet run away screaming, friends to help spread the word, and the camaraderie of other writers who understand this craziness.
I’d been wrong to think I had to be the lonely long distance writer. To quote Bette Midler, “You got to have friends.” The occasional gulp of Gatorade doesn’t hurt, either.
(A version of this article first appeared on Nicole Storey’s Chaotic Thoughts)