Running off at the mouth

Here’s something I’ve noticed. Or here’s one of my learnings, as the narrator would say in Vernon God Little (I’d definitely recommend that book by the way, it’s a good ‘un – top tip).

Writers are also runners.

Not all of them obviously, that would be a remarkable coincidence, but lots of them. More, I would be confident in saying, than in an average sample of the population. And you can, of course, be sure that I am basing this assertion on bone headed instinct rather than peer reviewed scientific research, I mean pah, who needs that right?

So writers are runners, according to me. And why is this? What causes this mysterious, and completely unproven, link between two disparate activities?

Me at Tower BridgeWell, I write, as you know. And I also run – sometimes. I’ve been a bit useless and lazy with the running of late, but I did complete the London Marathon in a crap time in 2010 (to prove it here’s me at Tower Bridge) and I’ve done maybe 15 or more half marathons around the UK over the years.

And I would say there is a link between running and writing. They have similarities.

Firstly, they are both endurance events. It takes a long time to run a marathon and it takes a long time to write a novel. Training for one and writing the other are activities best suited to those who have an eye for the long-perspective, for people who can defer their gratification.

Secondly, they are both lonely activities.
One of the most elegiac pieces of writing about running was Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. And let us not forget the long distance writer, for she or he is lonely too, smuggled away in her quiet box room, staring at notebook or screen while the cool kids are out clubbing.

Thirdly, they both give you sore nipples.
Oh no, sorry, that’s just running.

Anyway, lots of us solitary, self-absorbed authors seem to run, and I think there is another reason we are suited to it too. Time to think. And not just time, but vintage time when there are no distractions and we are often in a heightened, almost hypnotic, state of mind in which thoughts flow through our brains which might not on other occasions.

I’ve written before about how a generation of writers, now recently passed, all seemed to be drunks – functioning alcoholics with a pen in one hand and a glass in the other. I would say that what sustenance they were getting from hitting the bottle many members of the current generation of writers seek out on the road or the trail.

It’s not just peace and quiet a writer finds while running, it’s not just an uninterrupted flow of thought. It’s also that chemically induced buzz which causes ideas to pop into your mind, or link together in unusual ways, which doesn’t happen at other times – except when you are just waking up from sleep, or are half drunk.

I have hatched countless stories while out on the road. Including The Runner, which won me the Bridport Prize and started life purely as a yearning to write about what it felt like to run.

Many scenes in Song of the Sea God were also born when my synapses sparked in unusual ways while I was running. It works – I think that’s why we do it, on some level we know it works.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

29 thoughts on “Running off at the mouth”

  1. I like your thinking 🙂 I’m a non-runner (the wife would object to pushing my wheelchair at a run lol) but I used to love playing cricket and still watch it, and test matches are definitely endurance events! 😀

    1. Yes – walking too – Charles Dickens famously used to walk many miles through the streets of London and once said: “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

  2. Great post, Chris. Haruki Murakami writes rather eloquently about his passion for long-distance running in ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’. Having just completed my eighteenth run of the year (yes, I’m keeping track!), and having run on and off for ten years – although my longest distance has only been 10km – I can offer a finger with which to press upon the reason why so many writers write. At least for me – and very much like running – it is one of the most immediate ways to establish yourself as being present in the present. The emotional and physical extremes of running and writing tends to put me on a level that I cannot achieve in every day life. In turn, your body goes – for lack of better terminology – elsewhere. Since the mind is operating on a different level when you’re running, this Elsewhere prompts some unique ideas. And I can safely say that the source of most of my poems can be found twinkling (or otherwise) on a pavement within a two mile radius of here. And I guess that’s why, historically, so many writers are alcoholics: it’s about the journey to the Elsewhere, wherever that is.

  3. I would love to say this is true for me, I believe it in theory but I have lost my running mojo. Thanks for the inspiration to regain it.

  4. I’ve never been a runner, my knees can’t take it, but I do hike when weather permits. To me, there is nothing like being up in God’s country! The aroma of pine and wildflowers, and the peace of the quiet. Plus, it helps me to keep the secretary spread from sitting so much at bay, or at least as much as possible! Thanks for your encouragement and I am so glad spring is around the corner and I can get back to my mountains!

    1. I do believe walking and hiking fulfil this same basic need for writers as the running I’ve described – as I said earlier, Dickens was an obsessive walker wandering countless miles across London – the view he had wouldn’t been as splendid as your countryside though!

  5. I’ve been an obsessive runner for 10 years or so, although I don’t do as much as I used to. At one time I would run every day, sometimes twice. I did marathons, halves, 10k, 5ks. For me it was (and is) partly a social thing; I run with a group and enjoy hard training with them. But in recent years, and since the kids, I’ve calmed down a bit, and now I run maybe 5 times per week (I’ve just come back from my Sunday long run). I find that it frees my mind, almost like meditation. I don’t do many ‘easy’ runs during which I contemplate (most of my runs are hard, at a certain pace, or with friends) but I find it’s like a re-set button has been pressed in my brain. Post-run, everything seems so much clearer. Plus, more prosaically, writing is a sedentary occupation, and we need to keep moving … although, as I’ve had so many injuries, I would say that regular walking is just as good for that!

  6. Chris, you are so right here. I also run (but not marathons – way too knee jerking) and call it my ‘thinking time’. Other people meditate, but I have always liked running for giving me the space to just let my imagination do what it likes doing best – running where it will. I sometimes use it to work out what I’m going to write, but just as often I’m dreaming up other usually nonsensical schemes. The point is, it’s real me time, and I love the solitary side of it! Hadn’t noticed the sore nipples though 🙂

  7. Love this piece. It almost inspired me to get my running shoes out. Having followed in your footsteps (quite literally?) at the following year’s marathon perhaps my literary journey will do likewise. I can only hope.

  8. I never noticed the correlation between writing and running, although I’m not a runner, barely a walker if I’m honest. I like to walk. Characters and stories go through my mind. Nice blog and congrats on achieving a marathon.

  9. I do run and have done so for years. It’s true that it helps somehow to clear the mind and to spark ideas.

    Oftentimes it is not during the run that an idea comes to me, but afterwards, once I have relaxed and cleared my head. Must be those endorphins.

    I know if I am stuck on something or frustrated with writing, going for a run can calm me and give me the physical energy to return to work. Just letting go and focussing only on the rhythm of your feet on the road and the rise and fall of your breath can be very liberating.

    Also, if I haven’t written anything satisfactory on any given day, then I can go for a run and feel that if I accomplished nothing else, then I at least managed that much 🙂

    1. That all sounds a lot like me too! I think you’re right that it can help you shift that blockage one sometimes gets – perhaps just by taking you away from your desk or laptop for a little while.

  10. Yep, I’m both – writer and runner – although I think it’s just a coincidence that some of us are both. It does enable me to think up plot/story ideas whilst listening to my favourite music 🙂

    1. It could well be coincidence – but I still think it helps. Probably another reason is that running is a cheap way to take exercise, and writing literary novels like mine makes you no money at all!

  11. I so agree with this. In my twenties, my CV always used to say reading, writing, running. As life got busier with work and family, I dropped the latter two, but when I took a career break at the end of my 30’s, both came back with a vengeance. I too have run London (slowly, twice), 2 half marathons, several 10Ks, as I’ve been writing my novel. They go hand in hand. Running helps me work out character development, plot points and work out problems in the narrative. Having a major event to train for helps me to get away from the writing obsession. And writing about training in a blogpost, helps keep me on track…Both require determination, pig-headedness and unbelievable levels of self-belief (against all the odds). Here’s my thoughts from 2011, when I was training for London…

  12. I don’t run but do walk about 17 miles a week, and whenever possible hill-walking on Exmoor. Ideas nearly always materialise during the freedom from routine. I think it was Dylan Thomas who carried a notebook wherever he went to write those ideas down even if he didn’t use them for years.

    1. That would do it too I guess, it’s all about getting your brain working isn’t it? I love a good notebook myself. Nabokov used to write notes on postcards and keep them down his socks apparently.

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