Tag Archives: running

Finding my way back to writing

old writing

In January, I had the privilege of meeting an author of a historical fiction series about the Civil War. I read her first four books when I was about 12 years old, when she used a pen name and the series had a different name. A year or so ago, I discovered she had started the series again, under her original name, but with a new title. I saw that she engaged with her readers directly on Facebook, which is quite uncommon. She responds to people via email or social media more frequently and promptly than some of my friends or family. Anyway, as luck would have it, she was traveling to San Diego for a few days, and on a whim, I asked if she would be “around,” thinking we could meet. She suggested breakfast, and a few days later we spent two hours talking about reading, writing, growing up in the South, faith, and family. I left the breakfast knowing I had a new friend and mentor. She completely believed I had stories to tell, and that I needed to write them down. I was inspired, and I was going to write.

But I didn’t. Twice, she has asked me via email, “Are you writing, Jenna??” And I, embarrassingly, have not responded, because the truth is, I haven’t. Until now.

Since at least the third grade, if not before, I said I wanted to be an author when I grew up. In the early years, I wrote in spiral-bound notebooks, trying to come up with my own version of The Baby-Sitters Club, writing about best friends with luscious brown or blonde hair, one curly and one straight, of course. I wrote silly poems about boys that would never like me back – “he’s just not that into you” isn’t a new concept. I thought I could be like my first female author crush, Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about my own family and our adventures (pioneering or not). I aspired to be at the level of Jane Austen, my second female author crush (LIW and Austen still top my list; you never forget your first loves), who wrote about the everyday stories of family, friends, love, and marriage with such eloquence and humor.

Some of you have read this story before. I went to college for journalism, writing feature and news stories, and adjusting my dream to become a star reporter for The Washington Post, only to shift gears and jump into digital communications and advocacy for nonprofits in DC, right at the time that blogging and social media really began to take off in a big way.

And nearly two years ago, I left DC after several successful and happy years, thinking I would try to “be a writer” again. But today, I find myself questioning what it really means to be something. Am I still a writer even though I haven’t blogged in more than two months until now? Am I still a writer even though I haven’t written anything that isn’t for a client in two months? Am I still a writer even though I don’t actively send out pitches to publications?

I’ve read enough books and blog posts, some by famous writers, and others who just would like to think they are famous, that sternly remind those of us “wannabes” that we need to write every day if we want to become better at our craft. That we need to “shut up and write” instead of talking about it. I’ve read Pressfield’s The War of Art, and know the demon of Resistance very well, and know I have to beat him at his own game.

In some sense, they’re right. Just like any other skill or hobby, you become better at it, or perhaps even master it, by practicing frequently, maybe every day. And there are days when you may like it, or days when you hate it, and you are counting down the minutes until you are done. I see this a lot when I read about running. As a kid, I hated running. I never thought I would become a runner. And even after my first couple of races, post-college, I still didn’t consider myself a runner. I didn’t have all the gear yet. I wasn’t fast. I didn’t run every day. I didn’t know all the runner jargon. But somewhere along the way, as I practiced and learned and even began to enjoy running, I finally called myself a runner. I get Runner’s World, I have the gear and clothes, and I use the jargon. I am faster, I am stronger, and I run more frequently. I’ll never become an elite, and I’ll probably never win a race. I don’t want to run every day. But I’m a runner because I run.

So why do I struggle so much with this concept when it comes to writing? Perhaps part of it is because there is a stigma around writing, all these expectations. You tell people you are a runner, and they don’t usually ask you if you’ve won any races. They may ask how many miles you typically run. But tell people that you’re a writer, and they want to know where you’ve been published, or if you’re writing the “next great American novel.” Not all runners are expected to be fast. But writers are expected to be good. And if I’m really honest with myself, I expect to be good.

A few weeks ago, I was one of two final candidates for an editor position at an alumni magazine. I wanted it so badly – it was the first job I’d seen in essentially all the time since I left DC that I thought I’d be perfect for, and that was in the direction I want to go. It came down to some very specific feedback about my writing – the headlines being part of it. I was pretty upset, as you might imagine. To be that close to something, and then have to start over, because my headlines weren’t up to snuff? Ouch.

Although I ultimately look at it as a lesson learned and a great experience, I also recognize that it was a blow to my ego, and perhaps has been a factor in extending my writing drought. I have quickly pushed aside ideas for stories and blog posts because I don’t think they’re interesting enough. I avoid sitting down in the morning or night to write because I don’t think what will come out will be good enough, even for me, much less for anyone else to read. So I knit. Or watch Netflix. Or do more crosswords. Anything but write. Because the nagging question deep inside me is quite possibly, “Am I a writer? Will I ever really be a writer?”

As I’m sitting here in a coffee shop with my laptop, I’m realizing that part of my challenge may be that I’ve taken to looking at writing as a chore, rather than something that I once so enjoyed. If I think about my evolution as a runner, it meant changing up my route, trying different running clothes and apps and shoes, and working on specific goals, like improving my time or besting a killer hill. I learned to stop looking at it as a thing I had to do, and instead something I wanted to do – it was fun, it was motivating, and I quickly learned all the little things that played a role in my growing passion for it.

So I think the same thing applies to my writing. It’s been a long time since I tried writing a poem, or wrote real fiction, or something that wasn’t within the themes of this blog. And clearly, I needed to get out of the house for the words to start pouring of me, so now I know that for me, I get inspiration and motivation from changing my location. When I began to see changes in my running, and ultimately, changes in my body and in my frame of mine, running became more enjoyable, and more…flowing. It’s time to get back into that spirit with writing again. It’s time to be a writer, not to be a best-selling author or to win any awards or to make other people proud. It’s time to be a writer because I like to write. And that’s who I want to be.

A note from a mediocre runner

I’ve been running regularly for about 10 years, and “competitively” for four. I put competitively in quotes because I fully own that I’m not a fast runner, not one of the elite. I’ve run 14 races, and I’m about to run my 15th this weekend. Two have been halfs, and three have been 10-mile races. I’ve never medaled, or even come close to being in a top five or 10 spot for my age or gender group. But I’ve improved my time for every consecutive race (within each distance category) except once, and for someone that hated running as a kid, I am pretty proud of my results. I may never run a 10k in less than 57 minutes or so, but hey, there was a time where I never thought I’d want to run a race.

So when I read a new WSJ article about how my generation is slower than ever and taking the competition out of racing, and ruining it for the veteran, fast runners, I was a little annoyed. A Running USA spokesman quoted in the article says, “Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it’s good enough just to finish.” The piece goes on to talk about how running analysts and elites are concerned that this is a trend for overall competitiveness in American sports and culture, and that the rise of events like Tough Mudders and Color Runs are diminishing the talent and results of top performers.

True, whenever I run a longer distance for the first time, my goal is to finish, or to run the whole thing. And for many new runners and experienced runners alike, sometimes the idea is just to go out and accomplish something you haven’t done before, or to experience a race, whether on your own or with friends or family. Some people run races during extreme weight loss or while battling illness. Some people like me know we will never medal, but set personal goals each time and enjoy races to challenge ourselves to a physical and mental limit not yet crossed — and the reality is that everyone’s limits and goals are different.

In a world where helicopter parents, dance moms and overbearing parents/coaches push kids too far, sometimes to the extent of injury or so that a child ends up hating an activity, shouldn’t we embrace the idea that there are more opportunities for people to take up a sport that’s generally cheap, “easy” in terms of technical ability, and can be done anywhere? Shouldn’t we be grateful that people are having fun while exercising? Even if their goal is to “finish,” isn’t that better than sitting on the couch? Yet one man quoted in the article complains that now it doesn’t seem worth working toward a three-hour marathon time instead of a four, and compares it to sitting down to a marathon TV session. I don’t think it’s fair to knock those of us who are quite happy with those longer times, if that means we accomplished something for us. Not all of us are out running for hours a day, every day, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love my half hour or hour-long runs as much as the next person. Perhaps I even love it more. And then I’m happy to sit down to watch a marathon of Law & Order.

For those worried that my generation is slowing you down, maybe you should think about finding new incentives and/or restrictions within the sport. On the one hand, I find it encouraging and inspiring to run in races with elite performers, but if this watering down effect is seriously a concern, then the running organizations and race organizers can surely figure out a way to make sure the best of the best are still being groomed to compete for our country on an international level. Don’t mind me — I’ll just be doing my thing around the neighborhood, one step at a time.

Let it be said, let it be done, etc, etc, etc.

13.1 miles: done

Last fall, I said I wanted to push my limits and sign up for a half marathon. Yesterday, I ran my first 13.1 mile race, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC…and I will say that it easily is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and one of my proudest moments. To some, a half may not seem like a big deal, especially to advanced runners. But to me, it was one more step to Be Fearless this year — especially knowing that at one time, I hated running.

I’ve written before about why I run, and now a little more than two years into doing races, those days when I dreaded going out for some laps seem so long ago. Now, when I miss a couple of days, it feels like I missed a meal, or I forgot to put on my watch. When I hear that friends are signing up for running programs or races, I get excited, because I know how positive they’ll feel once they start. Case in point: my good friend Kim ran her first race, the St. Patty’s Day 8k, a couple of weeks ago, to celebrate one year of being smoke-free, and to end her Couch to 5k program. I was supposed to run it with her, but had to go out of town last minute, but nonetheless, two other friends joined her and crossed the finish line with her. I’m proud of you, Kim! That 8k was my first race two years ago. Additionally, my friend Alanna ran her first race with me, a 10k, this past fall, ran another one soon after that, and signed up for the half with me and two of her friends (that’s all of us in the picture). There was so much excitement when we all met up after finishing the race, all of us proud because we each ran the entire thing, and had inspired each other, and ourselves, to Be Fearless.

After a half of course, comes the talk about what’s next. Some say they’re ready for the next one, some say they would never do a marathon. Some say they were crazy for doing the half in the first place. Everyone has their own comfort level of course. Mine? I immediately thought of signing up for the Woodrow Wilson Half in the fall, and thought that maybe in a year, I could come back to do the full Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. You can do anything you put your mind to, of course. I’m sore, and I was tired, but it was a happy sore and tired. I had never run more than 10 miles a few times, and I went into the race wanting to run the whole thing, and although my legs were all spaghetti for a few minutes after, I enjoyed my French toast and Bloody Mary later because I deserved it!

I said I would run a half, and I did. Etc. etc. etc.

We definitely ran for brunch!

When the marine layer clears, everything is so much sunnier.

San Diego sunset

Week before last, I headed out to San Diego to visit my parents for the first time since they moved there in January. It was my first time to California, the first time I would see my family without Harrison (McGee sure gave me a lot of love to make up for it), and the first time I ran on a beach.

It was also a week in which I thought about the last year, where I’m headed, and what’s holding me back. With a little help from my parents, especially my dad, I realized I still get so stuck on trying to be what I perceive everyone wants me to be, I still worry about saying the right thing, doing the right, and making the “right” choices. A year ago, I made the choice to break up with a wonderful guy, who remains my friend. I made the choice to never let a friend who never actually was a really good friend treat me that way again. And recently, I changed jobs, making a career choice that worked for me, not for my coworkers.

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I run because…

As a kid, I hated running. Every time my dad would remind me that I needed to run to gain endurance for soccer or basketball, I cringed. It got to the point that it literally was forced into my schedule and I abhorred every step of the .7 mile lap around my neighborhood.

Then in middle school, I ran track…or rather, jumped hurdles. Short as I was, I needed more strides than most people, and it was more of a challenge to clear the hurdle, but I rather enjoyed it. In high school, I played tennis and started running more on my own, discovering how relaxing it could be to venture down the shaded bike trail path through my town, and conquer the seemingly unconquerable hill that completed my loop.

 

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David Gaughran

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