Write Like You Run

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Mason-research2

These index cards represent the research for 23 books and many magazine articles. Writing is for endurance athletes.

The request came late November. A children’s book packager reached out asking if I had to time outline, right, and research 6 nonfiction books. Oh, and by the by, could I get those done in 6 weeks?

It was grueling work. I rose around 5am every morning. I worked until my various day jobs required me to leave the house. I returned in the early evenings to eat a quick dinner, wash dishes, and then settle back at my desk to resume the project until midnight or 1am. I gathered research facts on index cards which I could easily shuffle into outlined chapters. I drafted crappy paragraphs. I revised them into mildly improved paragraphs.

I repeated the process day after day.

I am no soldier. I moaned and griped when glopping out of bed or trudging back to the desk with the same relative energy and personality of ear wax. I couldn’t do this! I was spent. I’d already had a long day. My brain was shot! I should just forget about it and go back to bed.

That negative, sinister, doom-and-gloom voice every person hears whispering from time to time…. It has successfully talked me out of many accomplishments, big and small, over my lifespan.

But I knew every hour I put off was an hour I could not afford inside this contractual deadline.

As the weeks passed and raw fatigue slobber-gnawed on my spirit, I delighted one evening when a different voice whispered out of the mental ether.

This one had a defiant, dauntless, take-charge edge. It was as warm and steady and confident as the light from an oil lamp. Best of all, I recognized it as the same voice that arose when I started learning how to run longer distances.

20181221_104832I am not a natural or gifted runner. Even so, I enjoy it immensely. I get hours of meditative time out on high desert and alpine trails. Time spent in the precious present moment. No past regrets to haunt me. No future events to boogey-man me. Just the sprawling, limitless now.

Joys aside, I struggled with form and pacing when I needed to attain half marathon distances. Miles short of my daily or weekly training goals, I would often putter out and walk the remainders. Then, one day, when my goal was only 1.5 miles away and my feet were aching and my leg muscles were screaming louder than Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos and I was on the verge of tears thinking I’d have to yet again quit and fail to reach a set goal…the lamplight voice emerged.

You can do this, the voice said as a matter of fact. You can keep running to that tree. It’s only a few feet away. Try it.

Its tone was so declarative. It neither mandated nor manipulated me with guilt. I couldn’t help but follow its suggestion. Just before I reached the target tree, the lamplight voice indicated another tree further ahead. You can make it to that one. And so I did.

20181223_124551Tree by tree, I hit my goal that day. On future runs, that inner coach always emerged. It was there on race days, guiding me to the finish line.

And here it was again, when all I wanted to do was cry and punish myself for taking on a ridiculous project with a ridiculous deadline.

You can do this. You can do anything for about 30 minutes, it coached me.

Yes, I thought. Yes I could.

30 minutes passed and I had more words on the page. I was also warmed up and on a roll. Now the ideas were flowing fast.

You can do 30 more minutes, the lamplight voice indicated without pomp or demand.

I sure can, I thought.

And by midnight or so, I had a yet another chapter drafted. And at last, the entire project was done. On time.

I enjoyed a brief break for the winter holidays. And then, the book packager reached out again. They had 10 books authored by others in need of a dynamic voice with supercharged language–my specialty. Could I…?

Yes, I replied. Yes I could.

Oh, and could I take on writing and researching 4 other books due in 4 weeks?

Yes, I replied. I absolutely could.

I am not advocating for extreme assignments with catastrophic deadlines. I am, however, here to say that we all have little voices in our heads. Each one tells us a particular story about what is and is not possible. Luckily, we get to choose which voice we listen to.

My Bearings

The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

Outcomes vs Expectations

All year, I have been training for a half marathon. My first, in fact. Not only that, my first long-distance running event since high school track, when the longest I ran was the 2-3 circles required to hurl a discus.

Month after month, I logged the long miles for training. October loomed and the event drew ever closer. Day after day, I documented the ups and downs of my training, hoping to publish the gripping narrative on this.very.blog.

Hell, I was even going to post the outcome — triumph or failure! But lo’, in the midst of training, I discovered that Hollywood was already on to me. Not only had they turned my experiences into a blockbuster movie, but also they had gone so far as to chronicle my experiences in a best-selling, award-winning, internationally acclaimed book that debuted before the movie!

I know you think I’m joking, but I’m not. Here’s the premise:

A short, over-aged, knock-kneed runner built like a tank and often mistaken for a cow pony instead of a Thoroughbred becomes an unlikely champion and inspires a nation down on its luck.

How could that be about anyone but me???

hillenbrand_air-equine

“Air Equine” by carterse. Image CC.

To cover their crafty, ruthless copyright-infringing tracks, Hollywood’s media moguls cast a racehorse named Seabiscuit in the lead role of my story, then they hired the mightily talented Laura Hillenbrand to dredge through fathoms of research woven into a compelling narrative detailing the true yet quirky and almost unbelievable events that propelled the Biscuit to stardom during the Great Depression.

No other athlete at this time accumulated as much coverage across column inches in newspapers and magazines than the little Seabiscuit. And probably, no other athlete was as underestimated as this pokey plug!

But outcomes rarely match our expectations. Mediocrity haunts the alleged greats, just as majesty lurks in the supposedly small. Coming to half marathons with virtually no prior experience and plagued throughout training by pernicious foot pain, I certainly underestimated my own outcomes. On nights I sat immobilized with my feet and legs elevated and wrapped in liniment-soaked bandages, I expected I would throw in the towel. Hang it up. Call off all the bets. But after a few days’ rest, I’d hammer on my shoes and hobble back out to conquer yet another chunk of the 13+ mile course.

hillenbrand_seabiscuitI strongly recommend reading Seabiscuit if you seek the inspiration to keep going against all odds. For pointers on how to persevere and achieve great outcomes despite being restrained under low expectations. Read it if you enjoy historical nonfiction. Read it if you’d like to know how my half marathon went, how I struggled with mud, heat, competitors, the prying eyes of paparazzi, and how I did on the biggest race day of all with everything on the line! It’s all there.

Do be aware that the first couple of chapters are heavy with names, places, and details that, although accurate, do not come back into the narrative. Also, I feel obligated to warn you that the race scenes pitting the Biscuit against his arch rivals are so climactic, you are likely to tug for the next page with your teeth–fingers being too slow! And if you are pressed for time, may I suggest reading only Chapter 5, which will teach you more about the dangerous world of jockeying than you ever knew you wanted to know and now that you know you can’t believe no one ever bothered to tell you how friggin’ exciting it was and now you are giving everyone the silent treatment for their role in your misguided ignorance.

Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.