Things I learned about writing from walking a (very) long way

About six weeks ago I walked 100km to raise money for Oxfam[1].

It’s something I’ve been wanting to tackle for a few years. I first heard about the event a few years ago from my then boss who did these sorts of events routinely. I thought it sounded like a great challenge: it’s a big, ego-boosting round number for a distance, I’ve always wanted to do some sort of big endurance event, and I really like Oxfam as an organisation. Also, it’s a walk. How hard could it be right?

Turns out it’s actually pretty tough! But as I trained for and eventually (spoilers) completed the event I realised the process had a lot in common with writing.

This isn’t an original insight. Writers such as Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates and Cheryl Strayed have all written about the importance of running or other endurance exercise to their lives and writing. The similarities in the activities are fairly apparent, too: the both take a long time, there’s no real mastery, and it’s pretty difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t get the activity why on earth you’d spend so much time doing the thing that seems to bring you more misery than joy.

So apart from it being a long, painful experience that takes up pretty much all your time, what are the similarities between writing and walking a (very) long way?

The only way big things get done is if you don’t know how big it really is

When I started training for this event I had no idea how far 100km was. I understood it was a long way, I was able to compare it to marathon race distances (not that I’ve actually run one, but I could say “oh, it’s two and a half marathons”) and I’d driven those distances in my car or looked at the whole trail on my map. When I told people about the event they’d always do two things:

1) Their eyes would get wider; and

2) They’d reiterate “100 kilometres” like it was inconceivable.

I’d shrug and say “yeah, it’ll be fine!”

We were both right in a way. I was right in that I was fine. They were right in that 100km is a stupidly long distance.

But I didn’t know that at the start. I couldn’t have and, honestly, if I’d known the full extent of the experience beforehand I never would have started.

How many people can say that about novels? It’s one thing to be at a table with friends and say “oh, yeah, I’d totally love to write a novel one day!” It’s an impressive artistic undertaking. This isn’t a short story or an article in a magazine we’re talking about, this is a whole damn novel! It’s another thing to be beating your head against your desk as you try and wrestle the soggy middle of the thing into something resembling decent after three previous drafts haven’t fixed it and you’d really like to hand the thing off to beta readers now so you can work on another damn story already!

Except, if you knew how hard either of the undertakings was when you started you probably wouldn’t. You need to be a bit naïve, I think, to do anything big like a novel or a crazy long walk. It’s the sort of thing you can only do if you go in naïve and deluded. Because if you weren’t; you wouldn’t even consider it.[2]

Trust the training

My training plan peaked at 60km. This is pretty standard for endurance events, you train up to about 60-70% of the total event distance and then taper off. The idea is that if you can do most of it, you can do the whole thing. The plan required me to train 4 times a week: 3 medium length, mostly runs during the week, and one progressively longer walk on the weekend. I mostly did this on the trail because I lived close.

I didn’t miss a single training day.

I walked or ran in all weather. I figured out how to pack my pack. I figured out how to use my walking poles. I got blisters, bought new shoes and socks. I learned about what food I needed. I saw a lot of wildlife and mist.

One of the big things I practised was going up most of the hills on the trail. The first time I went up one of the bigger ones I barely made it. I had to sit at one point because I was dizzy. I got home and sincerely questioned my ability to do the thing. I got better. By the time we were at peak training I could blitz that hill.

I didn’t realise what I was doing at the time, but I was developing a base of experience and fitness that I’d draw from on event day. It wasn’t about having done the distance before, it was having a bank of experience and strength built up over time. Even when the training hadn’t felt particularly stellar the practice was still happening; I was still logging the time. The experience still counted when I needed it.

There was a big hill at the end of the walk. It had the word “Mount” in its name. I’d never managed to train on this hill[3] but when I got to it, after pausing to swear a lot, I got up the damn thing. Because I knew how to get up hills. I’d done so many hills that this one, while an absolutely horrible one, was just one more. Same process, different hill[4].

“Same process, different story” is another way you could say that. When you sit down and write, especially if you try and make a habit out of it or have some level of consistent effort, you’re building a similar base of experiences to draw from when you need it.

The first time you encounter a plot that’s taken a wrong turn and have to backtrack and rework it, it sucks. The second time still sucks. The fourteenth time you’ll probably just sigh and get on with it. It doesn’t suck any less, but you get a lot better at knowing how to get on with it.

You can’t do it alone

This was a team event. I didn’t have anyone else I knew who was enthused at the prospect of walking 100km for fun and someone else’s profit so I had to find a group. I went online and found a great team. We all had different personalities and coping styles and different fitness levels, but it sort of worked out for the best. Knowing someone was waiting for me at the bottom of a mountain at 8am and that they’d had to travel further than I did to get there was enough to get me out of bed to meet them there. Having someone else notice me blitz a tough section I’d struggled with before made the progress more real. Knowing someone had brought the candy, knowing someone would crack a joke at the right time, knowing you weren’t alone in your silence. It all helps.

At one point, when we were freezing overnight at about the midway point, the whole team was about ready to give up. Morale was through the floor. The whole team except one. And when I looked at her I knew she was going to finish with or without us. There was no way she was not finishing this.

I groaned and put my gloves back on and grabbed my poles. Because I’d feel bad if I let her go on without anyone and, honestly, if she was going to be still going I may as well too. Sometimes all it takes is someone else willing to keep going when you’re not. It’s contagious.

We also gathered together an amazing support crew. They met us at checkpoints with supplies and hugs and chairs and changes of socks and were generally incredible. Across the length of the event we all had our bad moments and they all happened at different times. As it got harder I reached out to more people. As each checkpoint got harder the support crew gave more love. These people hadn’t trained for the event, they suffered in the cold alongside us, they missed sleep and they drove across the countryside to help us out. Other people caring about what you’re doing makes a difference.

If you’re the only one plugging for your writing it can get really tough. It can be isolating, it can feel like you’ll never get there and no-one sees you or cares that you’re trying. There’s no-one to cheer for the little things. There’s no-one to inspire you to keep going.

Find your writing team. Sometimes you need to know someone else is waiting for you to show up in the morning. Sometimes you need someone to cheer when you win. Sometimes you need to know other people are checking the website to see how you’re going. Sometimes you need to see someone else kicking ass to find the energy to keep going yourself.

Sometimes the only reason you keep going is because not continuing is a worse prospect

Confession time: a big part of why I signed up for the walk was because I wanted to experience the dark night of the soul moment and then find some deep well of undiscovered strength and grit and amazingness I didn’t know I had. I wanted that moment they portray in fiction where the protagonist raises their head, spits out some teeth and goes back in for another round with the big bad. I wanted a badass moment of my own.

Fun fact: what happens in fiction is not necessarily how it goes in reality[5].

I know, I was disappointed when I found out, too.

There was a point where I realised that even if I stopped it wouldn’t fix my problems – namely, that I was tired and sore. Neither of those went away instantly if I sat down at the next checkpoint, because I still had to get home and shower and go to bed and that was at least an hour away. I also wouldn’t be able to go home straight away anyway, because I’d feel like I had to stay and support my team through the rest of it. So… if I was going to be around until the end I may as well finish.

It’s not a noble motivation. It’s not the uplifting score and the hero’s eyes brightening as they remember what they’re fighting for and find more to give. It’s just… I may as well. It’s resignation. It’s knowing that the problem doesn’t fix if I stop.

The novel won’t get written if you stop. The plot problem won’t go away. The dialogue will still be flat. That subplot will still need to be pulled out.

But if you want to finish that piece it has to happen at some point, so you may as well do it now. It’s not joyful all the time. It’s not fun. No-one’s going to look at you and sympathise or do it for you or give you the easy out. No-one made you do this, so no-one’s going to tell you it’s ok to not do it, either.

And some point the prospect of wasting all the effort you’ve put into it so far might be the only reason you keep doing the work.

You may as well finish it.

(Spoiler: it’s worth it).

[1] Just over 62 miles for those in the US.

[2] I think this is the same regardless of how many times you’ve done the thing. Each novel, each endurance event you’ll start with the same crazy optimism for the project, with no idea how hard it’s going to be, really, because you haven’t done this particular project before. You might have done something like it, but they’re all different.

[3] Fun fact: we tried once on our last training, we took a wrong turn before we even found the hill and ended up falling down a logging trail that could be most kindly described as a cliff.

[4] This is another example of why sometimes not knowing what you’re in for is a blessing. If I’d known the size of that hill going into it I would have sat down at the 60km mark and refused to go on. When I encountered it at the 98km mark it was non-optional. I was there now. May as well do it.

[5] I’m really glad I learned about this before I ever tried kung fu and was disappointed I couldn’t fly. I’m also pretty sure kisses in the rain are overrated and both parties are probably scurrying towards shelter spitting out water and holding jumpers over their head.