Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Wall

In 2007 I trained for and finished a marathon. At the start of that year I'd never run more than 5km and on Sunday 7th October I crossed the 42.195km finish line on the MCG turf with the broadest smile I was physically capable of.

It felt incredible, the most powerful demonstration of how rewarding effort and commitment can be. But the training was a complicated journey of many feelings: pride, frustration, dread and incredible satisfaction.

I learned how to break down a daunting goal into achievable goals and I celebrated each of them. I also tried not to punish myself when, because of illness or injury or occasionally just utter disinterest, I missed a run. 

About four weeks before The Day I experienced something that until then had been an athletes' concept I'd heard of but more like an urban myth, like an evil woman in a fable that is present as a threat in a story but not actually real.

The Wall is real.

I did my long runs on Sunday mornings. As they got longer I started earlier, often in the dark. I included parts of the actual route on my training runs so that there wouldn't be any major surprises on The Day. I wanted familiarity to cultivate calm and settle me in to The Zone, another very real state.

The longest run in my program was 30km and I did this two weeks in a row. The first time was surprisingly comfortable and I hit the home straight, the track beside the Yarra from Swanston St to Chapel St, smiling at the rowers and the cyclists, trying to keep a lid on the fact that I was actually going to make it. The next week was a physical and mental hell. When I turned on to St Kilda Road, a stretch I'd enjoyed the week before, I was overwhelmed by its straight, relentless monotony.

None of my techniques worked. I couldn't tell myself that I was a gazelle or that I loved to run; I couldn't care less about what I'd achieved so far and my most powerful mantra, spoken to the rhythm of so many of my footfalls - big, strong, wo, man - seemed utterly ridiculous.

At an intersection I ate my last three jelly beans and sucked in desperation on each of my four empty Powerade grenade bottles. I thought that people in their cars were looking at me, laughing at me. A marathoner? Don't be absurd. Go enjoy a comfortable Sunday and leave the training for tall, lean women. Real runners. 

The pedestrian light turned green and my brain tried to tell my legs to move, but they refused. I was locked, rooted to the ground like a terrified woman faced with a psychopath in a horror movie. I was incredulous and furious. How could my body let me down like this? The green man started flashing red. The cars may as well have been revving their engines and lining me up like a target because I felt them as a terrible pressure that I had to escape.

I cupped my hands underneath my right knee, lifted it and dropped my right foot a pace forward. I did the same thing with my left leg, again with my right, again my left. When I made it across the street I had enough confidence to try to take some unsupported steps. I tried to slow down the thoughts, fears and anger, anything that was going to threaten my only objective: make it home.

I don't know how long it took but I did it. The two flights of stairs to my flat were agony. My cat lifted her head when I came in, looked at me and then closed her eyes again. My legs and arms shook as I looked in the fridge for a cold drink. I was exhausted, but I'd done it. 

The next day I couldn't get to work. Instructed by my massage therapist I went to the service station for four bags of ice and prepared an ice bath. For the first time in months, against so much of what I'd read, I poured a glass of wine. I thought I could trick my body into thinking I was going to enjoy one of the long, hot soaks I often take. Maybe I lasted 10 minutes but I doubt it. 

That week I missed two of the four runs, but a few weeks later I finished The Marathon. 

It's a long story but every detail of that experience came to me during a restless night last week as a parallel to what I've been defeated by for months. 

Of course I've heard of Writers' Block but I've only recently understood it, or at least my version of it.

For months I've barely written. Anything. I've tried writing about what I'm not writing about; tried writing a journal, just to write something; jotted notes about people in cafes, sat in libraries trying to read, written out passages from books that I liked, but nothing got me back on course. Every paragraph, sentence, note, email, everything that I produced, I loathed. I read so many great works and then despaired of my own attempts even more.

Finally I've set my life up to give me time to dedicate to the only job I've ever wanted and I can't make any progress.

But remembering my running experience has helped me to feel that I may be able to work through it. Unlike a marathon I can't set a major writing goal. I've always written short fiction based on a person I've seen or a comment I've overheard. It's a painful construction on a flimsy foundation, but I've always wanted to have the imagination, the creativity to write something that is separate to my own stories.

Lately, however, I've been thinking about Lee Kofman's answer when I asked her what inspires her writing. She said it's an exploration of something she's been thinking about. She knows that when questions around a theme or an issue occupy her a few times, then something will come out of researching and working with it.

I've been starting to write notes on things I'm interested in and would usually try to incorporate into a short story, into fiction. Now I'm looking at them a bit differently and writing down what I think. It looks a lot like mind mapping but it's helping to re-establish the writing habit.

For a long time after the marathon I found running very difficult, almost futile. Do a half marathon? I'd done plenty of them in training. I lost interest. I got lazy. Then I didn't like my body and what it could no longer do. But after a while I missed running too much and so I got back on the track. I blended in yoga and swimming with runs that I could enjoy. I joined a running group and for the first time felt part of that community.

I'm trying to see that it's the same with writing. I'm not someone with a novel I'm trying to complete, but I need to apply the same diligence. I'm very lucky with the friends I've made in Melbourne's writing community but instead of thinking of them as the real writers, I need to be more involved. I don't know if I can "make it" because I don't know what "it" is, but I know how rewarding it is when I'm writing, when I'm balancing it with other responsibilities but making sure it does get the time it deserves.

My marathon day was actually just one part of what had become a project, a habit with lots of commitment and lots of rewards. To remind myself to just enjoy the run I wrote, in black texta, on my hands: 'proud' on the left, 'happy' on the right. Maybe as writers taking up our positions for dedicated writing time, maybe we should have those words on our hands to acknowledge just turning up and trying, having a little faith and helping us to settle in to the zone, enjoying whatever it is that we achieve.

In the pink - the start of the 2007 Melbourne marathon


  1. Great post, inspirational, especially your description of the business of lifting one exhausted leg after the other when immobility set in and the stuff of keeping on with writing in face of our fears.

  2. Thanks Lis - it's been great to remember what we can overcome/achieve.