Stamina Creates Freedom: Running & Artistic Discipline

Plough horses

In a little under 2 weeks I’ll be running the Ottawa Marathon. When I tell people this, the response is often a quick, surprised once-over. I know, I don’t look like a marathon runner, okay. I don’t look like someone who’s regular weekend workout easily burns 1500 calories. I’m a curvy lady, and to my initial disappointment and eventual acceptance, marathon training hasn’t changed that.


My Dad, who is a long-time marathon runner, once said, “Some people run like deer. And that’s great. But we are not of that stock. We run like plough horses.” Not super flattering, but true. One foot in front of the other, no speed, all endurance. When I barely ploughed through the Winterman 5k two years ago I didn’t think I would go much farther than that. But sure enough, I put one foot in front of the other so persistently that I’m going to plough through 42k this year.


This training has turned into a meditation on artistic discipline. In that too, I am not a sprinter. I don’t get struck by sudden and overwhelming bouts of inspired binge-writing. Sometimes I doubt whether I’m really a writer, just like I doubt if I’m really a runner. I get sucked into the mythology of the writer as a crazed romantic who spews polished work on the regular.


I recently picked up the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work edited and with text by Mason Currey, at Drawn & Quarterly. It’s filled with the daily rituals of famous artists of all stripes, from Ingmar Bergman to Toni Morrison to Carl Jung. It’s fascinating (and comforting) to read how the majority of these artists live a life that is simple and habitual, with many of them sticking almost obsessively to their routines. A theme that comes up over and over is how the body and mind must be trained to create. As Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”


This echoes Anna Deavere Smith, a theatrical hero of mine, in her book Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-Up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts. Deavere Smith has made a habit of swimming laps every single morning, as well as practicing her art every day. She says, “Most important is the health and strength of your imagination, which must thrive. Clear away all obstacles and doubts… Remember my swimming metaphor: Just get in and swim your laps. Build your stamina. You will need it.”


Running for me is about just getting out and hitting the pavement, and I’m learning to do the same with my writing: just sitting down and writing, putting in time. If I’m sitting around chewing over whether I’m a real writer or a real runner, I’m not either of these things. I’m a runner if I’m running. I’m a writer if I’m writing. Just run. Just write. The question of whether I’m a good writer is a moot point until the work has been done, and it has no place in the creation process.


What I didn’t know until running is the paradox that stamina creates freedom. The time spent pounding one foot in front of the other for 20 painful kilometres has created a body that can go out on a beautiful spring evening and fly along, feeling the animal joy of running. The time spent making sure I write through hours of anxious doldrums creates space for those moments when an inspired idea hits, and gives me the skill to joyfully take the idea for a ride, riffing on the possibilities.


And in between those moments, it’s one foot in front of the other. No speed, all endurance, playing the long game, sheer persistence.