Last weekend I completed the Race to the Stones, 100 km from Lewknor to Avebury standing stones along the Ridgeway, one of Britain's oldest walking trails.
I did it over 2 days, so I walked 50km on Saturday, then camped and then walked the final 50km on Sunday … and despite weeping a lot in the final kilometers, I finished it with a (tired) smile on my face.
As I write this, my feet are a mess of burst blisters and my muscles ache and I'm exhausted and proud of myself and also think I'm crazy for even trying such a thing.
But you guys helped me make it, because I composed this blog post while walking, typing quick notes into my phone when I stopped for breaks. So here's nine lessons learned about writing from walking an ultra-marathon.
(1) Deadlines, specific written goals and accountability help you achieve more
One of the problems with statements/resolutions like “I will exercise more,” or “I will write more,” is that they are not specific enough and they don't have a deadline.
Booking an event like Race to the Stones, or committing to a specific date for getting your book to an editor, means you are far more likely to actually achieve that goal. I booked this event last October when we moved to Bath and I decided to get out in nature more and walk after years of living in urban London. Having a goal made me walk further and train harder than just walking for fun.
Being accountable also helps and I had announced the event on the podcast and this blog, as well as on social media. When I wanted to give up, I thought about what people would think if I didn't make it. I know that walking 77k would have been impressive anyway, but in my mind, it was important to be accountable to setting and completing goals.
So if you're struggling to finish a book, set a deadline and tell people about it. Add it to the comments below if you like!
(2) It's good to have a goal, but training (and the journey) is the point
When we moved out of London last October, one of the reasons was to get into nature more and do more exercise. I set the goal to do the Race so I would have something to train for and have been extending my walks in the months since. I can now happily do 30km and anything less than 10km feels like a stroll, rather than a walk.
You can find me regularly walking the Kennet & Avon Canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon and back, my favorite walk as there's always something going on and lots of wildlife and birds along the way.
The 100km race was clearly a high point, but it's been the long training walks that have made a difference to my life. I thought I would dictate more but actually my mind goes fallow. It seems that I don't even think, especially after about 25 kms when I start to get tired. It's walking meditation and for someone who is always ‘doing,' this has been great for me.
These big walks take up the entire day when I just disconnect and walk, and often the day after, I have a creative burst. After 32km a few weekends ago, I ended up outlining the next 5 fiction books and how they would work together across 3 different series.
This event was like the publication of a book – a high point in many ways, a low point in others! – but the process of walking for training, or the process of creation and writing along the way is the real point. That's what we need to continue with.
(3) Stamina builds up over time as you practice
You can't get up tomorrow and walk 100km unless you have built up muscles and stamina over time.
When we moved to Bath, 5 miles felt like a stretch and now it's a stroll to a coffee shop on the aqueduct, just the warm up of a proper walk. I've been walking several times a week with distances that have grown as time has passed. We also did a week in the Alpujarras in southern Spain, hill-walking for that extra push.
In the same way, you can't sit down and write for hours every day without building up to it. Writing is a surprisingly tiring activity. Your brain uses a lot of energy creating things, and your body will suffer unless you get used to it and introduce some healthy working practices.
It will also feel intimidating to sit down for hours and “just write.” You have to work up to it. Like walking, start with small distances/times and work up to longer periods as you get used to it.
(4) You need a support team but no one can do the steps (or the words) for you
Writing is considered a lonely practice … and so is walking. Or at least they can be!
I like solitary walking and also do day walks with my husband, but for the Race to the Stones, there was a whole event management team. Plus my husband played backup, ferrying me to the event very early and picking up the pieces at the messy end.
I did the steps with my own two feet, but I couldn't have done it without the backup support.
In the same way, “self-publishing” is a misnomer because we all need a team. I work with 11 contractors in my creative business and value them highly. We all need professional editors and professional cover designers, at the very least!
(5) There are fun parts … but some of it will be hell!
There were the beautiful moments of cresting a hill to see a field of wild flowers stretching into the distance, or the expanse of the sky and soaring birds overhead.
But the human body is not happy doing 100km and it hurt a lot.
Just like writing.
Sometimes it's fun and ideas explode and words stream onto the page. And sometimes it's like walking that last 30km. Every step and every word is difficult.
(6) Don't compare yourself to others. The Race is only ever with yourself
2000 people started the Race to the Stones. The fastest time was just over 8 hours, running straight through.
I came in at 25 hours 38 mins, arriving in the last batch of people at 8.10pm on Sunday. I walked nearly 12 hours on Saturday and 14 hours on Sunday. The longest time was 33 hours 32 mins.
However, many people didn't finish the 100km so although slow, I still came in ahead of them 🙂
But the point is that I was never racing the super-fit ultra-marathoner at the front of the pack. And I am not ‘better' than the people who did 50k or didn't finish because it hurt too much. I just wanted to make the end – which I did.
You can't go at the pace of the seasoned ultra-marathoner on your first event. Just like you can't expect to achieve great things with your first book. It's only the beginning of what you can achieve.
Quit comparing yourself to others and go at your own pace. Run/walk/write your own race.
(7) Follow the path others have set before you
The Ridgeway is one of England's oldest walking paths and every step I took had been taken by many more before me, both on the race day and for many hundreds of years before.
I would have been stupid to try and forge my own path through the undergrowth and forests and fields of corn. I needed to follow the path others had set and the clear course markers along the way.
In the same way, you don't have to write and publish and market your book on your own. You don't have to hack away the undergrowth.
There are many of us who share our journeys so you can follow and (hopefully) have an easier time of it. Check out my Books and Courses for starters, and if you're lonely, come join the Alliance of Independent Authors.
(8) It's worth spending some money to get the right gear
At the start, I saw some people in basic trainers and gym gear with little bottles of water. Other people wearing brand new shoes that hadn't been worn in. Most of those people dropped out pretty soon.
I've been training in my gear and the items I was particularly happy with and grateful for are:
- Thousand mile socks. Blisters are inevitable but my feet were pretty good for the first 50k. I should have taken more pairs and changed them more regularly, but great socks!
Walking shoes (not heavy boots for this type of terrain). Mine are Merrell and I've been walking in them for 6 months so they are well worn in.
- Walking poles. Mine are Trekmates Peak Walker. Walking with poles protects your knees and with the bumpy path at points, I was glad to have them to stop my (very) wobbly moments
- Lots of Compeed blister plasters, although I should have put them on at first twinge of rubbing, rather than waiting until the morning of the second 50k.
- Paracetamol with codeine. When I was weeping with pain at 66km, I took some of these and they got me to the finish. Obviously not for long term use but if you want to get through short term pain, these are good. (But of course, I'm not a doctor so don't take my advice on medical stuff!)
In the same way, I recommend authors spend money on professional editing regardless of how they want to publish, and if self-publishing, then invest in professional cover design. Yes, it can be free to write and publish a book, but investing in these two things will make your experience (and the reader's) much better!
(9) A lot of people give up along the way. Persistence is the key to success.
I actually didn't realize that you could give up until around 77km and by then I had to finish. Many people were injured out or chose only to do 50k (which is still an ultra-marathon!), or just decided the pain wasn't worth it.
This attrition rate is the same with writing … and blogging, podcasting and most other things.
When I started back in 2008, self-publishing my first book and then starting this blog, I made early friends online. Most of them have disappeared, with only a few staying the course.
Many authors only write one or two books and then give up.
I only have a multi-six figure business as an author-entrepreneur right now because I have been consistently creating, learning and taking action for nearly 10 years.
Persistence is the secret of success in writing as much as finishing ultra-marathons.
So, would I do it again?
I'm not planning on doing another ultra-marathon, but I will be booking more walking adventures. After all, 100km over four or five days is actually enjoyable 🙂
Walking is a bit like writing a book for me in that way. I don't want to revisit the same terrain twice. I want to try something different next time. But I am a chronic goal-setter, so I will be looking for the next challenge …
What do you think about the parallels between writing and walking? Or any other kind of physical activity? Please do leave a comment below and join the conversation.