Culture

Seeking Clarity in the Chaos, Writing and Running

A new author grapples with what she can control and how to let go of miles and word counts.

It is a gray and cold day in November—rust season in upstate New York, everything a dull brown—and I am sitting in my car in a lonely parking lot, the engine idling, music on a low murmur. I’m here because I am supposed to run, and this is where I drive to begin one of my favorite loops. My Garmin is already strapped to my wrist, my shoes are laced up; I did my activation exercises at home, in the warmth of my apartment. All I have to do is get out of the car.

Except I don’t want to.

This happens sometimes; runners have good days and bad days like anybody else. Except: As a runner, you are supposed to do the hard thing even when you do not want to; doing the hard thing in spite of not wanting to is kind of the entire point. I tell myself that it is 40 degrees and rainy, the worst kind of weather, and who would want to run in this? But the truth is that the weather is just atmosphere, low-hanging fruit of an excuse. The truth is that this is the sixth or tenth or probably, even, if I am being entirely honest with myself, the twentieth run in the last month I have not wanted to do. Something is wrong, although none of the usual ways my body talks to me seem to apply: Nothing hurts; on my runs, I hit my times.

On this gray day in November, it’s not my body that seems to be asking for a break, or at least not what I identify as “my body.” Joints, bones, muscles, tendons. It’s my brain that’s talking to me, and she is a different animal entirely.

Like any runner, I want to look to the training log, to scan among the workouts for the note about quad pain, for the tempo run whose pace I struggled to hit. It’s tempting to trace this day in November back to March, the start of the pandemic, the moment of collective upheaval: the mania of a cratering economy and zero-capacity ICUs and wiping down groceries with bleach. It was a chaos we thought would last a month, two maybe, just ’til summer, the kids will be back to school in the fall.

This version of the story would make sense. The pandemic hit and I ran too much because everything else was out of my control or because running was the only thing I could do, a safe activity performed alone, outside.

But this version of the story is incomplete at best. The truer version begins six months before that, not with a global disaster but with a massive stroke of personal good fortune, with a long-held dream finally realized: when I sold my first novel.

As I have always been a runner, so too have I been a writer, a storyteller for as long as I can remember. My dad is also a writer; his bedtime stories were sweeping and original parables about big fish, forest monsters, small-town misadventures. As much as I loved the fiction itself, I was enchanted by my dad’s command of his imaginary world: how real it seemed, how he made it from nothing. I wrote plays and performed them for my family, tinkered with action figures in my basement playroom.

There are innumerable ways writing and running are linked: the fastidiousness required, the solitude, the necessity of routine. The tools learned in one make you well-suited for the other. As a child I did not think about any of this; I wrote and I ran not just because I loved them but because I needed to, because inside my miles and my stories I felt protected: In neither running nor storytelling could anything take me by surprise.

Here is a thing everyone tells you about publishing a book: You can only control what you can control. It is excellent advice. But what do you do when the biggest moment of your career is out of your control? You control, instead, what you can.

Right away my mileage ticked up. I would plan to run eight miles and accidentally run nine and a half instead. It seemed harmless enough, initially. But—like so many women runners—I have a history of overuse injuries and nutritional deficits and disordered eating, and I am supposed to be careful. By winter I knew I was running too much. I saw the hollow of my hip, my kneecaps sharp like knives.

At the same time I decided I would write 1,000 words a day. I was now a full-time writer, one of the very lucky few, but being a writer seemed such a nebulous and slippery thing to me—there were no hours to keep, no office to show up to, no real accountability check—that I had to impose order on it, had to come up with a set of standards that would make it seem real to me, solid. So I imposed a runner’s discipline, logging daily word counts like miles.

Does it seem ordinary on paper? A thousand words seems reasonable to me, ambitious but achievable. Fifty miles a week is more than I should do—I know my body tops out around 40, and any additional hours should come in the form of cross-training—but not, in the world of running, remarkable. My understanding of writing and running as symbiotic pursuits has limits; here, I am refusing to see them as a collective, choosing instead to cleave one identity from the other in the name of maximum productivity, maximum output.

The pandemic, with all its vast uncertainty and mandated isolation, has been a hard thing for people who struggle with mental health issues. What I am trying to say is that when we retreated into quarantine last March, my personal pump was already primed. I was halfway down the spiral, running and writing without rest, without attention to any of my other needs. I wrote to prove that I was a writer. I ran to fill the remainder of my day, afraid of spending too long in front of my email, too long on social media; afraid that I would not be able to sleep if I wasn’t bone-deep exhausted.

It feels silly at this point to state outright that I struggle with anxiety and obsessive thoughts, but it is perhaps a necessary clarifier. It has always been this way. As a child I was drawn to running in part because it seemed very simple to me. It would hurt very much. I would do well if I worked very hard. Running—and sports generally—became a respite because exercise was the only time I felt free from my obsessiveness. By this I do not mean that when I run I think about nothing at all, that my mind magically empties, but rather that when I run I am able to think without dwelling. To put it another way: When I run, I think laterally; when I’m still, it’s turtles all the way down.

I’ve always struggled with the easy metaphor of the runner who is running from something. To me it has also always felt that I am running toward something: clarity; calm. And of course I am also running from my anxiety, from a set of broad and intangible fears easily distilled to one: powerlessness.

The writer and runner Alexi Pappas recently filmed a short video for the Times about her struggle with depression. The conceit of the piece was that her depression had a physical cost, and that athletes would do well to think of the brain as part of the body—to tend to it the same way they might a tweaked hamstring, a ripped Achilles. Brené Brown talks about how our brains get tired, just like a muscle, and that we need to give them rest, too.

That day in the park it had been a long time since I ran and wrote because I loved to do so, because inside of each activity I felt closest to the best parts of myself. Most of all I had lost sight of these very simple facts, the truth that a psychological toll can be equivalent to a physical toll, to something like stringing together week after week of over-distance. In 2020, I had a new job and lived through a once-in-a-century pandemic; I also logged more miles than I’d run in any year previously. The mistake was viewing these as discrete entities, in assuming that they do not draw from the same well: myself, my body.

I am lucky enough to live close to mountains. For four days after that afternoon in the parking lot I hiked instead of ran. I moved my body up and over rocks in heavy shoes. I still wore my Garmin but mostly as a safety measure; the pace was irrelevant. I cut up my hands and skinned my knees, shredded a raspberry on my hip. I moved more slowly.

I wrote easily those days, too, and only when I felt like it. I remembered what it was to love a project. I had been tinkering with something new and fell into it, wrote because I wanted to rather than out of obligation. There are huge problems in the draft but I didn’t—don’t—care, did not feel frozen by them. Like so much else, they would work themselves out, in time, if I was patient, if I listened, if I kept at it.


Emily Layden is an avid runner living in upstate New York and a graduate of Stanford University. Her debut novel, ALL GIRLS, a book about girlhood, power, and agency, and what it means to come-of-age in a female body today, is out now.