In high school, I could barely run The Mile.
(I capitalize it because it was always exactly that — not a mile, but rather, The Mile, part of some wifty health assessment thing that chose to test how fast kids could run The Mile, usually while a gym teacher buzzed alongside you in a fucking golfcart.)
I had what was once called ‘growing pains,’ or ‘knobby knees,’ or more properly diagnosed, Osgood-Schlatter, which sounds maybe like some fancy chocolate or a Nazi that Indiana Jones punched. Basically, it pushes out part of your knee just below the cap, so you get this elbow-like protrusion there. It hurts. You can use it as a gym class excuse. So you bet your ass I used it as a gym class excuse. (I of course sat off to the side and read books. I know, it’s a little on-the-fucking-nose.) As a result, I generally did not have to complete The Dreaded Mile.
I added that word, Dreaded, because it was awful. All that slogging and running. Most kids looked like they were dying. Running laps around the soccer field. Wet and sweaty. Some kind of teenage death march. A YA novel waiting to happen: a teen version of Stephen King’s The Long Walk.
Eventually, the Osgood-Schlatter faded. The knobby-ish knees remained, but without pain (mostly). And I just chalked it up as: hey, running is stupid. Nobody should run. I biked here and there, that seemed nice, and I was able to tell myself: ha ha, people who run are dumb, at least a bicycle gets you somewhere. And I of course internalized all the supposed evidence that running was bad for you anyway, and that runners were chumps. Suck it, chumps. Destroy those knees, dipshits. Oh, oh, what’s that? Hamstring pull? Shin splints? Suckers.
I’LL NEVER BE ONE OF YOU, I trumpeted to the skies from my bicycle, which is to say, from my couch, while playing video games probably. NEVER SHALL I BE A RUNNER.
And then I had a kid.
* * *
Life, you’ll note, presents you with certain crisis points. I don’t necessarily mean crisis points like OH SHIT A DRAGON or OH FUCK THERE’S A GUNSHIP HELICOPTER CHASING ME or I CAN’T DECIDE IF I WANT TACOS TONIGHT OR PIZZA OH FUCKING SHIT THIS IS A REAL FUCKING CRISIS, DAVE. I just mean, life sometimes hip-checks you up to a cliff’s edge, where it forces you to either summon the wherewithal to jump or walk back from the precipice. Neither being a wrong decision, mind you — but one requires you to screw your courage to the sticking place, and the other has you err on the side of caution, and at times, cowardice.
Jump or walk.
Fuck or run.
Shit or get off the bucket.
Writing was like this for me, at various points.
I wanted to be a writer for a very long time. Junior high cemented it, and I never really let go of that dream, a dog with a favorite toy clamped in his teeth. But out of college you start taking on jobs that seem to get you further and further from the dream, right? And you get busy. And you don’t have as much time to write. And it’s like realizing, oops, you dropped the toy and now you’re sitting there, watching that beloved toy drift farther downstream. And if you don’t jump in and get wet, you may never get that toy back. I hit a point where it became, do I want to do this or not? How will I manage it? I had to start setting up some kind of plan. I didn’t need a fucking spreadsheet or checklist or anything, I just had to take it seriously enough to sequester for myself some time and space to write. Even nested in other jobs. I had to say, I’ll write in the morning before work, or I’ll write at lunch. Or I’ll secretly write at work, meaning I was kinda double-dipping I know I know you’re not supposed to do that shut up I did it anyway. I’d steal time and write a hundred words here and there. Not necessarily to write things To Sell, but simply to write — to practice, to get better, to figure it the fuck out. A little bit here, a little bit there. It added up. It led to a freelance career in gaming.
And the crisis point came again when I had taken on so much freelance work that I either had to stop taking on new freelance work or quit my day job. And another crisis point came when I had to decide to quit freelancing in order to write a proper goddamn novel. (I couldn’t do both, it turned out. I tried, many times, but I couldn’t split my focus and exercise what turned out to be two very different sets of creative muscles.) Each time I found a way to close my eyes, hold my nose, and jump.
I figured out how to figure it out.
A little bit at a time.
* * *
As it happens with kids, they do their own kind of Pokemon evolution, where one day they’re potatoes who move like potatoes move, which is to say, not at all. And then they’re caterpillars. And then they’re the walking dead. And then they’re Usain Bolt, sprinting at top speed toward the sharp corner of that coffee table you didn’t babyproof, you asshole. NOBODY NEEDS GLASS-TOP COFFEE TABLES WHEN YOU HAVE CHILDREN. PUT THAT AWAY. IT’S ALSO VERY DATED, TO BE HONEST. YOU HAVE KIDS NOW, YOU NEED A COFFEE TABLE MADE OF SOFT EARTH AND BAGS OF BIG-SIZE MARSHMALLOWS.
Our child, the Childe B-Dub, started walking at eight months, and started running at eight-months-and-one-day, and it became immediately clear that he was evolving much faster than I’d have liked. (As I have noted in the past, every day with a kid is like that scene in Jurassic Park where the velociraptors learn to open doors.) It also became clear that before too long, he was going to easily get away from me. I envisioned the day when he decided he was going to bolt at top-speed toward a busy road, or a wood-chipper, or some kind of elk-fighting arena… and I wouldn’t be able to catch him. It wasn’t just his speed. It was his sustained effort. The kid must’ve eaten a bunch of 9-volt batteries because he was the Energizer Bunny. He could go and go and go and go. I could sprint for about *checks watch* six seconds, at which point I would have to concede his fate to the elk arena.
So: crisis point.
I either had to get in shape —
— or I had to expect my two-year-old was going to run into the woods and be gone forever.
I chose to try to catch him.
Which meant I had to learn how to run.
* * *
A few things, right out of the gate, you need to know:
Running is theoretically autonomous — we know how to do it from an early age, as evidenced by my child. But you should learn to run correctly, and sometimes learning to run correctly means first learning to run incorrectly — which is to say, figuring out why your shins hurt, or you have plantar fasciitis, or why running at this time is worse than running at that time, or why “these old hobo wingtips” do not make good running shoes.
The other thing is, you can go running, but you won’t necessarily be able to do it well, or for long, or in a way that doesn’t look like a sack of wrenches rolling cartoonishly down a hill.
This is especially true if you start this journey not in your teenage years, but rather, your late 30s.
So, I did something that seemed lazy at the time: I said, I’m going to start running, and I’m not going to set any expectations of distance, speed, or form. I’m going to run however far I can run without feeling like I’m dying, and that will be my finish line — and my ongoing benchmark. I will run that far as often as I can. And that’s it. I don’t need to be an expert. I don’t need to be a marathon runner who lubes his nipples so they don’t bleed through his shirt.
I just need to not die while chasing my Speed Force toddler.
See, we have a tendency sometimes to really, really want to push. We are trained that way across our various disciplines: push harder, push faster, push farther and further, PUSH LIKE YOU’RE POOPING, someone yells (okay, nobody really says that). We are invited and expected to go beyond our limits because that is how you extend those limits. And that’s true, to a point: but it also sets for us false expectations right from the word “go.” We believe however far we go isn’t far enough. We expect that there is, in fact, never ‘enough.’ We begin already by losing, by creating unreachable limits. And this is why, often in creative fields, so many people fail out of the gate — we have a vision in our heads of THE MASTERPIECE WE MUST IMMEDIATELY COMPLETE and so we endure a miserable regimen of work where it feels like some artistic version of Xeno’s Paradox: we can never truly cross the distance and be satisfied. Our goal, forever out of reach.
I didn’t want to do that with running.
I knew myself then, and know myself now.
I knew if I pushed too hard, too fast, I’d fucking hate it so bad I’d be done in a week.
So, I said, be gentle with myself. Be kind. Expect that I am going to be super shitty at this.
I said, I will do a little. Not a lot. Just a little.
And that first day, I ran… I think maybe a quarter-mile. It felt like dying. I’d heard tales of the runner’s high, but this was not that: this was a runner’s low, a sprinter’s nadir, a jogger’s lament in the deepest sweat-slick oubliette. And what I did there wasn’t even running, not really. It was a kind of gallumphing, a dead-armed horse-clop where my burning feet and numb-fucked legs somehow juggled my jiggling body forward until I had to stop.
It would’ve been really easy to feel bad about this. Not just about how bad it literally felt, but about how unsuccessful I was. A quarter-mile isn’t… actually that much. It’s like, 1,320 feet. Roughly a run down and back up our driveway. But I chose to accept that this was a good outcome. I’d never really run in a concerted way. This was a success. Honestly anything more than 50 feet was a success.
So, I set it: a quarter-mile benchmark.
And what happened next, happened pretty fast.
By the following week, I still set my quarter-mile benchmark, but I was no longer running a quarter-mile. I was running a half-mile, semi-reliably. And then, three-quarters of a mile. And maybe after a month, I dinged a level-up: I completed a motherfucking mile.
And still I didn’t change my benchmark. I told myself, I’m going to be happy if I get out there and fumble my way for a quarter-mile. If I do that, I can stop. Truth is, sometimes I still did that. Sometimes I still hit that quarter-mile and I was like, yeah, no, nope, it’s humid, my glasses are sweatily oozing down the bridge of my nose, my legs hurt, my taint is lava hot and I don’t recall my taint getting that hot before, and fuck this shit, fuck all this shit right now.
But that was not the norm.
The norm was, I hit my benchmark and said, I feel pretty okay, I’m gonna push a little more. I never said, “I’m going for the full monty, the big damn mile.” I just said, “I can do more.”
And I did more, until I couldn’t.
* * *
And that, as it turns out, ends up being a pretty good method for how I do things. Writing, running, and honestly, most everything: I set a low benchmark, an easy-and-not-too-low-limbo-pole under which I can shimmy, and then I end up doing more. Then I do more, until I can’t.
Here’s how that’s true in writing:
When I started, I’d tell myself I’d write a page. Just one little page. Often handwritten.
We had a notebook we passed around school, a big sort of mash-up fan-fic universe, and it was largely that, as a rule: you gotta try to write a page. You could, of course, write more, and inevitably, we did. And when it came time to freelance, and the metric was less about pages and more about word count, I set a low word count, too: 500 words, just crank out 500 fucking words and don’t die.
Of course, I’d end up writing more.
And as time went on, and I became more professional (“professional”), I was able to comfortably adjust the benchmark, letting it drift upward. The 500-word basement became 1000 words, and eventually, 2000. The same thing happened in running — my quarter-mile drifted up, a bit at a time, until now it’s comfortably a mile. I can run a mile every fucking time. I never don’t run a mile. And I say to myself, once I’ve run the mile? I am free to go. I am accountable to no one. I couldn’t run a mile ten years ago. Good job. High-five. Gold medal. Fuck off.
But I often run two.
Once in a while, I run three.
(I’ve never run more than three.)
(But I did do a three-mile run twice this past week. A first for me!)
In writing, I say I’m gonna write 2k, but sometimes, it’s 3k, and on rare days, I really bring it home with 5k or more. (I think 15k is my tops. It hurt my brainparts.)
Worth noting too that in each case, upgrading my benchmark sometimes came because I upped my game. In running, I was getting shin-splints and plantar pain, so I went to a running store and they told me about my gait and what shoes might work — I bought new running shoes, Hoka One Ones, and the pain disappeared. With the pain gone, I was able to run a little faster, a little longer. (Bonus: no pain.) In writing, I was able to cut out distractions with a program like Freedom, and I learned how to use Microsoft Word better, and simply how to hack my schedule and my diet in a way that gave me a little more energy and clarity. So: sometimes working more means working smarter.
But at the base level, it’s just about doing.
And if you want to do a lot, it sometimes means aiming only for a little.
The key was doing something that remains antithetical, I think, to our way of working: we are told to push and push and growl and grind. We’re told to break ourselves to get results. But that, for me, was simply not the way. Not to say I haven’t tried that. Or to say I haven’t sometimes pushed and pushed in a way that was painful — both in writing, and in running. But when I did so, it wasn’t because I demanded I do it. I was pushing past an already low bar of success. I already baked the Get-Shit-Done Cake, and everything after was sweet, delicious, Accomplishment Icing. And the extra fun is, when you set a lower benchmark and surpass it, it feels like a huge fucking win. And feeling like you won is a good way to motivate yourself to do it again, and again, and to do more next time.
It is a kindness to yourself. Don’t expect to run a mile out of the gate. Don’t demand you write the next bestseller. See the increments. Break it up. Find safe, sane, kind limits for yourself — and then you will find it increasingly easy to exceed them. To embrace a little and relish the success instead of always trying to conquer the whole damn lot — and falling short every damn time.
Deep breath. See the finish line. It’s right in front of you. Doing something small is better than doing nothing at all — because you’ve set your difficulty levels too damn high. Because your expectations are too steep, too severe. Because you could not find kindness for yourself and a small, satisfying measurement to keep you going, always going, always able to do more, go bigger, do better.
A game of inches is how you run a game of miles.
* * *
WANDERERS: A Novel, out July 2nd, 2019.
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”
A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.