Today is my birthday, and I’m planning to celebrate by reading the last chapter of Jane Austen’s Emma early this morning (part of the preparations for my upcoming blog series celebrating 200 years of Emma), by running for about half an hour (part of my training for the half marathon I’m registered for on Saturday), and by writing for the rest of the day before celebrating with my family this evening. I haven’t decided yet what I’ll write about – probably I’ll wait until I’m running to make that decision. I make a lot of decisions when I’m running, and quite often they’re about which writing or editing projects I want to pursue, either that day or in the future, or about what to read next, or about details I’ve been puzzling over in a particular piece I’m working on. For example, I was inspired to start writing the first draft of this blog post while I was running indoors on a track on a rainy day. Do any of you come up with new ideas for reading and writing while you’re exercising? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences.
I didn’t discover running until I was in grad school, and sometimes I envy my sister, who discovered it when she was nine – and hasn’t looked back since. But I feel grateful that I discovered writing when I was very young, starting a diary when I was eight and deciding soon afterwards that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and that my parents helped me discover reading long before that.
(It was fun to go back to my first two diaries and see what I was reading when I was eight: The Trumpet of the Swan, Superfudge, Deenie, The Secret Garden, Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, The Cuckoo Clock. One morning I woke up at four o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I read an abridged version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, which I didn’t understand at all. I loved the book when I reread it – unabridged, of course – twenty years later.)
I’ve been thinking for several years about how important reading, writing, and running are to me, and two things I’ve read recently have helped me see the connections among them more clearly. The first is my friend Renée Hartleib’s meditation on the joy of running. In a blog post called “It is solved by running,” she notes that her “energy is at its highest” and her “mind is at its clearest” when she’s active, and she talks about running as a “revelation” and a “reawakening.” I love the way she describes her recurring dream about running so quickly and confidently that it’s almost as if she’s flying. I know exactly what she means about how running brings with it more energy and a clearer mind, both of which make it easier and more fun to write – and to live.
How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate – and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? (Chapter 4)
I’ve learned a great deal about running and writing from asking myself similar questions, always in search of the appropriate balance between effort and rest. I’ve also learned from Aristotle, whose writing about ethics teaches me the value of the process of becoming virtuous, of becoming better in some way, which can apply to physical strength as well as to moral character. And I’ve learned from Jane Austen (you knew that was coming, right?), whose novels illuminate for me this Aristotelian approach to virtue and vice. Years of writing about Austen and Aristotle have taught me the value of working towards strength – moral, intellectual, physical – while acknowledging that there will never be a point at which I can say, “I’ve got it exactly right this time, and I don’t need to do any more.” I will always need to keep moving, to keep running, to keep thinking, to keep writing and revising, and to do all of that, I need to read – widely, often, and with enthusiasm and curiosity.
I like what Matthew Arnold says in the preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869) about the importance of reading: “a man’s life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day, and, far more still, on what he reads during it.”
And I like what Mr. Darcy says in Pride and Prejudice about how he “cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these” (Chapter 8). (Poor Miss Bingley, whose father has “left so small a collection of books.” My bookseller friends will attest to my efforts to follow Mr. Darcy’s advice and pay close attention to my family library. Quite often my days consist of reading, writing, running, and book-buying. Or library-going.)
The half marathon I plan to run on Saturday will be my third. The first one was in 2013 and the second was last year, all at this same race in Halifax, Maritime Race Weekend. I’m starting to think of it as my new birthday tradition, along with a tradition of making a donation to an institution or charity that supports literacy – because September 8th is International Literacy Day. (Now that’s the kind of “birthday coincidence” I really like! Although if you have birthdays in August or October, dear readers, I will, like Anne of Green Gables, happily celebrate that “coincidence” too.)
This year, I almost gave up on half marathon #3, because while I liked the idea of my new tradition very much, in the spring my hip was bothering me and I wasn’t running as much as I did last year or the year before when I prepared for longer distances. I considered deferring my registration to 2016, and wondered, with Murakami, “How much rest is appropriate – and how much is too much?” I didn’t want to push myself to the point at which I might get a serious injury, but I didn’t want to back out if I didn’t really need to. (As Henry Tilney says in Northanger Abbey, “When properly to relax is the trial of judgement” [Chapter 16].) At the beginning of July, with a new training plan from my sister and encouragement from family and friends, many of whom are experienced runners, I decided to train for this half marathon.
I’m glad I let go of the feeling that I ought to be able to run faster than I did last year or the year before. On training runs I paid more attention to what I was seeing and to how I was feeling than to how fast I was going. There are so many beautiful trails in Nova Scotia, and I enjoyed exploring some of them this summer, including the Old Post Road at Uniacke House.
When it came time for the longest training run of the summer, I happened to be in southern Alberta, and I loved running for a couple of hours on a cool August morning down a prairie road that I’ve known since childhood.
I’m now feeling very excited about celebrating my birthday by running for 13.1 miles. Someday, I might like to run a marathon, but even if I do reach that goal, I’ll know that I’ve celebrated the process all along the way.
And someday perhaps I’ll write more about running and setting goals in relation to my new favourite topic, ambition. My interest in L.M. Montgomery’s phrase “the bend in the road” is also linked to my passion for running. I have lots of ideas for future books and essays and blog posts, but even while I’m aiming for specific writing goals, I’m committed to enjoying the energy and clarity that I get from reading, writing, and running pretty much every day.
And on days when I don’t really feel like writing or running, when I don’t have that “almost-flying” feeling Renée describes – and there are plenty of them, as I expect there are for most writers and runners – I’m going to keep reminding myself of what Jane Austen says about being a reluctant writer: “I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am” (from a letter to her sister Cassandra, October 26, 1813). If I am not in a humour for running, I must keep running until I am. I might even run mad as often as I choose, but I’ll take care not to faint.