I wrote this post in 2010, but I wanted to republish it today because I have a follow-up entry coming on reflecting on running, teaching, reading, and writing as my relationship with running has changed over the years.
The Running/Writing Metaphor (inspired by Cindy Urbanski’s book)
“Beginning to write is like standing at the bottom of a hill…The hardest part is putting one foot in front of the other and getting started.” -Urbanski, p34
I am a runner, and I’m proud of it. I’m not intimidated by other runners because I fit into the sport. They won’t judge me; they’ll see me as a fellow runner. I’m not so confident about climbing. I like climbing, but I don’t call myself a climber. I know some of the lingo and I could climb a 5.9 pretty well, but every time I go into the gym, I feel like I’m being judged. I’m not a part of their culture. And so I should remember that feeling with my students when I’m writing. It’s a culture as familiar to me as running, but most of them probably feel like I do when I walk into a climbing gym: like people will judge me for not being as good as them or for not knowing what to do when they tell me to “smear.” And what would make me feel more comfortable in that culture and what would make my students feel more comfortable in the writing culture is to immerse myself in it daily: practice until I can climb a 5.13, take a lesson on lead, use the vocabulary. If I were to climb on a regular basis, I could call myself a climber. If my students were to write on a regular basis, they could call themselves writers.
As runners, writers, and climbers, we have to practice every day to get better, and we have coaches and teachers who push us through those daily practices and exercises. It was never my goal or dream to be a high school cross country coach, but that’s exactly where I find myself now. When I start connecting coaching and teaching writing, it gets me thinking: Would I give my cross country kids random workouts without understanding the physiology of their bodies, they way different workouts affect them, long term consequences, and short-term benefits? No. Why not? Because I don’t want to injure them; I want to train them for the appropriate event in the most efficient way possible. I want them to get the most out of each workout so I’m going to ground myself in things like lactic acid buildup, fast twitch vs. slow twitch muscles, and so on. But coaching isn’t just understanding the science of running; it’s knowing your kids, motivating them, working with them, encouraging them, etc. And so when we go to teach writing it’s the same thing. It’s studying theories, reflecting on practices, keeping a “running log” of what you’ve been doing to see what works and what doesn’t.
My high school cross country coach never ran, well once he did, but he didn’t even make it all the way around the lake for the warm-up lap. This is not how I view coaching and teaching. Once we get our students introduced to the culture of writing, we can’t just leave them with a blank page and a pen and say, “Go!” We have to be a part of the training with them, run with them, write with them. But when you get down to it, running can be downright miserable. I know some of those workouts I give my athletes in 90 degree weather or in the freezing cold rain are downright miserable. I know this because I’m out there doing it with them. Sometimes it’s just really hard to even motivate myself to go on a run, or it’s easier to take the flat route instead of the one with hills. Sometimes I even want to stop and walk. It’s the same with writing. When I write with my students, I am reminded of the frustration I feel sometimes, or the joy I get in accomplishing my goals. That’s why it’s so important to write with our students so that we don’t forget how intimidating a giant hill can be, or how far away three miles seems to be, or how difficult it is to fill a blank page with coherent ideas, or how daunting it seems to write an eight page research paper. They appreciate it too, seeing you suffering with them, and all the while growing yourself as a runner and a writer.