From Homer’s The Iliad to A.E. Housman’s poem about an athlete dying young, there’s no shortage of literary depictions of running. “Move, as the limbs / of a runner do,” writes W.H. Auden. “In orbit go / Round an endless track.” There’s also a long tradition of writers leaving their pens or screens behind to stride along roads, tracks, and trails. Jonathan Swift, according to Samuel Johnson, would “run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours” during his 20s. Louisa May Alcott ran since her youth: “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state,” she wrote in her journal, “because it was such a joy to run.” Despite this correlation, The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz recently lamented how few books capture the mindset of the runner in descriptive terms, citing Thomas Gardner’s new collection of essays Poverty Creek Journal as the best exception.
Freedom, consciousness, and wildness: Running offers writers escape with purpose. When confronted with “structural problems” in her writing as the result of a “long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work,” Joyce Carol Oates would ease her writing blocks with afternoon runs. For Oates and many other writers, running is process and proves especially useful for the type of cloistered, intensive work they do. But in many ways running is a natural extension of writing. The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of pages, and both forms of regimented exertion can yield a sense of completion and joy. Through running, writers deepen their ability to focus on a single, engrossing task and enter a new state of mind entirely—word after word, mile after mile.