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Write-A-Thon: Interview with Hal Higdon

When I wrote Write-A-Thon, I was inspired by marathon running. Several close friends have trained for and run half-marathons and marathons. Despite having failed the presidential fitness test every single year in grade school, I have become an avid exerciser and regularly run as part of my daily exercise regimen. As I wrote Write-A-Thon, I read every marathon book I could get my hands on. One name kept coming up over and over again: Hal Higdon. The 4th edition of his bestselling book, Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide: Advice, Plans, and Programs for Half and Full Marathons just came out this fall. I was honored to be able to interview Mr. Higdon, a  phenomenal writer and runner, about both of his life-long careers. I hope you will find his words as inspiring as I do!

Which came first: running or writing? Can you talk a bit about how you began to do each? Writing came first. I had dual talents in both art and writing, not to mention running. I also loved comic books and comic strips, particularly Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff. In sixth grade, I created a comic book called “Captain Zoom” and passed it around to my classmates at St. Philip Neri grade school on the Great South Side of Chicago. At U-High (the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago), I did a regular comic strip for the student newspaper and also wrote for that paper. I started running as a sophomore when I went out for the U-High track team, so my writing slightly predated my running. This was true after I got out of college too. My first job was as an editorial assistant for The Kiwanis Magazine in Chicago. Simultaneously I was working out at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field after work and doing long runs on the Chicago lakefront, practically the only one running along that 18-mile stretch at the time. I quit Kiwanis to work as a freelance artist and writer, but quickly realized it was easier to make a living as a writer than an artist. Writing became my full-time job, writing about running only rarely, because nobody cared about that sport in the 1960s. The term “jogging” had barely penetrated the public consciousness.

How have your marathon training habits helped you to write more efficiently? Are there any in particular that have directly helped your writing? It’s probably the other way around. My writing habits probably helped me run more efficiently. To survive as a freelance writer, you need discipline. I’ve known a number of writers over the year who had talent, but they failed to survive as freelancers, because they did not have the discipline to get out of bed each morning and sit down at the typewriter (which still existed when my career started). They would procrastinate and not even a fourth cup of coffee could cause the stream of words to flow. I never had trouble organizing my time and also balancing assignments from a half dozen magazine editors. I would program time for my running—two times a day—since at peak I was training 100 miles a week to achieve what today is called “elite status.” I suppose you can say that my running and writing complimented each other.

In the 4th edition of your book Marathon, you talk about the goals you used to motivate yourself to run. Can you share one? What goals have you used to motivate yourself to write? I’m not sure I had goals in writing, at least not like goals in running. In running, your goal might be to win that weekend’s 10-K, but a long-range goal might be a World or Olympic title. When I entered the world of freelance writing, I never suspected that some day the American Society of Journalists and Authors would present me with its Career Achievement Award (valuable since award winners no longer pay yearly dues). My focus on writing was narrower: to finish the article half done in the typewriter. (Again that device.) A larger goal would probably be a book, but most of those took a year or less to complete. In running, I often had longer goals: not this weekend’s race, but the national championships at the end of the season, or the world championships a couple of years from then. I never had a several-year goal in my writing career. The goals came at me a few days and weeks at a time, because in order to support a growing family I needed to write and sell several articles a month. Even while writing a book, I often had to sell articles to maintain a cash flow until royalty checks began arriving much later.

In what ways has running made you a better writer? I’m not sure it has. The two disciplines have existed in two separate dimensions, sort of like Earth 1 and Earth 2 encountered in comic book plots. One nice side effect of running, however, was that it got me out of the house at least once a day, sometimes twice a day. I have separate offices in Indiana and in Florida (where we spend winters). I never have counted steps between bed and computer, but it’s probably only a few dozen steps at most. I could spend my life moving from bed to computer to the lunch table with little opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy whatever the weather gods had in store for me each day. Running also has been a great stress-reliever, so if that makes me a better writer, okay, I’ll accept your premise.

I’ve always thought running was a helpful companion to writing because it gets the sedentary writer moving. What advice would you give to writers who want to become more fit by running or walking? The answer to the first question is above. The advice I give to writers would be the same as I would give to anyone interested in their own physical fitness. Simply get out the door and start moving. Running and/or walking are incredibly uncomplicated. Almost anyone can do it and a large number can get fit enough to enter 5-K races if not marathons. I usually suggest to new runners that they follow a training program, but that is a self-serving statement, because my current writing career involves both creating and selling those programs. In addition to interactive programs where I send runners daily email messages, I even have training apps now that you can download onto your iPhone.

How has running marathons changed your life? How has writing books? I never thought running marathons would change my life–at least not when I first stepped to the starting line of the Boston Marathon at age 28. I didn’t run a marathon until that somewhat advanced age because I was a track athlete, more focused on shorter distances, plus there were only three or four marathons in the US at the time. Boston was both the most prestigious and the biggest with 151 starters. That was 1959. By the end of the next decade (for various reasons, including an article I wrote for Sports Illustrated titled “On the Run from Dogs and People”), the field at Boston had grown to 1,000. Now fields of 40,000 are common with many races limiting entry, even using lotteries to determine who gets to enter. I was both swept along by this wave, but also responsible for it.

I love this quote: “In a marathon, except at the elite level, you don’t beat others, as you might in a mile or a 100-meter dash. Instead, you achieve a personal victory.” Can you talk a bit about what you mean by this? How does it relate to writing books? Once you get past the first hundred elite runners in any marathon field, nobody is running to beat anybody; they’re focused more on their own personal goals, often beating the time they ran in their last marathon. Sometimes, they’ll sprint in the last hundred or so meters to outkick someone near them, but that doesn’t define victory or defeat. For a while after Oprah ran a 4:30 marathon, many people motivated themselves to beat “Oprah’s Time.” She was a big influence, but the young people entering marathons probably don’t recognize what she did, nor do they even know the names of past Olympic champions. They are self-centered, chasing their own individual goals, which for many is simply to finish. In some respects, this is similar in the world of book-writing. The number of writers who ever achieve a Harry Potter success is incredibly small. In fact, the number may be “one.” So the equivalent among writers of books is simply to get “published,” maybe even more than authoring a bestseller. That’s their marathon. And we have just entered an era where it has become incredibly easy to publish a book, bypassing the usual editor/publisher route and self publishing an e-book, such as those in The Kindle Store. So many of today’s writers are looking at the finish line like first-time marathoners, hoping to get published whether or not anyone hangs a bestseller medal around their necks.

You say that most runners enjoy the training as much as or more than running the marathon. How does that compare to writing a book? Do you enjoy writing as much as or more than you enjoy the rest of the process. Very True. I don’t normally admit this publicly, but with 111 marathons run, I probably have run my last marathon. “111” is simply too delicious a number, more resonant than “112.” But back to your question: The marathon is merely the End Point, a goal that motivates us to do what we want to do, head out the door every day and go for a run. And on the weekends, show up at some designated point to run with friends. Similarly, many writers live to write books, not publish them. Once they write the last chapter and send it off to their agent or a publisher, the fun is over. Now you have to sweat and worry whether the publisher will accept it and, beyond that, will anyone care enough to buy what you wrote? You want immediately to start a new book and begin again the process of being a writer except often you can’t, because you now have to get involved in the process of selling the book. I’m currently promoting sales of the fourth edition of my Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide, because I owe the publishers my best effort. That means showing up at marathon expos and sitting at a table all day signing copies for my fans. It’s fun absorbing their energy and the cash-register is going, “Ker-ching! Ker-ching!” but I can’t write! I’m too busy selling. A couple of years ago, I wrote what was my first adult novel (although I have written fiction for young adults), and the several years I spent on this project was incredibly exciting. The novel not too surprisingly was titled Marathon. And I made a lot of money releasing it as an independent publisher. But I have in mind an idea for a sequel to that book, and I can’t start because I’m too busy selling my latest book. That’s very frustrating.

I love this quote, too: “With beginners the problem is not to get them to rest but to get them to stop resting.” How does that apply to both running and writing? A lot of people think they are writers, but they never start. They look at a book on the best-seller list and think, “I could have written that.” But they probably couldn’t. They lack the discipline to succeed. Someone once said that the miracle was not that he finished, but that he had the courage to start. The same with being a writer. It’s not enough to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk—or sit the sit in front of your computer. It you have a little bit of writing talent, it’s pretty easy to knock off a letter to the editor or a 600-word op/ed column that appears in a newspaper or online. All you need is a single idea and some thoughts expanding on that single idea. But I’ve known a lot of good columnists, who never could quite expand upon that idea and organize their thoughts into an article of some length that might appear in Vanity Fair. They just can’t do it, because now you have to get out of your own mind and go out into the Cruel World and observe events and interview people and do Research (with a cap) and organize several weeks of work into something people will read. And not everybody can make that jump. Nor can they make the incredibly larger jump into a book with several months or years of work, not just weeks. But unless you begin, you’ll never get to the op/ed stage, much less the article or book stage.

How does your brand new 4th edition of your Marathon book differ from the 3rd edition? The first edition of Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide came out in 1993 and has sold well enough over the years so that we did a second edition in 1999 and a third edition in 2005. Every fifth or sixth year, the sport of running marathons shifts so much that what I wrote earlier has become at least somewhat obsolete. I have been forced to keep rewriting the book to keep it current. And we must be doing something right, because Rodale has sold a quarter million copies. Admittedly, it took us a couple of decades to achieve bestseller status. Only a few authors come anywhere near those numbers.  When I began to discuss doing a fourth edition with Rodale, their marketing people asked, “Will it be at least 25 percent new?” I told them that it was going to be 100 percent new, because I planned to totally rewrite every chapter. Their marketing brains couldn’t comprehend that number, so I said, “Okay, at least 25 percent,” and I saw a sales memo recently that used their number. But it’s true. I went over every paragraph, every sentence, asking myself: Have these facts changed in the last half dozen years? Many had; many had not. But while I kept the basic facts about how one trains for a marathon the same, everything else was new because the sport had evolved during those half dozen years. I wanted fresh anecdotes and fresh quotes and fresh statistics. One quantum change was the emergence of the half marathon as a key goal for runners, many of them female runners. While 416,000 runners finished marathons in the previous year, nearly three times that number finished half marathons—and 57 percent of them were female! During the editing and design phase of publication, I kept reminding my editors at Rodale to put “half marathon” on the cover. (It is mentioned twice.) As part of the rewrite, I wrote three new chapters on the half marathon and on women’s running and charity running. I also included more training programs, but also pointed the way to more programs on my Web site, and elsewhere on the Internet. As a result, if you have a copy of the third edition, the fourth edition is almost like a new book to you.

Is there any advice you give as a marathon trainer and teacher that applies to writing? When asked for a single piece of advice, when runners engage me at expos, I answer simply, “Start Slow.” For writers, maybe I need to shorten those two words of advice to simply, “Start!”





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