Trail running and writing

I recently competed in a trail run - a rainy, nighttime trail run, in fact.

It was in a mountain bike park, so involved a 19 minute hill climb, 4.5 minute ridgeline run, then another 19 minute stretch that was an overall descent but undulated a lot.

I've been a runner for nearly 20 years, completing a handful of half marathons (never quite having the stamina to do a full one), but I don't do much road running (beep beep!) now, preferring to go off-road.

The differences between trail running and pavement pounding are both mental and physical. Yes, it's usually hillier and slippery, but the real difference is the concentration required. In road running, you can get into a rhythm and let your feet carry you along, only needing to think about the occasional curb or to look out for traffic.

When trail running, the perspective is totally different.

It's nice to be able to look at the views, and the middle of this run involved a short stretch along a ridgeline, with street-lit landscapes on either side (think of the classic cityscape matte painting from ET). But focusing on that too long would have been dangerous.

It's important to look around for the intersections and turnoffs, signs and (for a night time race) glow sticks. It's not as critical on a marshalled and marked trail run as it is for orienteering, where route choice is part of the challenge, but you don't want to take the wrong turn and end up miles from the course.

But the most important, essential and vital thing to look at in a trail run (especially on a rainy night) …

… is the 6 feet in front of your 2 feet.

Uneven footing, with slippery muddy patches, tree roots snaking across the path, plus the odd drop-off designed to thrill a mountain biker but risk a runner's ankle, all added to the need to focus. In that sense, the night-time setting helped, as my headlamp forced me to focus only on what was immediately in front of me.

And, yes, there's an analogy about writing in this too.

I've been using outlines for the novels and novellas I've written in the last couple of years. I can't start on page 1 with a vague idea of what page 500 looks like, as Stephen King says he does, but nor do I need a 200 page detailed outline before writing, like Jeffrey Deaver.

Instead, I've evolved my own system that combines overall thoughts, character profiles, and bullet point lists of the key parts of each scene into a OneNote book for each project. As a result, I can take the time to mix and match sub-plots, go back and flesh out scenes as I get new ideas and generally have a good concept of what I'm going to write before I start.

But it doesn't look the same for each section of the story.

I usually start writing chapter 1 once I've got a very good plan of the first third of the story, a fair idea of the middle, and know the key points of the finale.

This is where my writing is like my running - clear focus on the ground immediately under my feet (or the pages I'll write in the next couple of weeks), with enough knowledge of the end point so I don't go astray and get lost, without forcing myself to focus deeply on an end-point I won't get to for months.

As I'm writing the actual chapters, I'm also going back to the outline, seeing where bits I've fleshed out early in the story affect later sections, laying pipe that will bear fruit (now there's a mixed metaphor) later. By the time I write the end of Part One, my outline for Part Two looks a lot clearer, and the same applies when I'm ready for Part Three.

The other difference between street running and trail running is the number of competitors - when I last did an around the bays half marathon, I was in a crowd of thousands, whereas the trail run topped out around 80 competitors. The field thinned out considerable after the initial hill climb, to the point where I was running alone between minute 20 and minute 35 (and that was when the fastest competitors from the longer distance, who left 10 minutes before us, passed).

The novel I'm writing now1 introduces its main character in the middle of a run - unlike my middle-of-the-pack efforts, he's in the lead.

You'll have to hang around a while to find out what happens after that - but it isn't a sports story.