By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 19, 2010
A few years ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to run a marathon. The experience turned out to be a life-changer, not so much for the race itself (though that was pretty great too) as for the training that built up to it.
I live in Los Angeles. There was a hospital downtown, Orthopaedic Hospital, that was offering a free six-month training program leading up to the L.A. Marathon. Classes met once a week, Sunday morning. Each session was on a different subject—hydration, footwear, “hitting the wall,” etc. Probably 400 runners became regulars. The program helped us set up our individual training schedules. I taped mine to the door of my fridge. It became a religion.
When you train for something as hard-core as a marathon, you quickly discover that your fellow runners are doing it for some pretty serious reasons. Many, particularly women, were coming out of divorces. Others had lost jobs or suffered traumatic personal reversals. Lots of people were running for others—a child with cancer, a brother wounded overseas.
We bonded like bandits. Everyone helped everyone else. Very few were real runners. A fast time? We just wanted to finish.
I didn’t have the concept of Resistance then. I hadn’t thought about “turning pro.” Both, it turned out, were central to the experience. All of us wannabe marathoners had gravitated to the challenge with remarkably similar hopes—and fears:
1) High personal stakes
Each Sunday after class, our mob would go for a training run and then coffee. Many of us, as I said, were struggling with crises in our lives. Tears flowed, confessions spilled: the newly-divorced mom who didn’t know how she’d support herself and her kids, the cancer survivor still riddled with fears of a relapse, the fireman who’d quit drinking but didn’t know how long he could stay sober. Each of us had his own Alien, his own Terminator breathing down our necks. We knew that if we didn’t do something, that bastard was going to get us.
2) A heroic enterprise
The answer was a heroic enterprise. We couldn’t afford Mt. Everest, but we could lace up a pair of running shoes and see if we could keep stumbling and bumbling for 26.2 miles. What was crucial was that the enterprise test us to our cores. Would we be hailing a cab at the twelve-mile mark? All each of us knew for sure was that we would be proud of ourselves if we could hang in all the way. “If I can do this, I can do anything.” That was our Sunday mantra.
3) A metaphor for our lives
The run, if it was going to work a change in our lives, needed to be more than heroic. It also had to respond to application of the will. The real-life events that had impelled us to this place didn’t do that. Cancer didn’t respond to the will. Divorce didn’t. Failure didn’t. Addiction didn’t.
Running did. That was what we needed. We were running to train our wills, even if few of us could have articulated it. We were in the race to prove to ourselves that, in the face of obstacles that we feared were greater than our capacities, we could endure and prevail. “If we can do this, we can do anything.”
4) Demystification of the process
The schedules on our refrigerator doors ran from week one to week twenty-six. They started with jogs of half a mile. We could do that. We ticked off one week, then another. Suddenly the sked said week 26 and we were logging forty miles per—with our long runs at sixteen, eighteen, twenty. Could this be us? The same punters who were gasping and wheezing halfway down the block six months earlier?
Friends helped. Family rallied around. But in the end each of us had to run the miles alone. Training. It worked. No magic. No mystery. Just effort over time. We got it. It empowered us.
Race day. How did I finish? Let me put it this way: from where I was, if I squinted ahead really hard, I could almost see the back of the pack. But I crossed the finish line, and so did all my buds from Sunday.
A big part of The War of Art came out of that experience. I even ran a second marathon, in San Diego the following year, before hanging up my spikes. I’ve used those principles of training ever since. The only difference is now it’s not a metaphor, it’s my real life. An awareness of high stakes; a heroic conception of the challenge; demystification of the process; helping friends and being helped by them; and application of the will. Self-motivation, self-validation, self-congratulation.
And training. The magic produced by effort sustained over time.
Few things in life are sprints. Almost everything that’s worthwhile is a marathon. So here’s to my fellow shin-busted, spine-tweaked, carb-loaded foot sloggers. Thanks for teaching me the virtues of the marathoner’s mind-set and showing me the magic of training over time. We went in wanting to believe and we came out believing. If we desperate housewives and sobriety-tested firemen can do it, we can do anything.