This week at my Pilates class, I met Nathan Shearer, pictured above, and discovered that writers and world class triathletes have much in common. In fact, as writers embarked on a long project, we are triathletes!
Nathan is about to compete in the 2016 Hawaii Triathlon which involves a swim of 3.8 kilometres, a bike ride of 180 kilometres and a marathon run of 42.195 kilometres. And although Nathan looks quite normal — that is a writerly understatement, he looks a whole lot better than normal and is welcome at our slightly older persons Pilates class any time he chooses — when we met, I secretly thought he might be quite mad.
Why would he do that to his body? And how could Pilates possibly help with such an arduous undertaking? He told me triathlons are very much about one directional fitness and that Pilates helps his core strength and thereby helps him recover.
Recover? I would never recover, I thought, remembering how I ran a marathon about 25 years ago when I was young and super-fit.
(Yes, I ran the whole 42.195 kilometres of it. Why not 42.2 kilometres? Who decides these things?)
I ‘hit the wall’ at about 30k. I could see a building about a kilometre away and that’s where it stayed: I literally felt as if I was running into a brick wall. But somehow, by putting one painful foot in front of the other, I kept moving and eventually crossed the finish line. (Don’t ask my time!)
I wondered if Nathan ‘hit the wall’ in triathlons? Or did he hit many walls? How did he keep going over such a long distance? Was it as much about mind as it was about body?
His reply made me gasp because of its relevance to writing, and to life in general.
Nathan said he doesn’t let himself think too much about the task ahead. He said he learned early on that if he did, it was just overwhelming and he feared he would never reach the end. Instead, he focuses on exactly what he is doing moment to moment. On the rhythm of his swimming. On the power of his pedalling. On they reach of his running.
By doing that, he said each moment adds to another and the race is completed in the time it takes. He called it a type of mindfulness. Staying in the moment. Being part of the journey. Not focussed on the finish.
The comparison with writing is obvious, isn’t it?
If we focus on the end of a writing project we may never begin. If we worry about what to write, we may never discover what is waiting to be written. If we feel overwhelmed by what we have taken on, we are almost certain to fall by the wayside.
And what do we do when we ‘hit the wall’. When the essay, story or novel is long and hard and challenging?
We are writing triathletes! We focus on a sentence, paragraph, scene. We focus on all the sensuous details — sights and sounds, taste and touch and smell. We focus on the feelings of our characters which are always our feelings, but new ones and secret ones, and feelings we may not have known we had before. We focus on the way our characters speak to us and to each other. We focus on the rhythm of our words. We stay mindfully in the moment until we finish each sentence, paragraph and scene.
And amazingly, gradually, step by tiny step, each of those mindful moments coalesce. We reach the end of our race. We cross the finish line. We win!
Good luck, Nathan! May you compete mindfully in Hawaii.