Enduring Creativity: what marathons have taught me about creative energy

Paris Marathon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Josiah Mackenzie

I recently trained for and ran my 5th marathon, and as often happens since I started this blog, I began to think about what the experience might offer in terms of creative insight. I’ve written recently about the joy of creativity – about how good it can feel when it’s going well. This post will continue this theme, but also form a bit of a segue into what to do when it isn’t going so well…

(The title appeals to me because it contains a nice double entendre: the positive spin is that we are searching for and moving towards a lasting kind of creativity, a lifelong habit that brings joy and fulfillment to our lives and the lives of others; the flipside is that creativity can sometimes feel like an ordeal, something that must be endured, cannot be avoided. We just have to muscle through it somehow. The reality, at least in my experience, is somewhere in between, or more precisely a bit of both…)

I’ve noticed that sports and athletic metaphors are used quite often in talking about creativity. Perhaps setting the complexities of the creative mind against the different and somewhat simpler backdrop of physical activity makes it easier to observe and notice patterns.

Running, which happens to be my sport of choice, seems particularly fruitful as a metaphor, especially when tackling the thorny subject of creative burnout… As I’ve looked into this further, two competing and seemingly conflicting theories have emerged; I’ll summarize each with an example.

creativity – more like a sprint or a marathon?

Charlie Gilkey, in a contribution to a collection of tips on the subject of creative burnout, offers this:

“Instead of thinking about creative work in terms of sprinting, think about it as a marathon. The goal is to stay consistently creative through time rather than depending on burst-burnout cycles.” (from Constructively Productive – ‘The Truth About Creative Burnout‘)

Fair enough, but probably easier said than done, and it’s not clear how to manifest that mindset (we’ll return to this). Conversely, we have Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s theory of sprinting over endurance:

“Think for a moment about the look of many long-distance runners: gaunt, sallow, slightly sunken and emotionally flat. Now visualize a sprinter such as Marion Jones or Michael Johnson… powerful, bursting with energy and eager to push themselves to their limits. … We, too, must learn to live our own lives as a series of sprints—fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the fray to face whatever challenges confront us.” (from The Power of Full Engagement*)

I don’t know what marathoners they were looking at when they composed that hyperbolic description, but it doesn’t ring particularly true in my experience. Some extreme/elite runners are rather thin, it’s true, but not all of them – and ‘sunken and emotionally flat’ is hilariously over the top.  In any case, most people are not actually trying to run or live at that kind of extreme.

let’s get real

Among normal everyday runners like me who train for and run marathons, a reasonably fit segment of the population, there are many body shapes and many experiences (no-one has ever described me as gaunt). Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment and self-respect that comes from setting a hard goal, working towards it and achieving it is often very empowering rather than diminishing or ‘flattening’.

I’m not saying there isn’t some merit in what Loehr and Schwartz are proposing, but I think their version of the metaphor is flawed, because distance running too is about ‘full engagement’.

What’s really interesting to me about both the training and the race itself is the psychology of competition – how we relate to those around us, and how that affects our own performance. In fact, marathons are not really ‘races’ at all – except for the tiny few elite runners mentioned above, who generally finish with times that are simply incomprehensible for most of us.

(This is true of sprinting too, of course, but the difference is somehow more pronounced: let’s say that a world-class sprinter can run 100m fully twice as fast as a normal, reasonably fit runner; it’s amazing, but not outrageous to imagine that the talent and training of an elite runner would effect a doubling of performance. Elite marathoners, on the other hand, run about as fast as our all-out sprint, but instead of double the distance it’s literally hundreds of times more. A little over 42km, in just over two hours – that’s more than half as fast as world-class sprinters run 100m, only 420 times further.)

what are we up against?

But I digress. Again, we are not competing with the elite; in the creative realm, it’s not necessary or possible for everyone to be Mozart or Rembrandt or Baryshnikov (and if you are, you likely don’t need to read my blog, but thanks for stopping by anyway!). We just want to be more creative versions or ourselves, more in tune with our process and our energy reserves, so we can stay engaged and avoid burnout.

In fact, in a marathon, 99% or more of the runners are not competing with the runners around them; we know that there are hundreds or thousands ahead of us, and just as many behind.

We are actually competing with ourselves – with fatigue, with age, with our tendency to give up in the face of adversity, with our lack of confidence or self-esteem. Sometimes we get sucked into the feeling that we’re competing with others, and it can be motivating for a while, but ultimately it’s hollow. They’re running their race, with their bodies, and we’re running ours. What’s happening in their race is irrelevant to what’s happening in our own.

I believe this is the healthiest approach to creativity as well. Do your work, don’t worry about the next person. Run your race.

If you don’t stop, you’ll finish…

As mentioned, I’ve been thinking and writing about the positive, joyful, exhilerating feeling that the creative act can bring about when we’re firing on all cylinders. Running a marathon is like that too – especially early in the race, when your form is smooth and strong and the endorphins are flowing and you feel like your legs will feel good forever. If you’ve trained well this can last well over half the race, as it did in my recent run.

Somewhere in the low to mid 30s (kilometres, i.e. around 20 miles or so for the Americans in the crowd) things start to get a lot harder, and your body starts listing the many excellent reasons why you should stop immediately, right away, and go lie down somewhere – anywhere, really, a ditch will do, as long as you stop running immediately.

So, what do you do when it isn’t joyful, when it isn’t going well?

You just keep moving, unless you’re injured or literally on the verge of collapse, because you know that actually it will be over soon, and it will feel better to have finished than not. And then when it’s over, you get to take a bit of a break.

Tim Twietmeyer, a legendary ultra-distance runner who ran the Western States 100-mile race 25 times, finishing under 24 hours every time (winning 5 of them) – and incidentally looks quite hale and healthy – has described his approach this way:

“At mile 80, it’s not all that great, but you live through it and then fondly recall how good it was… One of the reasons I’ve been going for 25 years is that I’m not trying to strap it on every week. I get one max effort in, then recover and get away from it for a while.” (from Runner’s World, October 2006)

I think this is not so far from what Loehr and Schwartz are talking about, it’s just that it applies to endurance just as it does to sprinting.

The Long Run

So what, finally, does all this mean in the context of creativity? How, finally, do we think about our creative work like a marathon?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Embrace the hyperfocus that the creative act sometimes demands and, indeed, imparts. Create space and time to allow it to manifest. And learn to push back the limits of endurance, gradually, by digging just a little deeper and pushing just a little harder when things get hard, when you feel the wall approaching. Lean into it a little. Feel what it feels like to go past what you thought your limit was. Don’t be masochistic, this is not about punishment. It’s getting your creative muscles used to the fact that you’re planning on asking a little more of them.

In marathon training, this is the ‘long run’. It’s not every run. We do it at intervals, with shorter, gentler runs in between. If you try to build up endurance too fast, you risk injury. In a creativity context, you risk burnout or worse – losing the joy and connection that make the whole thing worthwhile, at least for me.

Feed your mind and body. The creative muscles need sustenance just as our physical ones do. Sensory deprivation is not a healthy environment for creativity. Allow yourself to be inspired and challenged by the work of others – but don’t slip into competitive habits. Again, they’re running their race, you are running yours. But you can certainly observe, appreciate and learn.

And finally, take your breaks. Even if you’re deep in the zone, don’t push too hard too soon. Your muscles are doing important and essential work on the rest days, and if you rush it or skip it you are working against them and not with them. You disrupt the process and can even do substantial damage by being in too much of a hurry or ignoring your body’s signals.

I am certain that my overall creative energy and endurance increases when I don’t demand too much of it too fast, but rather gently and steadily train the muscles for the task at hand, respecting the process and the need for rest and recovery.

Your turn… are you a sprinter or a marathoner? What do you do to keep your ‘creative muscles’ in shape? Are there any athletic metaphors from some other discipline that inform your process or approach? Comments, as always, are welcome and encouraged.