Leeann's Letter: Lift Off — On Writing, Running, and Other Impossible Things



Happy Thursday! Today, we bring you the first letter from our Editorial Director Leeann DelHoyo-Duggan. It's a story about two hard things: running and writing, and the moments of transcendence in both that we live for. Enjoy.

Ain't nothing to it but to do it. — Unknown


The women of the Texas Track Club — who, yes, competed and won in bouffants — in 1964.

The women of the Texas Track Club — who, yes, competed and won in bouffants — in 1964.

by Leeann DelHoyo-Duggan

When I was 27, I got really into running after a breakup (okay, a dumping) that seemingly came out of nowhere and devastated me. I had no good reason to choose running, other than the fact that I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands, and it seemed like a better plan than going out drinking every night (although to be fair, I still managed to fit in plenty of that).

As a kid I’d been given to, let’s say, more indoor pursuits. I never played sports of any kind, I was eternally confounded in gym class, lacking all knowledge of the rules of soccer or softball, intractably inept at anything physical. Instead, my life was lived inside my home, but especially inside my room, where I read and re-read Roald Dahl, every single one of the Baby-Sitters Club books, the SoCal saga of Sweet Valley High, and during one ambitious phase, my entire abridged dictionary that my mom bought me at the beginning of 4th grade (shockingly, my newfound ability to drop words like “transmogrify” and “perspicacity” into casual conversation endeared me only to teachers, not the popular girls in class with their lacquered mall bangs and Nike Cortez kicks).

All of this is to say, gentle readers, that I was a damn nerd. And like generations of nerds who would come before and since, I spent my tender years listening to better-adjusted kids run and play and scream on the street through my window shades. And so when I finally discovered it, running was a total revelation to me. It was literally the first time I gained a sense of my body and its capabilities, the first time I related to my physical self as something more than an ungainly and inconvenient container for my brain.

And so, the accessories of my new obsession started piling up around me — the brand-new $150 shoes, which I selected after watching and rewatching footage of my gait running on a store treadmill and being informed of my “slight over-pronation” by a stone-faced salesman who delivered the news with a gravitas usually reserved for cancer diagnosis. There were also the supposedly sweat-wicking “technical tees,” the Runner’s World subscription, the teeny $12 bottle of thigh chafe-prevention gel, which I quickly realized was just marked-up Vaseline. I watched the truly terrible Jared Leto biopic about Steve Prefontaine not once, but twice. 

And of course, like any new acolyte to a faith, there was my wild-eyed evangelizing about my new love, lord and savior. Trust me when I say that during this time in my life, you did not want to run into me at a party, for there was literally no conversation I could not turn to running, no life problem you could confide that I did not know the one-size-fits-all prescription for. (To the friend with joint problems to whom I insisted running was the cure, me and my clicking post-30 knees apologize.)

Given my sudden and intense new obsession with running, people often made the understandable, yet erroneous assumption that I enjoyed it. “So, do you get the runner’s high?” they’d ask eagerly, a question that always confounded me. “No,” became my standard reply. “The only high I ever get is when I stop running.”

This is the truth all runners know and all non-runners can’t conceive of. Running is terrible. About 90% of it I’d say is pure torture. Some of my fellow runners will say this is a generous estimate.

Most of us don’t do it for the pleasure of doing it, per se, but for the pleasure of no longer doing it. The cooldown walk at dusk, the stretch on the front stoop, the ice bath after a Sunday 10-miler, the deep and dreamless sleep, the virtuous soreness the next day, the humblebragging about the soreness — these things are heaven. Running itself is hell.

So it is too with writing. Every writer I’ve ever known despises the actual act of writing, and will in fact do almost anything to avoid it. Fretful types in the best of times, writers tie themselves into dyspeptic knots over deadlines, imaginary pressures, hazy outlines of ruthless editors or disapproving readers.

I can count the number of good writers I know on one hand — but every writer I know is a Didion-level genius when it comes to not writing.

Beginnings are the worst, of course, and many hacky essays have been written about the battle of the empty page (I’m hoping this is not one of them, tbh). 

Florence Joyner at the 1988 Olympics, where she set the still-standing world records for the 100 and 200 meters.

Florence Joyner at the 1988 Olympics, where she set the still-standing world records for the 100 and 200 meters.

To wit, here is a brief list of things I have done instead of simply starting a story which I should really be writing:

  • Pace
  • Power pose
  • Pick fights with loved ones
  • Have panic attacks
  • Take baths
  • Read (for procrastination purposes, only trash online gossip and “just one more” AskReddit thread will do)
  • Eat
  • Have seconds
  • Clean my home to the baseboards
  • Sit around feeling smug about my clean baseboards
  • Scroll to the end of my Instagram feed and comment with manic positivity on everything ("Nice cat!!! I miss you!!!!!")
  • Drink alcohol to “get my thoughts flowing” (NB: this does not actually work)
  • Drink 32 ounces of French press coffee (possible contributing factor to panic attacks above)
  • Walk (also to get my thoughts flowing, but unlike alcohol, this actually works)

In fact, I did at least four of the above instead of beginning to write the article you’re reading now.

And yet, in writing as in running, there is a moment when you can’t delay any longer and your feet must leave the pavement.

Then there is a long time where your body feels alien and plodding, every footstep is hopelessly heavy, effortful. Then slowly, your body comes awake, your muscles warm, and if you’re lucky, you receive flashes of fluidity — light, unthinking moments where you are all motion and purpose, a feeling of being drawn effortlessly along a path by some force outside yourself. This feeling is so novel, so joyful, and so rare it makes you grin like a maniac as you huff down the street, and your only hope is that maybe people will think you’re listening to a hilarious podcast or something.

Likewise, there were brief moments in writing this that felt like flying. These moments for me only ever exist in flashes, where vaporous thoughts form words suddenly so concrete and correct, and unlike the formless jumble in my head that it feels like alchemy. It is this magic that all writers seek, and that makes the vast majority of writing, the endless plodding moments of non-inspiration, worth it. 

To run and to write are torture, briefly interrupted by giddy weightlessness. To have run and to have written is to defy physical law, to know the secret that gravity itself is negotiable.

They also both have something to teach about immediacy. Thinking can’t help you, and worrying is even worse. The gun goes off, you start to run. You reach the finish line, you stop. This is all there is to it, and all there ever will be.



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