Running to Create with author Brendan Leonard
Brendan Leonard has written books and made films about running but didn’t consider himself a ‘runner’ until his 30s. How did he start? An ultramarathon, of course…
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You’re currently reading a running newsletter with a silly title. Brendan Leonard writes running books (and more) with silly titles. The difference is that he’s brilliant at it and he can draw.
2021’s I Hate Running and You Can Too and 2022’s Have Fun Out There Or Not: The Semi-Rad Running Essays are chock full of hilarious, relatable anecdotes and the kind of idiosyncratic illustrations that make me want every single one on a t-shirt.
Writing and illustrating is reason enough for applause, but he also made a film about running. If Leonard seems like a born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool runner that you can never aspire to be like, however, he’ll be the first to correct you.
He took a “big break from running” until 2006, when he ran a marathon to help quit smoking cigarettes (I ran a 10k to do the same, for context). Then he took another nine-year break (!) before signing up to run a 50km ultramarathon with a friend. He had, of course, been staying in decent shape climbing mountains and whatnot, so felt confident of being able to train to complete 31 miles.
There are certainly easier ways, but that was when Brendan Leonard truly became a runner.
Then, in 2017, he made that short film about running a 100-mile ultramarathon. It’s 28 honest minutes of the procedural reality of training for a race of that distance, all wrapped up in a glorious tale of friendship. It’s inspirational viewing. Check it out below.
Why did you start running regularly?
“Ultra running specifically came along for me at a time when we were all getting more and more notifications and emails. It was the time where I could turn off my smartphone, and just be out for a couple hours at a time and not pay attention to that stuff whatsoever.”
How have your reasons changed?
“Now that we have a baby, it is the fastest way for me to burn calories and stay in shape to do things in the mountains. I enjoy the efficiency of it, being able to get out and feel like I did something, and where we live (Missoula, Montana) I can run 2 miles, hit a trailhead and then go straight up for 2000ft, you know, like boom. So 4.5 miles and I’m on the top of a mountain in like an hour… if I'm going really fast for me.”
He scoffs when I suggest that that’s good, and mutters something about the superior speed of other runners in the area, but surely success is achieving the goals that are achievable at that moment in time.
For me, it’s certainly the time-efficiency of my whole workout taking as long as the run. I, too, suffer from children living in my house - two of them! - making my life far busier than it used to be. My wife says I have to accept some blame for that, and I can’t disagree.
Speed? Distance? They don’t come into the equation for me. If I can get out of the house in the morning (6am in the Los Angeles summer) and get some steps on my feet and morning sun in my eyes, that is enough success to set up the rest of my day.
How do you make running suck less?
“My whole thing is making it suck more [laughs]. I refuse music or podcasts to distract myself in any way and I’m always trying to go up steeper trails.”
“I did read this great book called Endure [by Alex Hutchinson]. He's digging through all this research of how different things affect endurance, and one of the things is positive self talk.”
“I am not a positive self-talk person generally so I forget to do it 80% of the time, but every once in a while I remember to do it. It's not even like I’m going up the trail going, ‘You can do this! You got it!’ It's more just like, ‘Okay, it’s not that bad. You can keep running for another couple of miles.’ As opposed to focusing on why it feels so terrible, like, ‘Why do I keep going up this stupid steep-ass trail?’”
I say how this method reminds me of yogic mantras and Brendan mentions Courtney Dauwalter’s mantra of, “You're fine. This is fine. Everything is fine. Keep moving.”
If running extreme distances require a mind-over-matter mentality, it makes a lot of sense to bring a centuries-old meditation technique into your practice, whether you call it a mantra or positive self-talk.
Similar to the mind-body vs neuromuscular connection I make in the article below, the language doesn’t matter if the effect is the same.
Not that you’ll find Brendan focusing on training minutiae like that. He says that he doesn’t care about things like improving his VO2 max or getting his marathon time down to a certain time.
“People say things like they’re going on a tempo run or intervals. I'm just going for a run, which - for me - is a combination of thinking and exercise.”
“I'm not really going, ‘OK. I need to run x-minute miles for this long.’ I just want to goof around in the woods.”
“I’m not that serious about it, but I'm kind of serious about it, I guess.”
How does running feed your creativity?
“We always think we need this cabin in the woods. That if you go on a writer’s retreat for a month, you could get that book written.”
“What running symbolizes to me is stillness, and what you need to create is stillness, which is why we have all these incredible thoughts in the shower or while driving. Your brain is just occupied enough and not thinking of all those other things. That's where the magic happens.”
“15 years ago a friend of mine said something very simple: ‘Nobody ever had an interesting thought sitting in front of a computer.’ And yeah, generally that does not happen. Not like, ‘Wow, I just had this epiphany while I was looking through my 27 open tabs.’”
Serious… but not that serious.
Brendan’s latest book MAKE IT: 50 Myths and Truths About Creating was released between us chatting and me writing this up.
I absolutely love the mindset of doing the work in order to unblock your creative self (hello from this blog that you’re reading!), but I’m not going to start drawing. Nobody needs that.
Ways to make running suck less covered today:
Tell yourself it’s not as difficult as you thought
Remind yourself that it’s good for you
Find stillness of mind during your run
Enjoy the time-efficiency of running
Free yourself from training jargon
Ignore your phone notifications
Use your experiences to create
Explore using mantras
Run with your friend
Run up a mountain
Just go for a run
Endure by Alex Hutchinson [BOOK]
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