Born to Run: ultra-running and ultra-writing

Okay, so when I said last post that I’d had a ‘word-free’ holiday, I might have lied atinybit. But you didn’t really believe me anyway, did you?

I read the remarkable Born to Run by Christopher McDougall while on holiday. It’s not the kind of book I normally read, but I absolutely loved it. It’s the story of one man’s quest to discover why he was getting so injured while running, even though he wore all the latest high tech running shoes, consulted the best doctors and podiatrists, and followed all the training advice to the letter. When he heard about a tribe of people in Mexico known as the Tarahumara – who long-distance run their whole lives mostly without complaint – he travelled to the Copper Canyons to try and discover their secret.

Of course, being the easily infuenced person that I am, immediately after finishing the book I wanted to become an ultra-marathon runner! One step at a time of course, and the marathon is first! But it did get me to thinking about other ‘extremes’ – what would extreme writing look like, for example? Does anyone have any ‘ultra-writing’ stories they’ve heard from or about famous authors?

Probably the best example of ‘extreme writing’ that I’ve ever read about has stuck with me since high school: Victor Hugo’s writing of Notre-Dame de Paris. I went through a rather extreme French literature-loving phrase after I lived in the south of France for three months on student exchange, and I could consistently be found in the hallways of my high school, back up against my locker, nose in a dog-eared copy of Les Misérables or L’Etranger. (Yes, I admit to being a pretentious teen!) But back to Monsieur Hugo… check out this passage from Victor Hugo: His Life and Work by A. F. Davison:

Thus, with five and a half months before him, Hugo set himself in grim earnest to write Notre-Dame de Paris. Purchasing a large bottle of ink and a thick wollen jersey, he locked away all his clothes to avoid any temptation of going out, and sat down to his writing-table, which he never left except to eat or sleep.
At first it was weary work, this hermit-like seclusion and the oppressive sense of a struggle against time. But soon the author grew into his creation and lived in his characters, becoming insensible to fatigue or cold and working eagerly on with windows wide open to the wintry air. On January 14 the last line was written, the last drop of ink dried up, and Hugo felt as sorry to part with his book as he had been reluctant to begin it. 

I think that’s definitely a story of ‘ultra-writing’ if I’ve ever heard one. But the part that stuck with me the most, is that at the end of his writing marathon, he was so taken by the coincidence that he had written the last word of his book with his very last drop of ink, that he wanted to title the novel: Ce qu’il y a dans une bouteille d’encre (“What there is in a bottle of ink”). Genius.


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