The magnificent view from the top of the climb.

Running a Sprint and a Marathon at the Same Time

The magnificent view from the top of the climb.

It takes a bit of madness to decide to write, in just one month, a fifty thousand word novel. Given I made that choice only a week before the challenge began, well, you can decide how crazy I am for yourself.

Introduction: The Choice

The first time I heard about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I thought, โ€œThat sounds interesting. I should do it sometime. But not this year. I’ve got lots going on.โ€ Yet the next year would come, and my response stayed the same. I’d find an excuse and decide to put it off for another year. The cycle continued.

This year was no different:

โ€œI have a daughter. I’m working on my web design business. Fifty thousand words is too many for now. Next year though, I’m going to do it.โ€

But the thought of participating wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking about it.

A week before November, I decided. It was what I wanted, and I I committed to make the effort.

how distant does that finish line appear
o’er the high hills and barren desert plains
but still you make the choice to face the pains
and not put off the race another year

You need to decide, in the beginning, whether a project or dream is what you want. Because the going will get tough. You will want to quit. It won’t be fun. And in those moments, if you never really wanted to finish, you will walk away. You’ll abandon all your hard work.

And if a particular dream isn’t what you want, then say no. Quit at the start, when the cost isn’t high.

Prologue: Preparation

I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. One week is not much time to figure out the concept for a story and sketch out the main characters and scenes. I raced to get ready.

Would more time have been helpful? Absolutely. But I did what I could.

sprint and run
build your strength
the time to train
will soon be done

Every project or dream takes preparation.

You need to know what you want. It doesn’t have to be a complete outline or detailed map, but it’s important to have a vision.

You need to set up the habits. Such projects are big by nature. Doing them on pure willpower won’t work. Build upon existing structures and practices to help move you in the direction you want to go.

But sometimes you don’t have much time to prepare. Sometimes, you just have to get going.

The Beginning: The Race Begins

To finish the novel by the end of the month, I had to write at least 1,667 words every day. And for the first few days, all went according to plan.

I had the energy of a new beginning. I had the excitement of a new experience and activity. I burst out of the gate, ready to go. Not only did I hit my target word count, I added a few extra ones as well. All I had to do was keep my pace.

begin begin
bursting from the starting gate
onward onward
pounding feet upon the gravel slate

At the start of a project, you’ll have lots of energy. Use it to build momentum as quickly as you can.

The Middle Part One: Discoveries Along the Way

Though I had an initial idea in mind about my main characters and story, I came up with most of the details while writing. Sometimes, it was just a continuation or expansion of what I had thought already. But often the discoveries surprised me. I’d set up a scene and a character would behave differently than I expected. It made the process fun.

I never would have made those discoveries by planning or thinking hard. They came through action.

laboured breathing
climbing to reach the hilltop
only to find
a view
that takes your breath away

On your project, you cannot know everything at the beginning. You don’t know what will happen or who you’ll meet. Thank goodness. The joy of discovery is part of what makes the journey worthwhile and interesting.

The Middle Part Two: Falling Behind

By the end of the first week, I was behind.

I didn’t mean to waste time browsing the internet. But the news was interesting. I didn’t mean to go outside instead of writing. But the weather was unseasonably warm. I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to get to the end of the day and not be in a mood to write more than a thousand words. But it happens sometimes. Right?

walk a bit
stop a bit
you’ve lots of space
to pick up the pace
and still win the race

Beware the temptations that distract you. If you’re not careful, if you’re not intentional, they’ll pull you off course.

The trouble is that they aren’t obvious. They appear in subtle ways. โ€œOh, I’ll only break for five minutes. Oh, I’ll get to it later. Oh, this is a small compromise.โ€ Because the temptations are so easy to justify, they tug you further and further away from your target without you noticing.

The Middle Part Three: The Choice

With ten days to go, I had over half the novel to finish. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t confident about my story. I felt like giving up.

โ€œWhy bother? I can’t do it? I’ll have to triple my pace to finish. Surely that’s beyond me?โ€

But in my time of struggle, I had four allies to call upon.

I reminded myself of my choice at the beginning. This project was what I wanted. I knew it would be hard, but I had decided to do it anyways.

I looked to the example of other artists and writers. Their first attempts and drafts were not masterpieces either. Producing bad work is part of the process of learning and creating.

I drew strength from what I’d finished so far. I was nearly halfway there. I’d produced twenty-four thousand words that weren’t there before. It would be a tragedy for me to abandon them.

I sought the encouragement of others. I joined a group of people who were also working on a novel. Many of them were further behind than I was. They pushed me to keep moving.

And I did.

drops of sweat fall in a downpour
footsteps pound with the weight of thunder
will you press on against the storm?

When the journey gets tough โ€“ and it will โ€“ lean into the challenge. Embrace the discomfort and keep going. Remember the reason you started in the first place. Seek the help of others. Choose again to finish.

The Middle Part Four: The Final Sprint

To finish on time, I’d have to match my most productive day so far, and I’d have to do it for every one of the remaining days. With no other option, I picked up speed. A daily word count that once appeared a stretch became the baseline.

Three days before the end, I was ten thousand words away from the finish line. I challenged myself to see how many words I could write in one day.

So I got up early. The first two thousand words flew by, and I had them done by breakfast. I kept going steady, and by lunch I’d knocked out another three thousand. Halfway through the day. Halfway done. And despite a slower pace in the afternoon, I managed to add another two thousand by four o’clock.

โ€œNice job,โ€ I thought to myself, โ€œYou’re at seven thousand words. You could call it a day and finish tomorrow without any problem. Just take it easy for the rest of the day.โ€

But I refused to quit. Several hours later, I crossed the ten thousand word mark, tired, happy, and a touch jittery from drinking too much coffee. I’d made it.

Fifty thousand words in a month, ten thousand words in one day – I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d accomplish both of those.

the finish line
comes into view
unleash everything

You are capable of more than you think you are. By taking action โ€“ by attempting that project or dream that seems beyond you โ€“ you crash through your limitations and expand your possibilities.

Conclusion: At The Finish Line

On the first Sunday of December, a group gathered together at a restaurant to celebrate. As much as I was excited to finish, I loved seeing the others who made it too. Shared accomplishment is magic.

Someone at the party described NaNoWriMo as being a marathon and a sprint at the same time. Each day you push yourself to your limit, while maintaining your pace to reach the end on schedule.

Finishing the novel is just another beginning, another sprint in this marathon of life. If I can accomplish this, what other dreams can I bring to life? My baseline has been reset. What next?

Postscript: For When You Fall Short

Though I succeeded on this attempt, there have been plenty of other times I haven’t completed a project. There have been occasions where I let my dreams slip away.

But I learned from those experiences. I discovered what didn’t work and what did. When I wrote the novel, I adjusted my strategy to compensate for past weaknesses and amplify past strengths. I put more focus on habits instead of willpower. I sought the help of others. And I made a firm commitment to finish.

failing to finish
this time
does not diminish
next time

You won’t always succeed. Sometimes you’ll fall short.

Maybe you didn’t try hard enough. Perhaps you faced circumstances beyond your control. Or maybe you didn’t have the right tactics. Regardless of the reason, don’t beat yourself up over it. You are not a failure.

Instead, see what you can learn from the experience. Study what went wrong. Look at what didn’t work. Examine what you did right.

Next time, with the extra experience in hand, you might just cross the finish line.


No, you may not read the novel right now. I might rework it into a short story or novella in the future. But right now, it’s very much a draft.

6 thoughts on “Running a Sprint and a Marathon at the Same Time”

  1. Woohoo! Joshua! You did it, you did it.
    Not only did you do it, you shared your experience of doing it. Thank you for that.
    There was never any doubt in my mind that you could do it. We’ve seen you stick to a writing schedule that’s lasted years. The only question was would you do it. And you did do it.
    That was the big accomplishment and it is one that lasts forever, because you will be able to draw on this experience.

    1. Frances, Thanks for your encouragement. I may have had a solid writing schedule, but this was at a much higher (and faster) pace. And if I can write ten thousand words in one day, what valid excuses (heh, is there such a thing?) can I come up with for not doing more than I have been?

  2. Joshua, this is excellent!
    I admire your patience and discipline to meet your goal and your choice to reach out for help along the way.
    I like your phrase that your “baseline has been reset.” It sounds like you know there is more for you to reach toward. Indeed, may new “dreams” come flooding in, and among them, may you have wisdom to discern the next one to embrace.

  3. Congratulations! How will you celebrate?

    The entire message resonates have a way of reflecting so that I can take your insights and contemplate them as they apply to my life. Thank you for that gift!

    1. Joy, I celebrated by swinging on a playground swing (sooooo much fun) on an unseasonably warm December day. That and sitting still with a cup of coffee and not thinking about anything in particular.

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