• Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

Running and Writing: An Interview with Rachel Cullen


As a writer and a runner I can say with certainty that running and writing are very similar. Both require discipline, patience, and endurance. In the following interview, Rachel Cullen, author of Racing for My Life: How I Built a Better Me One Step at a Time, offers rich and inspiring insight on the writing process, tips for writing a memoir, balancing life as a runner, writer and mother, and much more.

TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE WRITNG PROCESS FOR RUNNNG FOR MY LIFE.

Writing the book was a marathon in itself - if not an ultramarathon! I had the main idea of writing my story whilst sitting in the bath the day before the London Marathon 2015 when I contemplated the question, ‘’How on earth did I get here?’ After almost a year of writing, re-writing, planning, and generally slogging over the basic concept and the best way to tell my story, I then began the arduous task of seeking a publishing house to take on my hotchpotch idea.

After acquainting myself with the ‘Writers' & Artists’ Yearbook’ , I then spent endless hours pouring over the myriad submission requirements for the various publishing houses and literary agencies. Fortunately, I researched my options thoroughly beforehand, and so I was lucky to receive interest in my idea just a few months later.

Once I received the offer of publication from a wonderful Editor at a perfectly placed publishing house, it was then another year of hard slog in structuring, editing, re-writing - and yet more re-writing - of the initial idea, together with the rest of the publication process, including everything from marketing and PR plans to front cover designs. There was so much more to the whole process than I ever imagined, and it was an incredible journey right through to final publication.

HOW IS TRAINING FOR A RACE AND WRITING A BOOK SIMILAR/DIFFERENT/THE SAME?

In one word: ENDURANCE. The analogy that writing a book is akin to running a marathon is not without reason. Both require a level of dedication, commitment and mental toughness that I would never have imagined I could possess.

And in a funny kind of a way, I think I needed to do one before I could even contemplate the other - not least because running my very first marathon is kind of a major part of my story - but because by running that first marathon (and the subsequent ones) I proved to myself that I had that resilience, mental strength and fortitude to see it through to the end.

It is just ironic in that my story is about that journey, and how it changed me.

Running the 2016 Dubai Marathon. Photo courtesy of Rachel Cullen

WHAT TIPS DO YOU HAVE FOR THOSE WHO ARE THINKING ABOUT WRITING THEIR MEMOIR?

1) Write it for yourself initially, and with nobody else in mind. By focusing on writing something that you would want to read, it stops you from being pulled into the mire of expectation and/or trying to appeal to publishing houses and literary agents! You need to be happy with your own story, first.

2) Understand your true purpose in writing your story down. Is there a part of it which you believe will be of benefit to others? There is a big difference between sharing your story for this purpose, and simply satisfying your ego. We all have a story, so what makes yours one that other people can benefit from? NB an introspective, egotistical memoir without a wider message will not survive the Slush Pile (i.e the many submissions rejected by publishers and agents.) Leave the ego behind…

3) Hone your writing skills! Writing is a skill, and a gift - just as being an acclaimed artist, songwriter, poet, or seamstress is. To become a published author, you need to rise above the average, and become something ‘better than good’. What is your plan to get there? I began writing my blog long before I secured a publishing contract, and week-in, week-out I committed to telling a part of my ongoing journey. As a result, I could see my writing improve, which was vital for the re-writing and editing process on the run up to publication.

HOW DO YOU MANAGE BEING A MOTHER TO TILLY, AND BEING A WRITER AND A RUNNER?

By having a very supportive husband!! (Literally, that!)... And by being honest with myself and my lifestyle choices. I choose to work in a ‘real’ job only on a part-time basis, so that leaves me sufficient time to focus on my writing, running, and being a mum. As a result, I have to accept that I will receive less income from that job, but I have always believed that the long term rewards are worth it - and I have proven that my thinking on this is correct!

Similarly, I prioritise my ‘non-work’ time to focus on my running and/or other cross training. My husband Gav and I choose our activities wisely when we have a child-free weekend. You won’t find us having late nights out (that would impact on our running the next day) or going shopping on a Sunday (our opportunity for a long run or a race.) We both make sacrifices for each other, tag-team where necessary, and understand what choices we are making, and why.

Finally, I commit to frequently spending real time with my daughter, so that she and I can bond, and so that she knows she is my priority. We go for walks together; walk home from school and chat; hold hands running a Junior Parkrun, and go for a hot chocolate afterwards; we take train rides instead of driving everywhere, and we read stories together at bedtime. All of this is real, quality time with my daughter, where we learn about each other and about what we love to do together.

With daughter Tilly. Photo courtesy of Rachel Cullen

HOW MANY MILES DO YOU RUN A WEEK? WHAT'S YOUR TRAINING REGIMEN?

I experienced a prolonged period of overtraining in early 2017, together with an injury which caused me to rethink my training up to that point. I had been doing between 40-50 miles per week for the years running up to that point, including many races, and had neglected my rest, recovery, and the importance of running slowly! As a result, my training has now changed as I am still building back up from that horrible experience. I now focus on 3 key sessions a week: 1) speed work; 2) tempo run; 3) long run (as part of my marathon training). I do some cross training between these sessions, but focus is that - for me, at least - less is more! I average between 25-30 miles per week at the moment, and am happy with that, for now.

WHEN IS YOUR NEXT RACE?

I have lots of races coming up! But the next ‘big one’ is the Boston Marathon on 16th April 2018. It’s big for so many reasons… as marathon runners will understand! I am delighted to have qualified for the BM and to have the opportunity to take part. I want to enjoy the experience, but I realise that I am not in the form I was for 2014-16 and so I’m being realistic about my expectations.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO WRITE NEXT?

I am already writing the follow on to ‘Running For My Life’. That will be another long, painful process, but the story is already there, and - once again - I am fully committed to the journey. I am armed with my proverbial energy gels (or coffee, for the writing process!) I’ve carb-loaded, and I am ready to go! Watch this space...

Read my review of Running for My Life: How I Built A Better Me One Step at a Time, here.

Copyright 2018

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