I was going to say "marathon," which is probably even more true, but I can't speak to experience, as the farthest I've ever run is a half marathon. Therefore, this post will liken writing a novel to a half marathon instead.
1. There comes a point where you hit your stride. Every runner has reached it. Even when a run starts off difficult, there usually comes a point where things smooth out. Your breathing stabilizes, your stride becomes fluent, and your arms swing freely. If you're listening to music, you start to get in the zone, you tap a constant rhythm on the concrete. You stop worrying about how hard this is going to be, and focus instead on the here and now, the moment, and how awesome it is that you can kick butt like this.
The same is true of a novel. The first words on the page may be ripped from you so hard, it leaves you gasping for air. You may not feel comfortable for a large part of your writing. But almost always, there comes a moment when you feel that you've finally hit your stride. You're doing well. You've got this beast under control.
2. Then, you hit a brick wall. In running, this happens towards the end, when your body is exhausted, and the battle to finish becomes a mental one. You start to psych yourself out. There's no way I can finish this race. 13.1 miles? What on earth was I thinking? How could I ever run that far? Who told me I could do this? They must have been crazy! I can't even take another step, let alone run the next four miles! I should have paced myself slower earlier, now I have nothing left... And on and on it goes.
I find I do the exact same thing in writing a novel. After I get over the hurdle of the first couple chapters and get into stride, I start doubting. I begin to feel the burn and the questions begin to arise. Is the pace too slow, too fast? Should I have included that incident with the llama? Oh, there's so much to do when I get to draft two. If I get to draft two. Can I even get to draft one? I can't even get to the next scene. What's going to happen next? I shouldn't have wasted all my good stuff in the beginning, now I have nowhere to go! Then I begin to wail and gnash my teeth. (Actually, I just close the laptop and walk away.)
3. There comes a point in running where your feet feel like lead weights have been attached to them. It takes every last ounce of your determination to lift your foot and put it back on the ground. I find it helps to not think about what I'm doing, but just to pull my foot off the ground, and let gravity do the rest. Take it one step at a time. After that, there's just one more. And, pretty soon, you'll be flying under the finish line. (Well, certainly not flying in my case.)
In writing, it sometimes feels like your brain is being flattened by lead weights, or your fingertips each have a lead weight attached. This makes writing a coherent sentence next to impossible. But, like in running, where you think one step ahead, in writing, think one word ahead. You can always come up with one more word.
4. You've been pumping along for 12 miles, and then you realize it: there's only 1.1 miles left. You've gotten your second wind. In less than ten minutes, you waltz under the finish line like a bad-ass. And your first thought after passing that line is, "How did I do? How fast did I run?"
When you finish your half-marathon, you have a high which makes you want to immediately look back at your race times. You want to examine the splits and see if you pushed yourself as hard as you could have (because, ultimately, you never do). And, because there's nothing you can do at that moment other than criticize your time, that's what you do.
Likewise in a novel, when you type "The End," you immediately want to turn around and edit the novel. The flaws in timing and conflict, the gaping plot holes, they're all evident the moment you type those two final words. And, if you're anything like me, you want to immediately begin at chapter one and tear it apart with a fine tooth comb. Don't. See number 5.
5. After you complete your half-marathon, you need rest. This means time away from running. In the running world, this is probably a few days (don't quote me if you're marathon training, I'm no expert). Your body absolutely has to recover from this run, especially if it's the first time you've done it.
But when you finally finish writing your novel, whether it's taken you a month of madness like in NaNoWriMo, or if you've been working on it for six months more sporadically, you need a break. Minimum of a month. Put it aside, work on something else. A novella, a short story. Something to keep you from picking at it before you're ready.
You certainly don't have to be a runner to be a writer. But the more I run, the more similarities I see between training to be a better runner and training to be a better writer. They both require discipline and a commitment to succeed. If you want it bad enough, you can do it. I may never run with an Olympian, nor run a half-marathon in one-and-a-half-hours. Likewise, I may never write an award-winning book, nor be on the bestseller list. But I can train with others who challenge me--both in running, and in writing. When you train with others who are better than you, you rise to the challenge. And that is its own reward.