What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008)

Mark Milner
February 10, 2011

Rating: 8/10

I work with a runner. We talk about it every once in a while. Sometimes it sounds like a lot of work. She’ll tell me the only time she can run is early in the morning, when it’s bound to be cold and freezing and she’ll be in a rush to drop her kids off and to get to work or the weather is awful, pouring snow, rain, ice or some combination thereof.

On days like that, I suggest that maybe she should skip a day and relax, but she always ends up going anyway. If it’s hot out, she’ll just drink more water. If it’s cold, she’ll wear layers. Icy? She’s got strap-on spikes for her cross trainers. In a tone of voice I usually reserve for talking about the weather, she’ll casually mention she did a 10K before coming in for an eight-hour shift, even in the dead of winter.

In a word, she’s devoted to running. When we talk, I don’t think she means to brag so much as she’s trying to explain what running does for her. And I don’t know if I completely get what she’s talking about, but after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I think I’m starting to get the picture.

On the surface, it’s a book about running, a collection of several essays covering his progress in training for a marathon in New York where he details how he runs (outdoors, never on treadmills), what running gear he uses (Mizunos) and a look at some of his more memorable runs, including a heat-drenched run along the original marathon route (from Athens to Marathon) and a 62-mile ultra-marathon.

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But in Murakami’s hands, what could be a dull book becomes deeper, more insightful and somewhat delightfully odder than anything Jim Fixx ever wrote. After all, this is the same person behind twisting novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kafka on the Shore. A move left-of-centre should be a little expected, if not anticipated.

So where one may expect to find a book brimming with minutia, inside-baseball running jargon and tons of heavy-handed advice, here’s a book where Murakami says:

“I’ve tried my best to never say something like, Running is great. Everybody should try it… Whenever I see students in gym class all made to run a long distance, I feel sorry for them.”

It’s a book where he’ll go from detailing a morning run to how he preps for a public reading at MIT. Where the relative merits of running while listening to Eric Clapton are discussed in detail.

This is instead something of a memoir, but not really. It’s a look back at his past that’s interspersed with the hows and whys of his life: why he started running and kept running, even through some crazy obstacles. About how he decided one day to become a novelist and worked at it, despite his friends trying to talk him out of it. And about how and where those two disciplines – long-distance running and long-form writing – intersect.

Like running, writing novels is a solitary existence, explains Murakami. Some writers crave the spotlight and attention (Hunter Thompson comes to mind) and others go out of their way to avoid attention (Jonathan Franzen) but when all actually get down to the brass tacks, it’s them and a keyboard, pounding out words. A recent profile in Time painted a picture of Franzen, sitting in a sparely-decorated room while he wrote Freedom. And Thompson locked himself in his basement while working on Fear and Loathing.

Murakami is no exception to this. He runs alone, usually with a minidisc player (he makes a point of saying he doesn’t use an iPod). He writes alone, too, and says they’re both equally demanding:

“Writing novels, to me, is a kind of manual labor. The whole process requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine.”

Thus the ties between running and writing are more closely bound than one may think. Think about it: there’s a special kind of discipline here: he mentions a story about how Raymond Chandler sat at a keyboard every day then mentions he runs every day. In other words, one has to keep working at their craft to stay sharp at it and to excel. Another time he’s more blunt:

“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.”

At its core, this book is about devotion, drive and a single-minded pursuit of a goal, be it to finish a 62-mile race, get into proper shape or finish that galley of a work he’s translating. Sometimes it seems like passion, other times like an addiction, but one has to admit Murakami is nothing if not stubborn.

Which is something he’s lucky to have been blessed with. Take his novel-writing roots: in the late 1970s, he writes, he was watching a baseball game when he was struck with an idea: why not try writing a novel? It was a task he – then owner of a jazz bar – set out to challenge himself with. So he set himself to it: he would come home late at night and write until the sun rose before quickly sneaking in a few hours of sleep and going back to work:

“By fall, I’d finished a two-hundred-page work handwritten on Japanese manuscript paper… I had no idea what to do with the novel once I’d finished it, but I just sort of let the momentum carry me and sent it in to be considered for a literary magazine’s new-writers prize. I shipped it off without making a copy…”

That hand-written novel was published less than a year later and he soon quit his job to focus on writing. With running, it was the same thing he was struck by it one day in the early 1980s and went after it with all he had. He found he had something of a knack for it and he’s never stopped, running marathons seemingly every year.

That steady undercurrent of his determination and drive runs throughout his book. Murakami is beset by kicks to the chest and fogged goggles in a triathlon in Hawaii, by oppressive heat while running in Greece, by the sheer torment running a 62-mile ultramarathon in Japan – which even the account of is exhausting. Through it all, he never once lets up, never bows out midway through, always – except in one case, where he was disqualified – finishes under his own power.

“If I give up,” he writes, “I’ll be breaking one of my rules. Break one of my rules and who knows how many I’ll break?”

His drive is phenomenal and it powers not only his running, but this book: it keeps going steady, at it’s own pace, and never lets up. This is a book not just for runners, not just for writers and not just for where those two cross over. The lessons here can be applied to anywhere – and by anyone, even my co-worker (who, truth be told, already applies them anyway).

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The Author:

Mark Milner