I almost feel bad putting myself in the same category with the Runner Novelist - a man who started running at age 33, averages over 130 miles run a month, and has completed a marathon every year since he started running. In the spring of 2009, I attempted my first half-marathon and ended up walking a little bit towards the end - something I'm not exactly proud of, but have come to terms with, especially since my time was still right around the 2 hour mark. Sure, I've done my share of 5K races and running is a hobby of mine that serves a whole host of purposes for me, not purely physical, but I'm really not in the same league as Murakami.
But the novelist isn't the kind of guy who runs competitively. Rather, his primary competitor is himself and he views running as something he was always meant to do, something to which his very nature is conducive, but not an endeavor that he tackles simply to beat out the others.
Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running offers us a bit of insight into the author's life prior to becoming an internationally beloved novelist, his start as a writer, and most importantly, his passion for running. I'm sure most people, especially those of you who aren't runners, are wondering how much one person could have to say about running in a 180-page book. To be perfectly honest with you, I wondered much the same thing myself when I first picked it up. But then I realized that this book isn't so much about running as it is about the purpose this exercise has served for Murakami. He writes about all that has gone on in his life while running, about some of his more memorable races and runs and what he has learned from them. His insights are not overly sentimental or trite but he skillfully highlights some of the most fundamental things that he knows about running and about himself because of his running habit.
Murakami acknowledges that running serves a different purpose for every runner, it yields knowledge about the self that varies for each individual, and in this book, he explores those purposes and that knowledge specific to himself. In reading, I gained a lot of motivation to go out and run, to manage even longer distances and build up my endurance again ( I'm even considering tackling another half-marathon despite swearing that I'd never do one again - I think that's a pretty common theme among runners). But I also thought a lot about why I love to run (on those days when I do love it) and made plenty of comparisons between Murakami's feelings and my own. Though I am nowhere near his caliber, intensity of devotion, or level of accomplishment, I think that all people who pursue running past a certain degree share a variety of characteristics that set them apart, that make them revel in the pain and misery of running, while delighting in the joys of the challenge and the pace.
One thing I love about running is just getting out there and doing it - challenging myself, spending time alone, reveling in my surroundings whether it be the myriad of scents you can experience while running through a suburban neighborhood on a summer night or the sights of a forest of trees ablaze with the colors of fall. Part of the reason I never thought I would participate in another half-marathon race wasn't so much because I didn't think I could handle the challenge, but rather, because it isn't the racing aspect but the action of running in itself that I most love.
In reading Murakami's book, I've come to realize how we all need to create challenges for ourselves, to find small morsels of motivation wherever we can. And for me, unfortunately, sometimes I need to pay the entrance fee and commit to a race in order to motivate myself to run. Posing a challenge to myself in my own head sometimes just isn't enough to ensure that I'll push my limits and see it through. But I recognize that my feelings toward running are also very cyclical. I'll go through periods where I do it regularly and methodically with little forethought and no dragging of the feet. This will be followed by months when it is a real struggle to motivate myself, although I, soon enough, will discover the urge to run again.
I can't say whether or not I'll commit to another long-distance race, but I hope that Murakami's insights will, at the very least, encourage me to continue running and learning as much as I can from it. Here are a few of those morsels of wisdom that I took from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that are applicable to long-distance running, writing novels, and so many other endeavors in life.
- "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional... The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand up any more is up to the runner himself."
- "As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I'm not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says."
- "Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger... Our muscles are very conscientious. As long as we observe the correct procedure, they won't complain."
- "If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I'd never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished."
- "Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life."
- "I don't know what sort of general significance running sixty-two miles by yourself has, but as an action that deviates from the ordinary yet doesn't violate basic values, you'd expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result, your view of life, its colors and shape, should be transformed."
- "It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive - or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within the action itself. If things go well, that is."
***If you're in the market for other inspiring running reads, try out Dean Karnazes' Ultra Marathon Man. My sister was lucky enough to actually run with Dean in one of the 50 marathons that this amazing runner finished in 50 days!