January 7, 2019

Book Review: What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami

While training for the New York City Marathon, Haruki Murakami decided to keep a journal of his progress. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid recollections and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer. By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, here is a rich and revelatory work that elevates the human need for motion to an art form.

Here is a sentence, I never thought I would write:  I have lately taken up running. Up until three months ago, I would have more likely said that I hate to run and that I was just not made for running.  In high school, I dreaded the annual physical tests, where I lagged in every single area, including running/limping/trying not to crawl the mile.  I was always dead last, wheezing and clutching my chest as I barely crossed the finish line. 

And if you had told my 16-year-old self that I had just finished a 10K race – willingly – she would have probably fainted from shock. So what changed?  I feel as if I walked through a passageway and entered a place I had only heard about.  And of course, I wanted to read up on this new place – not so much a how-to, but to describe its inner life. 

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is that book.

According to Murakami, the most important aspect of marathon running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”  I feel that this is a truth for plain old running, at least for me. Yes, I will struggle for a mile or two until I get going and afterwards, my knees might hurt but whether I keep going or not is up to me. Somehow, I need to transcend what is happening to my body to keep going. Mind over matter.

Most of what he writes about resonates.  For instance, I would have thought that as he ran (6 miles a day!) he had deep, meaningful discourses with his inner self, or worked out a complicated plot to one of his fantastical novels.  But no, he mostly thinks about nothing, or about running itself.  I find myself nodding yes to this.  I also think about nothing - the weather, the road conditions, the sheer pleasure of running on soft dirt as opposed to hard pavement. What I also found gratifying was that he has days where getting up to go running is a joyless chore.  Many a dark, cold early morning I have battled with myself. It is a comfort - and a dread - that despite his many years of running, Murakami still has these difficult days. 

Of course, there is only so many similarities I can draw between me and this Nobel prize contender.  He wrote his first novel almost on a whim, just deciding one day to sit down and write one, which in turn won a prize.  He runs a marathon once a year.  And in fact, the narrative arc of this book seems to build up to the New York marathon as the climax. However before that, Murakami sneaks in the one time he ran an ultramarathon- 62 miles. His description of how he physically and mentally battled his way to the finish was so painful, I felt drained just reading it.  This was the true climax of the book, and the New York marathon, oddly enough, is never described.  

Juicy tidbit: He likes to listen to Lovin' Spoonful during his daily runs.

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