Home » Arts & Life, Fiction

The Wordiness of the Long-Distance Runner

By (September 1, 2008) No Comment

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir

By Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Random House, 2008

I enjoy running. Honestly. I particularly like long slow runs along the Hudson in the early autumn, as the leaves are turning but before the weather has become bad enough to make them drop. After a two-week stretch of running, my muscles get more confident and can take me up and over hills, and I start to feel generally relaxed, happy. My runs are personal time; they’re something I do when the world starts to feel too close, when nerves start to knot up my body in weird places, when I want to give an album a serious listen, or when I just want to let my mind wander away from the various pressing practical concerns of daily life.

When I tell people I enjoy running, they ask if I’ve ever thought about training for a marathon. I think this is an easy question to answer. Do you know why a marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards long? I ask. It’s because 26 miles and 385 yards is the distance the messenger, bearing news of a Greek victory over attacking Persians, ran from Marathon to Athens. Do you know what happened when he got to Athens? I ask. The messenger dropped dead. He ran 26 miles and 385 yards and then he died.

British comedian and travesti exécutif Eddie Izzard has a similar outlook. Why run all that way to announce a victory, he wonders in his show “Circle”:

If you’ve lost, you can understand that, because the conquering army would be after you, and they’re going to take out that next city… But if you’ve won, surely you just saunter down. You don’t run. You get in a car, you get some naked people with you, you take a lot of drugs, and [say], “Hey, we fucking won!” And you live forever.

And you live forever. Not dropping dead sounds nice to me. I keep my running in the realm of personal pleasure.

The actual distance from Marathon to Athens is closer to 22 miles – but who’s counting after the first ten? I watched the athletes who ran the marathon, strong people who had trained long and hard, in the 2004 Athens Olympics; the heat was so serious that by the end of the race many of them looked as though their grasp on life was tenuous at best. I admire people who run marathons, but my mind cannot comprehend the distance. Why do people do that to themselves? Can they possibly enjoy it? How do they manage not to die?

Read Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (a title whose debt to Raymond Carver Murakami is careful to acknowledge), and, if you’re like me (and I know I am), you’ll get closer to answering that sort of question. The book offers enough of a glimpse into the mind of a relentlessly self-motivating amateur runner that you come away understanding what such a grueling experience can tell you about yourself and your own limits. Naturally there are other ways of discovering your limits, but what makes running succeed for Murakami is that it is so easy to start – and that, as he points out, he is the sort of person who “tend[s] to put on the pounds” without any physical activity.

This second reason becomes crucial for Murakami and his life as a writer. After he graduated from college, he and his wife opened a jazz club in downtown Tokyo; apparently Murakami’s friends and family were skeptical at first:

Most people I knew had predicted that the bar wouldn’t do well. They figured that an establishment run as a kind of hobby wouldn’t work out, that somebody like me, who was pretty naïve and most likely didn’t have the slightest aptitude for running a business, wouldn’t be able to make a go of it. Well, their predictions were way off.

Eventually the bar began to turn a profit, and the long hours of work kept Murakami trim and energized. He began to take stock of his life – “And pretty much out of the blue,” he declares, “I got the idea to write a novel.”

Out of the blue, indeed. If the author’s account is to be believed, he was sitting watching baseball one fine spring afternoon when the new leadoff batter for his favorite team hit the ball far out into left field. “The crack of bat meeting ball right on the sweet spot echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at that exact moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel.” Whether this is true or not is slightly beside the point; more important is that this tidy starting point is a mark of Murakami’s style as a novelist: rarely is there a lot of contingency, so things seem to happen of their own accord, and strange connections grow from nowhere.

Novel-writing: check. Now to running. Murakami quickly realized that he couldn’t maintain his two lives as club-owner and novelist, so he shut down the club. Now, however, the problem was that sitting around all day writing makes him gain weight:

If I don’t do anything I tend to put on the pounds. My wife’s the opposite, since she can eat as much as she likes…never exercise, and still not put on any weight. She has no extra fat at all. Life just isn’t fair, is how it used to strike me. Some people can work their butts off and never get wheat they’re aiming for, while others can get it without any effort at all.

It is at this point that we’re first offered a glimpse of Murakami’s philosophy, which he extends fluidly to cover both running and novel-writing. Rather than give up and complain about the inequities of metabolisms, he argues that being forced to do something to maintain his body actually works in his favor: he presumes that at the end of his life he’ll have gained a more finely-tuned set of muscles and bones, whereas the naturally thin will see their physical strength ebb. And the same goes for novel-writing, because without any inborn talent the writer must carefully train and polish his style (novel-writing, he says, “is basically a kind of manual labor”). Those subject to creative epiphanies will be in trouble when they “suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source” of talent. Life isn’t fair, but, Murakami explains, “it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness.” Running and writing are, for him, intertwined – though in the book itself, writing tends to get short shrift, which is a shame, as I for one would have liked to see what Murakami means when he refers to the “manual labor” of writing.

What I Talk About alternates mostly between a “current” (2006) period of introspection and Murakami’s recollections of his past, culled from his runner’s diary and magazine articles he’s written. The effect is that we watch Murakami preparing for the 2006 New York City Marathon while he considers his previous failures, and successes, and successes that felt like failures, and failures that in time turned out to be successes. The final chapter, written after the NYC Marathon, details his preparation for an upcoming triathlon. The author mostly wills himself to be a runner (and, apparently, a writer), and one gets the sense that he would rather have written an entire book just about running and training, but that an editor somewhere reminded him that he’d also written several novels – and because a memoir by a novelist that doesn’t mention novel-writing isn’t much of a memoir, he grudgingly added the occasional highlight from his writing career. This unbalance makes the book feel uneven, the pull between desire and duty everywhere apparent.

Chapters such as the one in which Murakami describes his journey to Athens in August of 1983 (quite a few people, he claims, wondered whether he’d gone mad) to run the reverse marathon course are vivid and well-paced. It’s easy to commiserate with Murakami when he tells us he’s pushed himself so far that even the ice-cold beer he’d been fantasizing about evaporates from his mind in the ridiculous heat, and he starts mentally cursing the photographer accompanying him in a van, the countryside, the sheep chewing grass…. He makes it to Marathon and to a cold beer, which tastes great but not as great as the one in his mind: “Nothing in the real world is as beautiful as the illusions of a person about to lose consciousness.”

Other sections of the book fall flat. Instead of heeding his own advice and doing the work to make the reader understand his process of self-discovery, Murakami becomes more concerned with “the practical question of how [he] can finish the New York City Marathon two months from now, with a halfway-decent time.” This may be interesting for marathon runners or die-hard Murakami fanatics, but for the more casual reader there’s something sluggish about these portions of the book. It’s impressive to learn how many miles Murakami has run in one month, but these sorts of details get repeated too often – the result, I think, of a series of writings connected not by temporality but by subject matter. Thus you often have the sense the book is forcing you to run in circles.

Tedious though parts may be, what saves What I Talk About from being just a runner’s diary is the author’s frankness. The book is full of unadorned, uncomplicated prose – a signature of Murakami, though the translation by Philip Gabriel is bumpy – and, though he mentions work that must be done, trips to be taken, talks given at prestigious universities, he leaves out the details of his celebrity so that readers feel that he’s running not in a separate league but in the ranks alongside them. If Murakami can write novels and run marathons, then hey! So can you and I. It’s all a process of hard work and discipline.

Which is why memoir doesn’t seem the appropriate term for this book. It reads like a sloppy-but-endearing collection of essays (and Murakami admits that he just wanted to discover his “own personal standard” in compiling the book). Instead – and curiously for both a book about one person’s ideas of running and a work by Murakami – What I Talk About feels like a self-help book. The opening dictum, to which Murakami relentlessly adheres, is the mantra of another runner: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.

What I Talk About may be worth revisiting should you need to goad yourself into accepting that a lot of life boils down to nose-to-the-grindstone work. This is a book you don’t get through so much as you endure – whether out of adoration or spite is up to you. Suffering is optional is the bolder, more blatant mantra of What I Talk About; the quieter and more enlightening mantra is Push yourself to do the very best with what you have:

I was hoping to be able to wind up this book with a powerful statement like, “Thanks to all the hard training I did, I was able to post a great time at the New York City Marathon. When I finished I was really moved,” and casually stroll off into the sunset with the theme song from Rocky blaring in the background. Until I actually ran the race I still clung to the hope that things would turn out that way, and was looking forward to this dramatic finale. That was my Plan A. A really great plan, I figured.

Plan A fails. Plan B involves triathlons, and more marathons. So there you go: take what you’ve got and keep pushing until you succeed.

The best part of What I Talk About comes when Murakami-the-runner cedes territory to Murakami-the-novelist. Paradoxically, this exchange occurs in a chapter (which appeared in a recent issue of The Guardian Weekend) about an ultramarathon Murakami ran in 1996. You know, an ultramarathon: 62 miles, or about twelve hours of running, in a single day. What, you’ve never been? (We can only wonder what Eddie Izzard would have to say about that.) It is here that Murakami gets deepest into his own psyche as he describes the experience. He gets past the first part of the race without too much trouble, reaching the sign at 26.2 miles that says “This is the distance of a marathon.” And then it all gets quite strange:

I exaggerate only a bit when I say that the moment I straddled that line a slight shiver went through me, for this was the first time I’d ever run more than a marathon. For me this was the Strait of Gibraltar, beyond which lay an unknown sea. What lay in wait beyond this, what unknown creatures were living there, I didn’t have a clue. In my own small way I felt the same fear that sailors of old must have felt.

Between the 34- and 47-mile marks Murakami’s body starts protesting – complaining, really, yelling at him in frustration – and there’s a small but significant snip of whatever binds together body and mind. “Like Danton or Robespierre eloquently attempting to persuade the dissatisfied and rebellious Revolutionary Tribunal, I tried to talk each body part into showing a little cooperation,” Murakami explains. “But if you think about it – and I did think about it – Danton and Robespierre wound up with their heads cut off.”

This sort of morbidity simply will not do if you want to get to the 62nd mile, so Murakami decides on another tactic: he repeats to himself, “I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.” In so doing he opens up a rift, the sort of chasm between a practical surface reality and the roiling of subconscious unbound, loosed from commonsense and ready to show you just how bizarre the world can be:

If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain. There definitely was a being called me right there. And accompanying that is a consciousness that is the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more. It’s a strange way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling – consciousness trying to deny consciousness. You have to force yourself into an inorganic place.

Such physical pressure can force you into a transcendental state, but that state needs someone like Murakami, so capable of drawing forth the surreal lurking in the real, to talk about it. The sense of separation between mind and body is so keen that Murakami barely knows what planet he’s on when he finishes the race: “First there came the action of running, and accompanying it there was this entity known as me. I run; therefore I am.”

Actually, reading What I Talk About was what I imagine running a marathon would be like, and I don’t always mean that in a good way. You start off enthusiastic, maybe you even sprint to put yourself in a better position, but slowly, inevitably, your energy starts to lag; maybe you get bored, maybe you get angry, maybe you get frustrated. Somewhere in this slump, when your body is crying out for rest, some miniscule (illogical) part of your mind urges you onward, demands that you keep going. How wonderful it will feel to cross the finish line! This part of your mind enthuses. You’ll be a champion! A true athlete! You listen for a while, but then you silence this voice with a numbing nothingness. Your body just chugs along; body and mind have had an amicable break-up and have nothing further to say to one another. Somewhere near the finish line, however, little threads of your former consciousness start to weave together to repair the Cartesian split. You’ve become, like it or not, a new and different person, with an altered view of the world. You take heart: the end is nigh. By the time you reach it, you’re exhausted, but you’re also lighter, and better for having gone through with the race at all. Presumably.

Lianne Habinek is a Phd candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.