Translated by Philip Gabriel
“No matter how mundane an action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.”
In the summer of 2005, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was preparing to run the New York City Marathon, his twenty-fourth marathon since 1982. Part memoir and part training journal, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running records his efforts to get ready for the race, and reflects on how running and writing novels became intertwined forces in his life. Murakami chronicles training for two events, and also looks back at how he became a novelist and a runner in the first place.
For all that Murakami is self-deprecating about his ability as a runner, he is much more serious about it than your average weekend warrior. His regular routine includes running six miles a day, six days per week, and training for at least one marathon per year. He ran the original marathon course in Greece backwards from Athens to Marathon for a magazine article, and once participated in a 62 mile ultramarathon. After burning out on running as a result of the ultramarathon, he started training for triathlons for a change of pace, and at the time of writing was doing a marathon every winter and a triathlon in the summer.
The portrait of Murakami that emerges from this record is that of a whole-hearted person who likes to put his best effort into everything he does. After a few years as a part time novelist, writing after working a long day at the business he built from scratch, he decided to go all in and shut down his jazz club to pursue novel writing full time. His running journal records the frustrations of not being able to continue to improve his times as he comes up against his own limitations, and his marathon times begin to creep upward rather than continuing to improve because he is getting older. And though he toys with the idea of giving himself over further to the sport, and running a full Ironman triathlon, or another ultramarathon, he puts these ambitions aside because training for these events would interfere with his writing.
Writing was the driving force behind Murakami’s decision to start running, when he found that he was putting on weight as a result of sitting at his desk all day after giving up running his jazz club. The long, steady work of writing a novel parallels the steady, measured pace of a practiced long-distance runner. Both can be lonely undertakings that require focus and endurance. Both draw on a similar kind of discipline, the ability to do the work even when you don’t really feel like it. The references to writing, and its relationship to running slip away in the last couple chapters of the book as Murakami recounts preparing for his first triathlon in several years in the summer of 2006. Murakami is honest about his failures to meet his running goals, but the discussion of the triathlon training is still more personal, as he tries to overcome the panic attacks he sometimes suffers from at the beginning of the swimming portion of a race.
Murakami’s account is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in that he fully acknowledges that he is chronicling what has worked for him, without necessarily recommending it for others. What is striking is the dedication with which he has shaped his day-to-day life so that it furthers his craft. Recommended for writers, runners, and fans of Murakami, and especially anyone who is some combination of the three, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a fascinating glimpse into the history and psyche of a popular writer refracted through the lens of sport.
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