There are surely more famous runners than Haruki Murakami, but I (Ben) can’t think of a more famous writer-runner. (Dean Karnazes, while an author, has yet to write anything as complex as a surreal, kaleidoscopic, six-hundred-twenty-four page novel about modern Japan.) The irony of Haruki Murakami, the runner, is that so far as serious, marathon-running athletes go, he is average at best. As a writer, he is fantastic, and virtually self-made. He wrote his first novel (Hear The Wind Sing) late in his twenties when he still owned a jazz bar. The experience of how he came to be a runner — which is also intricately woven into the experience of how he became a writer — is the subject of his new memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
I wonder who exactly is the target audience for this book. Hardcore runners will note that Murakami’s credentials include the New York City and Boston marathons, as well as a sixty-two-mile ultramarathon at Lake Saroma in Hokkaido, Japan, but likely feel superior when they see his finish times. Aspiring writers or connoisseurs of fine literature, on the other hand, will read about Murakami logging two-hundred-seventeen miles a month and wonder who exactly would choose to do this to his own body. But if you happen to be both a runner and writer, even casual ones, Murakami’s book is right up your alley.
Murakami began running after he closed his bar and decided to try writing full-time. He was thirty-three years old at the time. Because he was no longer on his feet all day, Murakami started putting on weight. The fact he was smoking sixty cigarettes a day didn’t help. So, gradually, he began running as his primary way of staying in shape. He ran a 5K, then a 15K, then a marathon. He wasn’t a natural, but over time he developed “a runner’s form.” In the same way he trained himself to run, Murakami learned how to write:
Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? … To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.
Murakami’s creed of running basically boils down to this: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This is not that far off from Karnazes, who says, “There is magic in misery.” Runners are clearly well-acquainted with pain; Murakami peppers his book with sentences like, “At around twenty-three miles I start to hate everything,” and “This is the point where my legs start to scream.” Describing miles thirty-four through forty-seven of his ultramarathon, Murakami writes, “I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder.”
What makes you do it?, the polite non-runner asks. (The impolite one simply says, You are psychotic.) I can answer only as someone who has adopted running as a hobby and has yet to brave anything longer than a half-marathon. But here goes:
Running is an intensely self-centered exercise. Not only are you usually solitary, alone with your thoughts and the increasing physical pain, but you are also competing against yourself. “We don’t really care whether we beat any other particular runner,” Murakami says. “Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat.”
What are my own credentials? They are middling at best. I was a bicyclist growing up, something my knees still thank me for today. I ran very casually in college, then with more regularity out of college. But it wasn’t until recently that I decided, for reasons I still can’t pinpoint, that I wanted to be a runner.
I run about three hundred miles a year. If this sounds like an impressive number to you, you are not a runner. A serious runner will look at that number and think, Three hundred? Why even bother? Consider that even a casual runner, running just five miles three times a week, would accumulate seven-hundred-eighty miles a year. That’s significantly more than three hundred. And that’s a casual runner. (Murakami’s standard for “serious running” is thirty-six miles per week, or about 156 miles a month. I’m lucky to cover his weekly distance in a month’s time.)
So why do I bother? There are a few reasons. One, three hundred is more than zero. Two, I have enjoyed running in the Music City Half Marathon for the past five years. Three, I’m past thirty and my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Running and basketball once a week keep me about where I’d like to be, physically speaking. Four, I’m a healthier person when I run. Certain things inside me balance and settle. If I haven’t run in a while, I get twitchy and grumpy. Finally, maybe most significantly, I’ve discovered a pleasure in running that, even just five years ago, would have struck me as absolutely perverse.
The point, then, isn’t the number three hundred. That’s just my number, and one day, hopefully, it will be much higher. (The optimist in me notes that I’m ahead of Murakami when he was my age, although time is running out.) Your number might be 780, or one thousand, or even two thousand. Or it could be two hundred, or fifty, or two miles and back. The point is, like homework or prayer, what running makes you become. It trains you in matters of mind and spirit to be more resilient. It extends your boundaries of endurance and capacity for pain. It gets you free t-shirts and chintzy medals when you summon up the courage to run, and finish, a race. For Murakami, and for those of us who would be ecstatic to replicate even a fraction of his literary success, running helped make him a writer.
When Murakami ran the ultramarathon in Hokkaido, there was a sign at 26.2 miles that said, “This is the distance of a marathon.” “This was the first time I’d ever run more than a marathon,” Murakami writes. “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.” Perhaps someone who has the physical stamina to outrun Murakami will come along to document, with the same emotional precision, what exactly lies beyond even Murakami’s vision. But I doubt it. Until then, I’ll do what Murakami and even the great Karnazes do: put one foot in front of the other, and see what I learn along the way.