Anant Jain

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Book Review

I had heard of Haruki Murakami before — I mean, who hasn’t? I’m not a big fiction reader myself, but Murakami is a massive force in the literary world: one of his recent novel’s, 1Q84’s, first printing sold out on the day it was released and sales crossed a million within a month.

After a friend mentioned that Murakami has written a nonfiction book on running, I just had to read it right away! What I Talk About When I Talk About Running lived up to every bit of expectation I ever had from the book. Turns out, in addition to being a very successful novelist, Murakami has also been running about two marathons a year for all of his adult life.

The book is a beautiful memoir of Murakami’s four-month preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon, with stories from his past sprinkled in. As you may have guessed from the title of the book, he tries to give his best shot to describe what running means to runners. I don’t think I’ll ever find better descriptions of a first marathon, a triathlon, or an ultra-marathon than what Murakami recounts in this book. Here are a few excerpts:

Let’s start with something light. Murakami’s description of the cycle of seasons in New England, and specifically of the Fall in Boston as he trained along the Charles River is pretty remarkable. I believe he can write about anything in the world and it will turn out to be absolutely great. For instance, this excerpt starts about swinging ponytails that every runner has followed at some point, but ends up about being excessive Harvard hubris.

This is the kind of writing that inspires you to write!

On pain:

“Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? 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 action itself.”

On why runners run:

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary — or perhaps more like mediocre — level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

I also learnt from this book that Marathon is a city in Greece. Yes, I didn’t know that! Athens to Marathon is about 26 miles — it’s the original Marathon route! Murakami ran it all by himself on a hot summer day for a magazine feature, and this is him describing the last few miles of the run:

“I look up at the sky, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don’t. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn’t be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative often self-centered nature that still doubts itself — that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation.”

“The most important thing we learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school.”

“Everything I know about writing, I’ve learned from running.”

Running is something I can do fairly okay. No, I can’t run 6-minute miles or qualify for the Boston Marathon (at least not yet!), but I can go for a 15-mile run on a whim. Murakami beautifully connected running and writing — the two things close to me that I want to get better at.

I ended up hearing this book over a few back-to-back 6-mile runs. It’s made me resolve to give running more time and energy next year, and qualify and run Boston Marathon while I’m still in my 20’s.

This is #41 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.

“The only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”