Am I training hard enough? Am I ready for this race? How is old age affecting me? Is it normal to have the jitters before the start of a marathon? Questions probably every trail runner asks herself/himself. But how do we know that, if we never talk about it? After all, running is a lonesome sport. Luckily Haruki Murakami wrote What I talk about when I talk about running; his running memoir.
Well, not just his running memoir. As he says it himself in his afterword: ‘I see this book as a kind of memoir. Not something as grand as a personal history, but calling it an essay collection is a bit forced. … Through the act of writing I wanted to sort out what kind of life I’ve led, both as a novelist and as an ordinary person, over these past twenty-five years. … There was the hope that writing this book would allow me to discover my own personal standard.’
It’s that search that gives us a glimpse of the uncertainties Murakami is struggling with. Both as a runner and as a writer. ‘I’d rather not talk about this – I’d much prefer to hide it away in the back of the closet – but last time I ran a full marathon it was awful. … What I felt much more than the cold was wounded pride, and how pitiful I looked tottering down a marathon course. … I’m happy I haven’t stopped running all these years. The reason is, I like the novels I’ve written. … Since I’m a writer with limits – an imperfect person living an imperfect limited life – the fact that I can still feel this way is a real accomplishment. … And if running every day helps me accomplish this, then I’m grateful to running.’
Runner and writer
The book is a collection of contemplations of Murakami, with running as the common thread, because he is as much a runner as a writer. ‘Since I arrived in Hawaii I’ve run about an hour every day, six days a week. … I started running in the fall of 1982 and have been running since then for nearly twenty-three years. Over this period I’ve jogged almost every day, run in at least one marathon every year and participated in more long-distance races around the world than I care to count.’
Running and writing have almost always gone hand in hand for Murakami. In fact, he started to run, because of the start of his career as a novelist: ‘A problem arose, though, with my decision to become a professional writer; the question of how to keep physically fit. I tend to gain weight if I don’t do anything. … If I wanted to have a long life as a novelist, I needed to find a way to keep fit and maintain a healthy weight.’
It’s the long hours alone, as a writer and runner that makes Murakami happy. Not the competition between runners: ‘Competing against other people, whether in daily life or in my field of work, is just not the sort of lifestyle I’m after. … Marathon runners will understand what I mean. We don’t really care whether we beat any other particular runner. … The point is whether or not I’ve improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.‘
It is these contemplations that make the book interesting. It’s almost as if Murakami helps us to look into the mirror by looking into the mirror himself. Why do we run? Why do we go out in sunshine and rain day after day? What is it that running gives us? Questions we sometimes forget to ask ourselves, as running has become a habit, but by asking them, running becomes this beautiful passion again.
Well at least, it is for Murakami. Although he truly understands it is his passion, and doesn’t have to be everybody’s passion: ‘Likewise, a person doesn’t become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they’re meant to. Still, some might read this book and say, “Hey I’m going to give running a try”, and then discover they enjoy it. And of course that would be a beautiful thing. As the author of this book, I would be very pleased if that happened.’