In Praise of the Running Novelist

I’ve just finished re-reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008). The first time I read the book it was as a fan of Murakami’s work, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve gone back through it as someone who is in training for their first marathon. It’s an odd book: a mix of autobiography, a kind of sports reportage, a little travel writing, and a healthy dose of something akin to philosophy. Murakami isn’t the kind of writer to present athletics in technicolour, super-sized with pomp and meaning; as with his fiction, he’s wonderful on the details: the rituals, the toll on the body, the workings of the mind during prolonged physical activity.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. Human beings’ emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.

These are my favourite passages of the book, when Murakami meditates on what running has meant to him — what it has taught him. Murakami is a pretty strong and highly experienced runner, whereas I am currently that most dangerous of things: an advanced beginner. I have no aspirations to match the times or distances that he outlines in the book, but I do find much of Murakami’s psychological approach admirable.

When I’m criticised unjustly (from my point of view, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little father than usual is that I become that much stronger. If I’m angry, I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself.

Here Murakami gets close to something I have also found, expressing it more eloquently than I could. To be engaged in something as simple as running, and yet to be confronted by this simple act with concrete proof of your limitations, is humbling. In a very concrete way you are presented with evidence of your mortality, your relative weakness, and you learn something about yourself that feels solid and true.

Writing from decades of experience as both a long-distance runner and the author of multiple lengthy novels, Murakami’s notes on concentrated effort and stamina have a ring of universality to them. As in his fiction it often seems that the simple object of his description is also being treated allegorically. This certainly makes the book worthy of re-reading, and I’m pleased to have been able to take from my second time through what I hope can be lessons, or at least aids the next time I lace up my shoes.

[Running] should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result your view of your life, its colors and shape, should be transformed.