Last week, I finished reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.
If I remember correctly, I scavenged it from box of someone else's old books while I was living in DC. So, seeing as it was (a) free (b) used and therefore more sustainable, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and I started off on the right foot (no pun intended!!!!).
This is the third work I’ve read by Murakami, but obviously, very different from his novels. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a memoir, so the author speaks with his own voice, because that’s the definition of a memoir. But Murakami is especially transparent: in the foreword, he admits to being hesitant about writing this book and explains his intentions, ultimately introducing us the the “book in which [he] ponder[s] various things and think[s] out loud.”
While What I Talk About When I Talk About Running may simply be 180 pages of a man’s inner dialogue, he’s certainly an especially introspective and thoughtful man. Well, that and he’s an accomplished novelist, but you know, details details.
As we learn about Murakami’s history of running, we simultaneously glimpse into his general history and more frequently, his daily thoughts. We learn that he started writing when, at age 29, “out of the blue [he] got the idea to write a novel.” Before that, he ran a jazz bar in Tokyo with his wife (who is a nameless and largely absent figure throughout the book, besides waiting at finish lines and packing snacks).
And though I certainly enjoyed the story, for me, my most significant takeaway was a renewed inspiration to get my lazy legs back to pounding the pavement.
To be honest, I feel kind of stupid describing myself as inspired. Inspiration always seemed so cheesy to me. Like photos of sunsets alongside a kitschy quote written in an italicized serif font, or public speakers who talk boldly about grabbing life by the horns, as if they’ve got it all figured out. It reminds me of those weird posters that hung from the walls in my pediatrician's office. Motivation. Dedication. Endurance. It feels too deliberate, too desperate, too forced--and not me at all. But when something stirs a strong emotion and spurs me to act, like this book, I guess that I have to admit to being inspired.
It’s not as if What I Talk About When I Talk About Running inspired me to immediately transform from couch potato to marathon runner. For one, I won’t be running a marathon anytime in the foreseeable future. But I’m also not a newbie: I have a long and winding personal history with long distance running. It’s just that recently, our relationship has been on shaky ground.
I’ve been running for 13 years, more or less. I started heading out for a daily mile in middle school, then increased my mileage as a cross-country runner in high school. In college, I’d run a loop around campus, sometimes extending my runs further into nearby Westwood. In Tel Aviv, I jogged along the beachfront after dark and eventually competed in a 10k with my running buddy and coworker. In Washington, I’d run through Rock Creek Park when the weather permitted, and hit a new peak mileage of 10 miles, a personal record that I still haven’t broken.
And then, summer 2015 came, and I moved back to California. It got hot, and I made excuses. I can’t go night running in the States, so my running hours were confined to dusk. On top of that, I tried to alter my running form to be less of a heel-striker and wound up with a stress fracture.
Since then, getting back to running has been slow. I’ll go out for a three or four mile run once or twice a week. So though I’ve been running, I’m not really a runner anymore.
But to Murakami, running isn’t just an activity. To him, runners are a community, and running is a way of life. He writes about training his muscles like animals (“muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase their load, step by step, they learn to take it."), his no-excuse policy, his overcoming of intense lethargy. And as I read about this middle aged man who logs 200 running miles per month and won’t allow himself two days of in a row, I realized that I’m kind of a wuss.
He explained his training, the hard work he puts in, the miles and races and trails. And I ate. It. Up. It was almost difficult to keep reading, because his thoughts made me feel like I should be running instead.
So, I decided to get tough on myself. I decided I’d run every morning, and I’d focus more on distance than speed.
And so far, so good. I’ve done more running in the last two weeks than in all of August combined, and I feel better with every run. I’ve still taken two days off in a row, and I highly doubt I’ll be able to run more than 100 miles in a month without breaking my body. But running is once again transitioning from a dreaded, painful necessity into an enjoyable way to start my day.