What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

I can hardly call myself a competitive runner.  But I do run, and I give it my best.  So I humbly use the title “Runner” to describe myself these days.  When I first started running, I was forty-five pounds heavier, emotionally insecure, and mentally drained.  It was a particularly low point in my life.  I was stuck in a serious rut, to say the least, and I had to get out.  But at that very difficult point in my life, after much hardship, I needed to accomplish something.  And before I could accomplish that something, I had to figure out what that something was: I had to set a goal – something I hadn’t done in a very long time.  Out of the blue one day, I decided I would go to the track after work and see if I could run at all.  I’d heard about “runner’s high” and heard friends of mine who run describe how great it feels.  So on a whim, I made this my goal.  I was going to start running.  And I was going to lose some weight doing it.  And I was going to run a 5K.

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Skip ahead six months.  Lo and behold, I actually stuck with running.  With each day, with each trip out to the track or the park, I found a renewed sense of accomplishment.  Weight started to drop off me, and I could run the 3.1 miles without stopping.  So I signed up for that 5K.  And I began to heal emotionally and gain strength mentally.

And I’ve always been an avid reader, but I typically read books, especially fiction.  But I found myself reading magazines like Health and Women’s Running.  And I found that I enjoyed them and found them helpful.  I’d catch myself Googling things like “good runner’s form” or “good breakfasts for runners” and so on.  And one day on Amazon.com (…doesn’t everybody love Amazon?), I ran across a cool-looking book in my recommendations.  It was called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.  When I read the description, I knew I had to read it – the story of a successful writer who’s also a runner.

Ok, so Murakami is a marathoner.  I am not.  (Huge understatement…)  He’s also published many successful novels.  I have not.  But I do share his passion for both writing and running.  This book describes how the two intertwine in his life and how each supports the other.  With such specific subject matter, it’s not for absolutely everybody, so I’ll limit my discussion to the ways I relate to Murakami’s described experiences (which is usually the best part of reading, no?) And besides, the overall general message of hard work and success certainly can apply to everybody.

I was taken aback at how many similarities I found between Murakami’s attitude and my own.  The most strikingly memorable for me was Murakami’s description of how it felt to run his first race.  I had to stop and take a breath – I thought, Ok, this is crazy!  That’s exactly what I felt that day in Oxford at my 5K!  Murakami says, “…I participated for the first time in my life in a road race.  It wasn’t very long – a 5K – but for the first time I had a number pinned to me, was in a large group of other runners, and heard the official shout out, ‘On your mark, get set, go!’  Afterward I thought, Hey, that wasn’t so bad!”  I remember noticing those very things – wearing a numbered bib, the other people surrounding me who were there for the same purpose, hearing the shout to start the race…  And I treasure the thought of those things.  I relish the thought of the adrenaline-fueled excitement that I just gave into and swam in.  And when I finished, actually crossed the finish line, and heard my name called, I was officially addicted to races.  No, I didn’t finish with a great time.  I was pretty low in the ranks.  But I wasn’t dead last.  And I didn’t walk it – I ran.  And that feeling of finishing was all I needed to keep me coming back for more.

Bib from my first race.

Bib from my first race.

Not great results.  Unless a few months ago, you were a couch potato who couldn't even run a minute.

Not great results. Unless a few months ago, you were a couch potato who couldn’t even run a minute.

Another striking similarity I found between Murakami and myself is the way that we began both writing and running: on a whim.  As he sat leisurely watching a baseball game, Murakami thought to himself that he could write a novel.  And that was it.  He started writing.  He sent a story to a publisher, it was well received, and the rest is history.  His running began similarly: when he started writing, he realized that he needed to do something to stay active and keep his weight down.  And he simply started running.  And it became a habit.  I can relate to both: when I was twelve, I just decided out of the blue that I’d write a poem.  It was rubbish.  But I didn’t stop.  I wrote poem after poem, stories, and essays.  Most of it, still rubbish.  And even now, fifteen years later, I’m still producing a lot of written rubbish.  But not quite so bad as it once was.  And I’m producing some non-rubbish, too.  Which is a good thing, yes?  And running, the same: at that low point in my life that I described above, I needed something to accomplish, and I needed a way to get healthier.  I thought, “Hey, running can do both of those things.  And I keep hearing from people I know saying how much they love it.”  So I just started running after work that one day, and I haven’t stopped.

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Forgive my boldness in posting this one… But here it is. Six months can make a big difference – in attitude and in physical health.

Lastly, I was especially moved with Murakami’s description of a particular part of his personality – one that I share with him and very well understand: an affinity for solitude and the ironic loneliness that can creep in as a result.  Introversion is not necessarily popular in our loud, in-your-face, American culture (Murakami is Japanese), although it is becoming more well understood and accepted.  But I find very few people who are as introverted as myself, and even fewer who can so fully describe the feeling as Murakami has.  He says, “…I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone….  I’ve had this tendency since I was young….  Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart….  You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword.  It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside.”  After I read this particular passage, I had to put the book aside, take a deep breath, and wipe a tear away.  Murakami had just put into words something that I’d always felt but for which I’d never had words.  He preferred reading alone to spending time with others when he was a child.  He spends time in solitude to run and to write.  He understands the loneliness that can throw itself violently into unexpected moments.  Things I understand.  He says that in his years of young adulthood, he had to teach himself to be sociable; it didn’t come naturally.  Yes, Mr. Murakami, me too.  And he goes on to say that without these experiences (and the propensity to work alone for hours at a time), he could never have written novels.  While I’m not the accomplished published writer he is, I share that belief for myself too.  I could never write the things I do without having experienced the joy and pain of the tendencies of the introvert.  I too relish the solitude of running, like Murakami: “The desire in me to be alone has not changed.  Which is why the hour or so I spend running, maintaining my own silent, private time, is important to help me keep my mental well-being.  When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and I don’t have to listen to anybody.  All I need to do is gaze at the scenery passing by.  This is a part of my day I can’t do without.”

I don’t mean to sound completely antisocial; I do like people, and I have some wonderful friends.  But that inclination toward solitude is strong, and it has caused some stress on certain friendships.  I also don’t mean to sound as if I am equating myself or my experiences to Murakami’s.  On the contrary, as evidenced by my humble discourse here and my slow 5K times, I find myself to be far less accomplished on our two common goals – running and writing – but like Murakami, I am not stopping.  I’m pursuing my goals that started as just whims.  My 5K times are still not great, but they’re improving.  And I’m training for a 10K.  And I’m writing something, in some capacity, every day.  I’m not sure that Murakami set out to write a specifically inspiring story.  And it deserves a better word; calling myself a writer, I should come up with a better one.  But “inspiring” is exactly what it is.  No, it’s not the “feel-good, hold-hands-and-sing, flowers-and-smiles, tell-Oprah-all-about-it” kind of inspiring.  But rather, it’s a solid support of so many things that I believe.  It’s an honest and affirming kind of inspiring, like a strong hand unexpectedly landing on your back and shoving you forward when you start to fall backward.  And most inspiring of all is the thought that I have so much in common with a great writer and runner.  And if that’s the case, I must be doing something right.  I recall that thought I had at the end of my first 5K – I didn’t come in dead last.  I finished.  And I ran it.  I was slow.  But I ran.  Murakami stresses the importance of this point throughout the book – maybe he doesn’t win them all, maybe he struggles sometimes, maybe he slows as he gets older.  But he always runs.  I especially like how he suggests his own gravestone should read someday:

Writer (and Runner)

At least He Never Walked

 

 

Total pages: 180

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4 thoughts on “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

  1. First of all, congratulations on your 5K! I think it’s always a big deal to go from a non-runner to a runner.

    I’ve been recommended this book before. Still haven’t read it, but maybe now is a good time. The connections you wrote about, between running and writing, I’ve felt them myself. In practical terms, running taught me goal setting and incremental progress.

    But more importantly, running taught me that I can really, totally, suck horribly at it and still love it. And, over time, sticking with it transforms me into something different, and also makes me better at it. But, by then, being good at running is only half the point. The other half simply the joy and gratitude of running (and writing) in and of itself.

    • bethanycheatwood says:

      Thank you! And I could not have said it better: I perfectly understand everything you’ve said, and I’m so glad someone else gets it. Both writing and running transform me, and I can suck at both but love them both and improve. Thank you for your insight. Keep it up, and thanks for reading!

  2. murakamicooking says:

    Congratulations on running the 5k and on running full stop! I actually read this book a good few years ago now but I was really impressed by Murakami’s determination and also his honesty. I started running last year, and while I’m not great, I’m still better than I ever was when I was sitting on the couch doubting myself 😉

    If you like Murakami, I’ve started a blog where I cook his recipes (it’s called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Cooking” which is actually how I found your blog!) If you’re interested you should check it out.

    Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • bethanycheatwood says:

      Wow, that’s great! I know the feeling you described – yes, it’s much better to run slowly than not run at all, sitting on the couch…
      I will check out your blog. Thanks for sharing! I’ve become interested in cooking recently, too, so that sounds great. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

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