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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I’ve recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s book on running. Murakami is so brilliant that even if he were to describe how to fix a fridge, you wouldn’t be able to leave the book to rest. One section of the book is about his one-man run from Athens to Marathon, when he attempted to complete the original Marathon race. He was only followed by a van with a photographer in it, charged with the task to take pictures, to be used in the article that Murakami was to write afterwards.

Murakami describes how he miscalculated how hot the Mediterranean summer can get. One image in particular was very familiar to me, having experienced it during the initial training of my mandatory army service back in July 2005. Murakami describes how his sweat became white, covering his shirt with salt stains. I remember feeling the same sort of surprise when we were forced to exercise in midday during the military training. It was then that one of my peers was rushed to the hospital after having gone into a shock from being forced to exercise in 40 °C (104 °F). It was not a coincidence that shortly afterwards the army issued an order that prohibited forced training during the middle of the day. I distinctly remember that no matter how much water I drank, I didn’t need to use the toilet, since every excess liquid in my body was released through my sweat glands, covering the military uniform in white stains. I suppressed most memories from back then but every once in a while such images keep coming back.

Another image that I found particularly graphic, was his description of the locals that he met during his training. He describes how they were sitting in coffeeshops sipping coffee from tiny cups and wondering why on earth would someone run in such a hot weather. I can picture the surprise of the locals watching an oriental man running followed by a van.

The book is very interesting and goes much beyond running. It’s full of images, metaphors and allegories — all things you would expect from Murakami, and is definitely worth a read, especially if you are, like me, new to running and looking for motivation to keep going.

Here are some representative excerpts from the book:

On running as a metaphor

“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.”

On running every day

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree”

On the solitude of running

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.”

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  1. Great post! Murakami is a talented writer and I’m a huge fan of his fiction work, but this book really stands out for me.

    Something I recall pretty much every time I plan a run is his interview with an Olympic runner. He asks him ‘Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather sleep in?’ And the reply, ‘in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, ‘Of course. All the time!””