Sometime last year, the San Francisco Road Runners Club started a book club. Though I missed a couple of the early meetups, I got in for the first book chosen for this year (Meb Keflezighi’s 26 Marathons). Happily, I also got in for the second: Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
Since I was the 3rd person (of 14) who joined the call, the host, Aude, asked me to share my reactions early. They were:
- First, I didn’t get Murakami’s obsession with not walking — especially during his 100K ultramarathon. I’ve now finished 2 50-mile trail races, 1 102K race, and 1 100K+ FKT. It was virtually a given that walking would be part of the experience. But in the book, Murakami goes as far to say that he’d engrave “he never walked” on his tombstone. I added, by the way, that now that I’ve read his 100K race report, I have to go check out the course and race that he ran; it’s now on my bucket list! Update (5/14): Murakami ran the Lake Saroma Ultra, which is, by ultra standards, flat as a pancake.
- Second, I was struck by the fact that, if I hadn’t known that the author was Murakami, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. It’s true, the collection of essays in this book are exceptionally well-written, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. But I’ve also read (and written) a variety of race reports and run experiences. While, again, the quality of Murakami’s reports (and some chapters are literally race reports) is high, I couldn’t quite make out elements of disorienting fiction, and mysticism, that often permeates his writing. (I’m sure some readers would be disappointed.)
- Finally, I reminded the room that Murakami started running at a relatively late age (33) and that this book was written in his 50’s. If there’re any discernible trajectories in this book, an obvious one is how Murakami ages and matures — both in his running, writing, and mindset toward both. In short, he becomes more accepting of the fact that he becomes slower as he ages, and that life is what it is. This is a fact that any and all endurance athletes can relate with. In particular, he mentions how he couldn’t have imagined what it’d be like being 50, when he was in his 30’s. I’m 30 now. Reading his memoir felt a bit like traveling into the future (and looking back at where I am now.)
Of course, I have a lot more reactions. These are my top three. Interestingly, while others shared similar reactions (such as his stance on walking — and perhaps that being a cultural indicator of machismo), there was also a wider diversity of reactions than I had expected (I write about this in my journal entry from that day).
One interesting discussion I’d include here: the fact that I push myself by going farther, while others push themselves by going faster. This discussion was motivated by Murakami’s foray into ultra-marathoning. In the book, Murakami undergoes a transcendental experience by pushing himself to the edge. From my own ultramarathon experiences, I could absolutely identify with every word he said.
But after he was done, he suffers what he calls “the runner’s blues.” He feels like he’s peaked, and he sinks into a bit of a depression. I understand. But for me, I still feel that I can keep pushing my boundaries. Like Scott Jurek, in his book North. (He says that 100-mile races don’t “do it” for him anymore, and that his need for a bigger and longer run as part of his motivation to run the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in record time.)
After I explained this, another runner (who I highly respect) in the group pushed back. “As many of you know, I’m anti-marathon,” he started. Instead, his focus is on shorter road races up to the half-marathon. Instead of being satisfied with running one marathon a year at roughly the same pace like Murakami, his form of transcendentalism comes from chasing an ever faster time…
Anyway, with that, here’re some quotes that stood out to me:
Some background: I often take notes while reading. But I usually only do so for nonfiction or reference books (I guess memoirs qualify?). After some 18 pages, though, it occurred to me that there were some surprises and takeaways that I wanted to remember from this book.
pg. 18. “Back then I was smoking sixty cigarettes a day.“ Murakami later says “quitting smoking was like a symbolic gesture of farewell to the life I used to live.” Out of all the runners I know (and I know hundreds), I’m aware of maybe 1-2 that used to smoke. Perhaps this is simply an artifact of a lower smoking rate among my geography and age cohort vs. Murakami’s (i.e. older Japanese men). But I was honestly shocked to read this.
pg. 20. “If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive.” I think this is a good rule of thumb for consumer businesses, especially in retail and food services. Since I’ve never been in either, I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this sentence.
pg. 21. “I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t been sick once.” OK, this is just superhuman. I’m not quite sure I believe this since Murakami’s writing this as a reflection on decades of running, with respectable results. But I guess it is possible; I definitely know a few people who’ve never been injured (and usually I’d tell them they’re either doing a great job being a well-rounded athlete, or jokingly, that they’re not training). I don’t know anyone who’s never been sick, though! (Later in the book, he does mention at least one reason he couldn’t start because he was sick, so I dunno. He does say in the afterword that each chapter was essentially written as separate essays.)
pg. 31. “three dogs and eleven cats.” This is the count of dogs and cats run over (or flattened “like some misshapen pizza”) that Murakami observes while running his own, personal marathon (which also turns out to be first!) from Athens to Marathon. Thoughts: Running the “original Marathon” route is pretty cool. Doing it in reverse… eh. Kinda cool, not sure if I’d do it that way. Another thought: all that roadkill — sad. But not unexpected, I guess. I saw lots of roadkill (but not of the dogs and cat variety) when I was cycling in New Zealand.
pg. 33. “no matter how much experience I have under my belt, no matter how old I get, it’s all just a repeat of what came before.” Amusingly, Murakami puts a few different twists on this later in the book (i.e. it’s not all repeats). Just on this quote, though — I think this is a thought that occurs to pretty much all endurance athletes (or maybe all athletes… or maybe just everyone?). I mean, everything does get repeated, and there is kind of a cyclical nature to everything… and perhaps especially to a sport where there’s essentially just one motion: one foot in front of the other. Maybe motions, if you count each foot. That said, despite the obviousness, I can absolutely relate. Every time I’m two or so hours into a marathon, I always think to myself: “wow, this never gets any easier.” Every time I step out the door for another run, I think: Here we go again!
pg. 35. “If I used being busy as an excuse not the run, I’d never run again.” Amen.
pg. 36. “Even if the skill level varies, there are things that only runners understand and share.” There’s definitely a world that you enter the more you run, and the more races you race. I’m reminded of my first marathon, in Vienna. Almost everyone on the train there spoke a language other than in English. There were Austrians, and visitors from nearby Germany, speaking German. There was French, there was Spanish. But we all wore the same thing: a race bib. As I got off the train, I looked across the train and made eye contact with another runner. We didn’t say a word to each other, but in that moment, the words “Good luck!” registered in my mind. To me, that’s the kind of understanding that Murakami’s referencing. It’s real.
pg. 36. “When people pass away, do their thoughts just vanish?”
pg. 37-38. “Talent. Focus. Endurance. Patience.” These are the qualities that Murakami highlight as important to have as a novelist. He draws a comparison with running. He makes good points and I agree with them all. Still, I’d like to add one more, that Joan Benoit Samuelson mentioned during her call with the San Francisco Road Runners Club a couple weeks ago: passion. (Actually, she highlighted “passion and patience” as the two most important qualities of a successful runner.)
pg. 38. “Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor.“
pg. 39. “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.“
pg. 39. “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 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 well.” I don’t think this could be said any better. I get asked “but why?” by non-runners all the time. There’s a certain respect, but there’s also a certain wonder what the point to all the suffering is. I’m often tempted to retort: without a routine, without goals, without that trying to find what you’re made of — what’s the point of doing anything then?
pg. 41. “As you age you learn even to be happy with what you have.” At some point in the book, Murakami mentions that when he was 30, being 50 was inconceivable. As I write this, I’m in the shoes of someone who’s 30. Murakami’s right. That said, I’m already feeling the effect of age, and that sense of gratitude that Murakami references.
pg. 46. “My idea of literature is something more spontaneous, more cohesive, something with a kind of natural, positive vitality. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t one or the other.” I think of all of my big, long projects in similar terms. It’s a struggle, but it’s a joyous one. Type 2 fun, some might say. The best projects are the ones that challenge my limits, and ultimately stretch who I am as a person.
pg. 52. “I never walked.” Murakami really never walked during his first 100K? I’m not quite sure if I believe that. Even if the course was completely flat, it’s still hard to run for 11 hours and 45 minutes straight — Murakami’s finishing time. Now that I’ve run 2 50-milers and 2 100K’s, I know all too well how important walking, at least some of the course, is, especially when going up. Another superhuman feat by Murakami, I suppose! 🙂
pg. 53. “First there came the action of running, and accompanying it there was this entity known as me. I run; therefore I am.” Deep.
pg. 54. “The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” Often people ask me what I think about when I’m running. This is the kind of thing I might think about only when I’m running — especially in the late stages of an ultramarathon. I mean, this is meaning of life shit.
pg. 55. “Practice and racing became nothing more than formalities I went through, and they didn’t move me the way they used to.” Ha. Running is absolutely a drug, and Murakami’s talking about withdrawal symptoms from overdosing. After my own ultramarathons, I’ve definitely felt similar sentiments, but perhaps not as deeply as Murakami did after his. There’s still a mysticism and mysteriousness to the ultra distance that I haven’t quite captured, though it’s true that road marathons give me less of the adrenaline rush as they used to. I know that one day, I might suffer the “runner’s blues,” as Murakami calls it, as badly as he does. I just hope it doesn’t come soon, or last as long.
pg. 57. “There weren’t many minority runners.” Even though I’ve read a couple of Murakami’s books before, I had no idea he lived in the US for such a long time. So the mere fact that so many scenes in this memoir were set in the US was a surprise to me! That said, interestingly, this is the first time Murakami explicitly calls out race, in a running context. He observes that most runners near him are “mainly Caucasians, especially a lot of women.” He doesn’t elaborate on this further, but the fact that he mentions his means that he notices.
My experience is similar as well. Even in the comparatively diverse San Francisco Bay Area, most of my fellow runners are white, especially in the East Bay. There’re definitely more runners of Asian descent in San Francisco (and younger, overall, too), but in the end, when I look at people running by, or faces at the start line, running is a very white sport.
pg. 65. “Once you have a scary incident like that, you really take it to heart.” After suffering the “runner’s blues,” Murakami tackles triathlon. Unlike most triathletes, Murakami is strongest at running and swimming (usually it’s running and cycling). Anyway, as he’s training on his bike, he suffers an accident… and he’s traumatized. Personally, I’m also a noob at biking, so I can TOTALLY relate. Riding after my first big crash coming down on Claremont Avenue has just not been the same.
pg. 65. “Long runs done to prepare for marathons are definitely lonely, but hanging on to the handlebars of a bike all by yourself and pedaling on and on is a much more solitary undertaking.” Yup.
pg. 68. “Until the feeling that I’ve done a good job in a race returns, I’m going to keep running marathons, and not let it get me down.” After every race, I almost always think I could’ve done better. Races that I’ve been satisfied with are few and far in-between. For better or for worse, one thing is for sure, as I grow older, that sweet satisfaction will probably grow increasingly rare. There’s a part of me that refuses to believe that I’m getting slower; unless I set another personal record, there’ll always be a memory of me hammering a course or distance better. I already get this feeling after 3 years of running; I almost can’t imagine what it’s like after 20, like Murakami.
pg. 68. “What I mean is, I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to…“
pg. 68. “What I should be looking at is inside of me (emphasis is Murakami’s). Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature.“
pg. 70. “And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.“
pg. 75. “The world, with tits commonsensical viewpoint, thinks their lifestyle is peculiar.“
pg. 78. “Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains.” This is hands-down one of the best analogies I’ve seen for running.
pg. 78. “I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end, I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it.” I feel that we’re all chasing this feeling of safety, of contentment, of satisfaction. It’s ever so fleeting, and this feeling, and the source(s) of this feeling, is different for everyone. For me, and evidently for Murakami, running is one such source. Every time I catch a glimpse of that feeling, I am incrementally fulfilled. Like Murakami, I hope that one day, I’ll reach a state of complete fulfillment.
- 2005 Runner’s World interview with Haruki Murakami
- “The most important qualities to be a fiction writer are probably imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus. But in order to maintain these qualities in a high and constant level, you must never neglect to keep up your physical strength.”
- “Without a solid base of physical strength, you can’t accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. That’s my belief. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now.“