Home > On Running > What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

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


Haruki02The plodding title of Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running telegraphs the content; Murakami treads along the pages at the measured clip of a mid-pack runner. Two quick sentences in the forward appear like staccato marks accenting a jaunty note: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” There it is—the plot laid bare. For the remaining pages Murakami’s prose slows to a meandering pace as he runs the streets of Athens, Tokyo, and New York,  musing on the meaning of  life.

This is no ordinary running guide or how-to book; Murakami’s memoir is a series of “life lessons” delivered with the same precision as he lives—“more like a workhorse than a racehorse.”  Downplaying his writing talents, Murakami attributes two qualities to his success: focus and endurance–his gouge and chisel for carving out a writer’s life amid the malaise of a chaotic world.  

A poster of Steve Prefontaine hangs behind the register at a local running store in town. Above the legend’s photo his words embolden patrons:  “To give anything less than the best is to sacrifice the gift”   Murakami echos the running hero’s sentiment: “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: That’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.” 

On the surface Murakami’s words sound like something from a Knute Rockne biopic.  Beneath his trite inspiration are strains of a more imploring message: in a long-distance run it is not enough to simply brace for pain.  You must train for its inevitable arrival–somewhere around mile twenty if memory of my one marathon experience serves me correctly–and the very act of training, of pushing your body to its limits, is where you’ll find meaning.  Murakami puts it this way:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive–or at least a partial sense of it.  Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an  awareness of the fluidity within action itself.

Couch happy Murakami fans may not be inspired to lace up a pair of Nike’s after reading that passage and for good reason.  Who wants to hurt? But pain and suffering are different animals, says Murakami–the former does not presuppose the latter.  In fact, it may even guard against it.

It’s well-documented that the work of writers and artists requires toiling in “toxic” places, says Murakami.  They live an interior life of the mind inertly examining the banality of human existence, seeking out the truth of our being.  Marathon training gives Murakami the emotional energy for handling the strain of  the writer’s task.  Time out on the road seems to strengthen his capacity for nurturing his craft.  His continued success as a novelist is perhaps proof that the effort is paying off.

 © Shelly Roberts and Rekindledreader.com, 2009.

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