What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Runners Book Club)

When I discussed Born to Run last week there was no shortage of topics to talk about. There was bare foot running, mentality, diet, travel, everything and anything which you can imagine surrounding the running world because although the book was very much about one writers journey, in the grander scheme of things it was tackling the broader questions of how and why we run.

Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I suppose, is about those questions too, but on the whole it is a far more personal affair. It is part memoir, part training diary, part essay extoling the benefits of running.

Murakami’s relationship with running began when he sold his jazz bar in the 80’s and pursued a life as a novelist. He saw the life of a novelist as necessarily unhealthy (something he says is echoed in Japanese culture) and figured that he could counteract that sedentary, introverted life by lacing up a pair of running shoes and hitting the pavement.

Over the course of the book Murakami charts and recalls his running journey from those first, early days all the way through to the 2005 New York Marathon.

Weirdly, this is the first Murakami book that I’ve read. I suppose most readers who come to this book come either to read Murakami go off his usual track, or are runners who enjoy well written pieces on their sport of choice. I am most definitely in the latter.  

I didn’t come into the book with any expectations, how could I have when I know basically nothing about Murakami? I’m just interested in anyone passionate enough about running to write a book about it, but to be completely honest I’ve been sitting here for a while trying to think about exactly what I want to talk about when it comes to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running because to my eyes it is so deeply personal to Murakami’s personal running experience.

At times it was difficult to fully connect with the book for that reason, we all run for different reasons and train in different ways, of course, and the writing is clear and engaging, but reading this book was like reading a diary.

Sometimes it’s interesting.

Sometimes it would have been more interesting to be there, I guess.

Murakami is a sporty guy, but by his own admission he is more into the lonely, endurance testing kind (he competes in triathlons too) over the team based, or agility busting. The way he trains, and the way he talks about training is consistent with his attitude towards writing.

To him, the most important thing is turning up.

Everyday he sits down at his desks and carves out some specific time to focus on his next project. When it comes to running, he thinks the same way. He gets his trainers on, puts on an album, and grinds out some time for his fitness. Clearly it works for him, he runs a damn marathon every year! And certainly he is not wrong. No matter how hard or how easy the training is, if you don’t turn up, nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to change. Gradually, over time, you force your body to adapt to the hardship of training and get used to it, even crave it.

If you don’t already know that consistency is hugely important in running (or, in anything) you’re going to find out naturally anyway. All of my best gains in time and endurance haven’t come for training tricks and tips, they haven’t come from individual workouts, they haven’t come from expensive trainers or compression socks or anything except for putting together nice, chunky blocks of training. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Do that, and things just happen. The speed comes. You find yourself breathing easy 3, 4 miles into a run. You find the run feeling like it starts after the 6 mile mark. No real secret to that, other than to keep it up, and stay fit.

Murakami doesn’t have any trouble staying fit. Which is why, although the book is a good read, from a training perspective it isn’t going to be much help to anyone. I’m not saying don’t read it mind you, just read it for the right reasons.

It is insightful, beautiful, charming. It is a book written by someone who is a writer first, as a profession. A lot of other running books work vice versa with running or physiotherapy or coaching as the authors primary means, their premium talent, and it shows. Murakami captures the conflicting beauty and hardship of long distance running.

In one my favourite moments he attempts to answer that oft ask question:

What do you think about when you run?

He answers:

The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Perhaps something like that is more important than finding training insights anyway.

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