Distance running and a novelist’s craft

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Distance running and a novelist’s craft

Unassuming Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami bares his soul - and his chest, on the cover image - in “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” a memoir-cum-runner’s log.

Here, he details his training for the 2005 New York City Marathon, as well as his path to concurrently running and writing.

As someone who’s recently decided to return to a running regimen, I found Murakami’s account a dual commiseration and celebration of my experience, except he does it on a much larger scale.

I’m trying to jog for half an hour in Namsan Park; he’s running 26.2 miles.

Although I’ve never read any of Murakami’s other, more famous works, I know his work is usually rather figurative. But in this book, his writing takes the form of limpid prose, quick reading that is easily digestible in short bursts - if you’re not careful, you’ll finish the whole book in one go, as it’s only 180 pages.

But rather than calling this style pedestrian, it’s more like a conversation with a straight-talking athlete: “Of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot.” Amen to that, I thought as I read those lines.

But Murakami, while hardly as obvious as a cheerleader or coxswain, is motivational in his own humble way.

“Whenever I feel like I don’t want to run, I always ask myself the same thing: You’re able to make a living as a novelist, working at home, setting your own hours, so you don’t have to commute on a packed train or sit through boring meetings. Don’t you realize how fortunate you are? (Believe me, I do.) Compared to that, running an hour around the neighborhood is nothing, right?” he writes.

There are moments where his poetic language really flows, especially when he describes the simple act of dashing along in autumn.

“And runners can detect each notch in the seasonal shift in the feel of the wind against our skin, its smell and direction. In the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature.”

In another passage, when Murakami plods solo along “the original marathon course,” the ancient, now developed highway between Athens and Marathon, Greece, he pens an account that viscerally tracks his slow descent into runner’s insanity as dehydration and exhaustion take their toll. As torturous as it sounds, Murakami remains likable throughout, with his little asides that come across as so natural. “What’s with this heat, anyway?” he asks near the end of the blistering run.

Most enlightening are Murakami’s parallels between running and writing. The author says that had he not become a distance runner when he became a novelist, he would have produced “vastly different” work.

The act of continually pounding the pavement seems to have added a rhythm to the writing process for Murakami: “You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago.”

Later, he seems to be describing my own marathon, all-night thesis-writing sessions of college when he writes, “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.”

It’s almost inspiring enough to make me strap on my Nikes and start training for the next marathon. But then again, simply reading Murakami’s account seems much more enjoyable.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author: Haruki Murakami

Genre: Memoir

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]
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