Smile Politely

Murakami Tells Us What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

One of my favorite fiction writers, Haruki Murakami, recently released a memoir discussing his life in distance running called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Alfred A. Knopf, 175 pp., $21). Murakami normally writes books that read like detective novels but contain healthy doses of magical realism, so to read something this straightforward from him was a bit of a shock. The book takes the shape of a series of essays from 2005 and 2006 in which Murakami discusses his training regimen, different marathons that he’s run, and some thoughts on the writing process. In less capable hands, the subject matter could be a real bore, but he’s able to keep things moving at a breezy pace and the slim volume was consumed in just a couple of sittings.

Murakami lays out the central thesis of the book in the very first essay: “One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had taught him which he’s pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” He keeps circling back to that notion, whether he’s ruminating on training for marathons and triathlons or making a living as a writer. He doesn’t consider himself notably talented in either field (which is absurd, at least on the writing point), but chalks up his success to his ability to focus and persevere.

One anecdote that particularly struck me was this: “I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue. … I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.” That’s exactly what I try to do when I go for a long bicycle ride, but Murakami says of cycling: “Sometimes it strikes me as an intricate form of torture.” Maybe that’s the case when you ride your bike through traffic in Tokyo or Boston, the two places where Murakami has spent most of his life, but on the prairies of east-central Illinois, there are plenty of voids to be acquired from atop a bike saddle.

Murakami ran a jazz club from soon after his college graduation until his early 30s, and then he sold the club and decided to try to make a living as a writer. He took up running to help him stay in shape after he stopped doing the physical work involved in operating a business. He runs on a freakishly regular schedule: six or more days a week, six or more miles per day.

If you’re a fan of Murakami, a distance runner, or simply someone who seeks more insight into the mindset required to accomplish feats of endurance of both a physical and mental nature, this book will be of interest to you. I just returned my copy to the Champaign Public Library, so check it out.

Related Articles