Book Review - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

In the foreword itself I found something that made me read this book straight through. I found a mantra, used by an experienced runner of marathons, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The essence of marathon running i.e. running marathons, not figuratively, but literally, is what Haruki Murakami has condensed into a modest book by capturing his thoughts as he prepares to run the New York City Marathon in November 2005. The book is labeled as memoir but does not fit the genre in the true sense. What we have instead is a collection of essays loosely arranged in chronological order from a one year period in the author’s life – from August 2005 to October 2006, centered around his running (and writing) life.

The author lives (and runs) in several exotic locations, from hometown Tokyo to the Hawaiian Island of Kauai to Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are briefly led through the essential details of his life as the owner of a bar/restaurant in Japan to the “Aha” moment during a game when he decides to become a novelist and then a runner at age 33. He modestly skims over the details of his early literary success which is followed by a decision to close the successful restaurant to give himself fully to his writing. Running is what he chooses in order to stay fit, to lose the weight he has gained (an unfortunate side effect of becoming a writer) after leaving the physically demanding restaurant business.

There are descriptions of various marathons he has participated in (more than 24, at the time of writing this book), at least one each year, including the original marathon named for the run from Athens to Marathon in Greece one summer. When asked about the qualities a writer must have, he talks about talent, which while essential is not everything (even the best car cannot run without fuel). But more important are focus and endurance, skills which can be developed and honed, like preparing the body for a long distance race. Murakami’s metaphors are simple and elegant.

He does no preach his philosophy or dwell upon the spiritual but shows through his own experience how any activity that is religiously followed leads to personal epiphanies. While running the grueling course of 62 miles for an ultramarathon in Lake Saroma, Hokkaido, he experiences what he terms “passing through”, a feeling of moving through, a peaceful passage through an unseen barrier after running 47 miles. The metaphysical experience of “I run, therefore I am.” On the other end of the spectrum, he also candidly talks about “Runner’s blues” a period of time when he is not inclined to go back to marathon running and switches instead to triathlon where he needs to master other activities such as swimming and biking.

In every chapter, there are honest descriptions of a regular guy, not famous novelist, trying to better himself physically, by taking on new challenges, competing with no one except perhaps an aging body. But even in those situations, there is a gracious acceptance of what is. The description of the much-awaited NYC marathon is anti-climactic. But the book ends with on optimistic view of setting a personal goal and giving it the best shot, trying to find a concrete lesson from all experiences. Murakami wants his gravestone to proclaim “Writer (and runner). At least he never walked.”

Can we hope for the same?


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