Running Whilst Writing: A Review of Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Murakami wrote this enjoyable memoir to bring readers along on his marathons and triathlons, while offering up a deep dive into his writing rituals and thought processes.
Most people know Haruki Murakami as the novelist behind bestsellers such as Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. Fewer would be aware that he is a passionate runner who participates in a marathon every winter and a triathlon every summer. Murakami obviously loves running, but he didn’t know how to write about it, until he decided one day in 2005 to just start jotting down his thoughts: “One thing I noticed was that writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing,” he wrote. “So I suppose it’s all right to read this as a kind of memoir centered on the act of running.”
So as Murakami trained for the 2005 New York Marathon, he also wrote this memoir on the side. In each chapter of the book, Murakami brings the reader to a different scene – his training in Hawaii, his run to the town of Marathon, Greece, a crazy 62-mile race, and so on. Murakami brought readers into his races by including relevant sensory details.
Take his run to Marathon, Greece, as an example. Conditions of the roads: paved in powdered marble making them slippery. What he encountered: Eleven dead animals on the road. Who he met: Greek who wondered why this Asian man was running in dead summer heat. As Murakami was running (literally), you feel that you want to be present to cheer him on, even if it’s just from an air-conditioned van.
Through each of these episodes, Murakami discusses how he got into running and how running (the side gig) has shaped his writing (his full-time job). Running and writing may have no connections to one another, but Murakami is such a good writer that he created the perfect couple. “In most cases learning something essential in life requires physical pain,” he wrote. Is this about running, or is this about writing?
“I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner,” Murakami followed. ”Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to.” Running marathons shape people, and Murakami shared his lessons in this memoir. “One by one, I’ll face tasks before me and complete them as best as I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long-distance runner.”
The memoir is also a balanced piece of writing – it’s not about a great novelist who also went on to become an amazing marathon runner, smashing all kinds of records. That kind of feel-good story would have been great for a movie. But this is real life. Murakami kept the memoir grounded by including all his struggles, from niggling injuries before a race to the heartbreaking experience of being disqualified. It almost made me believe that I, too, could run a marathon. (To Murakami’s credit: he explicitly said that he doesn’t think everyone should be a runner and what is right for him may not be right for all)
Beyond the struggles in training, Murakami discussed one theme throughout the book – the struggle of growing old. “I’ve gotten older, and time has taken its toll. It’s nobody’s fault. Those are the rules of the game,” he wrote in Chapter One of the book. “Just as a river flows to the sea, growing older and slowing down are just part of the natural scenery, and I’ve got to accept it.” And so, from then on, we (the readers) are lectured by a successful novelist (and an old man) about how he views aging, and why it may not be as scary as some feel.
Murakami may be getting old and his body may be slowing down. But readers will pray that his brain remains active and creative for a long time to come.