Rikumo Book Club: Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"

Author: Haruki Murakami
Pages: 179
Reading Time: Easily read in a day
Best For: Those who enjoy Murakami novels, memoirs, self-improvement or writing (he isn't writing specifically for other runners)

When we talk about Haruki Murakami, we often talk about the same things: he is the world's best-known Japanese author, and his novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood have sold millions of copies outside of Japan. Much has been said about Murakami's surreal stories, which center on isolated protagonists forced to go on journeys, but his reluctance to give interviews or hold public appearances make him an enigmatic character to many. What we don't often talk about is that, aside from being a bestselling writer, Murakami is also an accomplished runner who participates in marathons all over the globe. As a runner and a writer, Murakami personifies the power of perseverance and hard, long-term work. His memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running kicks off our Rikumo Book Club series; in it we'll be sharing some of our favorite novels, memoirs and art books, many of which you'll find in our concept store library.

 Murakami began running at 33 years old, neither young nor old but at "the age when Fitzgerald started to go downhill."  That year marked a personal turning point, as well as the start of his literary career.  Throughout the book he draws upon running and writing interchangeably, so that it becomes a story about both of his passions.  

In many ways, the two activities demand similar capacities: stamina, concentration and even tolerance for pain. To Murakami, artistic activity inherently contains elements that are unhealthy and antisocial; it takes a lot of time alone to hash out ideas and express them in just the right way.  While this is healthy for our brains because it pushes us to think more deeply, it can also cause us to withdraw excessively or spend too much time chained to our desks.  That's why he concludes: "In order to deal with something unhealthy, a person must be as healthy as possible." 

Here are some insights we spotted along the way:

  • Being active every day makes it easy to hear that inner voice that tells you to eat healthier and take care of your body.
  • A thirty minute nap (after lunch if possible) is the best medicine you can give to your brain.
  • No matter how much you might command your body to perform, don’t count on it to immediately obey.  The body is an extremely practical system.  You have to let it experience intermittent pain over time, and then the body will get the point.  Doing it gradually is important, so that you don't burn out.
  • Listen carefully to your body.  It will give you feedback on when to keep pushing and when to stop and try again tomorrow.  Apply this concept to your whole life.
  • Our muscles are like animals.  They must be properly trained every day, a little at a time, to be shaped into what you want them to be.  Your spirit is like this also--it is only with constant practice, willpower, and time that we build the strength to reach our full potential.

Murakami peppers the book with personal accounts of the races that have shaped his personality and work ethic.  One of these is a winter race in Chiba Prefecture that he considers his worst marathon performance.  Approximately 18 miles in, his legs began to unexpectedly cramp up.  Even though he'd assumed he had plenty of stamina, he was forced to cut back to a light trot and soon slowed to a limping walk.  That day he clocked in his slowest-ever time after seriously considering giving up on finishing the race altogether. According to Murakami, there were three simple reasons he failed: not enough training, not enough training and not enough training.  "Without knowing it," he writes, "I'd developed a sort of arrogant attitude, convinced that just a fair-to-middling amount of training was enough for me to do a good job.  It's pretty thin, the wall separating healthy confidence and unhealthy pride."

His experience demonstrates a common experience: we get so confident in our own abilities that we let our goals slip away from us, whether by procrastination or unrealistic expectations of reward without effort.  The challenge is to see these hiccups not as limitations but as benchmarks to surpass in the future.  More training would have undoubtedly helped Murakami do better on that race, but listening to his body's needs eventually built his stamina.  Likewise, though some of us aren't runners, we can all learn to patiently build ourselves up little by little.  Keeping the finish line in sight helps us work towards whatever we want to achieve, be it running a marathon, finishing a 1,000-page novel or filing our taxes.  

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor.  Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself.  At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level.  I’m no great runner, by any means.  I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level.  But that’s not the point.  The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday.  In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be. (pg. 9)

Starting in April, you can read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running inside our concept store library.  And if you'd like to discuss it with someone, ask for Magali or Yumi; both are big Murakami fans.