Restless and creatively parched, I plow through books faster in quarantine than I have in any other part of my life. After trudging through the absurdity of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” I searched for a book that was more peaceful, something to inspire and cultivate my frazzled mind.
“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami was the first book I read by the famous Japanese novelist. Though most readers start with his more famous novels like “Norwegian Wood” or “After Dark,” I, as a runner myself, thought this short 175-page read would be a simple introduction to the world of author.
I was very wrong — and pleasantly surprised. His effortlessly casual writing style combined with his humble account of his running career pushed me to introspect on my own reasons for running. The way Murakami parallels his writing with his personal running lifestyle taught me about the importance of habit and the different types of exercises we as writers have to do to channel our creativity. His bluntness and nearly philosophical style of writing is both refreshing and inspiring. His memoir motivated me to reflect on the importance of cultivating healthy habits in my own creative life.
For the first few weeks home for quarantine, I allowed myself to lounge around all day, enjoying an unexpected break from my busy college schedule. I tried to keep my mind off the terrifying reality of the pandemic that privileged me with this newfound freedom. I felt aimless, guilty for wanting to start my insignificant projects when people were dying. I watched hours of Netflix as a form of escape, but when I came out of a binge, I didn’t find myself feeling any better.
After a week of this, I decided to run again. I ran cross country in high school, but after I fractured my foot in the spring of my junior year, my times have been slower. I run at Central Park a few times a week during the school year, but never at the level of my high school cross country training. I now try to hit 15 miles a week, which is nothing compared to Murakami’s 36 miles, but it forces me to go outdoors five days a week and keeps me both physically and mentally in check.
The way Murakami relates running to writing echoes his personality and his philosophies. Through his writing, you can tell that Murakami is quiet, thoughtful and independent. This type of affect is perfect for running and writing, which both often require solitude.
To Murakami, both activities push you to your limits, running to your physical limit, writing to your mental and intellectual limits. After closing his successful jazz bar to pursue his writing career, he incorporated writing and running into his everyday routine. With these habits of challenging both his mind and body every day, he has gotten to the place he is now: a famous novelist and a not necessarily “great runner, but a strong runner.”
Like Murakami, I would say I “love” running and writing, for they are my passions. But if I were to be completely honest, I don’t feel the passion all the time when I’m doing them. Most of the time, it is just okay or even frustrating. It is really only the high points of writing and running that make it worth it. It’s the moment I can finally find the exact words I want to capture a feeling, a place or a scene. It’s the moment when my legs stop screaming and my body starts moving like a smoothly oiled running machine in a race. These moments are rare unfortunately, but when they happen, they reaffirm why I do the things I do.
But, most of the time, the writing process is taxing. There are days when I sit in front of my laptop, rewriting the same paragraph over and over, just to scrap the entire idea at the end. It is the determination to trudge through the many drafts of mediocre ideas that allows you to sort through all of them to find the one that actually has potential.
Similarly with running, more often than not, I run out of the need to keep healthy and not go stir crazy. In a good week, I’ll have one run along the Raritan Canal where my legs won’t feel like bricks. On those runs, my runner’s high, or the dopamine rush, kicks in and I feel rejuvenated and, sometimes, even transformed. Running allows my mind to wander free of distractions and surrounded by nature. If I can get past the discomfort of physical exertion, I can reach a state of peace that I can’t access any way else.
To reach these high moments in both writing and running, structuring habits around these tasks creates a system where you constantly challenge yourself to deal with discomfort to maximize the occurrence of these moments. Good ideas and good runs don’t occur randomly; they require practice and deliberation.
Murakami compares the action of sitting down to write at his desk every morning to lacing up his running shoes. These small habitual movements are essential in the process of testing his boundaries as a writer and runner. The more you practice pushing yourself to the limit, the better writer and runner you become. There is power in intentional, repeated action.
Murakami rejects the idea that running is a hardcore, mentally riveting exercise that requires a “strong will” to do every day. He simply does it because it suits him. One thing about Murakami’s prose that really struck me as I read it was how measured and peaceful it was. He presented every event in his life as simply things that happened, neither bad nor good. He accepts everything that has happened to him with a sense of meditated objectivity.
For example, he started writing because one day, while at a baseball game in Japan, he was struck with the idea of writing a novel; so, he did it. Once it was completed, he sent off the manuscript to a competition without keeping a copy of his own, and forgot about it. He won the prize, continued writing and is now a renowned novelist. His nonchalant tone may be just for show, but it demonstrates how he has learned to take life as it comes and receive the things that happen to him with acceptance.
The real power of his writing about his running is how he talks about his separate journeys as not something to boast about or something that he would even recommend. He simply tells us about his path, and its inevitable ups and downs. After his ultramarathon of 62 miles, he encountered a period that he calls his Runner’s Blues, when “a mental gap began to develop between [him] and running.” He was in his mid-40s and had passed his physical peak. Marathons didn’t move him like they used to. His times kept getting worse. It’s as if after his ultramarathon, one of the greatest accomplishments in his running career, he had hit a crossroads.
That happens to all of us with the things we love, right? I’ve had my creative dry spells and writer’s blocks for who knows how long. It even happens in romantic relationships, when the initial feelings settle down and the honeymoon stage passes. It was during my best race that I got my injury that put me out for a season, and after I recovered, running was not the same for me.
Even though Murakami was experiencing a low point in his running career, he continued to run every day. In his mid-50s, he started to feel his Runner’s Blues lifting. Through all these years, he stayed faithful to the habits that he built off of running, and it paid off. He’s learned to accept the inevitable effects of aging on his runner’s body. He wrote: “To tell the truth, I don’t really understand the causes behind my runner’s blues. Or why now it’s beginning to fade. It’s too early to explain it well. Maybe the only thing I can definitely say about it is this: That’s life.”
In life, we find the things we love, and they frustrate and test us, even seeming to completely disappear on us for a while. But keeping these passions alive takes intentional work and dedication. Murakami’s unfaltering faith in running and writing shows a lot about why he is so successful. As Murakami summed up: “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well.”