Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This little memoir by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami suited me to a T.

At the time of the writing of the essays that make up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami was in his 50s and a longtime distance runner (he'd run nearly 30 marathons at publication time), though not one who was ever going to make an Olympic team. He's self-deprecating about his running, nonplussed by his age-related slowdown, but also determined to make the best of it, and stay out there.

He writes:

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life....

There are a lot of other interesting thoughts in here. This one in particular made me feel good about not having a runner's physique or a naturally speedy metabolism:

....having the kind of body that easily puts on weight was perhaps a blessing in disguise. In other words, if I don't want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences...But people who naturally keep the weight off no matter what don't need to exercise or watch their diet in order to stay trim...Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age...Some of my readers may be the kind of people who easily gain weight, but the only way to understand what's really fair is to take a long-range view of things...I think this physical nuisance should be viewed in a positive way, as a blessing. We should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible.

It's such an understated yet optimistic way to view what most of us in that boat see as a huge pain in the neck. Likewise his experience of what he calls the "runner's blues," which he first experienced after completing his first ultra-marathon (despite that race being a triumph for him), and his attitude of mixed disappointment and determination to plow on after he didn't meet his goal for the 2005 New York City Marathon. (On a side note, it's cool for me to think he was running that august event the same year I did.)

Keeping in mind that I know very little about Japan, his attitude strikes me as very Japanese. There's a real love for running in these pages and a determination to keep striving, but it's quiet and tempered.

This was comforting to me, because among those who write about running, I often feel like King Lear's daughter, Cordelia, who just couldn't wax over-eloquent in describing her love for her father (says she: "my love's/More richer than my tongue"). Murakami is the same way: the love is there, but so are the frustrations, the starts and stops, the doubts and imperfections. Not every run is a transfiguration. But amid the ups and downs, there is the author, still putting one foot in front of the other.

That's all the inspiration I need.