Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running (2007)

This is the running book that is most often suggested to me. I say running book, but its title suggests that it’s really a book about something else – for example writing, which he took up having sold off his Tokyo jazz bar. Still, if it is ‘not about running’, it is ‘not about running’ passing through triathlons and the New York marathon, a 100km ultramarathon, and running from Athens to the town of Marathon in Greece. Along the way we are regaled with the strangeness of a runner’s perceptions (in Greece he comes across 3 dead dogs and 11 dead cats), and habits: not only does he listen to Mozart’s Magic Flute for half of his ultramarathon, but as if the pain of running was not enough, he listens to Eric Clapton whilst doing it…

The book is well known for the passages on how performances decline with age. After the ultramrathon, something snaps and running is never as fun again. Murakami stops drinking his habitual post-marathon beer. He gets what he calls ‘runner’s blues’. Despite all this, he continues to run, and describes why in refreshingly neutral terms: ‘People are impressed when I tell them I run every day. “You must be strong-willed!” they sometimes say. But I don’t think that willpower alone makes you able to do something. The world isn’t that simple. To tell the truth, I’m not sure there’s any link between my daily training and the fact of being strong-willed or not. I think I’ve been running for twenty years for a simple reason: it suits me. Or at least, I don’t find it unpleasant’.

He also is neutral or modest about what’s required by running and why he took it up: it’s the sport with the least technique and tactical manoeuvres to learn. ‘I wasn’t a natural athlete, I didn’t have quick reactions and was no good at sports where you have to be alert’. He talks about the stubborness necessary to repeat the same movement innumerable times: ‘muscles are like working animals, they have a good memory. If you gradually increase their load, they’ll be able to accept it. As long as you explain what you want, and give concrete examples of the amount of work they’ll have to do, the muscles obey, invisibly hardening’. It’s true that running reduces your flexibility. Muscles grow only where needed to run forwards, and mentally the concentration and patience perhaps dull your immediate reactions. Runners don’t need to twist, bend, jump, or change direction sharply. They just have to make their bodies stiff and taught. They are, if you like, both the cyclist and the bike. Or to change metaphors, the runner’s body is like a violin through which the miles resonate.

Murakami might be stubborn, but he doesn’t preach running as a simple product of willpower (of the boneheaded talk that I’ve been trying to get away from in this blog). His writing is determined to be stubbornly whimsical. And he has the unhurriedness of someone playing the long game: ‘For me, and for this book, that will be my conclusion. I probably won’t hear the Rocky soundtrack or see the sunset. It will be a modest conclusion, like sports shoes for use in the rain. Some will say this is disappointing. If it was a film script, Hollywood producers would barely glance at the last page before throwing it away. But, in the end, this sort of conclusion suits what I am. That’s all’.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Michael Horowitz, 'Midsummer Morning Jog Log' (1986)

(Thanks to Jeremy for the suggestion and the book). And so to the Midsummer Morning Jog Log, where an early morning jogger’s ‘ludicrously heavy-booted feet’ tramp through the Slad Valley, a folded-away corner of Gloucestershire. These ‘cloddy zigzag hops’ also run through… perhaps not Romanticized nature, but the exuberant, destructive force of the wild:

‘on I charge and stumble
Squishing now and then against remains
of the countless deaths whose predatory nature
night’s blanket harboured’.

The initial idea that this wildnerness should be being witnessed by a runner, let alone by a person at all (rather than by some abstract consciousness) soon slips away. Perhaps you could still argue, though, that the sacred language (‘the innermost nave | of the abbey of trees’) is an effect of what I’ve written about previously as runner’s high. And it’s certain that much of the poem’s own exuberance lies in the whirled, whorled texture of the language (‘flagrant pink bespattered mornings’, ‘weeds upon weeds in abundancy swirling’). Its relationship to prose can be summed up with a saying that also applies to runners: that poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.

Our midsummer jogger has left home early: ‘The First up | and out – ha!’. Personally I always run sluggishly at this time – when I used to run with a trainee soldier was keen on early starts, we’d have breakfast in his college afterwards, then I’d go back to bed. But when the morning run is the only slot I have, I can’t deny there’s that first light and sunrise are hella moving.

Let’s finish with this beginning, and more specifically, by admiring – from a distance – what William Blake, whether a jogger or not history does not relate, has to say about this same sight:

‘What’, it will be Question’d, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty’.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Steak, brandy, and strychnine... how to win the marathon in 1908


Odds and sods

I thought I’d write a post on the various things I’ve come across in running or in reading for this blog that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. They might even make their way into the hallowed category of the Quite Interesting.

* There’s a man who runs in the cross-country league I used to take part in. Luckily he’s a lot slower than me – I say luckily because it means I don’t have to run races alongside him as he out-grunts any tennis player, and does so via his instantly recognizable, divinely-inspired mantra: ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God…’ (repeat for duration of race).

* Rosie Ruiz won the 1980 Boston marathon by taking the metro. She was later disqualified.

* The 118 runners ad campaign was sued by 1970s runner David Bedford.

* Paper chase is not only a stationery seller but also an old-fashioned running game where a ‘hare’ leaves a trail of paper and is chased by the pack of ‘hounds’. The names of several running clubs refer to this game - Thames Valley Hare and Hounds, Cambridge University Hare and Hounds, etc.

* This and other running games are practised by the Hash House Harriers. Formed by British colonials in 1930s Malaysia (the name comes from the hash or dull food they were served), it is still most popular in southeast Asia and Australia, though they exist all over the world – I once saw them in Paris! Described as ‘drinking groups with a running problem’, they have their own system of calls and esoteric language, not least in the fact that each chapter is run by the ‘mismanagement’. Traditions include a run every 29th February leaving from beneath Big Ben in London. Which is next week…