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’.

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