What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Life lessons from Haruki Murakami’s - Considering some of his key insights on the themes of performance, aging, and adventure.

LESTER TAN BY | UPDATED 6 MONTHS AGO

Words Lester Tan
Photos Pexels.com and Lester Tan's archives

Authored by internationally-acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami, this book serves as Murakami’s personal training memoir and offers an intimate look into the thoughts and musings of one of the greatest writers of this era.

Although the book was published in 2007, many of Murakami’s experiences would nevertheless resonate with runners today. As fellow athletes, let us consider some of Murakami’s key insights on the themes of performance, aging, and adventure.

On Performance

For Murakami, running and writing feature several similarities. To be a great novelist (or runner), one must first possess a degree of inborn talent. “No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing,” Murakami writes, “if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.” In short, talent determines ability.

Murakami, however, recognises that we have no control over the amount or quality of our inborn talents.

As much as I wish run like Eliud Kipchoge, my predetermined qualities, be they physical or psychological, limit my ability to do so. But if talent is lacking, does that mean that I can never be a good runner?

Murakami disagrees. Even talented writers wouldn’t shine if they fail to cultivate two other disciplines: focus and endurance.

Focus - “the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment” - compensates for one’s shortage of talent.

Murakami concentrates on writing for three to four hours every morning. By expelling all other distractions from his mind during that period, Murakami sharpens his thinking and refines his writing. The result?

Best-sellers such as Norwegian Wood (1987) and Sputnik Sweetheart (1999).

As runners, one particular distraction plays a dominant role in diluting our focus during a run: pain. Regardless of whether it’s a regular training session or a race, all of us will experience a degree of pain during the run.

Pain blocks concentration. It’s almost too easy to give in to pain and to call it quits. Yet, it’s precisely at such moments where Murakami’s words become forceful: “Without focus, you can’t accomplish anything.”

Shut off the distractions and focus! For our dedication to the sport would someday reap rewards far greater than whatever we imagined.

Our ability to remain focused under duress is contingent on one other factor: endurance. If we successfully ward off pain for an hour into a marathon but falter soon after, we aren’t going to get very far. Murakami believes that to be a good writer, one must have the energy to focus every day for up to two years.

Similarly, we must cultivate the endurance to see through our training schedules and plans in preparation for the next race. Only by doing so can we have a realistic shot at achieving our goals. Succumbing to distractions is a slippery slope. Give in once, and you’ll find yourself giving in at every opportunity.

For Murakami, cultivating endurance is similar to training your muscles. “You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise,” Murakami writes, “This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come.”

Endurance is the silent toil that lay the foundation for greatness.

On Aging

Throughout the book, Murakami wrestles with how aging continues to influence his running journey. “I am no longer able to improve my time. I guess it’s inevitable, considering my age,” he laments.

Murakami aimed at completing his marathons within three and a half hours (5 minutes per kilometre pace) - a feat he accomplished for most of his earlier marathons. However, although he trained as per usual and never felt himself getting physically weaker, Murakami noted that he gradually inched closer to the four-hour mark over time. “No matter how much I might deny it or try to ignore it, the numbers were retreating, step by step,” writes Murakami with a twinge of sadness and frustration.

Murakami’s position is one that all of us can empathise with on a personal level. I myself noted that my timings had slowly added up since my early twenties when I ran competitively as a novice distance runner. Barely noticeable at first, but obvious once viewed as a trend. What felt like an easy pace to keep to back then now leaves me panting heavily. As I read Murakami’s words, his underlying disappoint struck a chord within me.

Dissatisfaction with oneself festered like a darkness from within. Murakami coined a term to describe such feelings - “runner’s blues”. He writes, “A steady fatigue opened up between me and the very notion of running. A sense of disappointment set in that all my hard work wasn’t paying off, that there was something obstructing me, like a door that was usually open suddenly slammed in my face.” How then did Murakami overcome this dreadful condition?

On Adventure

Alas, it was his foray into triathlon that rekindled Murakami’s love for athletics. Decades of running had led to a brooding sense of monotony and restlessness. A leap of faith into triathlon injected much-needed variety and competitiveness into his sporting life. It’s Murakami’s innate sense of daring - his spirit for adventure - that pushed him towards incorporating swimming and cycling into his list of sporting activities.

Swimming in particular was an activity that Murakami struggled in; he hired a private swimming coach to teach him. Like running, Murakami enjoyed swimming for its solitude and convenience (no fancy gadgets needed). Conversely, he resented having to maintain all the parts and equipment associated with cycling and rode only because triathlon involved a bike leg.

Nevertheless, triathlon provided Murakami a novel challenge and a tangible goal in which he could dedicated his talent, focus, and endurance. It lifted him out of his runner’s blues and motivated him to push on ahead.

The closing chapter of the book whereby Murakami detailed his successful completion of the 2006 Murakami City Triathlon marked a significant milestone for the author. The overcoming of difficulties during the race showcased his grit and determination in the face of life’s challenges and bore testament to Murakami’s admirable willpower. It is beautifully simple how much of what Murakami learned about life, he learned by running every day.

~ What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami was originally published in 2007 and is readily available at Kinokuniya bookstores.



LESTER TAN

Lester Tan’s interest in long-distance events primarily stem from a desire to test the limits of human endurance. While many may dread the longer distances for a variety of reasons, he views it as a cathartic experience. He says, “Endurance racing liberates my mind of the stresses of daily life and teaches me to appreciate the joys derived from the present moment.”

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