In the long list of things that I would like to be able to do well, running–in particular, long-distance running–is high among them. I’m envious of friends and family who managed to cultivate this particular exercise throughout their life, and for whom it is a pleasure that they look forward to each day. When I consider running, my tendency is to want to skip the hard part, and just be at the level where I could match my friends.
Haruki Murakami’s wonderful memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running changed my mind. The good part of running is the hard part. Murakami is more than just a runner, he is also a novelist, and although I don’t think he explicitly stated this, it came across that running a marathon and writing a novel are really two forms of the same thing. Hard work, day in and day out, leads to results. Even the hard work that is painful. After feeling as if I suffered through five years of writer’s block myself, Murakami’s book made me realize that the suffering is optional. Early in the book, he writes,
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running. (Emphasis is mine.)
Hard work is where one finds joy in things. Running is hard work and writing is hard work. Reading this book about running made me realize that if I really did want to start running, then I have to do the hard work, just as I did when I first began to write.
Murakami comes across as an honest writer. He doesn’t try to hide any of his faults or difficulties, but puts them on display in order to see them and learn from them. He writes about the regiment of self-training he did preparing for the New York City marathon, only to perform poorly (in his mind). And yet he tried to learn lessons from that and apply them to the (less rigorous) training for the Boston marathon. He was equally displeased with his showing. The lesson he took from this: he was at the age where he simply couldn’t compete with his younger self and this was simply something he’d have to accept.
He didn’t so much describe his training or running methods as much as approach them almost as an outside observer would, commenting on a difficultly, or an adjustment he had to make. In this way, his descriptions made for a delightfully straight-forward read. He describes himself as “more of a workhorse than a racehorse” and that is often how I have thought of myself.
Perhaps the part of the book that most resonated with me was toward the end when he was summing up his reason for lifelong exercise:
For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels, so if races and training cut into the time I need to write, this would be putting the cart before the horse. Which is why I’ve tried to maintain a decent balance.
This is exactly what I am trying to do for myself over the next ten years as I work toward becoming a full-time writer. I need to maintain and improve my own physical condition in order to be able to continue to write, and when I retire, write more than I have ever been able to write before.
What I discovered in this short memoir was not what I’d expected: a memoir of running. Instead, I found a kind of simplicity in daily habit that allows a focus and accumulation of effort to payoff in a big way. The fun is not in being a great writer, or great musician, or nurse, or project manager. The joy is in the hard work that gets you there, the living in the moment, the journey, not the destination.
Every writer has to start with the first words on a blank page and then put in the effort, day in and day out to become as good as they possibly can. Every runner has to put on a pair of running shoes and take those first strides understanding that the pain (and frustration) is inevitable, but also knowing that the suffering is optional. That, I think, is the nugget of gold buried within Murakami’s book. It will be the mantra I repeat to myself when I finally work up the courage to start running.
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