By KENNETH POSNER
Review of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
New York: Vintage Books, 1998
“What are they thinking?”
In her recent New Yorker article, Kathryn Schulz ponders the 50,000 participants in the New York City Marathon, curious about the “slipperiness of conscious thought in the runner’s mind.” This she considers an “inherently profound” topic, one that could teach us about the “deep strangeness” of the human brain. She goes on to cite research studies and discuss books about running, including Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. As a runner myself, as well as a fan of Murakami’s fiction, I had read his book a few years ago, coming away impressed that an internationally acclaimed author who’s been lauded as one of the world’s greatest living novelists is also a long-distance runner who’s completed thirty marathons, including New York City several times.
I was therefore surprised when Schulz dismissed the Murakami memoir as doing “very poor justice” to her question of what people think about while running. She found it “neither inspirational nor aspirational nor descriptive.” Rather, it was “banal.”
I had had a similar reaction when first reading the book. It has an ordinary, matter-of-fact tone and lacks the surreal touches that grace his fiction. But Schulz’ casual dig inspired me to re-read the book, and this time, I found it addressed Schulz’ question head-on, just not in the way she might have expected: for Murakami, running is a discipline of not thinking. Indeed, he anticipates her question by observing that runners “all look like they’re thinking about something as they run” – even though they “might not be thinking about anything at all.”
The book opens with an unoriginal tone: “Pain is inevitable,” Murakami reminds us, while “suffering is optional.” A cliché no doubt, but one that Murakami has experienced and thought deeply about, and his conclusion gets straight to the point: running’s “unavoidable reality” is pain. Early on in the book, he gives a vivid example. He’s running from Athens to Marathon, covering in reverse the original route of the Greek messenger who brought tidings of the Persians’ defeat. At first the run goes well, but Murakami is unprepared for the summer heat: salt stings his eyes, his lips taste like anchovy paste, he starts to fantasize about cold beer. Then it gets worse.
At around twenty-three miles I start to hate everything. Enough already! My energy has scraped bottom, and I don’t want to run anymore. I feel like I’m driving a car on empty. I need a drink, but if I stopped here to drink some water I don’t think I could get running again. I’m dying of thirst but lack the strength to even drink water anymore. As these thoughts flit through my mind I gradually start to get angry.
His anger is irrational: it’s directed at his editor, the photographer accompanying him, the sheep happily munching grass by the side of the road. It’s a perfect example of how conscious thought breaks down under the stress of pain.
With time and more running experience under his belt, Murakami gets a little more control over his conscious mind. He talks about running to “acquire a void”:
As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing.
The theme that caught my attention the first time I read the book was Murakami’s comparison of writing and running. He points out that writing entails an enormous expenditure of energy over a long period of time. To write a novel, he has to drive himself hard physically. It feels to him like a kind of “manual labor.” Just like running, writing demands training, endurance, and especially focus.
I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else.
Focus requires a capability to “not see” and “not think.” Similarly, before starting a race: “I try to clear my mind of everything extraneous.”
By the end of the book, “not thinking” has emerged as an important theme in Murakami’s memoir, and nowhere is this more striking and strange than when he recounts his participation in a 62-mile ultramarathon — a physical and mental challenge of note, because it’s more than twice the longest distance he’s ever run before. The first half goes fine, but once he crosses the threshold into unknown territory, things start to go wrong. Leg muscles tighten up, the pain becomes excruciating, he starts to feel like “a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder.” He perseveres through the “sheer torment” by repeating a simple mantra:
I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.
That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through. If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain.
He’s trying to prevent the discomfort from disrupting his mental equilibrium and jeopardizing the ability to continue.
There definitely was a being called me right there. And accompanying that is a consciousness that is the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more. It’s a strange way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling— consciousness trying to deny consciousness.
He keeps moving forward, repeating his mantra, his visual focus narrowing until it encompasses no more than the ground three yards ahead. Then suddenly, at mile forty-seven, he feels like his “body had passed clean through a stone wall” and he is suddenly on “the other side.”
After that, I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically.
Now he picks up the pace and passes scores of runners on the way to the finish. “I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing.” It feels like “I’m me, and at the same time not me.” Afterwards, he reports feeling great happiness, even greater relief, a sense of completion, and a revelation that, at least with respect to completing the ultramarathon, “the mind wasn’t so important after all.”
Like Schulz, we’re all curious about what other people are thinking – and not just during running, but in all sorts of activities. By dismissing Murakami’s memoir, she missed the chance to explore the unavoidable reality of pain, a topic that is no doubt banal, but one with profound implications for how people strive towards any goal that requires effort, discomfort, or stress. Murakami’s done more running and writing (and thinking and talking about the two) than most. As a runner herself, Schulz ought to give the book another read.
It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive.
Posted on 27 January 2016
KENNETH POSNER is a financial executive and runner. An earlier version of this review was posted on his blog at http://thelongbrownpath.com/.