Every now and then you read a book which makes you think “I wish I had written that” or even more arrogantly “I should have written that”. Thanks to my good friend Mike Coulter I was introduced to one such book recently, the enigmatically titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who in 1982 sold his jazz bar to devote himself to writing and took up running to keep fit. I can identify with that as it was around the time when I ran my first marathon, which eventually led to me giving up smoking, and re-establishing a relationship which started when I was around five years of age. That was when I first realised that the world is divided into two types of people, runners and non-runners, and even though there have been long spells in my life when I didn’t run at all, in my mind I was always a runner. I never saw it as a lifestyle choice, simply a part of who and what I was.
Running of course is not for everyone, but for some of us it is inextricably linked to thinking and learning. I learned to recite Tam O’Shanter while running, and if you are planning a presentation or a speech there’s no more effective way to do it. I assume it’s linked to rhythm, heartbeat and breathing, and possibly to the heightened awareness that running brings. Murakami extols the benefits of running for him but is never evangelical about it. He also recognises that running has many parallels in education and life in general:-
“That’s why I’ve never recommended running to others. I’ve tried my best never to say something like, “Running is great. Everybody should try it.” If some people have an interest in long-distance running, just leave them be, and they’ll start running on their own. If they’re not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference. Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even desired that I be a novelist – in fact, some tried to stop me. I had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. Likewise, a person doesn’t become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they’re meant to…
People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
Murakami’s writing is deceptively simple and eloquent. I think I’ll check out some of the novels to see what I’ve been missing. But first, where did I put those running shoes?