A review of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

This is a series of reflections of living a life shaped by writing and long distance running.

Mr Murakami writes in a clear and calm way about how the disciplines of writing and running, for him, inform each other.  Writing a novel involves sustained effort and calling on reserves of concentration.  Running involves a focus and concentration and a delving down into reserves of energy that is not dissimilar.  And of course for both, practice/ training is essential.

The writer is quick to point out that is not a training manual for writing or running, or a series of steps for others to follow.  Rather it is an attempt through writing to understand himself better, and in doing so, share what he has learnt along the way.  And so he recounts how he sold his jazz bar to begin writing and how he later began running, and how the disciplines informed both.  The book is a series of chapters that have been written between longer jobs at various places, and as he says in his Afterword, therefore took a long time to write.  And so it has a purposefully disjointed to and fro feel, reflecting someone rifling through their memories, and finding linkages. And so we find ourselves training in Tokyo gardens, then participating in New York marathons, then Japanese Ultrathons, then jogging by the Charles River whilst lecturing in Harvard.

As someone training for their first marathon I found the book both scary and helpful.  Marukami’s account of his first marathon, following the same route as the very first in Athens, is a vivid and memorable sequence.  He ran in incredible heat, the salt of his sweat drying in the heat.  He describes the various stages, the long busy motorway at the start, the segue into the country, and recounts his mood of irritation and anger with everything towards the end.

The other stand out chapter is the ultrathon.  This is terrifying, even for a marathon a year runner like him.  He describes in scary detail the physical symptoms of knotting muscles, swelling limbs, legs going dead.  He pumps his arms so hard to keep moving his wrists swell!

There are also vivid insights into the writing process, the hard work and ultimate satisfaction of writing, especially a novel.  He also writes on the peculiar psychology of writing, how he has learnt to deal with the morbidity, he calls it the toxicity that occurs in the mental health of writers.  And he writes on the no small matter on dealing with the human condition, of looking to the sky for kindness and seeing only clouds, of ageing and accepting its rigors and demands.

In short it’s a rich and rewarding read, not to be confined to the sports shelves alone.


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