Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir
Publisher: Knopf
2008, 180 pages, hardcover, $21

what I Talk About When I Talk About Running is not a memoir in the strictest sense. As Haruki Murakami explains in the foreword, “Writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing. So I suppose it’s all right to read this as a kind of memoir centered on the act of running.” The story, essentially a journal chronicling his preparation for the 2006 New York Marathon, combines sound running advice with reflections on life–sometimes inspiring, sometimes despairing, but always presented in Murakami’s straightforward, light-hearted and ironic style.

His story begins and ends with a similar theme: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” From his first 26.2 mile run from Athens to Marathon, to the successful but disappointing conclusion of the 2006 New York Marathon, Murakami analyzes how putting his body into motion has forced him to accept his own limitations and, as a result, learn how to enjoy his successes.

The first chapter begins on August 5, 2006, in Kauai, Hawaii, and all but one chapter travels forward in time, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, until the final chapter on October 1, 2006, in Niigata Prefecture. Each chapter includes a summary of his recent training, presents tense details about his location as he travels between various places in Japan and the United States, and reflections on past struggles, such as his efforts to learn how to swim in triathlons.

Murakami’s journey from bartender to runner (and eventually triathlete) will be familiar to many runners. At first, he huffs and sweats running short distances, but dedication and training soon sculpt his body into that of a runner, with an unusually slow heart beat and strong, stout leg muscles. When he later adds swimming and bicycling to his running routine in order to participate in triathlons, his body changes even more, each change carefully noted in his journal. He designs his body the same way he designs his novels–slowly, carefully, simply, and passionately.

Runners will also recognize common concerns, from dehydration and over-training to troubled knees. The knees are every runner’s weak point, and Murakami comes to realize the importance of his when he feels a painful twinge while training. The physical concerns of racing form a large part of this memoir, and in many ways it demonstrates the recommended way to train for a marathon: Murakami gradually lengthens his runs until he reaches an average of fifty miles per week, then decreases this distance to save his strength for the actual marathon.

The sixth chapter breaks chronological order to emphasize a significant running accomplishment: an ultramarathon in 1996; sixty-two miles in a single day. While a race of this distance seems insane at first, Murakami pushes through his doubts and finishes the race without walking. The unusual leap in time for this chapter may be the author’s attempt to bolster his confidence–Murakami reminding himself and his readers that he successfully ran sixty-two miles in his younger days, and can continue to finish marathons despite the passage of ten years.

However, in the latter-half of the book, the deterioration of aging becomes a major concern, as Murakami reflects on his failing strength and the limitations of his body. Two hours and forty minutes had been his average marathon time, but as the story progresses, the reader sees Murakami’s anxiety and frustration as this time increases. In spite of this, he comes to terms with his body, he learns to accept that his future victories won’t be as spectacular as his past ones, but they will be victories nonetheless. Murakami found his 2006 New York Marathon time disappointing, but he was able to run the entire way. He explains that as a runner, he can accept slowing times, so long as he doesn’t start walking during a race.

Throughout the memoir, running and writing become intertwined, as they are both long distance events requiring constant practice and unswerving dedication. Just as a runner needs focus and endurance in order to train for and complete a marathon, writers also need the ability to concentrate and work for long periods of time.

Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. […] The whole process–sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track–requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside of you.

In every aspect of life, Murakami tries to commit himself fully. He explains how he gave up a successful career as a caf&eacute owner in order to pursue writing. Although many people advised him to keep his business while focusing on writing, Murakami needed total commitment to one pursuit. Later, when a magazine published an article about Murakami’s first marathon-length run in the sweltering heat of summertime Athens, Murakami’s dedication astounds the reporter, who had assumed Murakami would pose for pictures and not finish the route. Murakami himself is astounded at the thought that people would commit to race a marathon and not follow through.

While the memoir is packed with inspiring stories for marathon runners, triathletes, and writers, Murakami’s message is universal: in every activity there are battles we must overcome, and we won’t always succeed. There are no tangible rewards in life, only the fleeting moment of satisfaction when a minor victory has been accomplished. When considering what he would like to have written on his gravestone, Murakami doesn’t choose any of his great accomplishments, but a minor one, the goal he never failed: “Haruki Murakami. Writer (and Runner). At Least He Never Walked.”

-Anne Winchell