Earlier this month I found myself standing around on a sunny Labor Day morning at the Cuyahoga Fairgrounds, listening to German pop music and watching guys in lederhosen circulate through a crowd of people in running gear. I was going to run in the Cleveland Oktoberfest 5K, the first time I’d done something like that in…well…a very long time.
I used to do a lot of this sort of thing when I was in high school, but then I got more into team sports (first soccer, then rugby in college, competitive cycling, then soccer again). I’m used to having a bunch of teammates around me. But here I was, alone and trying to figure out how I was going to find my way through this thing. The starter called us to the line. I stood there, waiting for the gun in a crowd of strangers. And at that moment I was struck by a realization: this is exactly where I am supposed to be.
I got back into running about a year ago. It should come as no surprise that, as a librarian, I am kind of bookish and my normal mode of finding my way through something new is by reading about it. I’d read a few books about training, one or two about diet, and a few about the overall process, but I hadn’t really found anything that caught my imagination. Then one afternoon I was nosing around literary memoirs here at the library and I ran across What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I’ve always loved Murakami’s novels (especially The Great Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). Murakami’s books have a really odd perspective, and I don’t think that it’s just a matter of cultural translation between the Japanese and us. But they’re also humane and beautiful and once I start one I usually can’t put it down.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running intertwines the story of Murakami’s writing and his running. As in his novels, Murakami has an eye for interesting detail, as when he relates the story of deciding to write his first novel while lounging around the outfield bleachers at a Yakult Swallows game in 1978. For Murakami the process of becoming a novelist and that of becoming a runner had some important similarities. In both cases it took him a while before he realized that he was going to get serious about it. In both cases he was extraordinarily successful, becoming a world famous novelist and getting himself the point that he could run marathons (which only a relatively small proportion of runners ever do).
Murakami is funny and unassuming. For a guy who has actually managed to compete in triathlons he is very unpretentious. His motto, announced at the outset, is “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” There is something deeply attractive in this, especially for someone like myself who abhors running. Yes, I’ve admitted it. I really, really, really hate running. But years as a bike messenger destroyed recreational cycling for me and there just isn’t any other way that I can stay fit given the time and resources I have at my disposal. In a sense that’s why I found his motto so appealing. I spend a lot of my runs (and I run quite a bit) feeling like I’m going to die. It’s very seldom that I get into the zone and really feel good while doing it. I feel great when I stop, but that’s not quite the same thing.
Murakami, by contrast, really loves running. You might think that that might be a something that would really separate us. But, oddly, I feel a sort of kinship with the guy. This actually has a lot more to do with our differences. Murakami runs further (his base distance is 6 miles, while mine is between three and four), and with greater dedication (I’m never going to do a marathon, much less a triathlon). Also, Murakami hates running in foul weather. Strangely enough I love it, especially the rain which keeps me cooler than I would be otherwise. But we both share (as do all serious runners) the determination not to stop if at all possible. Running is a way of keeping busy and a way of keeping things in perspective. For both Murakami and me it is a way of getting rid of the sort of nervous energy that one all too often devotes to worrying about life’s trials.
You might look at a motto like “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” and think that it is altogether too glib. After all, awful things happen to people. There are certain situations (which I will leave to your imagination) in which suffering not only not optional but is the only option. Still, Murakami’s motto has a kind of Buddhist underpinning that I find compelling. For most things in life, maybe not all but most, how you feel about them is a matter of choice. Sometimes choosing to let go of anger or sadness or whatever is difficult, sometimes it’s impossible. But what Murakami wants to tell us is that running can give a person strong foundation from which to make decisions about how you’re going to react to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.