Taking inspiration from ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’

Haruki Murakami’s running routine as a paradigm for certain stuff about pain, transformation, the human experience, art and personal rebellion


Courtesy of Kobo

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is an inspiring read.

Adam Coil, Life Editor

Haruki Murakami’s memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, is a reflection on the harmonious duality of Murakami’s life as both a runner and a writer. By mapping out how his relationship with running has changed over time, Murakami pulls back the curtain to reveal his personal life, as well as how he has coped with his aging body. It’s a great read for any fans of Murakami, as well as anyone who has had a life-long relationship with a hobby.

One thing that initially stuck out to me as I was reading was the runner’s adage Murakami cites: “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional”. The saying seems so simple, so pedestrian that it activated that big, red, “too good to be true” button in my brain. “Is this all that running is,” I’m asking myself as I read, “just the ability to be blissfully ignorant to our own pain?”

Uncomfortable with the way this proposition sat in my head, I decided to test it out for myself. Murakami — acclaimed novelist, tee-shirt collector and overall cool guy — is one of my biggest heroes, both in a literary sense and as a human being. So I wanted to make sure I did everything right, meaning following his routine as diligently as I possibly could. This meant waking up at 5 a.m., running six miles and going to bed at 10 p.m., while also restricting my diet to principally vegetables and fruit. 

I figured this was going to be pretty tough, given that I’ve never really been a runner and haven’t intentionally woken up before 8 a.m. in months, and this assumption was totally accurate. It turns out that waking up — and then mustering up the strength to actually get out of bed — at 5 in the morning is a ginormous feat. In fact, I’m only capable of doing so roughly 67% of the time — and that data only accounts for the one week in which I had the extra motivation of knowing my responsibility to write about the experience.

I will say, though, that on the days I was able to get out of bed on time and go running, I found the experience mostly pleasant. Running in the cool, pitch-black air is a much different sensation than running in the sweltering heat with cars and pedestrians swirling around you. It’s difficult to explain, but the world has an uncanny tranquility and pleasantness when everyone is asleep. As I cross Reynolda Road and start jogging through a quiet slice of Winston Salem suburbia, I feel totally at peace. The orbs of amber and white in the sky guide me where I need to go and the lawn signs for local politicians and civil servants make me feel safe. There’s something about at least keeping up the pretense of caring about democracy that an American finds comforting in new locations.

Despite my attempts at romanticization, one unavoidable truth about running is that it sucks on a physical level. Even the people I know who genuinely love running don’t find it to be a pleasant experience in any concrete sense. This seemingly paradoxical statement is one that Murakami dives into in his book, so let me do my best to make sense of this nonsense. 

The act of picking up one leg and putting it down in front of the other for an hour on end is a torturous process, especially if you’re thinking about how far you have to go or how much homework you have to do when you’re done. The soreness and tightness you feel in your legs are not pleasant, in fact, they’re pretty excruciating at times. The beautiful, redeeming quality about running, though, is how it grants you the opportunity to enter a state somewhere in between consciousness and unconsciousness, such that when you finish a long run you almost feel like being awoken from a trance. 

At some point, if you run long enough, the pain numbs — or, rather, it becomes compartmentalized into something other than you. In this way, Murakami’s adage is true — while the pain is there, we have the choice to think about it or ignore it. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t still hurt, but, rather, that you have the ability to conquer it, annex it and refute it. You can say to yourself, to your legs, “So what? I’m going to stop, no matter how painful it is.” This idea that I have the ability to choose what I think about and what I let myself care about seems like one that could be pretty useful for my life, in general, and maybe yours too.

What I think is more useful than anything else from Murakami’s book is the notion that each of us not only needs but deserves to have an activity such as running in our lives. Whether it’s mountain climbing, gardening, swimming, yoga, bicycling or some other activity, it is crucial that we have something that grounds us, makes us more in tune with our physical bodies. This not only provides us with routine and makes us healthy but adds depth and quality to our lives.

While I only really have a week that can inform my experience, I can say that Murakami was able to better understand his own life through the act of running. Not only did running keep him in shape, but it made his own life a story equally worth celebrating as the ones he created on the page. 

In the incessant abstraction and alienation of daily life, isn’t something that makes us feel like whole human beings complimentary, if not essential, to our survival?