I absolutely love working out. I know, some people think I’m crazy. But if I don’t work out for a few days, my pores feel clogged. My shoulders tense and my hips stiffen after days sitting in an office chair. I usually choose climbing and yoga to stretch out my muscles, undo the tension, and work up a sweat. But sometimes, especially when the dog hasn’t been out all day and is buzzing with energy, I choose to run.
I’ve never been able to get into running. I have been trying for years—literally, since my freshman year in high school when I ran cross country—and I still can’t shake the thoughts in my head when I force myself to run: I hate this. Why are my legs made of bricks? Everything is so heavy, even my arms are heavy. Thank God I have a dog to pull my slow butt around the track… My lungs are dying. I hate this.
One of my authors recommended I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. As another writer, she thought that I would connect with his story. Yes, I thought, surely a bestselling novelist can teach me how to love running.
And I did learn quite a bit. Murakami is clear upfront to say that this isn’t a book about how to be healthy or why everyone should run. It’s a meditation on what running means to him, and what he’s learned along the way. Writing about running is a way for him to process it, to reflect on how running has inspired him—otherwise, he says, “I’d never know what running means to me.”
The Runner’s Mindset
Running is like writing in that the only goal is to improve—”the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” Sure, you can make anything a competition, but for long-distance runners, and for writers, the motivation comes from within themselves, the desire to constantly improve. And, as Carol Dweck would add, the belief that you can improve.
Running in a Void
We’ve all heard people say that brilliance struck when they were on a walk or run, and now they have the answer to the problem they’ve been puzzling. Then we’re disappointed when we go for a run, and no such luck. Yes, exercise is healthy for the mind. But I wonder if, by distracting us, exercise gives our minds the space to process on a subconscious level. Murakami gets at this idea: “I run in order to acquire a void.” When Murakami is running, he’s rarely thinking of anything specifically. His mind is an open space where, he says, thoughts come and go like clouds. He doesn’t expect flashes of clarity or inspiration. Running—or exercise in general—is not a place to put more expectation, but to free us from expectation.
“As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”
Writing is Exercise
You learn a lot of lessons in exercising that can be applied to life—and to writing in particular. Pushing your body physically teaches you how to push your mind, to train it every day to do more than it did yesterday. Murakami says,
“These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?”
I just read this article about Colum McCann, an author and writing instructor at Hunter College in New York City. McCann says it this way: “Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes… The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. … The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again.”
Suffering is Optional
Murakami makes no bones about it: Pain is part of the process—but the process is overcoming the pain.
“It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive—or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself.”
The author is honest about his struggles with running: the times when he didn’t beat his own past time, how he feels that he’s past his physical peak, the joint pain and the young, springy runners who pass him in the park. But he still gets out and goes. Running, and writing, is about showing up every day and taking it on anyway. It will hurt. Whether you let it defeat you is up to you.
My author was right about something: I did relate to much of what Murakami wrote in this book. Many of the lessons he’s learned from running are lessons I’m also learning, lessons I’m applying to my work and my own writing. But not from running. What I learned in this short, wandering memoir, is that yoga and climbing are my running.
I probably won’t stop trying to love running. And maybe that’s part of the process. Maybe that’s the pain I’m working to overcome. We don’t have to like everything we do. A hobby doesn’t have to be something we “love” in order to benefit from it. This is true in exercise and in writing.