What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - A Book Review by Thomas O’Grady

Haruki Murakami is a renowned author, known primarily for his captivating storytelling. In "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, Murakami takes a detour from his usual imaginative landscapes to create an intimate memoir that invites readers into the world of Murakami's life as a celebrated author and an avid runner. The result is a collection of stories that transcends the boundaries of both literature and athletics.

At its core, the book is a meditation on the profound connections between writing and running, offering a unique perspective on the symbiotic relationship between physical and creative endeavors. Murakami takes readers on a reflective journey through his personal experiences, seamlessly blending anecdotes from his life with insights into the mental and physical challenges of both pursuits. Many of you are probably wondering how Murakami stacks up as a runner. Well, Murakami came to running later than most, starting at the age of 33 in 1982. Murakami trained consistently for decades after, having a schedule that consisted of training an average of six miles a day, six days a week. Murakami racked up an impressive resume of over 20 marathon finishes and even completed an ultramarathon of 62-miles in 1996. Murakami's interests have shifted over the years, and he also began to develop a taste for triathlons. Like many runners before him, Murakami faced aging and decided it was more important to continue training, albeit at a slower pace, than hang up his running sneakers.

One of the book's strengths lies in its universal appeal. For runners, Murakami provides a deeply relatable exploration of the sport, delving into the solitude, discipline, and mental fortitude required to conquer long distances. As he shares his marathon training routines and race day experiences, readers who lace up their running shoes will find themselves nodding in recognition, a shared understanding of the highs and lows that accompany the sport. However, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" is not merely a book for the running enthusiast. Murakami's prose, and popularity as a writer, transcends the sport. This book is equally engaging for non-runners. The narrative seamlessly weaves in broader themes such as discipline, perseverance, and the pursuit of one's passions, offering valuable insights that extend beyond the realm of running. It becomes a testament to the universal human experience of setting goals, facing challenges, and finding solace in the rhythm of daily life.

Murakami's writing is both candid and contemplative, allowing readers to glimpse into the author's mind as he grapples with the simultaneous demands of writing and running. Although the book itself is short, the book becomes a metaphorical marathon, where the finish line is not just the completion of a race, but the fulfillment of engaging in an activity that one enjoys and building upon the core aspects found in a life well-lived. As he reflects on his creative process, readers are offered a backstage pass into the mind of a prolific writer, demystifying the art of storytelling, and revealing the dedication required to produce enduring literature.

Another relatable aspect of Murakami's memoir is that those unfamiliar with his extensive body of work can still appreciate the sincerity with which he shares his thoughts and experiences. Murakami writes in a fashion that is straightforward and inviting. It creates a connection between the author and the reader. Whether discussing the rhythmic sound of his footsteps or the meditative nature of running, Murakami's writing is imbued with a wisdom that resonates with readers of all backgrounds. Whether its training for the New York City marathon, running in the crisp chill of Boston in the fall, or retracing the original route from Athens to Marathon alone in the heat of the summer, Murakami provides us with all the detailed nuances of what a runner notices while staring out into the world while traversing it on two feet.

The book's structure mirrors the ebb and flow of a long-distance run, with each chapter representing a mile marker on Murakami's literary and athletic journey. This metaphorical pacing allows readers to experience the highs and lows alongside the author, creating a narrative rhythm that mirrors the physical act of running. It's a clever literary device that enhances the overall reading experience, providing a sense of cohesion and continuity to Murakami's reflections. Murakami embraces the role that running has played in his life, stating that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.” Many runners can relate to this statement. Murakami further embraces the similarities between writing a novel and running a marathon as he describes how writing requires its practitioners to understand priority, talent, focus, and endurance. Each of these are paralleled in their importance to the sport of running.

While the memoir is undeniably introspective, it also touches on broader cultural and societal themes. Murakami's observations on the Japanese approach to running, the Tokyo marathon, and the discipline ingrained in Japanese culture offer a unique lens through which readers can explore the intersection of personal and collective experiences. This cultural context enriches the narrative, providing a depth that goes beyond the individual reflections of the author.

Murakami’s "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" is a captivating exploration of the interplay between writing, running, and the human spirit. Murakami's ability to seamlessly blend his personal anecdotes with universal themes makes this memoir a compelling read for both runners and non-runners alike. In fact, life and aging is a prominent theme throughout the book. Like many athletes, Murakami’s tastes initially shift from running when aging has caused him to be noticeably slow. Yes, it is his resilience and acceptance of the fact that he has slowed over the years, that allows him to accept life’s normal course and get on with things. Murakami talks candidly about experiencing runner’s blues. Murakami also talks about not being able to imagine the 21st century coming or reaching the age of fifty as a young man despite that these facts were a self-evident part of life. As a side bar, I can remember my own father (who is the same age as Murakami) saying nearly the same words at the same point in his life when Murakami was writing this story. Murakami’s words serve as a poignant reminder that running and life is a journey. And whether on the road or in the realm of creativity, the journey is as significant as the destination. Don’t forget that or you may miss out on the most important things in life and running. Through the rhythmic cadence of his prose, Murakami invites readers to lace up their own metaphorical shoes and join him on a reflective journey that transcends the physical and metaphorical finish lines of life.



Tom O'Grady is a runner, coach, and public health professional. In addition to being the new Editor of  The Pace Setter, Tom also writes book reviews and covers a variety of topic areas for The Pace Setter.






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