Today, I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I gifted it to myself back in August, but decided not to read it until a couple of weeks before I ran my first race…ever. That’s correct: I am 37 years old, and I have never run a race, not even in school. School, ha. I failed gym class more than once and when I did participate, I was only ever mildly skillful at two very specific things: being the goalie in floor hockey and serving the ball in volleyball.
As public school is a democratic institution devoted to both fairness and providing childers with a wide variety of enriching experiences, I was never allowed to remain indefinitely in the goal or in the corner of volleyball serving ferociousness; so when I was asked to play another position, I would simply walk away, in my stylishly pointy shoes, tight jeans, and very tall hair and sit it out whether or not I’d been granted permission to do so.
Fitness is not something people have generally associated with me, and I include myself in “people.” At 26, I had high cholesterol and would actually refuse to run to catch a bus or streetcar because I knew I couldn’t catch it anyway, and that I would be humiliatingly out of breath after giving up in defeat after approximately 30 seconds. I sat on me arse all day long and read and ate cheese and crackers; fresh air, sunshine, and vegetables were on the map beyond the part marked “There be dragons.”
I wanted to be a disembodied brain. Of course, ignore your body long enough, and it’ll come along and kick the everliving shit right out of you–and two years ago I found myself barely able to walk, definitely not fully upright, and likely for no farther than a kilometer or two–although I’m not sure of the latter as I never really tried. Years of grad school followed by bookstoring combined with almost no exercise had done me in. I was old before my time and had nothing but a life of physical pain to look forward to. And this only really bothered me initially because I was in so much pain that I’d begun finding it difficult to read; that’s fucked.
Well, things changed. I got some health care professionals on side; I soon, although not immediately, started doing what they told me to do, which was go to the gym every gosh darn day. At first, I could only manage 15 minutes on the lowest setting on the elliptical before my back went into dizzyingly painful spasms. I was patient; I kept getting direction; I kept going to the gym. Just over a year and a half after finally taking my physical health seriously, I rode 25km on my bicycle–this morning. I will run about 5.5 km tomorrow morning–the race is Oct 14 and much to my surprise it looks like I’ll be able to finish it in a respectable 30 minutes or so. I lift weights. I don’t get tired walking up hills. I can stand up straight. I’m no longer terrified of growing old.
Why all this pain and revelation and fodder for inspirational videos on the YouTube? Well, when I decided to read Murakami’s book it was for inspiration. I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect this:
Looking back now, I think the most fortunate thing is that I was born with a strong, healthy body. This has made it possible for me to run on a daily basis for almost a quarter century, competing in a number of races along the way. I’ve never had a time when my legs hurt so much I couldn’t run. I don’t really stretch much before running, but I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t been sick once. (p. 40)
I don’t know whether or not I was born with a strong, healthy body; that was the 70s and weren’t we all in a drug haze? I can’t remember the 70s. I do know that by the time I really had to begin paying attention to it, my body was so far beyond strong and healthy that those words would have been meaningless coming out of my mouth. Like another language. Murakami and I don’t speak the same language here. I have been hurt. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on rehabilitation. Stretch? I stretch before all physical activity and for a solid 45 minutes after every activity. I’ve ramped up very slowly to running 5km–like almost 2 years slowly–and I’m not ambitious. I don’t even know at this point if I’ll ever run a 10 km race. But now I know I’m in a position to find out if I’m capable of doing so without causing myself irreparable damage. (Sadly, I can no longer guarantee that I’ll find these things out not wearing a pink jacket from the Running Room. I bought it two days ago; it wasn’t even an impulse or guilt purchase. It has three handy pockets with zippers, as well as cuffins.)
It’s hard to draw inspiration from a marathon runner who’s never had any difficulties. So, I focused on enjoying this book for its Murakami-ness, by which I mean, in this instance, a slew of original and surprising observations blended seamlessly with as many trite cliches about what things mean. I kind of love Murakami but he also frustrates me to the point of near insanity. Probably almost everyone thinks in cliches a lot of the time–but most writers of any calibre would normally have too much self respect and/or crushing shame to put it down on paper with no irony in sight in any direction. One more endearing/irritating thing that makes Murakami so very original.
Now, back to the fiction and the foods (I have a very good comfort food/peanut butter food to post shortly…) and the tra la la of everyday life as a non-broken person.
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Like you, I was never an exercise person. The idea of sweating revolted me (still does, actually). Fortunately, it never caused me serious health problems, but as “becoming a woman” (I mean in my 20s, not puberty) completely destroyed my metabolism, I began to give in. I don’t go to the gym nearly as much as I should, but running is my game when I do.
What I liked about Murakami’s book (and I totally agree with you about the combo of endearing/irritating with the cliches) is that I’ve found running an exercise unlike any other I’ve tried. It’s just so intense; it’s the only one where I can get past the boredom and into a place where my brain just isn’t really there anymore. Yay brain-drugs! I still suck at it, so I’m very impressed with your turnaround from where you were to actually being able to run a race. Not sure if I’ll ever be quite up for that. And I’ll certainly never go through the kind of ultramarathon that barely seems to faze Murakami. But I felt like we both “got” the same thing out of running, ultimately, which was my favorite thing about the book.
You’re right, there really is nothing else like running. I cycle a lot, and even though I like to go very fast, it isn’t like running. I’ve had crazy endorphin rushes running that I wouldn’t have believed possible! But yes, my brain mostly just goes to this quiet happy place that is unique–and which Murakami does describe quite well, I think.
As for the race…well, I’m certainly not in it to win it! I’d have to shave like 19 minutes off my time. HA.
I’ve gone in the other direction – I used to be in the school team for just about everything, but since our family expanded (and my back imploded), I feel myself getting slower and more lethargic every day.
I don’t think I’d get along with this Murakami either 😉
What about swimming? Aren’t you in a nice warm part of the world? 🙂
My army of health pros had my swimming to help with my back. If only I were so entirely cat-like in my disgust at getting my face wet.
Good for you! I hope you have a fantastic race! I have never enjoyed running mostly because I end up with knees that hurt very badly. I played soccer in high school for a few years which involved a lot of running but I played defense so it was lots of stopping and starting plus, always on grass which I think made the difference. Bicycling has turned out to be my activity of choice and I like it lots and my knees don’t get mad at me. I have this Murakami book and haven’t read it yet. Interesting what you note about the use of cliches. Looking forward to your peanut butter recipe!
Cycling is my best thing too, actually. I should probably blog about that soon as well. I like it because it’s low impact but also because it’s just so good to be able to go so fast and still be outside (as opposed to inside a car or something). Murakami hates cycling, which made me even more dubious about him.
Peanut butter food recipe coming soon!
Well done you and good luck for the race. Not surprised that the Murakami book isn’t quite inspirational, he likes to defy expectations and is an unusual character.
Makes me wonder if he writes books in a similar manner, little preparation, just sits down and writes a huge complex other worldly book! I just finished 1Q84 and am still pondering how he did that.
In this book, he actually creates quite a mythology surrounding his writing; he tells the story of how he was laying around watching a baseball game outside and it just hit him that he should write a novel and so he did–even though he had, apparently, never once considered it before. At the same time, he admits to being quite workmanlike about it all, and sitting down to it every day. I’ll probably get to 1Q84 in the new year…