by Kathleen Goodwin
I only recently had the pleasure of reading Haruki Murakami's memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, published in 2009. There were multiple times when reading this elegant little book when I literally gasped with astonishment at Murakami's ability to perfectly describe my own love/hate relationship with distance running and how precisely it feels to run along my native Charles River on the shores of Boston and Cambridge and in my newly adopted New York City. Strange looks on the N/Q/R line only quelling my enthusiasm slightly, I became convinced while reading that Murakami must be my soul mate and despite his being 41 years my senior and married, I began hatching plans that would allow me to make it known to Mr. Murakami that he understood the hidden contents of my psyche in a way that no writer or real life friend had ever been able to achieve. On further reflection, I've come to realize that Murakami may have been achieving less of a form of telepathy with me and more of a succinct rendering of some of the truer parts of the human spirit, perhaps common to all mankind and not just to him and myself, two mediocre yet dogged runners in an unforgiving world.
Murakami himself admits to the implicit indulgence of writing a book solely about himself running numbingly long distances, perhaps among the most boring subjects for a writer to cover. His memoir doesn't seek to recommend any sort of product (or lack of product) or to instruct readers on training techniques or even to offer helpful advice on how to mentally prepare for, or survive during, a marathon. Murakami is forthright in his book's lack of both intentions and narrative tension. And Murakami happens to be an award winning writer and thus has far more authority when it comes to writing about tedious things. And yet, I ask any reader who has made it this far, to indulge me for a few more paragraphs, as I contemplate the same topic, with far less writerly credibility.
Before I was ever a runner I grew up as a competitive swimmer. Swimming was the mainstay of my childhood and adolescence for a decade, then I became a rower in high school which lasted briefly into college. It wasn't until the summer after I turned 20 that I became addicted to a specific six mile loop encircling the banks of the Charles. Murakami writes of his own favorite path near his home in Japan as being encouraging in its familiarity, rather than boring. I find my repetitions of this particular course to feel like rereading a truly brilliant novel, every reacquaintance reveals an increasingly complex sort of beauty created by my appreciation of the world around me and confidence of my place within it. Like many, I began regularly running, as a way to lose weight, specifically when transitioning from being a rower to a coxswain, the small people who steer the boat and encourage the rowers instead of holding an oar themselves. I found, that even as I dropped closer to an acceptable coxswain weight, that rather than feeling physically reduced, I felt stronger and more solidly sure of my self as an athlete but also of the metaphorical ground beneath me. It was a way that swimming had once been able to make me feel— physically buoyant and psychologically rooted. That fall I ran my first half marathon and the following spring, a few weeks before my twenty-first birthday, my first marathon, which I was lucky to have be The Marathon—which is Boston, of course.
From my choice of athletic activities it's clear that I am a fan of slow, sustained cardio, generally performed solitarily. And while my father, boyfriend, and the NY Times “Well” blog remind me on a regular basis that interval training burns more calories than a steady plod, I obstinately maintain that I'd rather run for 90 minutes at a comfortable aerobic clip than spend 45 alternating between sprinting and walking. I take a sort of pride in my consistent pacing because I honestly find it to be— in some sense— more mature than briefly attempting to reach my uppermost limit of speed. Anyone can sprint out a quarter mile and then collapse on the grass dramatically huffing, it takes a measured effort to run at the exact same pace mile after mile, day after day. It takes a deep understanding of yourself and both an acceptance of the body's limits and a determination to push through the cold or heat and increasing exhaustion to finish out the run you set out to complete. And while I deeply respect the skill it takes to be part of a team of six, ten, or eleven players united in the single minded pursuit of goal scoring, there is also an essential part of me that requires approximately 40 lonely miles each week. These few hours without the complications of interactions with fellow humans maintains my sanity but it is also presents a challenge. I can't hide from myself when running and all of my weaknesses, as well as my strengths, must be addressed in order to make myself complete a run each day.
What I find Murakami's memoir to reveal so beautifully is the paradox of human nature and physicality in being both surprisingly strong and fragile simultaneously. Murakami believes that he is compelled to run because his occupation as a writer forces him to confront some of the most toxic aspects of the human spirit and the darkest parts of his own soul. He finds running to be a sort of antidote to this and while he doesn't provide any concrete examples of this, the implication is that running is a respite that purifies him from the toxicity of writing. While, I agree with Murakami's assessment of the cleansing power of a long run, I would add that I find that running also forces me to recognize some of the less savory aspects of my own self.
Murakami writes of multiple instances when his muscles cramp and stiffen to the point that he is no longer able to continue to run, or only at a maddeningly slow pace. At times he can attribute this to insufficient training or hydration but on some occasions, there is nothing within in his internal control and nothing in the external environment that predicts the sudden onset of an inability to run at the pace he has been able to maintain on thousands of miles for almost half of his life. I've been lucky that throughout my training and participation in two marathons and many half marathons, I've never faced any serious muscle, or bone/joint issues and I overall can't report anything more than the holistic and consistent pain that always accompanies a long run during these races. Instead it is my lungs that have sometimes failed to support me in these endeavors. When reading about Murakami's own frustration with his cramping leg muscles, I recognized the futility I have experienced when despite my legs proudly declaring their ability to trudge on for countless miles, my constricting bronchioles make even a mile feel like a marathon.
In March of 2011, I made the poor choice to sign up for a 20 mile race that begins in Maine, continues along the brief New Hampshire coastline and ends just over the Massachusetts border. March in New England is never spring no matter how hard one wishes it to be and along the water in its northernmost states it is certainly more like January than June. My asthma has always been exacerbated by cold, but throughout the snowy winter of training runs I had mostly been able to keep it in check. I thought that this 20 mile race would be a perfect warm-up for the Boston Marathon three weeks later so registered with a naïveté that now makes me cringe. The week before the 20 miler I had built up to 18 miles and had noticed that during that long, cold Massachusetts run up the Minuteman bike path that my breath had felt what I describe as “tight”. Which means that when I attempt to inhale my lungs feels as if they are made of rigid wood instead of malleable tissue and thus can't expand to assume the full volume of the breath I need to push me through the miles my legs obliviously accept. Usually a few minutes after I stop running the tightness subsides, but I only peripherally noticed that in the days following my 18 miler my breath continued to feel constricted. The nights leading up to the 20 mile race my body woke up every few hours because of my shortness of breath and I carelessly continued to take puffs of albuterol to regain my ability to fall back asleep.
Anyone with any sort of common sense would have thought to their self, perhaps it is not a good idea to attempt to run 20 miles in 14 degree weather when even the strain of laughter causes you to reach for your inhaler, never mind over two hours of aerobic exercise. But what I have found is that at a certain point, when I am in full running form and my legs are strong enough to run mile after mile without tiring that any form of logic is driven out by a dangerous endorphin cocktail. On truly good runs I experience a “runner's high” that makes me bolt out in front of turning cars on Memorial Drive rather than wait for a walk signal and disrupt my cadence. It makes me run 16 miles when I originally set out to eight, ignoring bleeding blisters on my heels and papers waiting to be written. In short, I become a reckless idiot and that is my only explanation for running 20 miles down the New England coastline with lungs in full respiratory distress. When speaking to the ER doctor at Mass General a few hours later and explaining that I had been taking approximately two dozen puffs of albuterol a day instead of the recommended maximum of four, his incredulity confirmed my idiocy. Only because of a round of strong steroids was I able to run the Boston Marathon three weeks later. When training for my next marathon nine months later I ended up with dangerously inflamed lungs again, and thus decided I should probably hold off from attempting to complete full marathons for a few seasons.
My body surprises me regularly with its ability to valiantly hold up for miles upon miles of pounding into a hard paved road and my will to keep making myself perform this ritual torture day after month after year in rain, snow, or shine. And yet despite its resilience and determination, it also surprises me with its sudden fragility, my lungs ceasing to work properly in the space of just a few minutes, and my inclination to give up, sometimes after just one or two miles and how hard it occasionally is to make myself put on my sneakers and begin a run at all. Yet at the same time, there is a rashness that so boring and consistent a sport brings out in me. Running is about obtaining obedience from your body and I suppose I shouldn't find it surprising that when my lungs fight against me in my quest to keep churning out miles, I attempt to make them submit in the same ways I ask my burning legs to continue to run when they are tired. While my conscious mind is aware that it is unwise to try to run when you can't breathe, a part of me stupidly wonders if I can overcome this limitation through sheer force of will. Humans are strange creatures for both their enduring practicality and their ability to delude themselves from reality and for both Murakami and myself this paradox is best displayed through running. We require running to be the best and most productive versions of ourselves, yet we find that it makes us it do needlessly reckless things in order to test our own limits. Of course, most of the time we are able to find a sustainable equilibrium and that is why we continue to run each day, although we know it makes us a little bit crazy. The takeaway I gleaned from Murakami's memoir and my own reflection on my brief running career, is that we may all be a little bit irrational in the end.