Book review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

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WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING Haruki Murakami Harvill Secker, £9.99

PAIN is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Haruki Murakami's summary of what it takes to run a marathon, and as a lesson for life, might seem at first sight as trite as the thought for the day in an office diary.

But the Japanese writer now claimed as one of the most influential in the world, a quarter of a century on from his best-selling breakthrough novel Norwegian Wood, goes beyond trite in this memoir of a long-distance runner.

You don't have to be a runner to appreciate what it means to run at least six miles each day, every day, training for at least one marathon a year, although knowing what hard physical effort of any kind is helps. Murakami, now 59, also competes in at least one triathlon – swim 1,500 metres, cycle 25 miles then run 6.2 miles – annually.

And once, a life-changing experience, he took part in a 62-mile race. Pain is inevitable: "You start to think: Man, this hurts, I can't take it any more. The hurt part is unavoidable reality…"

But suffering is optional: "…whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself."

That's running. That's life as he writes about it in a short, thoughtful book worth several shelves of self-help titles. He does not claim it as philosophy because he does not claim to be an intellectual: "I'm not the type who operates through pure theory or logic, not the type whose energy source is intellectual speculation. Only when I'm given an actual physical burden and my muscles start to groan, sometimes scream, does my comprehension meter shoot upwards and I'm finally able to grasp something."

That takes time and effort: "My only strength has always been the fact that I work hard and can take a lot physically. I'm more a workhorse than a racehorse."

There is more to it than that. A man with no previous literary leanings who decides, out of the blue at a baseball game, "I can write a novel," and goes home immediately – pausing only to buy paper and a $5 fountain pen – to write an award-winning book, has talent.

Yes, Murakami admits almost grudgingly, he probably has. Without some talent you can forget about being a novelist. But amount and quality of talent can't be controlled. Focus and endurance can be trained in the same way a runner trains for a marathon.

Focus is the ability to concentrate your talent, limited as it might be, on whatever is critical at that moment. Run six miles a day and focus. Sit at the desk for four hours and focus. After focus, for writer and runner, endurance wins hands down, the ability to maintain focus day after day for half a year, a year, whatever it takes. He says: "Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons."

I have quoted Murakami more than I have tried to interpret what he has to say. There's a good reason for that. He does it better: "People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But I don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits, that's the essence of running and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well."

In all his marathons, Murakami has never given in to suffering and he wants that recognised in his epitaph: "At least he never walked."

Until that is needed, he expects to keep running marathons and giving triathlons his best shot while writing novels people want to read. "One by one I'll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long distance runner."