Book review: What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

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Murakami describes the feeling of pushing one's body to the limit better than anyone.

EVELYN WAUGH FELT EXERCISE was positively harmful in middle age because it "stirred up the poisons". He was one of those English writers, such as Cyril Connolly and Kingsley Amis, whose unhealthy lifestyle was so extreme – so much drink, food, and so little exercise – that in later life they all came to resemble one another, looking like great big wrinkly, pouchy babies.

Others have taken more care of themselves. Wordsworth went for long walks, AE Housman exercised assiduously with dumb-bells. But there has probably never been a major writer as fit as cult Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

He started running back in 1982 and he hasn't stopped yet. He generally hopes to run a marathon a year and has completed 25 so far. His first, back in 1983, was, appropriately enough, from Athens to the town of Marathon that gave the event its name.

In 1996, aged 47, he also completed the 62-mile super-marathon at Lake Saroma in Hokkaido, a distance that took him 11 hours and 42 minutes, describing the experience in a brilliant chapter here: "My body felt like it was falling apart and would soon come completely undone. Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down ..."

He clearly has the physique of an ox. "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."

His resting pulse, he casually mentions, is around 50 beats a minute. "But if I run for about 30 minutes it rises to about 70. After I run as hard as I can it gets near 100. So it's only after running that my pulse gets up to the level of most people's resting rate."

When he began running he gave up smoking – "I couldn't very well keep on smoking and continue running," he writes. "This natural desire to run even more became a powerful motivation for me to not go back to smoking ..."

He also found himself eating mainly vegetables, with fish for protein. "I never much liked meat anyway, and this aversion became even more pronounced. I cut back on rice and alcohol and began using all natural ingredients."

He admits to dreaming, on his furiously hot Greek marathon, of a nice chilled beer and treats himself to a cold Amstel when he finishes. "It tastes fantastic, but not nearly as great as the beer I'd been imagining as I ran. Nothing in the real world is as beautiful as the illusions of a person about to lose consciousness."

Part of the fascination of this book is having a writer as good as Murakami tell us what it feels like for anybody to train and run like this. There are plenty of better runners who presumably have had similar experiences but then are completely unable to talk about them interestingly, let alone write about them well. One would guess that runners like Paula Radcliffe would make a fascinating interviewee. One would guess wrong.

Murakami has always been good at vividly describing how it feels to be in one's body, in a particular place, at a certain time, in a way that sometimes seems quite nave, even simplistic, but nobody else manages quite so well. What does he think about when he's running? He hardly knows, he says. "I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People's minds can't be a complete blank."

But running has informed his work as a writer, he believes. "Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day ... I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different. In any event, I'm happy I haven't stopped running all these years. The reason is, I like the novels I've written."

Inevitably, the other great theme here is ageing – its effects being unsparingly revealed by precisely measured exercise. When he began running, he experienced that special joy of reversing entropy. "I could feel physical changes happening every day, which made me really happy. I felt like even though I was past 30, there were still some possibilities left for me and my body. The more I ran, the more my physical potential was revealed."

He reached his peak as a runner in his late forties. Now he is no longer able to improve his times, or maintain them. But he doesn't despair. He produces this wonderful metaphor for making do with the body you've got: "You open the fridge and can make a nice – actually even a pretty smart – meal with the leftovers. All that's left is an apple, an onion, cheese, and eggs, but you don't complain. You make do with what you have. As you age, you learn even to be happy with what you have."

And he won't stop running. "As long as my body allows, I'll go on running ... That's just my nature, the way I am. Like scorpions sting, cicadas cling to trees, salmon swim upstream to where they were born, and wild ducks mate for life."

Running, he says, isn't so much about living longer as living life to the full. "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."

This is what Murakami wants inscribed on his gravestone: "At Least He Never Walked." There can never have been a book quite like this memoir of running and writing, taken together, before. It's nothing less than an inspiration.

Harvill Secker, 192pp, 9.99