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Original Essays | June 20, 2014

Lauren Owen: IMG The Other Vampire

It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches... Continue »
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What I Talk about When I Talk about Running


What I Talk about When I Talk about Running Cover

ISBN13: 9780307389831
ISBN10: 0307389839
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How does a ghost story start? How about with an old man? The one Im thinking about is unexceptional on the surface. Handsome, I guess. Quite fit for his age. A little shorter than he used to be, which was never exactly tall. Hes never been arrested, was never late with a bill, and he sits through five p.m. mass every Saturday like clockwork. Alive for more than seventy years, hes spent the last thirty in a Midwestern suburb, in a four-story house overlooking a small sylvan lake. Hes retired now, finally, from one of those vague business-type jobs—management consultant in his case—that paid him enough money to support a wife, to shepherd four kids through graduate schools, to care for his mother, and to take vacations now and then. Italy one year. Baltimore, for some reason, the next.

   This ghost is not dead. Anything but. A female friend, upon being introduced to him, reports that my dad “still has it going on.” He and I talk on the phone at least once a week. We talk about the Chicago Cubs and his golf game and whether hes added any beer cans to his collection. We talk about Notre Dame football. We talk about the weather. Gingerly, we dance around what I call my career, and what he once called my permanent vacation. We never talk about the story rattling around my head, the story haunting me.

   It goes like this: When my dad was my age, thirty-nine years old, he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. He drank a couple of beers every evening after work, and never exercised. He was overweight. When he was my age, my dad decided to take up jogging to drop some of those excess pounds. Nothing serious. Just a few laps around the cul-de-sac. It was the 1970s. The American Frank Shorter had won gold and silver medals in two successive Olympic marathons, igniting a running boom. My dad, who set out only to lose some weight, attacked jogging with the same focus with which he approached his work, the same focus that enabled him to rise—completely on his own, seemingly through sheer will—from a working-class assignment in Milwaukee to a station atop the upper middle class. He took up jogging with the same zeal that led him to acquire, by the time he was my age, a wife and four kids and a house on a golf course. And a Chrysler New Yorker that he was terribly proud of. And financial security. And genuine professional success. Within one year of his first step as a jogger, he qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon, finishing the greatest road race in the world in less than three hours.

   I was eight years old when he pulled this off. The same year he ran Boston for the first time, the Boston Globe Sunday magazine published a huge feature on him. Six pages long, color photos, and the framework for the story that now lives in my head. The newspaper celebrated the way my dad—smoker, beer drinker, etc.—transformed from couch potato to Boston in only a year. He was painted as superhuman, basically, which is how Ive come to view his achievement.

   Not long after I turned thirty, around the time my life began to collapse, the story in my head started to grow, to metastasize. I cant help but compare his standing then with my current station in life. I do not have four kids. I dont have any kids. I dont even have a wife anymore. I definitely dont have a house, much less a house on a golf course. Im in the prime of my working life, yet Ive actually lost money each of the past eight years, a streak that began when I left my wife, which was also the last year I held a steady job. To get by, Ive exhausted my life savings. Ive spent the past fifteen months living in a converted chicken coop. Thats not a joke. In the state of Colorado, where I moved just over a year ago, I have been officially declared indigent.

   Id never been to Colorado before. Id never even driven through the state. I moved west from Florida because I wanted to place a new story in my head. A story about applying myself and stripping away everything inessential and finally living up to the standard my father had set. In the new story I hoped to author, I am no longer the shiftless son or the floundering son or the son adrift. In the new narrative, I finally become a son without adjectives.

   I spent a lot of time picturing how it would all turn out. I imagined molding myself into a person of substance, a guy people can count on, a doer. I saw my life landing back on track. If I got up every day and ran and focused and lived with discipline, I figured, it would follow that Id also become an adult and find work and fit in with everyone else in America. Maybe Id find a new wife, too. At no point did I envision a gray February morning in a tacky Southern tourist town. I never saw my head bowed, my eyes fixed on the soft asphalt under my swollen feet. I didnt expect to look down long enough to notice, for the first time, that the black laces on my yellow racing flats have sparkly silver threads weaved into them. In this vision that I did not foresee, in a story I did not anticipate writing, I am staring at the ground. My dad stands maybe fifteen feet away, just over the finish line and behind an orange plastic traffic barricade. I am staring at the ground and he is staring at me. The ghost is staring straight at me.


March 1. Day one. Two hundred and fifteen pounds. Body fat 22.5 percent. Twenty frozen minutes.

   I get up in the morning a bit after seven. I pull on new black thermal tights and a new Nike compression shirt I bought at the Boulder Running Company, telling the clerk I hadnt seen winter in fifteen years and I didnt know what to wear. I squeeze into a pair of ten-dollar running socks that are supposed to keep my feet from blistering, then tie my ninety-dollar running shoes purchased in Miami about a month ago, which was about a month before I left. Over my compression shirt I layer a cotton sweatshirt from the law school my brother attended and a new Mizuno windbreaker my older sister gave me. A heart-rate monitor hugs my chest just below the nipples. I walk down to Boulder Creek, to a seven-mile concrete path winding through the heart of my new town. Snow dusts the creek bed. Black water gurgles under sheets of cracked ice. I press a button to start my GPS satellite watch, purchased on the last day of December, the last day, according to a resolution, I would spend any more money. And Im off. The first step. Or, at least, the first step in Colorado.

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BrianJonesDOTcom, March 15, 2014 (view all comments by BrianJonesDOTcom)
I have this theory that goes like this: sometimes we find books, and sometimes books find us.

Oftentimes I'll pick up a book, read a few lines, and quickly close the covers. I'll instinctively know that no matter how much I want to read it that that book's message was meant for a later time. And sure enough, years later, I'll spot the book on the corner of my shelf and be moved to pick it up, only to find exactly what I needed to hear. It's funny how life, and reading, works that way.

Other times I'll find a book in the most random way - through a footnote or a random citation in an obscure periodical, for instance - and that book's message will be exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in my life. That was certainly the case with Japanese novelist Karuki Murakami's wonderful little book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

While training for the New York City Marathon Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami decided to write about it as well. What materialized was a unique memoir that discusses his twin passions of writing and running, and the interesting way they nurture and inform each other.

I've been struggling as of late staying focused on the hard work of writing, so when I opened the book and read the following lines I knew that a message that I needed to hear had found me:

"One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had taught him which he's pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you're running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running."

If you feel called to creative work, and are struggling with finding the discipline necessary to create a body of work, you'll find this playful, oftentimes philosophical memoir food for your soul.
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marathongirl, December 1, 2012 (view all comments by marathongirl)
I'm a runner and as I read this memoir I recognized bits of myself in Mr. Murakami. Like him, no one has asked me or ordered me to ever run, but, yet, I do. And, as he mentions, maybe it's a rather pointless act (nothing tangible is created) but the effort, the pain, the attainment of goals becomes the point. I run because it gives me more pleasure, more sanity then pain. And therein is a very compelling point.
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alyssa reed, January 2, 2011 (view all comments by alyssa reed)
Reading this book rejuvenated my faith in writing and helped me start running. Murakami's simple, charming prose makes enchanting creative nonfiction.
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Product Details

Murakami, Haruki
Vintage Books USA
Gabriel, Philip
Powell, Robert Andrew
Personal Memoirs
Running & Jogging
Asian - General
Marathon running
Murakami, Haruki
Biography - General
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage International
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.25 x 5.5 in 0.84 lb

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Sports and Outdoors » Sports and Fitness » Running » General

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
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Product details 192 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780307389831 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Murakami's latest is a nonfiction work mostly concerned with his thoughts on the long-distance running he has engaged in for much of his adult life. Through a mix of adapted diary entries, old essays, reminiscences, and life advice, Murakami crafts a charming little volume notable for its good-natured and intimate tone. While the subject matter is radically different from the fabulous and surreal fiction that Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) most often produces, longtime readers will recognize the source of the isolated, journeying protagonists of the author's novels in the formative running experiences recounted. Murakami's insistence on focusing almost exclusively on running can grow somewhat tedious over the course of the book, but discrete, absorbing episodes, such as a will-breaking 62-mile "ultramarathon" and a solo re-creation of the historic first marathon in Greece serve as dynamic and well-rendered highlights. Murakami offers precious little insight into much of his life as a writer, but what he does provide should be of value to those trying to understand the author's long and fruitful career. An early section recounting Murakami's transition from nightclub owner to novelist offers a particularly vivid picture of an artist soaring into flight for the first time." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information Inc.)
"Review" by , "Highly recommended...Practical philosophy from a man whose insight into his own character, and how running both suits and shapes that character, is revelatory and can provide tools for readers to examine and improve their own lives."
"Review" by , “A fascinating portrait of Murakami’s working mind and how he works his magic on the page.”
"Review" by , "In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, [Murakami] has turned something seemingly mundane – his running journals – into a brilliant meditation on how his running and writing nurture and sustain each other...With spare, engaging prose...Murakami shares his runner's high."
"Review" by , "A genuine memoir, filled with gentle minutiae that truly communicates the rhythm of Murakami's daily life and work...Murakami actually offers himself whole."
"Review" by , "A felicitous, casual series of reflections and anecdotes...[Murakami] has a Warholian way of tinting the mundane with mystery and restrained humor...Do still waters run deep? This paean to a runner's life keeps us, pleasurably, wondering."
"Review" by , "Beautifully written and full of great running aphorisms...Anyone who knows perseverance can appreciate this work."
"Synopsis" by , By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, this memoir is both for fans of this masterful yet guardedly private writer and for the exploding population of athletes that finds similar satisfaction in distance running.
"Synopsis" by , A moving memoir about a man who at the lowest point in his life decides to turn everything around, signing up for his first marathon and—one foot after another—begins a life-altering adventure.

"Synopsis" by ,
When journalist Robert Andrew Powell finished his first marathon, he cried, cradled in his father's arms. Long-distance runners understand where those tears come from, even if there are others who will never grasp what drives someone to run 26.2 consecutive miles in a grueling mental and physical test. Powell's emotional reaction to completing the race wasn't just about the run, though. It was also about the joy and relief of coming back up after hitting rock bottom.

Running Away is the story of how one decision can alter the course of a life. Knocked down by a divorce and inspired by his father, Powell decided to change his mindset and circumstances. He moved to Boulder and began running in earnest for the first time in his life. Over the 26.2 chapters that follow, Powell grapples with his past, gaining insight and hard-won discipline that give him hope for the future.

"Synopsis" by , AUGUST 5, 2005 . KAUAI, HAWAII

Who's Going to Laugh at Mick Jagger?

I'm on Kauai, in Hawaii, today, Friday, August 5, 2005. It's unbelievably clear and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. As if the concept clouds doesn't even exist. I came here at the end of July and, as always, we rented a condo. During the mornings, when it's cool, I sit at my desk, writing all sorts of things. Like now: I'm writing this, a piece on running that I can pretty much compose as I wish. It's summer, so naturally it's hot. Hawaii's been called the island of eternal summer, but since it's in the Northern Hemisphere there are, arguably, four seasons of a sort. Summer is somewhat hotter than winter. I spend a lot of time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and compared to Cambridge--so muggy and hot with all its bricks and concrete it's like a form of torture--summer in Hawaii is a veritable paradise. No need for an air conditioner here--just leave the window open, and a refreshing breeze blows in. People in Cambridge are always surprised when they hear I'm spending August in Hawaii. "Why would you want to spend summer in a hot place like that?" they invariably ask. But they don't know what it's like. How the constant trade winds from the northeast make summers cool. How happy life is here, where we can enjoy lounging around, reading a book in the shade of trees, or, if the notion strikes us, go down, just as we are, for a dip in the inlet.

Since I arrived in Hawaii I've run about an hour every day, six days a week. It's two and a half months now since I resumed my old lifestyle in which, unless it's totally unavoidable, I run every single day. Today I ran for an hour and ten minutes, listening on my Walkman to two albums by the Lovin' Spoonful--Daydream and Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful--which I'd recorded on an MD disc.

Right now I'm aiming at increasing the distance I run, so speed is less of an issue. As long as I can run a certain distance, that's all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day's work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed--and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.

It rained for a short time while I was running, but it was a cooling rain that felt good. A thick cloud blew in from the ocean right over me, and a gentle rain fell for a while, but then, as if it had remembered, "Oh, I've got to do some errands!," it whisked itself away without so much as a glance back. And then the merciless sun was back, scorching the ground. It's a very easy-to-understand weather pattern. Nothing abstruse or ambivalent about it, not a speck of the metaphor or the symbolic. On the way I passed a few other joggers, about an equal number of men and women. The energetic ones were zipping down the road, slicing through the air like they had robbers at their heels. Others, overweight, huffed and puffed, their eyes half closed, their shoulders slumped like this was the last thing in the world they wanted to be doing. They looked like maybe a week ago their doctors had told them they have diabetes and warned them they had to start exercising. I'm somewhere in the middle.

I love listening to the Lovin' Spoonful. Their music is sort of laid-back and never pretentious. Listening to this soothing music brings back a lot of memories of the 1960s. Nothing really special, though. If they were to make a movie about my life (just the thought of which scares me), these would be the scenes they'd leave on the cutting-room floor. "We can leave this episode out," the editor would explain. "It's not bad, but it's sort of ordinary and doesn't amount to much." Those kinds of memories--unpretentious, commonplace. But for me, they're all meaningful and valuable. As each of these memories flits across my mind, I'm sure I unconsciously smile, or give a slight frown. Commonplace they might be, but the accumulation of these memories has led to one result: me. Me here and now, on the north shore of Kauai. Sometimes when I think of life, I feel like a piece of driftwood washed up on shore.

As I run, the trade winds blowing in from the direction of the lighthouse rustle the leaves of the eucalyptus over my head.

I began living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of May of this year, and running has once again been the mainstay of my daily routine ever since. I'm seriously running now. By seriously I mean thirty-six miles a week. In other words, six miles a day, six days a week. It would be better if I ran seven days, but I have to factor in rainy days, and days when work keeps me too busy. There are some days, too, when frankly I just feel too tired to run. Taking all this into account, I leave one day a week as a day off. So, at thirty-six miles per week, I cover 156 miles every month, which for me is my standard for serious running.

In June I followed this plan exactly, running 156 miles on the nose. In July I increased the distance and covered 186 miles. I averaged six miles every day, without taking a single day off. I don't mean I covered precisely six miles every day. If I ran nine miles one day, the next day I'd do only three. (At a jogging pace I generally can cover six miles in an hour.) For me this is most definitely running at a serious level. And since I came to Hawaii I've kept up this pace. It had been far too long since I'd been able to run these distances and keep up this kind of fixed schedule.

There are several reasons why, at a certain point in my life, I stopped running seriously. First of all, my life has been getting busier, and free time is increasingly at a premium. When I was younger it wasn't as if I had as much free time as I wanted, but at least I didn't have as many miscellaneous chores as I do now. I don't know why, but the older you get, the busier you become. Another reason is that I've gotten more interested in triathlons, rather than marathons. Triathlons, of course, involve swimming and cycling in addition to running. The running part isn't a problem for me, but in order to master the other two legs of the event I had to devote a great deal of time to training in swimming and biking. I had to start over from scratch with swimming, relearning the correct form, learning the right biking techniques, and training the necessary muscles. All of this took time and effort, and as a result I had less time to devote to running.

Probably the main reason, though, was that at a certain point I'd simply grown tired of it. I started running in the fall of 1982 and have been running since then for nearly twenty-three years. Over this period I've jogged almost every day, run in at least one marathon every year--twenty-three up till now--and participated in more long-distance races all around the world than I care to count. Long-distance running suits my personality, though, and of all the habits I've acquired over my lifetime I'd have to say this one has been the most helpful, the most meaningful. Running without a break for more than two decades has also made me stronger, both physically and emotionally.

The thing is, I'm not much for team sports. That's just the way I am. Whenever I play soccer or baseball--actually, since becoming an adult this is almost never--I never feel comfortable. Maybe it's because I don't have any brothers, but I could never get into the kind of games you play with others. I'm also not very good at-one-on-one sports like tennis. I enjoy squash, but generally when it comes to a game against someone, the competitive aspect makes me uncomfortable. And when it comes to martial arts, too, you can count me out.

Don't misunderstand me--I'm not totally uncompetitive. It's just that for some reason I never cared all that much whether I beat others or lost to them. This sentiment remained pretty much unchanged after I grew up. It doesn't matter what field you're talking about--beating somebody else just doesn't do it for me. I'm much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself, so in this sense long-distance running is the perfect fit for a mindset like mine.

Marathon runners will understand what I mean. We don't really care whether we beat any other particular runner. World-class runners, of course, want to outdo their closest rivals, but for your average, everyday runner, individual rivalry isn't a major issue. I'm sure there are garden-variety runners whose desire to beat a particular rival spurs them on to train harder. But what happens if their rival, for whatever reason, drops out of the competition? Their motivation for running would disappear or at least diminish, and it'd be hard for them to remain runners for long.

Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he's accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can't, then he'll feel he hasn't. Even if he doesn't break the time he'd hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best--and, possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process--then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race.

The same can be said about my profession. In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics' praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can't fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn't seek validation in the outwardly visible.

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that's why I've put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I'm no great runner, by any means. I'm at an ordinary--or perhaps more like mediocre--level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

Since my forties, though, this system of self-assessment has gradually changed. Simply put, I am no longer able to improve my time. I guess it's inevitable, considering my age. At a certain age everybody reaches their physical peak. There are individual differences, but for the most part swimmers hit that watershed in their early twenties, boxers in their late twenties, and baseball players in their mid-thirties. It's something everyone has to go through. Once I asked an ophthalmologist if anyone's ever avoided getting farsighted when they got older. He laughed and said, "I've never met one yet." It's the same thing. (Fortunately, the peak for artists varies considerably. Dostoyevsky, for instance, wrote two of his most profound novels, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov, in the last few years of his life before his death at age sixty. Domenico Scarlatti wrote 555 piano sonatas during his lifetime, most of them when he was between the ages of fifty-seven and sixty-two.)

My peak as a runner came in my late forties. Before then I'd aimed at running a full marathon in three and a half hours, a pace of exactly one kilometer in five minutes, or one mile in eight. Sometimes I broke three and a half hours, sometimes not (more often not). Either way, I was able to steadily run a marathon in more or less that amount of time. Even when I thought I'd totally blown it, I'd still be in under three hours and forty minutes. Even if I hadn't trained so much or wasn't in the best of shape, exceeding four hours was inconceivable. Things continued at that stable plateau for a while, but before long they started to change. I'd train as much as before but found it increasingly hard to break three hours and forty minutes. It was taking me five and a half minutes to run one kilometer, and I was inching closer to the four-hour mark to finish a marathon. Frankly, this was a bit of a shock. What was going on here? I didn't think it was because I was aging. In everyday life I never felt like I was getting physically weaker. But no matter how much I might deny it or try to ignore it, the numbers were retreating, step by step.

Besides, as I said earlier, I'd become more interested in other sports such as triathlons and squash. Just running all the time couldn't be good for me, I'd figured, deciding it would be better to add variety to my routine and develop a more all-around physical regimen. I hired a private swimming coach who started me off with the basics, and I learned how to swim faster and more smoothly than before. My muscles reacted to the new environment, and my physique began noticeably changing. Meanwhile, like the tide going out, my marathon times slowly but surely continued to slow. And I found I didn't enjoy running as much as I used to. A steady fatigue opened up between me and the very notion of running.

From the Hardcover edition.

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