Miah, A. (2008) Inside the mind of a marathon runner, Nature, 454, 583-4.
Murakami and Me: Reading, Writing and Running.
These are three words I did not expect to encounter alongside each other with much passion. I grew up playing sports and I expected to have a physically active career, though long-distance running was not supposed to feature in that prospect. Yet, today I am nearer to being a runner than I have ever been and equally as near to being a reader and writer. However, of these three, it was running that came to me last and the hardest. So, had I encountered Murakami’s book one month before the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, I would have struggled to keep up with him. As it is, I have the fortune to have encountered it now, nearly four years – or one Olympiad - after Athens, during which I have learned to enjoy running.
The Athens Olympics was a turning point in my athletic career for one simple reason. Actually, before I go any further I should note that I was not competing as an athlete in Athens, more disrupting proceedings, but that is not what I want to talk about. After I returned home from the Games, something changed. I decided to start taking a Beclometasone diproprionate inhaler to treat my asthma. My physician had been prescribing this to me since I was a teenager, but I had never taken it, as I objected to being permanently medicated for a mild and reasonably well-controlled condition.
Until then, my asthma had been predictable and, to that extent, managed. Whenever I started to exercise, I would become short of breath and around five minutes into it, I would take my Salbutamol reliever (technically doping, if not prescribed). Once I had my fix, I would be able to continue, in some limited fashion. However, even with this boost, I would not cope particularly well with endurance events, like long-distance running. So, I was literally transformed when, within one month of taking my preventive inhaler, I could run for over one hour without taking a deep breath or needing any additional medication.
This is not so different from how it felt when I started reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, though I began reading it while convinced that he and I were different: he was human and I am a cyborg. When I run, I think about the fact that this should not be possible, I feel like I am defying nature and this motivates me. I feel ‘better than well’ (Elliot, 2003; Kramer 1994).
When I read I expect some kind of revelation. It is unreasonable, I know, but there it is; unavoidable and absolute. I brought this expectation to Murakami when receiving his memoir and there was a lot to expect. I had to confront my own anxieties about running, writing and philosophy, each of which cease to be in turmoil with each other. When he started running he was approximately the same age I am now.
Nature asked me to consider Murakami’s memoir in the context of my expertise on the ethics of biotechnological enhancements. If I were paranoid, I could imagine that my critics colluded to present me with a text that would irrevocably persuade me to the value of remaining un-enhanced by technology. After all, the experience of a long distance runner – international novelist or not – is typically an existential encounter, where performance is experienced as narrative first and competition second. However, what struck me about Murakami was his ability to reconcile these two dimensions. As a runner, he speaks of his body in mechanical terms, attributing autonomy to each body part, thereby invoking the prospect of intelligent biology. His muscles talk to him, plead with him and (sometimes) work with him. His relationship with various parts of his body is an exemplar of Cartesian dualism.
It is evident that Murakami’s primary mode of performance enhancement is training and, both critics and advocates of further human-technology integration should pause to reflect on that for a moment. However, in addition to this, Murakami celebrates technological support in various other ways. For example, he coats his body in Vaseline before donning a wetsuit at the start of a triathlon. This makes him more efficient at the switchover from swim to cycle, when he must remove the suit again. He uses a feather light bicycle to optimize his speed and explains how competitive cycling is not just the same as riding a bicycle for leisure. Thus, generating power on the up-peddle motion transforms the muscle group required to cycle. His running shoes are ultra light too and well padded, but not enough to prevent the knee damage, which he encountered after his 62-mile ultramarathon in Japan. In any case, Murakami is at ease with the prospect of the long-term damage that accrues from his running. At times, he speaks of it as a necessary inevitability and not a wholly negative consequence of the pursuit. However, I am sure he would not choose such pain or, at least, we know from his memoir that, whereas ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional’.
Running provides nourishment for Murakami’s writing; it allows him space – literally a void – that he sees as a necessary encounter with nothingness to balance the verbose life he leads. Rather like mountaineers, he runs because some, unknown force compels him – his legs need to run, he says. Readers who hope to understand Murakami through this memoir might feel unsatisfied after reading. He presents his life only insofar as it relates to running. There are no great mysteries revealed about his writing, where it comes from, what has inspired it, or what his books meant to him throughout the years. However, as its title suggests and as he intimates along the way, this is not really a memoir of Murakami’s life, but of his life as a runner. The text functions as a book in its own right as well as a polemic about why his life – books and running – cannot be treated separately. Those fans expecting more will realize that there is no other memoir for Murakami, save for this one, at least no other worthwhile one. Moreover, we would probably estimate correctly in concluding that this is Murakami at his most intimate.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a delightful and engaging book about what kind of man Murakami is, not about what he has done. It is written by a humble, self-effacing author who struggles with the idea of writing about himself, finding his fortunes to be a matter of unlikely chance. We learn some of these details as the story progresses and Murakami is particularly well qualified to write about himself, perhaps more than most of us. For, besides being his subject, he really has a strong sense of his own identity, his goals and expectations.
I doubt that human enhancement technologies would have improved Murakami’s enjoyment of running. However, after only 1 ultramarathon, around 25 marathons, countless half-marathons and triathlons, I’m just not sure that he is as serious a runner as he leads us to believe.
ELLIOTT, C. (2003) Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company.
KRAMER, P. (1994) Listening to Prozac, London, Fourth Estate.