Running, Swimming: Me and Murakami

This is a book about which many of you have expressed positive feelings, not just because Murakami is a great writer – though that is not so much in evidence here – but because his dedication to running strikes a chord. I’m not a runner and unlike Murakami, I enjoyed team sports, playing football, hockey, cricket, baseball and basketball in my last year at school (none of them well!), but I am (or was) a competitive swimmer, both at school and for more than twenty years from my late thirties.

If you have read his first two works (Wind/Pinball) you will probably be aware that in his twenties Murakami ran a jazz bar, until he had an epiphany at a baseball game and decided that he should be a writer. Shortly after, he decided that he should also be a runner.

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.

I resumed swimming because I was taking my kids to Nunawading pool for lessons and, well, because I still thought of myself as a swimmer despite 20 years out of the water. Started with 8 (50m) laps on Saturdays and it grew. I joined the Nunawading adult squad, under my old club mate and later Olympic coach Leigh Nugent, for 3 morning sessions of 3km each per week and was soon a member of Doncaster AUSSI masters club, training with them some evenings and competing at weekends.

Two or three years ago in a review WG, I think, was talking about elite sportsmen being winners, but by definition most of the people in any competition don’t win. Of course they’re often very good, but what motivates them, what motivates Murakami, what motivates me, is the race against an internal standard, to do the very best of which you are capable.

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 much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself.

Early on, while AUSSI sets a whole heap of tasks, like five 400m and five 800m butterfly swims per year, my personal objective was in the freestyle sprint, to get my 50m time below 30 sec. Sadly, my best recorded time is 30.01. If only the timekeepers had pressed their stopwatches 2 one hundredths of a second earlier, I would have been able to boast 29 point something.

… the hour or so I spend running, maintaining my own, silent, private time, is important to help me keep my mental well-being. When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody… I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I am running? I don’t have a clue.

A 3km swim training set is about an hour too. This is what I think about “cold, god it’s cold, and wet. 1.” Over I go, heading the other way, “1, that was 1, 1, 1. 2” Over I go, heading the other way. “2 … 2, don’t forget, 2” and so on to 20, 40, 100. If I think about anything else, then I do forget, and must try and recall which number I was chanting last.

As well as his philosophy of running, Murakami discusses in detail his preparation for and running of, three or four emblematic races, including a run early in his career, uphill! from Athens to Marathon.

Looking back at my running log, I think I’ve been able to prepare for the race [a Boston marathon] at a decent pace:

June   156 miles
July    186 miles
Aug.   217 miles
Sept   186 miles

The log forms a nice pyramid. The weekly distance averages out in June to thirty-six miles, then forty-three miles, then fifty, then back to forty-three.

The marathon of Australian swimming is the Rottnest Channel Crossing, from Cottesloe beach to Rottnest Island, a distance of 19.6 kms across the Fremantle shipping channel.

RCS 2015 Tatum (5)
2015. Cottesloe, pre-dawn start

When I moved back to Perth in 2002 my swimming was already dropping back from the peaks I – like Murakami – had achieved in my mid 40s, and anyway trucking was cutting into my opportunities for training. I joined my local AUSSI club, and in 2005 did a Rotto swim in a 4 person relay. Lots of fun and a really luxurious cabin cruiser as our support boat, but I didn’t have the money or the contacts to organize the support team for a solo. And it was another ten years, and I was well into my 60s, before the opportunity came up. O’Neal, one of my 2005 relay partners, offered to train with and coach me, O’Neal’s husband Ben agreed to kayak alongside me – a decision he both regretted and repeated on two more occasions – a mate had a boat, I hired accommodation on the island for the weekend, we were all set. All I had to do was train.

I swam between and during trips (at Port Hedland), sets of three, five and seven thousand metres three, four times a week, building not in Murakami’s smooth pyramid, but building nevertheless through ten, fifteen, twenty kilometres a week over the second half of 2014, peaking at twenty five in January then tapering to the swim in late Feb.

During January there were three 10 km races, completion (within four hours I think) of any one of which was required as a qualifying swim. I made a mess of the first, missing one of the bouys – I actually don’t like ocean swimming very much, and my stroke is not suited to it. But I aced the second, on the shallow, muddy rowing course at Champion Lakes.

On the day I was up at 4.00, round to O’Neal’s and down to Cottosloe. Launch kayak, grease swimmer (Gee’s job, then she raced off to get the kids and her sister and catch the ferry to see me finish). At 6.00 we’re off, high-stepping into the freezing water, dive, stumble, dive, settle into a stroke amidst the kicking of a hundred others, out to the first marker, look for Ben’s bright blue wig (he feels like a git, but he has to be recognisable) we meet and settle down for the long haul. I am at the 10 km mark in a bit over 3 hours, aiming to finish in 7.

Then it all goes to shit. The boat skipper has aimed us straight at the island, but the current in  the shipping channel is sweeping strongly out to sea. I spend an hour swimming back to the line, making almost no progress. I’m ill, I want to get out. What am I thinking? I’m thinking that if I stop moving my arms I will sink straight down. The support boat pulls alongside and they all shout at me to keep going. In the end O’Neal passes me a sea-sickness pill and I promise to do one more kilometre. They lie to me about which mark I’m up to. Slowly I come good. At ten hours and ten minutes I struggle up on to the beach. Gee and Psyche wrap me in towels and escort me to a shower and then to a gin and tonic. I think Psyche thought she was going to lose me. We party quietly into the night. Ben goes to bed early, his back agony after 10 hours of slow paddling.

And how was my time? Truth be told, not so great. At least, not as good as I’d secretly been hoping for. If possible, I was hoping to be able to wind up this book with a powerful statement like, “Thanks to all the great training I did I was able to post a great time at the New York City marathon [2005]. When I finished I was really moved.”

2016. Rottnest Is. finish line

The following year O’Neal and I kept training, though without the same determination, and we did Rotto as a duo, following a perfect line and finishing in 7 hours 20 min. In 2017 I fronted up again solo, but hadn’t put in the training. Again we got caught in the channel, and by the 17 km mark I wasn’t going to make the cut-off and the officials called time. I love the idea of doing another but I haven’t swum since.

If you haven’t read this already don’t be misled by my ‘review’. In the course of this memoir of his life as a runner Murakami talks constantly about whole heaps of things. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is an important insight into an important writer.


Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Vintage, 2009. Translated by the author.

see also:
Liz Dexter’s reviews (here) and (here)
Sue/Whispering Gums (here)

17 thoughts on “Running, Swimming: Me and Murakami

  1. This is a great “review” Bill. I used to fancy myself as a long distance runner in my teens and early 20s but life got in the way and I never went back to it. Then I discovered cycling sportives in my 40s and got quite into it for a few years (2013-16) but gave up when work got in the way. My biggest achievement was doing a two-day circumnavigation of London — 180 miles — in 2013! I could barely walk when I got off the bike and I remember crying my way through the last 30 miles! But boy, what an experience, given I did it on a very heavy hybrid (not racing bike) and was one of only a handful of women taking part. I read this Murakami book a couple of years ago and loved his insights into his life and his dedication to all manner of pursuits. It’s more than a book about running, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I should perhaps point out I hate swimming so have great admiration for anyone who loves it and is good at it. You get brownie points on both counts. And I could NEVER imagine swimming that shipping channel: it’s bloody wide & busy!


    • For some reason it is very fulfilling to push ourselves to the limit. I love the idea of doing it again but hate the idea of pushing myself into cold outdoor pools for another year of winter training. Melbourne has a similar cycling event – apart from the ‘Great’ rides which are very gentle, over multiple days – around the Bay in a Day (or some similar name). Perhaps you could engage in some sports tourism.
      Definitely about more than running (and in fact a little bit about swimming), but the running bits struck such a chord that I thought I’d try and write how I reacted as I read.


  2. I am so impressed with all the swimming you’ve done. My husband is a swimmer, too, and he finds it hard to be consistent with it with everything else going on. Right now he swims with a master group, but is not really training for anything – he’s just doing it for the exercise and socializing.
    We have something here called The Big Swim where a group of people swim across the Northumberland Straight between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Both of my husband’s sisters have done it more than once. I think the distance is 13 km, but because of the current swimmers usually end up swimming more like 15 to 17 km. My husband has no interest in it – he prefers pools.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine Canadian swimming, cutting holes in the ice to do a few laps. I’m not sue whether I’d rather dodge ice floes (Canada) or sharks (Australia). AUSSI Masters here was as much social as it was swimming, though my tendency was very much towards the latter. I do think any activity like swimming involves a fair degree of self-centredness and in fact I only started swimming in a big way after my marriage broke up. But on the other hand the kids have always liked the idea I don’t just sit home and watch television.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha! Most of us don’t have to cut holes to go swimming. But it’s usually very cold, even in summer. Most people in the water for an extended period of time wear wetsuits, but if you’re just going for a swim, the best thing to do is let your body get numb and then you’re good!
        Sharks would be scary!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the way you blended the book and your personal experiences, Bill. I felt really invested as I read! If you’re interested in swimming and grunge writing, you should check out the memoir Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.

    Did you notice that Murakami’s title is a riff on a Raymond Carver title? What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I own the book but have yet to read it.


  4. I loved reading the story of your swimming life – how fascinating and kudos to you for putting yourself through those gruelling events (I have a friend who’s done Windermere in the Lake District both ways in one session, shudder). I love long-distance running and the training, even though I’m by no means talented or even to be considered any good at it. But I do it and it keeps me vaguely sane. Murakami’s book I’ve read three times, the last two before my first two marathons!


    • We don’t have to be talented to participate, just determined. And I’m glad there are so many events these days which recognise that. I tried to search on your blog for books about running, but I’m afraid the closest I got was Starting a business is like running a half-marathon. Feel free to put a link here in Comments and I will keep an eye on the Junk police (sounds like a character from Wm Burroughs).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh that’s my professional blog, my personal blog is at and has a running post every Sunday pretty well. Hope you find it and can add it to your blog aggregator or you should be able to sign up for emails. That’s the one with books and running, basically, so you’ll find multiple reviews of the Murakami, too!


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