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.
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 . When I finished I was really moved.”
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.