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)

My Father was Busy

Journal: 015

Wm & Mum 1951
Photo 1951, DC Holloway (Box Brownie)

My father was busy and I’m still angry. Tedious I know, Milly and the kids make that clear! And let’s not discuss how busy I was for them. Busy, Busy.

Mum was a 17 year old farm girl, a pupil teacher when Dad came to town, tall, ex-Melbourne High, ex-Navy, city boy, confident (and competent) teacher but pathologically un-social. His mother, a Luya from Brisbane, had pretensions of class. Her son spent his life in her shadow. He needed a wife he could train up, no challenges, a farm girl.

Granddad, mum’s dad, made him get his truck licence so he could help with the harvest, driving the old ex-Army 7 ton Inter, overloaded with wheat to the top of the bin, to Boigbeat silo. He could never in his life call Granddad ‘Dad’ or even ‘Fred’. I heard Granddad tell him off about it and he skulked back to his room, his books while his sons crammed into the ute, the cab of the truck, drove tractors, chased sheep, sewed up bagged wheat, grew into hybrid farm boys town boys that he only ever imperfectly understood.

In May the year after they met, Mum barely 18, they were in Healesville 250 miles from Sea Lake, waiting apparently for permission to marry. It’s never discussed, would never have come up except Mum’s younger brother, then still a baby, told me over a beer years later that guys in the Berriwillock pub still asked him why Mum and Dad ran away together. Dad said he was offered a married position at a school at the other end of the state. Mum says nothing.

I came along 10 months later.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Dad wasn’t involved. We always went for Sunday drives, often quite long ones, Wilsons Prom from Leongatha and a few years later when we still had the FJ, from Murrayville to Nhill after church, 80 miles of sand through the Big Desert. We got bogged 3 times and it took till after midnight to get home, the long way through Ouyen.

Dad and Mum were both strict and handy with a stick. I cried at the time but being belted never did me any harm. Dad took to me with a piece of dowell once for saying ‘pooh’ when Mum told me to do something and I went to school (his school) with blue stripes across the back of my legs. He said he wouldn’t hit me after I started high school, but once when I was 12 or 13 his parents were staying and I woke them up fighting with B2 whose room I had been forced to share. He was furious, dragged me to his office – our house was in the school grounds – and began laying into me with the strap, hands and legs until he was worn out.

The big problem was I was bright, brighter than he was, and he didn’t know how to deal with it, thought the solution, the least amount of effort for him, would be discipline and an average education. He taught me chess and I beat him, and his father, in primary school. That was the end of chess.

I had sport, I had scouts, I had books. I had a bike. We lived in country towns so as long as I was home for tea, out of sight, out of mind. In 1966 Mr Fast-Track needed to complete his BA to become an Inspector so we bought a 3 br brick house in a new development in Blackburn South (Melbourne). I fought to maintain my country freedoms, he was too preoccupied to fight back. But nights were out of the question. Even at 17 bedtime school nights was 9.00.

He got his promotion, we moved to Mudsville. My english teacher at Blackie South High – you notice that selective Melbourne High, his alma mater, was never considered, nor even mentioned – offered to board me but Mudsville High was good enough and I spent the last year and a half of my schooling with the mud-minds.

Dad was a shocking 1950s husband, made all the rules, was very Mr Bennet with Mum, and yes that rubbed off on me, would shrug off any attempt at affection. I thought after he retired, began doing housework and making speeches about how lucky he was to meet Mum etc, etc. that Mum, who like many fiftyish women grew into mature self-confidence, might have given him an ultimatum, but she says not.

I don’t forget Dad dinking me to school on his bike when Mum was in Leongatha hospital having B3 and B4, or piggybacking me home at Murrayville when I was crook. B2 who had him in grade 6 says that when he played up Dad would take him into the office next door and give the desk a resounding 6 cuts with the strap. I don’t forget the driving lessons he gave me in the bush when I was barely a teenager, or that when I came home drunk from a Saturday night dance in 6th form he just sent me to bed with some newspaper (he always waited up and would sometimes drive into town to search for me if I wasn’t home by midnight), nor do I forget the huge financial strain of giving me a year, and potentially four years, in Trinity College.

I don’t forget that I got my high school girlfriend pregnant, that I failed first year Engineering.

And no,  I’m not bitter about his opposition to my politics, to the Moratorium, to my non-compliance with the Draft Laws. A bit annoyed that he advised the Federal Police who had warrants for my arrest where they could find me in Brisbane  but Mum let me know and the Young Bride and I moved on to Nambour.

He always came across when I asked for money. His first thought when I told him and Mum that I was leaving Milly was for the kids, particularly Psyche who was in a more difficult position than the younger two. In later years, even before his retirement, he tried very hard but it was never enough.

(If you noticed the Journal No., I wrote this some time ago but held off publishing it, so it’s out of sequence. Earlier Journal posts may be accessed from the Journals page above.)

Photo: Dad’s car appears to be a 1930s (so, older than Mum) Chevrolet Series AD Universal (wiki)