Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

“You end up exhausted and spent, but later, in retrospect, you realize what it all was for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.”

I just finished another great book by Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. Hours after I finished the last chapter I’d already handed the book to a coworker to read. I highly recommend it. I might be biases towards Murakami because I am also a fan of his fiction writing, but this memoir/ running journal was a lovely read.

Not all of us train everyday to be an olympic athlete, and most of us wouldn’t want to, or wouldn’t have the motivation to do so. What I appreciated out of this book was how he related his running and training toward his work as a writer and a person in today’s society. To be a long-distance runner and participate in over 25 marathons and numerous triathletes, you can already guess that Murakami is very dedicated to running, and has some serious will power to continue even after all these years.  He found running because he felt himself gaining weight and losing energy when he started writing full time. Even though he kept a busy schedule with work, he would still find time to run for an hour almost every day. The memoir talks about some of the places where he has run, and races he’s participated in, but mostly its about the struggle to keep going. But overcoming the struggle to get moving brings immense satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”

It doesn’t get any easier, even after running for 25 years apparently. But his notes, looking back on that roller coaster, the thoughts and inspirations that have come to him over time are emotional and heart warming. Running can be a little bit like meditation, once you find that groove, your body takes over and your mind quiets down.

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

Murakami admits that he sometimes prefers to be by himself, he talks about not having the most likable disposition, so training long hours alone suited him. I think everyone needs to be alone once in a while though (to take a moment of reflection, to clear the brain) and working out no matter what you are doing, can be a great time to give yourself that opportunity. Otherwise why are you doing it? One of Murakami’s mantras while running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

One of the chapters that resonated the most to me was him talking about getting older and how he never really imagined himself getting older. He remembered Mick Jagger once saying “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m forty five”.  But who can laugh at Mick Jagger, who was still singing Satisfaction into his sixties? We all think we are going to be young forever, when we are young. This is all our first times growing older, he says, and so these feelings are new, and we don’t always know how to deal with them. I think everyone no matter how old they are can relate to that.

I think most people are competitive in nature, but not everyone chooses to be competitive all the time. In one section Murakami talks about the nature of running and how if the only reason to participate in a race was to beat a particular person, we wouldn’t have any motivation when that person didn’t show up to the race. Running has to be motivated from somewhere in yourself. I think that can be true to most competitive sports, but running in particular.

“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.”

So whether or not you are interested in running, or writing, I would recommend reading this book. It gives inspiration to those of us who struggle to get up early in the morning to work out- or train for a particular goal, but it also gives the reader insight into some observations on life and people in general.

“Has the dark shadow really disappeared?
Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?
Like a clever thief hidden inside a house, breathing quietly, waiting until everyone’s asleep. I have looked deep inside myself, trying to detect something that might be there. But just as our consciousness is a maze, so too is our body. Everywhere you turn there’s darkness, and a blind spot. Everywhere you find silent hints, everywhere a surprise is waiting for you.”

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Book Review: The First 20 Minutes

I’ve been following Gretchen Reynolds’ Phys. Ed. Column in the New York Times for years now. And I’ve just finished her book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. I will be talking about this book for months. A lot of the content of the book comes from studies she been writing about in her column over the past couple years, but seeing it all together really shines light on how much startling information has come to the surface. And the bottom line is this- Stand up and start moving, it will save your life, literally.

In one study by the National Cancer Institute, 250,000 americans, ages 50-71, were followed for eight years. They found, unsurprisingly that the most sedentary adults had the highest risk of cardiovascular and cancer mortality. But more surprising was the fact that the group of adults that averaged 7 hours of exercise per week, but also spent at least 5 hours per day watching TV or otherwise being inactive, were also more likely to die prematurely compared to those who exercised but watched less than an hour of TV daily. Unfortunately, it looks as if isolated bouts of exercise aren’t enough. What they’ve found is that long periods of sitting still changes the cell’s physiology. Overtime, inactivity decreases levels of Lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that that is known to aid in the breakdown of fat in the bloodstream, blood sugar levels spike after meals, and early symptoms of insulin problems and eventual diabetes could become apparent. It’s down right scary. Of course that was from a study that had adult male volunteer to be completely immobile for a day, not putting any weight onto their legs whatsoever. Extreme, yes, but those results were just after twenty four hours!

The book is chock full of great fitness advice, but if there is just one thing that I will take away from the book is that sitting for eight hours during my work day is not OK. I get up more often, if just to fill my water bottle and say hello to my co-workers. I stand at my desk. I take frequent breaks to briefly walk around. If nothing else, it has helped with my energy levels, it has done away with the 3pm slump, and helps assauge my fears of becoming the ever average couch-potato like American.

If you are having trouble motivating yourself to change your lifestyle, or just curious about exercise physiology and the recent research that people all over the world have been working on to prove that exercise is anti-aging and life extending, this is a must read. And I know that sounds cheesy, but seriously the results of these studies are staggering. Gretchen has a strong entertaining voice that isn’t judgmental but instead invested and very encouraging. Although the book is based entirely around different studies, the information and the implications of their results keep you wanting to turn the pages. I highly recommend the read!