I signed up for a half marathon. It’s in October, right when the autumn leaves will be at their peak color. When I hit the “pay now” button on the race’s website and officially committed myself with a token forty of my hard-earned dollars back in June, I had never run more than six miles at a time. But I was on deadline for my book and feeling somewhat desperate. Pushing myself physically seemed like a great idea. After all, I was already used to that constant thrum of anxiety in the base of my throat. Training for the race, I thought, would take my mind off of work and give me a goal beyond word counts.
I’ve been a casual runner for a long time. I love to be outside, to feel the sun on my shoulders, to let mind grow more and more blank with each beat of shoe against pavement. Even being hit by a car while I was jogging in 2005 right here in Boston, that infamous accident that caused me to lose my sense of smell, didn’t stop me. In fact, in many ways, it allowed me feel more powerful with each run. But crossing the ten-mile mark? Until this summer, it never seemed possible.
Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite novelists, wrote What I Talk about When I Talk About Running in 2008. I bought it when I was in New York last year, and devoured it in a day. He writes about his relationship with running—which, as a marathon runner and triathelete, is intense—and how it relates to his own writing.
“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself,” he writes. “To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring.”
I picked up Murakami’s book for a second time this week. I have been ramping up the distance on my runs, pushing myself to go just a bit farther each week. Sometimes it’s painful, but for the most part, I’m learning to let go. It’s the expectation of discomfort, I’ve found, that keeps me back. The book resonated with me even more in my second read. Murakami, after all, lived in Cambridge and writes of his runs on the same path as mine: along the Charles River.
Murakami is often asked what he thinks about when he runs. “On cold days I guess I think about how cold it is,” he writes. “And about the heat on hot days. When I’m sad I think a little about sadness. When I’m happy I think a little about happiness. As I mentioned before, random memories come to me too. And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”
Two weeks ago I ran fourteen miles in one go. It took more than two hours. Granted, I stopped halfway through for ten minutes in order to eat a banana and stretch my legs. But I did it. And along the way, I acquired quite a void.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing about running here, now. It has nothing to do with food or with smell, except for the fact that after I run I’m very hungry, and I’ve come to love the bursts of briny river scent that come at certain points in my running route. But I’ve been thinking a lot about writing of late – how to go about it, how to complete long projects, how to keep going after one book ends and another is just hanging a bit out of reach. I’ve been comparing it a lot to my runs. Murakami does too.
“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day,” he writes. “These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate – and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.”
But in the end, whatever running means, however it relates—or doesn’t—to writing, fiction or non, I have learned one thing: there is nothing better than a cold, cold beer and a plate of homemade enchiladas on the day that you first run fourteen miles. Chocolate ice cream is best served for dessert.