Recently, a friend visiting from Japan brought me a small gift as a token of our friendship – as the Japanese do. She brought me a book from her own collection, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I talk about Running: A Memoir. Immersed as I am this summer in the writing of a memoir of sorts, and as someone who has run five to six times a week for the past 15 years, I myself couldn’t have chosen a better gift for me.
At one point Murakami says that he doesn’t expect his book to inspire anyone to go out running, but if it does, that’s great. What he doesn’t reckon with is that it might also inspire novices like me to write. As I devoured this small book over the weekend, in between work, movies, grocery shopping and laundry, I heard myself in constant conversation with Murakami, needing to tell him how and why I run. All the way through I identified with Murakami: like him I am an endurance runner, I run miles every day in celebration of a body that has brought me this far in a life that it cannot have always found easy. I don’t run to compete, I run to stay alive. Running is the best anti-depressant I have found yet. I run alone, and like Murakami, that suits my personality. As he says, running is the only sport I get to do when I want, how I want, and where I want. I need nothing other than a road to run on and my New Balance 992s. Because I get to do it on my own, as an expression of my independence, running is effortless.
What I Talk About When I talk about Running is also a book about growing old. As I approach my 48th birthday, I sometimes wonder what I will do when I can no longer run. Like Murakami, I don’t stretch much, I can push my body, I can exhaust it when my mind needs to do so, and yet, I have never sustained an injury. In fact, to date the only thing that has stopped me running are the bruised muscles resulting from spills on my bike. Reading Murakami, I realize that for old runners like us, there is no such thing as a use by date. He has filled me with joy as he reassures me I will keep running as long as I need to. Age has little to do with running. Running has little to do with age.
Like Murakami, I run to write. But unlike Murakami, I never listen to music, and nearly every inspiration I have comes when I run. Running is meditative for me. Running has taught me who I am. Running is what I give myself to solve the problems of life at any given time. Whether they be about work, about writing, about love or about life, whatever is on my mind, I find the solution in the six miles of my morning run.
And unlike Murakami, I am not running marathons and I have no intention of doing so. I could if I wanted to, but that’s not why I run. I run to find my place in the world on a daily basis. I run no matter the weather. I run in the rain. I run in snow and, I have run in the searing summer heat of Istanbul, and in the dense humidity of Tokyo as I ran the Jingu Gaien course - Murakami's home run. When I traveled across the State of Texas a couple of years ago, every day began with a run in the desert. When I first started to travel for work, I would take swimming trunks, cap and goggles in the hope of finding a pool. The logic was that the swimming attire took up less space in my suitcase than the shoes, and in winter, the layers of clothing. But the problem was I never swam. I would go to conferences and watch Tom Waugh and Jonathan Kahana go off to swim at the end of the day, and though I yearned for the exercise, it was too much effort. And when Tom or Jonathan weren’t there I couldn’t be bothered finding the pool, getting permission, working a swim into the schedule.
In Christmas 2001, I went to a conference in Brisbane with a suitcase filled for an onward flight to holidays in Sydney. I had running shoes, and it seemed like the most logical thing in the world to run the length of the Brisbane River at South Bank. It was effortless. I have traveled with running shoes ever since.
When dogs enter a space for the first time they sniff. And then as if to stake their claim on that space the male dog lifts his leg, even when there is nothing to pee. I understand that reflex motion, I understand the pursuit of a routine in an expression of the need to feel at home. That’s why I run. I arrive in a city, and even if only there for a few days, I run. And when I run, I see the city differently, I go places no other tourist, visitor or traveler would go. I have seen the flower district of Los Angeles come alive at dawn, I have seen the sun set on the plains of Jaiselmer, the deserted streets of Detroit in mid-winter, and in one of the most glorious runs I recently ran the length of the River Po at dusk in Torino.
My favorite runs, the runs closest to my heart, are those I run day after day year after year. From 14th Street to Battery Park along the East River, Earl’s Court through Kensington, Hyde Park and up to the West End of London, and the Canal Saint-Martin, along the Seine to Pont Neuf. Just as it’s what I do when I arrive somewhere new, the first thing I do when I come home to Paris after time away, even if only for a weekend? I run. I need to run to tell myself that I am home, where I belong, I need to smell the air, do battle with the cars, and say hello to all the homeless people I know along the Canal. Once I have run, I am returned to my life at home, returned to who I am.
Again and again astrologers have told me I am a wholly typical embodiment of my star sign. I have Leo as my star, I am ruled by the sun, and in all those houses I am dominated by fire and sun. And true to the lion, I run. And like the lion, for me, the relationship to where I am, to who I am, whether it be nomadically wandering the world, or at home in my den, is only determined by the course I have run.