(An updated version of this post was published in The New Rambler)
“What are they thinking?”
In a recent New Yorker article, Kathryn Schulz ponders the 50,000 participants in the New York City Marathon, curious about what running could teach us of the “deep strangeness” of the human brain. Her essay discusses research studies and books about running, including Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami is not only an internationally acclaimed author who’s been lauded as one of the world’s greatest living novelists, he is also a long-distance runner who’s completed thirty marathons including New York City. I was therefore somewhat surprised when Schulz dismissed his book as doing “very poor justice” to the question of what people think about while running. She found it “neither inspirational nor aspirational nor descriptive.” Rather, it was “banal.”
It’s true, Murakami’s book has an ordinary tone and lacks the whimsical, surreal touches that grace his fiction. But in re-reading the book, I found it addressed Schulz’ question head-on, just not in the way she might have expected. You see, when you’re running, what may matter more is what you’re not thinking….
Schulz opens her essay by expressing curiosity about the “slipperiness of conscious thought in the runner’s mind” which she considers an “inherently profound” topic. In contrast, Murakami’s book starts with a cliche: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Yes, Schulz is correct: this comment is “banal,” that is, unoriginal. But as Murakami explains, pain is running’s “unavoidable reality.” Early on in the book, he gives a vivid example. He’s running from Athens to Marathon, covering in reverse the original route of the Greek messenger who brought tidings of the Persians’ defeat. At first the run goes well, but Murakami is unprepared for the summer heat: salt stings his eyes, his lips taste like anchovy paste, he starts to fantasize about cold beer. Then it gets worse.
At around twenty-three miles I start to hate everything. Enough already! My energy has scraped bottom, and I don’t want to run anymore. I feel like I’m driving a car on empty. I need a drink, but if I stopped here to drink some water I don’t think I could get running again. I’m dying of thirst but lack the strength to even drink water anymore. As these thoughts flit through my mind I gradually start to get angry.
His anger is irrational: it’s directed at his editor, the photographer accompanying him, the sheep happily munching grass by the side of the road. It’s a perfect example of how logical thought breaks down under pressure. For what it’s worth, I can relate: it’s exactly how I felt when running the Chicago Marathon in 1992.
The theme that caught my attention the first time I read the book was Murakami’s comparison of writing and running. He points out that writing entails an enormous expenditure of energy over a long period of time. To write a novel, he has to drive himself hard physically. It feels to him like a kind of “manual labor.” Just like running, writing demands training, endurance, and especially focus.
I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else.
Notice how focus requires a capability to “not see” and “not think.” Similarly, before starting a race: “I try to clear my mind of everything extraneous.”
For Murakami, it seems that running isn’t just a strategy to stay healthy, but it’s also a process for managing his conscious mind and in a sense learning to turn part of it off. In his words, he runs to “acquire a void”:
As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing.
Other runners may be in a similar mind space. “They all look like they’re thinking about something as they run,” Murakami observes, but he suspects they “might not be thinking about anything at all.”
By the end of the book, “not thinking” has emerged as an important theme in Murakami’s memoir, and nowhere is this more striking than when he recounts his participation in a 62-mile ultramarathon — a notable physical and mental challenge, because it’s more than twice the longest distance he’s ever run before. The first half goes fine, but once he crosses the threshold into unknown territory, things start to go wrong. Leg muscles tighten up, the pain becomes excruciating, he starts to feel like “a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder.” He perseveres through the “sheer torment” by repeating a simple mantra:
I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.
That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through. If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain.
In a sense, what he’s trying to do is turn off his conscious mind and stop thinking about the pain.
There definitely was a being called me right there. And accompanying that is a consciousness that is the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more. It’s a strange way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling— consciousness trying to deny consciousness.
He keeps moving forward, repeating his mantra, narrowing his focus until it encompasses no more than the ground three yards ahead. Then suddenly, at mile forty-seven, he feels like his “body had passed clean through a stone wall” and he is suddenly on “the other side.”
After that, I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically.
Now he picks up the pace and passes scores of runners on the way to the finish. “I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing.” It feels like “I’m me, and at the same time not me.” Afterwards, he reports feeling great happiness, even greater relief, a sense of completion, and a revelation that, at least with respect to completing the ultramarathon, “the mind wasn’t so important after all.”
We’ll always be curious about what others are thinking during all sorts of activities, but the unavoidable reality of running is pain. (Or as I like to put it, discomfort is the flip side of exertion.) This may be a banal observation, but it’s one that poses profound implications for how we learn to manage ourselves during periods of stress. Murakami’s memoir conveys the experience of someone who’s done a lot of running and writing. Schulz, too, is both writer and a runner (according to her Twitter page), and I wonder what she thinks about when she runs…and whether she’ll eventually reappraise Murakami’s message.
It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive
Haruki Murakami. Credit: A Geek in Japan