Writing is fun — at least mostly. I write for four hours every day. After that I go running.
I wish I could say the above lifestyle is mine. But it belongs to Japanese author Haruki Murakami, as detailed in an interview with Germany’s Spiegel magazine, the online version of which was sent my way Wednesday by an iJamming! pubber. The headline to the interview is, “When I run, I am in a peaceful place.”
When I am running my mind empties itself. Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind — they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing.
Again, I wish I could claim the above for myself. Truth is, when I’m out running by myself just for fitness or out of habit, I find my brain invaded by thoughts. Birth, school, work, death. It can get frustrating, and it might explain why there was a period back in Brooklyn when my daily single lap around Prospect Park became something of a chore. (Variety in jogging, as in almost everything else in life, provides the spice.) But when I’m actually running – picking up the pace, distance or incline in training, and especially when competing in a race – my mind, too, empties itself. Or perhaps, to be more understanding of the brain’s abilities, it focuses on the task at hand. To quote Murakami, at that point, “Everything I think … is subordinate to the process.” The only other activity I can compare this feeling to is downhill skiing, which demands similarly single-minded concentration, and rewards with equally zen-like purity. Oh – and, occasionally, the process of writing itself, those rare moments of transcendence when the words appear out of nowhere, seemingly filling the page (or the screen) faster than the brain is contemplating them.
Murakami started running soon after he started writing – in his thirties. He believes that the two occupations support each other.
Running taught me to have faith in my skills as a writer. I learned how much I can demand of myself, when I need a break, and when the break starts to get too long. I know how hard I am allowed to push myself.
Words of wisdom, and words I’ve perhaps taken on board as I’ve gotten older. I remember writing my Echo & The Bunnymen book as I did old issues of Jamming! – through the night, fueled by just about nothing but youthful adrenalin. The R.E.M. book came in a similar rush – and why not: the first edition was only about 50,000 words long. But delving into the highly pained life of Keith Moon, and following it with the murderous Manhattan novel that was Hedonism, were different processes entirely. In each case, I could feel the temptation to go over to the lead character’s “dark side.” I’m not sure I had Murakami’s maturity in terms of dealing with this potential crisis – these two books were written in my thirties – but there’s a chance that, by the end of Hedonism, a book I completed in a rented cottage in the Catskills in a hermetic, frugal few weeks broken only by an every-other-day mental-energy-boosting run, my subconscious nonetheless understood what he so clearly defined to Spiegel:
When a writer develops a story, he is confronted with a poison that is inside him. If you don’t have that poison, your story will be boring and uninspired. It’s like fugu: The flesh of the pufferfish is extremely tasty, but the roe, the liver, the heart can be lethally toxic. My stories are located in a dark, dangerous part of my consciousness, I feel the poison in my mind, but I can fend off a high dose of it because I have a strong body. When you are young, you are strong; so you can usually conquer the poison even without being in training. But beyond the age of 40 your strength wanes, you can no longer cope with the poison if you lead an unhealthy life.
I live in the Catskills full-time now, partly for the year-round outdoor opportunities, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that I was pointed to Murakami’s Spiegel interview just hours before I set off on a midweek run: a race up High Rock Mountain, in Palenville. It’s part of a long-standing and loosely organized Spring Series of trail runs, none of which could be classed as easy for those who lead what Murakami calls “an unhealthy life,” but all of which are intended to be “fun” for those who have the stamina. This particular race starts and ends at the cliff-side cottage of Escarpment Run founder Dick Vincent, who recently celebrated 33 years of everyday running. (Murakami, with 26 years everyday running under his belt, may never catch up.) It’s only just over two miles long, but it involves a steep 1400 foot climb: on Wednesday, with heavy spring storms having just rolled through, the rocks on that climb were slippery as a snake dipped in oil, there were several downed trees across the trail, and there was one brief moment when, having just jumped one of these trees, I landed on a particularly narrow and sloped rock and wobbled on one leg for a few seconds, trusting that self-preservation would win over the forces of gravity and ensure that I stayed on the trail, rather than falling away down the hill to my left. A few minutes later, I made it up top, and the view from High Rock justified every moment of thigh-gripping pain.
Long-distance running is not a matter of winning against others. Your only opponent is yourself, no one else is involved, but you are engaged in an inner conflict: Am I better than I was last time? Exerting yourself to the limit over and over again, that is the essence of running.
I don’t expect to win these races. I don’t expect to ever win a serious race in my lifetime. Since moving to the Catskills, I’ve gotten fitter, gotten faster, and moved steadily further up the field of finishers, but those at the head of the pack still seem of a different species entirely. (For example, I came 5th out of 21 last Wednesday, no small feat – but the only person I would ever have a chance of catching was the one right ahead of me.) Still, the welcome difference between running with 20 people in midweek in the Catskills (or 200 on major races at weekends), and 2000-10,000 people in Central Park as when I lived in New York City is that, up here, you get to know the winners. Personally. And you can often learn from them, as I did from Tim VanOrdern, when we all gathered back at Dick Vincent’s cottage for some home-made food, socializing – and, for those of us who believe that racing deserves a reward, cold beer. (Tim’s story is every bit as interesting as Haruki’s, and will be the subject of its own post, though anyone who wants to get a start on it can click here.)
Team sports aren’t my thing. I find it easier to pick something up if I can do it at my own speed. And you don’t need a partner to go running, you don’t need a particular place, like in tennis, just a pair of trainers.
All this is true, and it’s a large part of the attraction for me and my less-than-daily routine. But sometimes it helps to have company. After the last of the runners reached High Rock Wednesday night and we gathered for a team picture, more than half of us – but none of the women, whatever that might tell you – decided to take the long route down, a 5-mile trail that involved some more climbing but, generally, a much steadier, softer, safer and more pleasant (though twice as long) route back to Dick’s house. I hadn’t intended to run seven miles Wednesday night, and I wouldn’t have done so had I been alone. But knowing a few of my running companions well enough to call them friends, motivated by the team spirit, and with the Escarpment Run only a few weeks away, I gladly got the miles in. It was a full time job navigating the sharp lumps of shale under foot in the evening dusk, let alone the slippery rocks that are twice as dangerous coming downhill as going up, and conversation soon felt like too much of a distraction, besides which, we stripped away from each other by necessity as we hit single track. But I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t even dehydrated, despite not bringing any water along. Rather, my mind emptied once more into a state of complete purity, of total being, of perfect oneness with my surroundings. Or, to quote, Murakami, I was in a peaceful place.
PS: Before he became a writer and a runner, Murakami ran a jazz club in Tokyo. His tastes appear to have changed over the years. Murakami carries an iPod while training. “At the moment,” he says, “my favorite is the Manic Street Preachers.” Haruki Murakami is 59.