Running on Empty: Lessons in Running from Haruki Murakami

“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up one-o-one
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on”

                                                                                                        -Jackson Browne, “Running on Empty”

running article forrest gump

“Running for no particular reason”

There is a scene in the movie Forrest Gump where Jackson Browne’s classic “Running on Empty” aptly accompanies Tom Hanks’ character as the thought of long-distance running suddenly occurs to him for no particular reason. That scene comes to mind when you read about how the thought of taking up running as a sport occurred to Haruki Murakami in his very engaging memoir entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007). “I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run – simply because I wanted to.” (p 150)

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Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, of course, is the celebrated contemporary Japanese writer. His works have been been translated into 50 languages and his novels have sold millions of copies. His most well-known novels include A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–2010). Although he has expressed his disdain for awards and recognition, he has received a number of prestigious awards over the years. Among these are the World Fantasy Award (2006),the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006), the Franz Kafka Prize (2006) and the Jerusalem Prize (2009).

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The novelist as runner

It turns out he is also an accomplished runner with over 24 marathons under his belt as of 2006 (i.e., the year he completed his memoir), averaging 1 marathon a year since he started in 1982. He has ran in the New York Marathon 4 times as of 2005 and has completed the Boston Marathon 7 times as of 2006. He is also an accomplished triathlete having completed 6 triathlons as of 2006. He started running seriously in 1982 at the age of 33. Running, according to Murakami has been “the most helpful and the most meaningful habit” which has made him “stronger physically and emotionally.” (p 8) In many ways, his memoir shows that running has actually sustained and nurtured his career as a successful novelist.

Although Murakami preambles the book with a very clear purpose statement, to wit: “this is a book about running…in which I’ve gathered my thoughts about what running has meant to me as a person.” (pp.v-vi), he concludes his introduction with the disclaimer that “they may not be lessons you can generalize.” (p viii) Nonetheless, I came away inspired and challenged after reading his book. Here are ten running lessons which might resonate with you whether you’re about to get into running or are into the sport already or are simply intrigued by the current cultural fascination with this sport.

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1. “Hinay hinay basta kanunay.”

Nope, Harukami is not from the Visayas. But this Visayan quote informs and grounds how he first approached the sport of running. Roughly translated in English, it means, “Do things slowly but consistently.”

“When I first started running I couldn’t run long distances. I could only run for about twenty minutes or thirty. That much left me panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. It was to be expected, though since I hadn’t really exercised for a long time…but as I continued to run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day without taking a break…running was incorporated into my daily routine.” (p 39)

To be sure, his initial progress as a runner was modest if not cautious. After running almost every single day in 1982, he completed his first 5k in 1983. That same year, he successfully completed his first 15k race. In the course of his first year as a serious runner, he reached his ideal weight and sustained the same by changing his diet radically. “I began to eat more vegetables with fish as my main source of protein. I never liked meat much anyway…I cut back on rice and alcohol and began using all natural ingredients. Sweets weren’t a problem since I never much cared for them.” (p 41)

Along the way, taking naps in the middle of the day provided an extra boost of energy that sustained his runner’s routine. “One other way I keep healthy is by taking a nap…Thirty minutes later I come wide awake. As soon as I wake up, my body isn’t sluggish and my mind is totally clear.” (p 51-52)

Not surprisingly, in the same year he completed his first 5k and first 15k, he also cinched his first 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 51 minutes in Athens, Greece – a most auspicious debut as this was the birthplace of running as a sport.

2. The Why Answers the How.

“If you know your why,” reflects Friedrich Nietzsche, “you can deal with any how.” That is to say, if your purpose for pursuing something is clear to you, no amount of hurdles can get in the way.

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Nietzsche: Know Your Why

Murakami’s why locates itself in his realization that running is the best sport that suits him as he is not a big fan of competitive sports. He gets greater validation from beating his previous time or distance or both and in the process achieving the goals that he has set for himself. “I think I’ve been able to run for more than twenty years for a simple reason: it suits me. Or at least because I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’ continue what they don’t like.” (p 44)

Complementing its physical fit to Murakami is the opportunity running provides him to improve himself over time. “Running is both exercise and 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…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.” (p 10)

In the latter parts of his memoir he equates the self-improvement that running affords to living life to the fullest. “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 than in a fog, and I believe running helps you 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 well.” (p 82-83)

Two other enthralling reasons accompany his primary reason for embracing running as a sport.

The first has to do with running as a journey consisting of random thoughts, accidental discoveries and unforgettable memories. Whether it’s counting the number of dead and flattened cats and dogs on the streets of Athens or getting a kick at being passed by the pretty young girls of Harvard with their blond ponytails, new Ipods, long strides and sharp kicks or being awed by the Charles River in Boston or jogging with the writer John Irving in Central Park or seeing the face of a very attractive young woman jogging daily in Tokyo.

Equally compelling is the awesome feeling that runners relish every time they complete a race. “The happiest thing for me about this day’s race was that I was able, on a personal level, to truly enjoy the event. The overall time I posted wasn’t anything to brag about…but I did give it my best, and I felt a nice, tangible afterglow.” (p 170-171) And here’s his other account of the proverbial runner’s high: “Even so, when I reached the finish line in Tokorocho, I felt very happy. I’m always happy when I reach the finish line of a long-distance race, but this time it really struck me hard. I pumped my right fist into the air. The time was 4:42pm. Eleven hours and forty-two minutes since the start of the race.” (p 115)

So a good question to ask oneself before getting serious about the sport of running is, what is my why for running?

3. Develop a routine.

It is said that the neighbors of the philosopher Immanuel Kant could tell the time of the day by observing his routine from early morning until the end of day. That is to say, Kant led a pretty predictable life. It was precisely by being routinary that Kant imbibed the discipline that led to the writing of his philosophical masterpieces.

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Kant, the epitome of discipline and routine

The same may be said of Murakami as a runner and a novelist. His book affords us an insider view of 3 routines that have served him in good stead as an accomplished marathon runner. By implication, we get to appreciate the kind of discipline that informs his daily routine as a novelist. “…unless it’s totally unavoidable, I run every single day…As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day.” (p 4)

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, he shares how his daily routine consisted of “thirty-six miles a week. In other words, six miles a day, six days a week…I cover 156 miles every month which for me is my standard for serious running…At a jogging pace, I generally can cover six miles in an hour.” (p 7) This routine dovetails with his other training rule: “I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals. That are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger.” (p 71)

To implement his training routine, he lived out most of his days as follows: “I got up before 5am and went to bed before 10pm. People are at their best at different times of day but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don’t take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax a don’t do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early. This is the pattern I’ve mostly followed up till today. Thanks to this, I’ve been able to work efficiently these past twenty four years.” (p 36-37)

The first two routines lend themselves easily to his third habit of relentlessly planning and measuring. Consider a typical Murakami runner’s log:

“June 156 miles
July 186 miles
Aug 217 miles
Sept 186 miles”

The log forms a nice pyramid.The weekly distance averages out in June to thirty-six miles, then forty-three miles, then fifty, then back to forty-three.” (p 92)

4. Give it your personal best.

Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden loved to share how his father taught him the concept of giving everything one’s personal best. According to Wooden, his father would often ask him at the end of each day if he gave his personal best. If he answered in the affirmative, his father would no longer press. For his father and eventually for Coach Wooden, that was ultimately what mattered most. Nothing more, nothing less.

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Coach John Wooden: “Give your personal best. Nothing more, nothing less.”

For Murakami, one does not run to pass people although he does confess being bothered when other runners pass him. Conversely, he feels good when he passes other runners. In one particular run, he wrote how he passed 200 runners. Notwithstanding how he feels about being passed or passing other runners, in the end, the problem with such practice, according to Murakami, is that if these fellows quit the race, then your motivation for completing the race disappears with them. Hence, his reflection below on the value of giving every single run your personal best. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he’s accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can’t, then he’ll feel he hasn’t. Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his best – and possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process – then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race…the only opponent you have to beat is yourself.” (p 9-10)

5. Leverage Music.

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Coach Noelle De Guzman: “Form over speed and distance”

Coach Noelle De Guzman also known in running circles as “The Kikay Runner”  would often reiterate that training for running only has one purpose, namely, to use every critical part and every single movement of your body to propel you forward or as she loves to put it, to “clear the grass, and break the glass.” To make this happen she methodically instructs her students to work on the different aspects of the runner’s form – from breathing correctly to running like the Kenyans do, from working out to achieve the correct cadence to pounding the pavement efficiently by visualizing the you’re stepping on burning coal. Done separately, each of these do not seem to amount to anything. But once you put all of these elements together the way they are meant to dovetail together, they are no different from how the different instruments that comprise a rock band or an orchestra work seamlessly together to produce an awesome sonic experience.

Which augurs well with Murakami’s account of running in Cambridge as he was gearing up for the New York Marathon, “breathing in the crisp, bracing, early-morning air, I felt once again the joy of running on familiar ground. The sounds of my footsteps, my breathing and heartbeats, all blended together in a unique polyrhythm.” (p 13) A unique polyrhythm that can only be complemented by what usually keeps him company when he is running: rock music “since its beat is the best accompaniment to the rhythm of running. I prefer the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz, and Beck, and oldies like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beach Boys.” (- 14) Other oldies, or if you will, classic rockers who serve as Murakami’s constant companions in running are the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. “Yesterday I listened to the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet as I ran. That funky “Hoo hoo” chorus in “Sympathy for the Devil” is the perfect accompaniment to running. The day before that I listened to Eric Clapton’s Reptile. I love these albums. There’s something about them that gets to me and I never get tired of listening to them – Reptile, especially. Nothing beats listening to to Reptile on a brisk morning run. It’s not too brash or contrived. It has this steady thythm and entirely natural melody. My mind gets quietly swept nto the music and my feet run in time to the beat.” (p 95)

Towards the end of his memoir (pp 142-143) we learn that Murakami has more than a passing casual interest in music. This guy is actually a certified audiophile. “What were the main things I did while in Cambridge? Basically, I confess, I bought a ton of LPs. In the Boston area there are still a lot of high quality used record stores. When I had the time I also checked out record stores in New York and Maine. Seventy percent of the records I bought were jazz, the rest classical plus a few rock records. I’m a very (or perhaps I should say extremely) enthusiastic record collector…(p 142) How enthusiastic exactly? “I’m not really sure how many records I have in my home right now. I’ve never counted them, and it’s too scary to try. Ever since I was fifteen I’ve bought a huge number of records…If somebody asks me how many records I have, all I can say is, “Seems like I have a whole lot. But still not enough.” (p 143)

6. Run to recreate.

My boss who hails from Peru would often remind us his direct reports to have a life outside the workplace. Something to recharge you so you can fight again another day. Doing nothing with your life except working from morning till night is like allowing the workplace to suck its fangs into your neck. It will eventually suck you dry.

Viewed from the preceding, running offers itself as an ideal activity for recollecting and recreating oneself. Check out Murakami’s take on this aspect of running. “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue…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…the thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. “ (p 16-17) Shades of Zen and centering oneself.

Some people turn to drinking to drown their sorrows, others to drugs to get high. Murakami turns to running. Here’s how he deals with emotional hurts or frustrations: “When I’m criticized unjustly…or when someone I’m sure will understand me, doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer, it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger. If I’m angry I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel.” (p 20)

7. Run the talk.

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The Sales Guru Joe Girard

The sales guru and Guinness record holder Joe Girard is a firm believer in self-talk long before the science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) became vogue. Which is why he would often encourage sales professionals to spend a few minutes to engage in positive self-talk before they head out to their first sales call for the day. The importance of positive self-talk apparently extends itself to running. Consider how Murakami has learned to deal with days when he doesn’t feel like running. “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?,” he once asked Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko. “He stared at me and then in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time.” (pp 45-46.) Murakami’s surefire formula to deal with such down times is to remind himself of the fact that compared to sitting in boring meetings or commuting packed trains, running daily is actually a luxury he won’t be able to enjoy had he decided to be a corporate type instead of being a full-time novelist.

Prior to a race, Murakami also dabbles in what some sports psychologist call positive visualization. Here is a sample from his psychological prepwork as he was about to participate in the New York Marathon “So I close my eyes and see it all. I imagine myself, along with thousands of other runners, going through Brooklyn, through Harlem, through the streets of New York. I see myself crossing several steel suspension bridges, and experience the emotions I’ll have as I run along bustling Central Park South, close to the finish line. I see the old steakhouse near our hotel where we’ll eat after the race. These scenes give my body a quiet vitality.” (p 133-134)

But does self-talk still work when your body is about to give up on you?  Here is Murakami’s account of a near-fail race had he not engaged in a very passionate self-talk. This happened in 1996 when he participated in a 62-mile ultramarathon in Hokkaido, starting the run in the morning and eventually completing it in the evening. ”…even though my legs were working now, the thirteen miles from the thirty-four mile rest stop to the forty-seventh mile were excruciating. I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder. I had the will to go ahead, but now my whole body was rebelling. It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on…Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down as one runner after another passed me.” (p 109) Speaking to each body part that was howling in pain, Murakami “encouraged them, clung to them, flattered them, scolded them, tried to buck them up. It’s just a little farther, guys. You can’t give up on me now…I’m not 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.” (p 110)

8. Push Yourself.

To transition from 5k to 15k to 42k, one must be ready to level up with each goal that one successfully achieves. You can’t keep doing the same routine if you want to get to a different destination point. To quote Marshall Goldsmith’s best-selling leadership book, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” Thus, his consistent Goldsmith-inspired attempts to stretch himself: “In the three months up till now I was basically trying to rack up the distance, not worrying about anything, but steadily increasing my pace and running as hard as I could. And this helped me build up my muscles, spurred myself on both physically and mentally. The most important task here was to let my body know in no uncertain terms that running this hard is just par for the course…the body is an extremely practically system. You have to let it experience intermittent pain over time, and then the body will get the point. As a result, it will willingly accept the increased amount of exercise it’s made to do. After this, you very gradually increase the upper limit of the amount of exercise you do. Doing it gradually is important so you don’t burn out. “ (p 51)

9. Fall down 7 times, get up 8.

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Dwayne Wade: “Fall down 7 times, get up 8.”

Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat recently revived popular interest in the old Japanese saying “fall down 7 times, get up 8.” The original context of this saying is that the true warrior, whether he likes it or not, will come across defeat, frustrations and disappointments just like ordinary mortals. The key though to attain Tamashii or indomitable spirit is to keep fighting and to keep moving forward despite the odds and no matter what.

Take his failure to achieve the time that he set his sights on before a race he trained hard for. Instead of being paralyzed by frustration and defeat, he immediately engaged in a ruthless self-examination. The result is a very insightful root cause analysis. “There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. That’s it in a word. Not enough overall exercise plus not getting my weight down.” (p 54) “Freeze my butt off and feel miserable? I’ll pass. Right then and there I decided that before my next marathon I was going to go back to the basics, start from scratch, and do the very best I could. Train meticulously and rediscover what I was physically capable of. Tighten all the loose screws, one by one. Do all that and see what happens.” (p 54.)

This critical eye for kaizen or never-ending improvement also proved pivotal in improving his efficiency as a swimmer when he participated in triathlons. “…I made an important discovery. I had trouble breathing during a race because I’d been hyperventilating…I was breathing too deeply and quickly…Now before a race starts I get into the sea, swim a bit, and get my body and mind used to swimming in the ocean. I breathe moderately in order not to hyperventilate…” (p 162)

After his disappointing time at the NYC Marathon and the Boston Marathon, where he did complete but missed his target time, Tom Petty would have approved of his insight which is reminiscent of the the classic rocker “I Won’t Back Down.” “…until the feeling that I’ve done a good job in a race returns, I’m going to keep running marathons, and not let it get me down. Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running. Even if my time gets worse, I’ll keep on putting in as much effort – perhaps even more effort toward my goal of finishing a marathon. I don’t care what others say.” (p 149)

10. Invest in a good coach.

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Head Coach Nonoy Basa – Effective coaching is premised on correct diagnostics.

Thanks to YouTube and Google, today virtually any skill can be learned through the internet. Nonetheless, despite the volume and variety of teaching videos available in the internet these days, there is something that video recordings can’t give you – a constructive and well thought-out feedback from a good coach regarding your blind spots. This is precisely why Head Coach Nonoy Basa of Streamline Sports Instruction typically kick starts his coaching sessions by baselining where his coachee is in running or swimming instead of employing a cookie-cutter approach. His trained eye for identifying both an aspiring athlete’s strength and growth areas relies heavily on a careful analysis of his coachee’s video-recorded running or swimming. From such diagnostics, his school literally builds up an aspiring athlete from the ground up.

In the two chapters he devoted to his adventures as a triathlete, Murakami turned to good coaches to help him master cycling and correct his form for swimming. “When I first began I had no idea what I was doing, so I asked a person who know a lot about bike racing to coach me. On holidays the two of us would load our bikes in a station wagon and set out for Oi Pier…the two of us would decide how many circuits we’d make in how long and set off. He accompanied me on long-distance rides as well.” (p 141)

He was not as fortunate in being coached when it came to improving his form as a swimmer as he went through several coaches before finally chancing on the one who proved instrumental in transforming him to become a better swimmer: “So we began one on one lessons to reshape my form…she revised very small movements I made, one by one, over an extended period of time…what’s special about this woman’s teaching style is that she doesn’t teach you the textbook form at the beginning. Take body rotation, for instance. To get her pupil to learn the correct way, she startsout by teaching how to swim without any rotation…and then ever so slowly, my coach started to add some rotation.” (p 161)

Epilogue: Running On

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Long May You Run

“Running on Empty” originally came to Browne as he was driving back and forth from his home to the studio in the course of recording The Pretender, his 1976 best-selling album. The drive was so short he never bothered to get gas as he completed the recording process. Over time, for many of his fans “Running on Empty” has eventually grown into a song about optimism. Today, many of Browne’s fans and followers regard it as the perfect driving song which conjures images of forging ahead, moving on, running on, no matter what, with or against the wind, until you have nothing left to give. Hence, it’s a fitting song to end this reflection with if we consider how Murakami regards every running experience he has had and those that he looks forward to participating in the remaining years of his life.

“I expect that this winter I’ll run another marathon somewhere in the world. And I’m sure come next summer I’ll be out in another triathlon somewhere, giving it my best shot. Thus the seasons come and go, and the years pass by. I’ll age one more year, and probably finish another novel…my time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance – all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set for myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson…And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it.” (p 173)

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“Running on Full Cylinders”

Let’s go run.

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