I once sat across from a young army lieutenant after he completed the Ladakh Marathon 2019. I had just completed the half marathon. The two of us were occupying adjacent beds in the hostel, he had just moved into our room. With no one else there, and us having completed our respective runs, I decided to strike up a conversation.
“Running is the worst form of exercise there is,” he said when I asked him how the race was.
As he massaged his aching legs with herbal oil, he complained that running takes a severe toll on your body; the multiplied body weight bearing down on the knee and ankle joints, the monotony of motion, the constant increase in heart rate and body temperature and deterioration of breathing does more harm than good to the body. Not to mention the sweat.
It was not his intention to run 42.2 kilometers at 11,300 feet above sea level, in temperatures ranging between 2 to 25 degrees Celcius. The only reason he did so was because his regiment members were taking part, and he wanted to give them company. I marveled at the brotherly military spirit of running a marathon at such altitudes, all on a whim.
After our brief conversation, he went to bed, tired from the morning’s run. I sat back, didn’t think much about what he said, and slowly drifted to sleep as well, the pain in my legs forcing me to.
Now, as I sit here on this quiet Monday morning, having just completed a short run, I’m reminded of that conversation. His views on running might’ve originated from the pain in his body and the sun blaring down on the Kashmiri city, but, I thought, he’s not far off.
Running does take a huge toll on the knee, and the ankle; not to mention it leads to calf tightness, shin splints, quad burns, and just breaks your lower body. I’ve had it all. In the longer races, running produces so much heat, runners tend to shed their clothes by the mile, like some spaceship chipping off parts of metal-skin. The aches and pain runners constantly endure cannot be undone by some magical supplement or gel, it can only be managed through hours of flexibility, and mobility work, coupled with massages, ice-baths, and lots and lots of rest and recovery. And yet, once back to normal, they go pounding their feet yet again, and the vicious cycle continues.
The duration also makes no sense. A marathon, mammoth as it is, is just the tip of the iceberg. People run for hours leading into days during ultramarathons, with little to no rest or sleep in between. Stopping only for measly food, to replace equipment, or to tend to an injury. Imagine that, days on your feet, not just standing still, but running, up mountains, crossing rivers, and navigating through forests. All this and more begs the question, why would anyone run?
I really enjoy running. It’s simple, easy, and minimal. All you need are legs, time, and space. Sometimes you need only two of those, one of them being your legs, though I guess some people might disagree. You can do it alone, or with others. You can do it with shoes, or nothing at all. You can do it on a treadmill, in the city, the mountains, or just around your dining table. You can go fast or slow, long or short, uphill, downhill, or just flat. There’s very little that stops you, except for, well, yourself.
Looking back, I think I’d agree with what the army lieutenant said, although I’ll add, he’s right but incomplete. Running is the worst form of exercise there is, but the most simplistic, and that’s the beauty of it. The act of putting one foot in front of the other, and keep going kilometer after kilometer is so simple to the mind and sadistic to the body, it hurts. And that’s exactly why people love it. Running does take a toll on the body, but is it for the body that runners run? Not entirely, while bodily benefits are apparent, running is done for the mind. To hold a mirror to one’s thoughts, to have a conversation with one’s self, to understand what’s inside one’s head. The legs allow us, not merely to go the distance, but to gain perspective.
Everyone can do it, and I presume everyone has at some point. Whether it was consciously running at the track, or on the road, or subconsciously running after your toddler, for the bus, or away from a tiger. Those of you who missed the bus, you have my sympathies. Running is such an intrinsic part of our lives, so innately done, minimally executed, with simplistic ease, we often forget we’re doing it.
So, when the time comes to focus your mind and body on just the act of running, and not worry about the toddler, the bus, or the tiger, it actually hurts. It hurts to pound the joints, to push the muscles, to ignore the pain, but more than anything else, it hurts to focus the mind. To endure all that pain, to just be with yourself doing something so mundane seems irrational to most.
Why am I writing about the simplistic struggle of running? For a few reasons. I resumed running after three months of not running at all, and after a month of staying locked up at home. Where I live, the lockdown was partially lifted today [4th May], and hence it was legal for me to go out for a run. Not that it was ‘illegal’ before, but I didn’t want to cause any trouble.
Sitting back now, dealing with the pain and the very need to get back to running, I can’t help reminisce at the very nature of the ‘sport.’ The ease with which we run is so similar to the ease with which we do so many things in life, but when we truly focus on this one thing, it’s so difficult. Thinking about this contradiction of ‘act’ and ‘action’ I had to go back to a book that, so subtly, traces the simplistic struggle of running. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is Haruki Murakami’s personal account of running, written in an almost stoic-like mindset which, more than its given credit for, parallels the simplicity of running.
*I must add, I have not read any of Murakami’s other works, though I should. So, my understanding of his work is limited to this one book.*
As far as traditional running books go, Murakami’s account is definitely an outlier. To a ‘salt of the earth’ type runner, it might not be the best book on running. The book does not detail the perfect relationship between man and sport, it does not offer any training or nutrition advice, it isn’t an account of a single grueling race, a ‘coming of age’ transformation from amateur to professional, nor does it laud the sport. It isn’t a step-by-step program for someone starting out, nor can it only be understood by the most ardent of runners.
The book is exactly how the act of running is — simple, easy, and minimal.
Another reason why it’s not your typical running book is because of the dichotomy Murakami draws between his two most cherished acts. Through time on his feet, he brings clarity and beauty to the work of his hands and his mind. The foundation of his fictional work, as he admits, is helped by his act of running daily. In this association, he bridges the gap, oh so subtly, between the two most simplistic conscious motions a human being can ever do — running and writing.
From pen to shoe, the page to the road, a step ran to a word written, running, and writing share many similarities, which Murakami brings out with delicate finesse. Despite one being static, done whilst being stationary and the other being dynamic; in their respective essence running and writing work the same part of us— the mind.
The first move, the hours of training, the focus, the execution, the inevitable runner’s blues, or writer’s block, and the eventual overcoming is common to both acts. The more we delve into the book, the more we begin to understand how simple they are, and how we unnecessarily complicate them. Running done with a conscious and focused mind causes pain and discomfort, so does writing, but once you start, you can go further than you’ve ever imagined.
Opening up a blank page or an empty document, and hammering away with the pen or the keyboard, with a single-minded purpose is often daunting. Sitting in front of the paper or the screen, and writing, not to take down a name and phone number, the grocery list, or the lottery winning code, but for the simple sake of writing seems absurd at first. Those of you who forgot an item or two on the grocery list, you have my sympathies.
Running and writing require no standards. You don’t have to be an elite marathoner or a published author to take the first step, or write the first word. It’s just a matter of one foot after the other, one word after the next. In no time, you’ll have run a kilometer; in no time, you’ll have written a page. Before you know it, you’ll look back and say ‘I can’t believe I ran a marathon’ or ‘I can’t believe I’ve written a novel.’ It all starts from the first step or the first word. We’ve all done it, but doing it with a goal and a focus is where the fear lies.
Objective, at times, is relative, or even irrelevant. Running is not merely done to keep fit, or even to commute, it’s done for various reasons, to enjoy the pleasant weather, chat with a friend, take in the scenery, reflect on thoughts, or for nothing at all. Time is not important, sometimes, neither is finishing. Murakami’s transformation from a runner focusing on decreasing his marathon time to one who just runs for the sake of moving his feet, and assessing his thoughts encapsulates the change most runners go through. He describes this transformation in the book,
‘Competing against time isn’t important. What’s going to be much more meaningful to me now is how much I can enjoy myself, whether I can finish twenty-six miles with a feeling of contentment. I’ll enjoy and value things that can’t be expressed in numbers and I’ll grope for a feeling of pride that comes from a slightly different place.’
Writing is the same. Writers don’t always write to complete a story or a poem or even to get published. The goal is never to sell a number of books, it’s simply to pen thoughts into words sometimes to reflect, and sometimes for all the world to see. In that, writers find, as Murakami opines on his running, ‘pride that comes from a slightly different place.’
I found reading the book very similar to a nice morning run. The focus is very much on moving the feet, but thoughts can’t help but drift. Murakami often recalls past memories but does not let himself get carried away, a bit similar to running where an object in the passing view evokes in you a deep remembrance. While you allow yourself to drift, you can’t completely take off the focus from the road. His writing is well-paced, it’s not too hard, not to fast, not too soft, not too slow, just a steady, sober pace, allowing you to keep up with the words, while your mind, ever so often, floats away to retrieve memories and scamper back to the next word as you read them.
Looking back at your run, or your story, you realize “I did this,” not someone else, but me. Nobody can run for you, just as nobody can write for you. You did this because you wanted to, and in that you find peace. A peace that you can’t find doing anything else.
‘What I mean is, 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.’
I don’t mean to overly quote the author, and I’ll restrain from doing so now. In part, because I don’t want to take away the rivetting feeling of reading his words in his own book, and not off some random guy on the internet’s blog, and because its best understood through your own experience in running and writing, even if you’ve never run a kilometer, or written a word in your life.
So, I’ll leave you with this — run, not because someone told you to, and write, not because someone asked you to, do them simply because you want to.