Running Reads

Book-review-1

Get into the minds of Murakami and other marathoners in these two books.

British Marathon Running Legends of the 1980s

by Gabrielle Collison

Review by Tom Poynton

In the 1980s the marathon boom, begun a decade earlier, continued apace, and British runners were at the forefront of this, with Charlie Spedding winning an Olympic bronze medal, Steve Jones at one point having two of the five fastest marathon times on record and several British runners winning big city marathons.  But in the 1990s this success began to falter with fewer British runners posting world-class times and winning key races.

To find out why this decline occurred, Gabrielle Collison conducted a series of interviews with many of the top British marathon runners of the 1980s as part of her Master’s degree in Sports Science in 1998.

This book pulls together the interviews conducted with ten men and eight women who ran world-class marathons in the 1980s, alongside three pilot study interviews with three top male marathon runners from the 1970s.  Whilst the author endeavoured to make the interviews read more coherently from the original transcriptions, the flow of conversation is largely left unchanged, and the author keeps a light touch to ensure that the voices of the interviewees are heard in full without imposing her own conclusions. Collison succeeds in really bringing her interviewees to life and showing their personalities, their motivations and thought processes as they looked back over their careers.

It’s not an exhaustive set of interviews – several high-profile stars weren’t interviewed (most notably Steve Jones) but given that the reason for conducting these interviews was merely a master’s thesis, there is a good range of interviewees from different backgrounds.

The book will appeal to those with any kind of interest in how a varied range of people maxed out their potential over the marathon and what the external environment did to support them in this. It provides the reader with plenty of ideas to consider for how they might approach their own running (whatever their potential or ambition) and gives some inspiration and dry humour along the way.  This isn’t a guide on how to run a marathon, nor is it a collection of tips and hints from the top, but a series of thorough, honest accounts from a collection of athletes with much that others can reflect on and learn from.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

by Haruki Murakami

Review by Kim Nicholson

If you are not a fan of the humblebrag, then Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running may not be for you. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term humblebrag, it’s a fairly recent addition to the digital age lexicon. The Oxford Dictionary definition is as follows:

humblebrag

noun

informal

  • An ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.  “All of the dresses I thought about wearing are too big! #humblebrag”

Murakami falls foul of the humblebrag throughout this part-memoir, part-training diary which follows the author’s journey from running a jazz bar to running marathons. If you can bear to read paragraphs that begin with phrases like “I’m not trying to brag or anything”, this book is well worth picking up for its relatable running anecdotes.

His self-deprecation may be thinly veiled but perhaps this is because Murakami has a lot to brag about. His books are best sellers and he has captivated readers the world over with novels like Norwegian Wood and Hear the Wind Sing. The inspiration to become a writer struck him whilst watching a baseball game and, from then on, it seems Murakami has linked the endurance needed to write a novel with physical exertion. He describes the process of completing a novel as “basically a kind of manual labour”.

In fact, becoming a writer in many ways led Murakami to becoming a runner. Throughout the book Murakami draws parallels between the two. He sees these disciplines as existing symbiotically. Initially Murakami took up running in the dread that, not being blessed with a high metabolism like his wife, his new sedentary pursuit as a writer would lead him to pile on the pounds. But he soon came to see the focus and endurance of running everyday as complementary to his writing habits, to the point that he claims everything he knows about writing was learnt from running.

Murakami took up running in 1982 at the age of 33. By the time he comes to write this book, he’s running 6 miles a day, 6 days a week and has completed 20 marathons and an ultra-marathon. Each chapter orbits around his preparations for the upcoming 2005 New York City Marathon – the focal point of the book. We see Murakami come to terms with the fact that, inevitably, as he gets older he is no longer able to improve his time. A highlight of the book is his solo attempt to run the original Marathon route on a scorching hot day in Athens. Some of the nuances unique to runners will also be familiar in the book, for example, making the exhaustion induced declaration at the end of a race that you’ll never do one again, only to be followed by signing up for the next one.

The writing style may not be for everyone. Murakami is well known for his relaxed narrative and this is part of what makes him so popular with readers of his novels, although I’m not sure how well this casual approach translates to non-fiction.

A warning to anyone who has read the wonderful Raymond Carver’s, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; don’t expect the same succinct prose that Carver is so well known for. Although he clearly takes influence from Carver, directly referencing him in the book and nodding to him with the similar title, Murakami has a more rambling, free-flowing way of writing.

A large chunk of the book felt like a stream of consciousness, reading one train of thought after another, becoming repetitive in places. I got the sense that this was less to do with writing mechanisms and trying to echo the repetitive motion of running and more so to do with Murakami’s preference for waffle. At times, it was hard to know what point the author was trying to make and chronologically, it’s all over the place. I found myself getting frustrated, wading through endless sentences beginning, “But that’s another story, let’s get back to running”, “As I mentioned before”, “Like I said earlier” and “If you’ll allow me to take a slight detour from running”.  I wanted less of the day to day musings and more of the run chat – after all, the book is called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”.

I’d take Carver’s simplicity over Murakami’s stream of consciousness any day but I can see the appeal of the latter. Murakami’s conversational style along with his willingness to write about his failures makes the book relatable for runners of all abilities, as well as non-runners.

This was my second time reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and I have to admit that, once I could look past the clumsy sentences, I did find parts of the book enjoyable. I couldn’t help feeling admiration for Murakami’s pure grit and doggedness in his approach to both running and writing. He jokes that he hopes his gravestone will read “At least he never walked” and I’ve no doubt that he’ll see out his running career having achieved this.

Kim Nicholson is an art, food and film fiend. When she’s not out running, she can be found walking around in art galleries or making a mess in the kitchen.

Tom Poynton has been running since 2008 and a Serpentine member since December 2011. When not running, he enjoys food and drink and exploring the countryside.