Early in October I flew to Minneapolis and ran my first marathon. It's astounding to me how many people do this on a regular basis because it really is a long way to run. What I want to talk about, though, is how I ran my first marathon with Haruki Murakami. And if you're one of the 48,000 people who will run a marathon in New York City this weekend, so can you.
People familiar with Murakami's writing might use words like precise, surreal, unsettling and funny to describe it. The acclaimed Japanese novelist has a gift for exposing straightforward truths that seem obvious only after you've read them. His sentences can be powerful because they are simple ("You have to wait until tomorrow to find out what will happen tomorrow."), because they can express difficult things in a simple way ("Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has meaning."), and always because they show you something new about life, or retrace things you thought were old, with sharper vision.
Murakami is 64 and has run one marathon (in addition to some triathlons and an ultramarathon) every year since the age of 33. In 2007 he published a memoir called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (a title he borrowed from Raymond Carver's collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). He is famously tight lipped about his personal life, so its pages are filled with comparatively intimate revelations: what he thinks about while he runs (not much, turns out), some thrilling personal asides (like how much he enjoys watching athletic females with blond ponytails go on jogs at Harvard), and, on the whole, how his running supports his writing.
The book can serve as the pragmatic voice of a coach ("I'm not a human, I'm a piece of machinery. I don't need to feel a thing, just forge ahead."), but because it's Murakami, it also does much more. At base, the book takes something familiar -- training for and running marathons -- and transforms it into a rubric for being better: "Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running and a metaphor for life."
To my thinking, Murakami uses running as a relatable way to talk about our limits. How working toward them, confronting them, and finally pushing beyond them -- in this case through running -- is not only the key to self-improvement but also, maybe, the point of existence.
Like I said, before October, I'd never run a marathon. And before mid May, I was no runner. Then one morning I woke up and realized I was about to turn 30. Things were fine, but your standards would have to be low to say they were great. Some of the things that nagged at me were out of my immediate control, but if there was one thing I definitely wanted to avoid on the first morning of my fourth decade, it was feeling, physically, like a piece of crap.
That morning I took a short run, and then told myself I'd do the same thing every morning until my birthday. Worst case scenario, I could open my lids the big day of and say, "At least I'm not horrendously unhealthy." No problem.
Actually, it wasn't a problem. Every once in a while my deep fear of feeling shame is greater than my remarkable laziness, and this was one of those instances. On the morning of my thirtieth birthday I woke up and really didn't feel, physically, like a piece of crap. I'd been running a couple of miles every day. I'd built up good energy. But a marathon wasn't a blip on my radar, and neither were my limits.
Then in August I went to Minnesota for a family reunion. Three of my cousins had signed up for the Twin Cities marathon and one of them had blown out his knee and offered me his spot (this is illegal so you shouldn't accept an offer like this). Once again, I knew shame would stop me from saying "ah, that's ok," so I agreed.
Six weeks remained before the race. Nobody would say that's enough time to train adequately, but I was told a couple of basic things: First, make sure you can run for an hour (I did, and my legs felt like rubber); Then, make sure to take a couple of longer runs, between 16 and 18 miles, before the race (I did, and my legs felt like harder rubber and I resented everything). But as the marathon approached, I knew for sure my body could run farther than it ever wanted to, and I had begun to feel some limits. It was uncomfortable but exciting.
Not that I had put it in such clear terms. I just knew I was doing something hard and surviving. Then my friend Brett gave me Murakami to read on the plane to Minneapolis and, sitting in the last row of a small jet, the whole endeavor took on new meaning. I wasn't just jogging, or getting healthy, or preparing to run the distance that separates Marathon from Athens. I was using my time to set goals, learn how I respond to sustained discomfort and, at the start of my fourth decade, have brand new experiences that meant, in some way, I was getting better. If I could do this, my whole life could be filled with expanded possibilities (you know, in theory).
The morning of the race was cold. I stood deep in a cluster of shivering runners who desperately wanted to use a port-a-potty. The voice of the Minnesota Twins boomed out of loudspeakers, filling downtown with tidings of "The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon In America" and a foreboding countdown to start time. My bathroom line hardly budged. I'm not a nervous person, but in that moment I was nerve-wracked. Whatever waited for me between miles 18 and 26.2 was a complete mystery, and terrifying.
Mercifully I made it to the front of the line and bolted to my starting shoot with five minutes to spare. Loudspeaker voice talked a little more, the National Anthem played and finally the start-horn sounded. Five minutes later group two was released and my marathon was underway.
Murakami said this too, but I don't have much to report about the first 16 miles. The weather held (rain had been forecasted all week), the route really was beautiful (tracing lakeshores that stretched across Minneapolis), and I talked with my cousin Holly. Once in a while we grabbed water and Gatorade from armies of outstretched arms, popped calorie-saturated gummies and enjoyed a steady wave of energy from fans lining the streets. Things were good.
I had worried a lot about my left Achilles tendon but instead my entire left foot started to bother me around mile 16. Clouds appeared and a light drizzle fell. I swallowed a couple Advil and started thinking about Murakami. Even when he ran sixty-two miles around Lake Saroma for an ultramarathon in Hokkaido, he never stopped running, no matter how terrible he felt. "... 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 meet grinder." I felt way better than that.
So I decided to take Murakami's advice and stop paying attention to my body. ("I'm not a human, I'm a piece of machinery.") I stuck in my ear buds, put an Arcade Fire song on endless repeat, blurred out all the people lining the street and cocooned into the equivalent of "my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence."
At mile 20 there was a massive archway made out of faux stones that looked like an entrance to a castle -- I couldn't think too much about that -- and next to it was a clock that read 3:00:40. It was the first time I'd even thought about my time. If I could keep running under 10-minute miles, I could finish in less than four hours. Before, my only goal was to make it to the end; now I was on a time-sensitive mission.
Up till that point the course was more or less flat, but it took a turn for the hilly between miles 22 and 24. People started to drop like flies. I kept running but I resented everything. For the first time, finishing was a thing to endure -- and I knew I could endure it -- but the fun was over.
The rain continued and made my music inoperable so I could hear everybody shouting things again. Someone yelled "The last hill ends where the band is playing!" which I thought was helpful and gave me burst of energy. That meant only two miles remained.
And then, catastrophe -- almost. Something popped in my left ankle. For reasons that probably had to do with adrenaline, my body let me keep on running but it was time to get this over with.
I passed runners I had seen periodically, just ahead of me, throughout the course of the race. I shook my head in disbelief when I watched people take a break for water. I couldn't fathom it. At that point, resting would pain me more than running.
The finish gate appeared and only two hundred downhill yards separated me from sweet repose. Bleachers filled with lots of enthusiastic fans lined about half the distance. I wanted to look at them, take in the moment, but I couldn't. My eyes were peeled on the clock above the finish line. I bore down to run as fast as I could, which couldn't have been that fast, but I am completely serious when I say that I've never felt more like a champion in my entire life. I crossed the finish line at 3:50:08 and, immediately, started to cry.
There's nothing that could have prepared me for the jumble of feelings that overtook me the moment my legs stopped. I was caught between two realities. The regular one I had been living in for the last 30 years, and the bubble I had been running in for the last four hours. In that bubble, I was operating on a plane that I had never accessed before the race. Now I was transitioning out of it, and it was disorienting and a little sad. A middle-aged woman with blond hair put a medal around my neck. I whimpered, and she smiled at me like she understood.
But after a few minutes of wandering around aimlessly, I mostly felt relief -- and (I don't say this lightly) actual pride. I had felt what it was to be most alive by pushing at the edges of my own humanity. I believed I could tackle new things. My horizons had expanded.
"Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest," writes Murakami. "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."
This Sunday, I have a feeling there will be 48,000 runners in New York City ready to back him up.