Friday 20 April 2018

Open Letter to Haruki Murakami

Dear Haruki,
Yesterday a colleague, who has an office opposite mine in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience here at Cambridge University (UK), stopped me just as I was about to get changed for my habitual lunchtime run to give me a copy of your book What I talk about when I talk about running. I confess I was slightly rude to him as I was in a rush to meet my running partner - but, when I saw that he had picked your book deliberately and inscribed it with some kind words - I fained a level of politeness, after all, Thorsten Boroviak is one of the politest people I know. I told him that I would read your book last night - and that is exactly what I did.

I had not come across any of your works, and I make it a general rule to never read books about running, so it was a new experience for me in more ways than one. I started reading it with some trepidation and a nagging concern that I would have to read what I hear about all too often - runners talking about running. Of course, my family would find that statement deeply ironic because our dinner time conversation is usually dominated by some form of running talk.

As I began to read, in many senses, my worst fears began to be confirmed. Here was a person, clearly passionate about running, who had labelled themselves as a runner of a particular type (3:30 marathon runner) on a gradual yearly decline to failure. You categorised your running, by mileage, into two groups and detailed occasionally your transition from building-up in training to tapering again as a pyramid. But, whilst I was impressed that you did not claim to know much about training and pace plays little role in the book, I was depressed as I read about the training in the months preceding each marathon.

The concept of training runs through the book with a continual comparison to the act of writing - something which comes far from easily to me. As a species we evolved to do a few things well by necessity of survival. We are good lovers, convincing liars (or possible intelligent sociopaths), excellent story tellers and superb runners. Without continual and effective reproduction, we would have disappeared long ago and part of that ability to acquire as many mating opportunities as possible relies on being able to hide our base instincts and portray our most attractive side. We are, as you say, not terribly nice people. The story telling is not just a way of cloaking our true nature but has played an important part in pre-history. Without handed-down tales of dangers, catastrophes, cautionary tales, great successes and hopes, human knowledge would have vanished with each generation. A novelist performs, in hard copy and lonely isolation, the function previously performed by the tribal elders in a more sociable form around the camp fire. The running bit was, of course, the critical requirement for each person - not just the next generation. It was the way we got our food - our reward. A successful hunt is much like a modern race, perhaps a marathon. But, it is one where successfully getting food is the equivalent of not just finishing, but finishing well. Perhaps a personal best, but more often than not simply getting to the end feeling that the execution was as good as it could have been. What I read in your book was a string - but, perhaps it was just one or two - failures. One time was expect, but something slower resulted.

I am of course a youngster - some 17 years younger than you. But, I run with a youngster who is 17 years younger than me (Kevin O'Holleran, a optical physicist here in the department). Quite why we run isn't clear - I guess it is little different from what you describe and certainly a lot more obsessive. We just run, and normally three times a day totally over 100 miles per week. I started running in my mid-forties just at the time you seemed to identify as the tipping point where age eats into performance. I too labelled myself as a 3:30 marathon runner, but by my late forties after about five mediocre years had managed to pull myself down to a 2:45 marathon - it was hard work and something I would have never thought possible until I applied my intellect to the process of training for a marathon. I guess this is where you and I differ. I looked at runners around me and found it hard to accept that they were better than me despite their better running style, youth and speed. In true Cambridge academic style I considered myself intellectually, and therefore also physically superior to them - I really am not a nice person!

I still run with a painful shuffle, pilling in as much training as possible such that suffering has become inevitable. Of course I will get slower as I age, but may be not yet. In three days time I will be running my 7th consecutive London Marathon - one each year since I started running - it will be the 38th marathon - if I finish. There will be no personal best this time since I only started training four weeks ago. But, like the last four, I hope to collect the race T-shirt so that I can place it - still within its sealed bag - at the back of my wardrobe.

Christof Schwiening, Cambridge, UK