What makes a runner — who hits the pavement day after day, mile after mile — keep going? There is a myth that Tibetan monks run 300 miles in 30 hours by fixating on a distant object and repeating a mantra with each footfall. Last year's New York City Marathon winner, Paula Radcliffe, says that she makes it through a tough race by counting her steps. For the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who describes his decades-long dependency on long-distance running in his new memoir, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" (Knopf, 180 pages, $21), the secret is consistency: running every day no matter how he feels, pacing himself, and pop music — the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz, Beck, Creedence Clearwater Revival — which he loads, with great care, onto a Walkman.
With its mysterious motivations and methods, running carries the same type of mystique as writing. Interviewers repeatedly use the same facile questions for famous athletes and writers, born of disbelieving incomprehension that someone could complete the superhuman task of composing a literary masterpiece or running a 4-minute mile. How do you prepare? How do you begin? What goes through your head? Motionless intellectual activity might seem the opposite of repetitive physical exertion, but as Mr. Murakami shows, the two endeavors are not completely dissimilar.
For Mr. Murakami, running is not only connected to writing in its dark-art aura, it is essential to his literary productivity. It gives him routine, instills discipline, and regulates his life. Ascribing to the Graham Greene, 350-words-a-day-no-matter-what system of writing rather than the fabled Jack Kerouac, wrote-it-on-a-roll-of-toilet-paper-while-drunk methodology, Mr. Murakami commits himself to extreme physical activity in order to pursue pure intellectual activity. Raymond Carver, one of Mr. Murakami's heroes and whose story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," provides the title for this book, used to sit at his desk for several hours every day no matter what. "This sort of daily training was indispensible for him," Mr. Murakami writes. In Carver's opinion, and his, consistent, focused devotion to the act of writing is the only way to remain productive. "Writing novels ... is basically a kind of manual labor," Mr. Murakami writes. "The whole process ... requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine." Running, he says, is the best training.
If, in equating running and writing, Mr. Murakami takes away some of the glitz of literary creation, he satisfies the desire for writerly eccentricity in a different way. Mr. Murakami might not be a hard-living, psychologically unstable artist, but his life is filled with a different sort of insanity. He runs from Athens to Marathon in the middle of the summer, by himself, passing no fewer than 14 flattened cats and dogs by the side of the highway. He realizes that he is asking his body to do things it assertively does not want to do, but does not let the signals stop him. While running a 62-mile ultramarathon he begins to feel "like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder ... my whole body was rebelling. It felt like a car trying to go up a steep slope with the parking brake on. My body felt like it was falling apart and would soon come completely undone." The pursuit of health and the pursuit of self-destruction are not as far apart as they seem.
It is not just these perversely impressive physical feats that sharpen what might otherwise be a dull treatise on a healthful habit; Mr. Murakami's work has always combined the ordinary and the extraordinary, and this memoir is no exception. In his fiction, an elevator ride that starts on the ground floor brings its passenger into a different dimension; a man makes a bowl of spaghetti and his life irrevocably changes. In "What I Talk About," banal description — tying his shoes, picking the songs for his Walkman, feeling a twinge in his knee — sidles up against philosophical inquiry into obsession.
Mr. Murakami is at his best in these passages, fully acknowledging that, while running seems to fall on the bright, healthy side of life, there are deeper and darker drives behind it. He cannot keep pace with the ponytailed girls who whiz past him on the banks of the Charles River, but this doesn't bother him; he's in it for the suffering. "Not to brag, but these girls probably don't know as much as I do about pain," he writes. And in most cases, "learning something essential in life requires physical pain." Running may be the antidote for the physical inactivity of writing, but its lessons are not disassociated: Suffering and knowledge often go hand in hand. "It's precisely because of the pain," Mr. Murakami writes, "precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive."
There are times, though, when the lessons become a bit trite. "Learning from the experience is what makes the triathlon so much fun," he writes flatly. A typical day, he tells us at one point, includes running for "an hour and 15 minutes" then, in the afternoon, swimming for "1,400 yards at the pool," and in the evening, swimming at the beach. After that he has a dinner of "walu, a kind of white fish. They grill it for me over charcoal, and I eat it with soy sauce. The side dish is vegetable kebabs, plus a large salad." This reads like an anorexic's blog. And I could not help feeling it was a bit ironic that Mr. Murakami adapted his title from a short story in which four sedentary characters drink two bottles of gin in one sitting.
But, for the most part, Mr. Murakami refrains from adopting the tone of a moralistic lifestyle counselor. He claims that he's never recommended running to anyone, and squirms at the very prospect of writing a book about physical activity. He admits on the first page that "a gentleman shouldn't go on about what he does to stay fit." But, as he says, this is not a book about how to stay fit. It's a graceful explanation of Mr. Murakami's intertwining obsessions, conveyed with his characteristic ability to draw unexpected connections. Running may be a matter of placing one foot in front of the other on the ground, but, as is so often the case with Mr. Murakami, terrestrial objects have a tendency to take flight.
Ms. Schama is a writer based in Washington, D.C.