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‘Persevere’ is the motto of Leith, now a part of Edinburgh.

I was extremely saddened to hear about the tragic events at the Boston Marathon yesterday and my heart goes out to everyone affected.

I’ve never been to Boston, but my grandparents lived and worked there for a number of years after they emigrated to the States from Ireland so I feel a strong connection to the City. Plus, Mel and I (and a few of our friends) had joined the ranks of the long-distance running community only the day before, when we ran the Rock n Roll Edinburgh Half Marathon. So I feel an affinity with the runners too, who were simply trying to do something positive and achieve a personal goal.

Yesterday’s events certainly put our minor complaints about the Edinburgh wind and rain and the rather poor organisation at the finish line of the half-marathon into perspective. Suddenly, I am appreciative of my many blessings instead.

“Reaching the finish line, never walking, and enjoying the race. These three, in this order, are my goals.”

Haruki Murakami

What made our first half-marathon most special was the pride in ourselves that we completed it – my time was 2:05 which I’m told is pretty respectable – and Mel and Mel did it in 2:16 which she was also really happy with for her first one.

So, I was delighted to run it in a reasonable time, and without stopping to walk even on the hills and against the strong head winds. We were also proud to have completed our 12 week training programme, which was the reason we were able to complete it in the first place.

The day was also made so much better because of the supportive atmosphere from our fellow runners, and the wonderful spectators/supporters who braved the unpleasant weather to clap and cheer us on all along the route, plus of course the many volunteers who helped out. Which makes me feel even more gutted about the events in Boston where spectators were amongst those targeted.

Running and Creative Discipline

I’d planned to write about running today before yesterday’s events, and so whilst I don’t currently have the words or wisdom to address those recent horrors eloquently, I will stick to the plan and talk about running in general and how it can intertwine with creativity.

The title of this post is a riff on a book by the best-selling Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (itself inspired by the Raymond Carver short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), which I’ve been re-reading leading up to the half-marathon in order to get some inspiration.

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Murakami is a very serious runner. He had been jogging almost every day for over 23 years at the time the book was published, and runs a marathon pretty much every year. He has also completed a 60 mile ultramarathon, and also regularly takes part in triathlons.

The author started running after he left a physical job running a nightclub to become a full-time novelist. He knew his body wasn’t designed for a sedentary lifestyle, so he used running as a bedrock for his creative routine, and it also enabled him to quit smoking.

“Long-distance running suits my personality, though, and of all the habits I’ve acquired over my lifetime I’d have to say this one has been the most helpful, the most meaningful. Running without a break for two decades has also made me stronger, both physically and emotionally.”

The book is a memoir of sorts, but also an ode to commitment to both his art and his running practice. Murakami and his wife both changed their lifestyles completely when he prioritised his novel writing and running over most other things, including a social life.

“…What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself… in this sense, writing novels and running marathons are very much alike. Basically, a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.” 

He argues that talent can be fleeting, but focus and endurance are the most important traits a writer can have (which I’m sure applies to many different creative disciplines) and that both can be developed through training.

“Fortunately, these two disciplines – focus and endurance – are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.”

Both writing and running are rather solitary activities, so like myself, I think it’s fair to say Murakami is an introvert. He ‘blames’ it on not having any brothers, and as I was an ‘only child’, maybe there’s something in that. He considers writing directly to his audience as more important than individual interactions with people, a distinction which seems rather antisocial but is no doubt essential in order for him to maintain his routine as a writer.

“I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me. I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.”

However he does admit that spending too much time in solitude can be negative and that his running is partly a way of dealing with that. After being somewhat of a hermit for the last few months, I’ve taken note!

“This sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it.”

He also describes how growing older has meant he can no longer achieve the same results he used to, and how he has had to accept that as a natural part of life. It’s an honest, interesting read and I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to form any kind of serious practice, either physical or creative.

I Wasn’t Born to Run

In comparison to Mr Murakami’s twenty-something years, I’ve been running seriously for only 3 months. Previous to that Mel and I had completed a few 5k races and two 10k races, but I was a sporadic runner at best. And once upon a time I was completely unable to run for more than 5 minutes without stopping.

At school, I was the opposite of sporty. My teacher at Primary School took pity on me after witnessing how woeful I was at any type of physical activity and allowed me to spend P.E. classes writing stories instead.

Then, having moved to rural Ireland for Secondary School, I suddenly found myself in the gym with a squad of large farm-bred lads many with biceps wider than my waist. I distinctly recall the indignity of getting hit in the face with a leather football due to my complete lack of reflexes and being told to run a mile through the countryside without any kind of training or guidance. It makes me angry that this was the case, when it was completely unnecessary given there are much more encouraging ways to start running.

A Humane Way to Start To Run

I wouldn’t have started running at all without my wife Mel’s encouragement, and we were both inspired by my father-in-law who has run many a marathon in his time. Thankfully, there are better ways to get started than just being dropped off in a country lane and told to “run for a mile until you end back up at the gym”.

If like Murakami and I, you don’t enjoy team sports that much, there are programmes like Couch to 5k which start you off running for a minute, walking for two minutes for a total of 24 minutes, and then increasing your running time from there, until you are suddenly able to run 30 minutes without stopping. That’s how we began, and how we were able to do our first 5k.

There are all sorts of programmes and smartphone apps to help you get started now – and there’s absolutely no shame in starting with small steps like we did.

Of course, running isn’t for everyone and even walking is a good way to be more active. Swimming or yoga may well be kinder to your body than the relentless pounding that your knees get when running on concrete.

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Gotta Get Thru This

Like I said though, I’m proud of myself for having the discipline to train for, and run the half-marathon. On the day I found it really tough. My last major training run had been 10 miles, which I ran through the quiet sunday morning streets of Oslo. The sun was out, and there was barely any wind. I really enjoyed it.

The conditions on Sunday were in stark contrast to that. Luckily, Mel and I had trained in all weathers, and braved ridiculously strong and icy head winds a number of times when running along the shore at Cramond. Still, it was a pretty miserable run at times, and I overdid it a bit at the beginning and in the middle of the run, meaning the last 5 miles were a real slog, and it was a serious effort just to keep my feet shuffling along.

Still, I did it. We did it. And I really respect other runners, many of which are much fitter and faster and some of which are slightly slower, for their commitment and discipline too. And again, I really feel for everyone in Boston right now.

Doing Things by Half

The half-marathon came almost at the mid-point of my ‘Year of Clarity’. I’ve been off the booze for six months, have been meditating daily for 4 months, and running seriously for 3 months. I’m hoping to keep up those good habits for the rest of the year, and beyond. I also want to look at my diet and nutrition, so I can lose the persistent belly fat which I’ve not managed to shed yet, and also so I can improve my energy levels.

And I want to follow Murakami’s example and finally manage to devote the same commitment and discipline to my writing and creative work as I have managed with the running and other habits. Oh, and I’ve already signed up to my next half-marathon – the Great North Run in September, and I’ll be aiming to complete it in 2 hours. But first, a week of rest!

Do you run or do you prefer a different form of physical exercise? Do you think exercise helps with creativity? Let me know in the comments.

Get What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami at Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk (affiliate links).

14 Comments

  1. Well done Milo and Mel. I really love that Murukami book – very inspiring fare. Are you planning on stepping it up to the 26.2 at some stage?

    • Cheers Finbarr! Eventually, maybe but no definite plans. Would you recommend it after your Rome victory? :)

      • Victory is putting it rather too grandly. I ran ten minutes slower than my first, but that’ll teach me for skipping lots of winter training sessions! I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to commit… it takes a big chunk out of your life. I’m enjoying a couple of months off, then back into the rigours in time for Dublin in October.

  2. Yes. Very well done Milo & Mel. You’re an inspiration. I’ll be adding the Murukami book to my reading list.
    His work discipline has struck a chord. I’m a street photographer, it’s very much a solitary pursuit. But of late, I’m really struggling with it. After 38 years, being an only child and quite happy being the solitary person I am, I’ve realised I need to be around people. For some reason, all of a sudden, being alone is not good for my work ethic. :)
    Keep up the great work. Always look forward to reading your posts.

    • Thanks very much Jane for your kind and encouraging words!

      The book is definitely worth reading. Have you seen the documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York’? As he’s a fellow street photographer I think you’d enjoy it if you haven’t already seen it. He also seemed to be a very solitary figure though which was a shame, perhaps again down to his amazing work ethic.

      I suppose it’s getting the right balance, I read somewhere that people with lots of friends tend to live longer, so that’s one motivation to be less antisocial!

  3. Loved this post. The Murakami book sounds interesting, although I think I’ve come to the conclusion that running isn’t for me because of my dodgy knee. But I really want to take up some form of fitness pursuit, lose my own belly (and upper arm) fat etc – like you though, I’m averse to team sports and my sheer dislike makes motivation hard. Exercise is usually the first thing to go.
    last year’s girl recently posted..out and about: happy half-birthday, tyci!;

    • Thanks Lis. Actually you’ve reminded me that the way I got started running again was by committing to doing a few minutes of yoga a day (downward dog is about the height of my ability) and then I usually felt energised enough to get out for a quick run too, but even if I didn’t at least I did something. *Anything* is better than nothing!

  4. An excellent post, Milo! And congratulations on yours and Mel’s achievement.

    I’ve been a bit torn about reading the Murakami book, if only because it feels like something I *should* do as someone interested in both running and writing, rather than something I *want* to do. However, I should probably just get over myself and add it to my reading list – I will doubtless enjoy it!

    You make a very good point about the lack of guidance at school. I was never sporty, and it’s sad that so much focus was given to those with the natural ability, and almost no focus on helping the rest of us achieve something rather than believing we were destined only to struggle.

    Running has really helped me focus on my own creative goals – the achievement and the exertion I think leaves me feeling restful and better able to sit down and work. I don’t know what I find harder to believe at times – that I can now run 4+ miles relatively comfortably, or that I can now write reasonably frequently!
    Paul Forrester recently posted..Mistakes, Massages and Miserable Weather (Part 3/3)

    • Thanks Paul, you will definitely enjoy reading it! I do think it’s amazing how much we can progress by taking consistent small steps towards a bigger goal. I’ve heard that advice a lot of course, but I’m glad I’ve finally managed to find the self-discipline to experience it for myself. Sounds like you are too :)

  5. Yes, the Bill Cunningham doc’ is lovely. Thanks for the heads up on it Milo.
    There’s a great book by Susan Cain about the power of introverts, called “Quiet”. She done a Ted talk about it. http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html