The Loneliness of the Long Distance Punner – Frank McNally on Writers and the Race

As a runner for many years now, I’ve been generally lucky with injuries. But lately, I’ve been suffering from a condition known as piriformis syndrome, which causes pain in what physiotherapists call the “gluteus.” For readers who don’t know what a glute is, I should gently explain that it’s one of those big muscles you sit on. Prolonged sitting is indeed one of the causes of piriformis syndrome. So, paradoxically, it’s the extended run, even though it’s arguably the suit that does the damage.

I’ll tell you who else doesn’t know what a butt is, by the way – my dumb friend here, “Autocorrect.” Over the years, I’ve come to think of Autocorrect as a person: an American person – hence his spelling – even though he seems to have nothing better to do than hang out with me.

While well-meaning, it’s also at least mildly irritating. He seems semi-drunk most of the time and constantly makes stupid suggestions based on his own reading habits, none of which seem to involve real books. As for the local nuance, he is hopelessly helpless.

When I texted a running acquaintance last week and mentioned pain in my butt, for example, the helpful moron at my shoulder tried to substitute “flute” as the keyword. I almost sent the message, as edited. And in Ireland, flute pain isn’t the kind of thing you want to discuss with strangers.

Anyway, injuries are more of a concern than usual at the moment as some time ago, in a moment of weakness, I accepted an invitation to a rather unusual 5k later this month . It was from the organizers of the Dublin International Literature Festival, who were wondering if, as part of the event, I would organize a small group run, aimed at writers.

The idea is that while running, or perhaps taking a break before, during and after the run, we would reflect on how such an activity helps unleash the creative mind, if that is indeed the case.

So now I hope my injury will be healed by May 28 when the event takes place. Because even if the pain isn’t strong enough to stop me, it tends to dominate my thoughts while running. And I presume the ILF will expect ideas from a higher origin – a meter higher, at least – in the writers’ 5k.

This is one of the problems of running. It’s a great opportunity to listen to your body, which is all the rage these days. Celebrities and sports stars always listen to their bodies before making important decisions. But the runners have no choice in the matter.

If you’re alone, don’t wear headphones, and are middle-aged, sometimes you have to literally listen to your body. Even if he doesn’t squeal, however, he will be in constant communication with you. Complaints are frequent. Sometimes the language can be abusive.

On the other hand, in the midst of this cacophony, it is not always easy to listen to his spirit. Even the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, a rare example of a well-known writer who is also a well-known runner, struggled in this attempt.

I found his 2008 philosophical memoir, What I’m Talking About When I Talk About Running, to be disappointing.

His credentials of (a) being from Japan and (b) having run multiple marathons may, for some readers, lend an aura of wisdom to gnomic utterances. But from a Westerner, many of them would have sounded like bland statements of seemingly obviousness.

Part of the problem is that Murakami too is often forced to listen to his body. Take this typical excerpt, in which he quotes his knees:

“You have to expect the knees to want to complain sometimes, to make a comment like, ‘Huffing and huffing on the road is all well and good, but how about paying attention to me once in a while?’ Remember, if we’re dating you, we can’t be replaced.

For the record, as Murakami probably knows by now, his knees can be replaced: a fact he might want to point out the next time they complain. But as dull as that quote is, it’s the standard pattern for the joints in question. You can’t expect much insight from knees, not even Japa knees.

On the other hand, perhaps Murakami was onto something deeper when he suggested that physical fitness was a necessary counterpoint to a career as a writer.

Especially in Japan, he says, many people believe “that writing novels is an unhealthy business, that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live dangerous lives to write.” He didn’t disagree, hence his habit of running. “That’s my motto,” he concluded. “[…] an unhealthy soul needs a healthy body.