Wednesday, September 28, 2011

RJ Review: Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"

"Nothing in the real world is as beautiful as the illusions of a person about to lose consciousness."
"Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day."
"To exaggerate a bit, it was as if by completing the over-sixty-mile race I’d stepped into a different place."
Last week my wife couldn't contain her excitement about the English language release of Haruki Murakami's new 1,000 page novel, IQ84.  It's swept Japan and, given the buzz in the lit world, is set to do the same in the US and England.  Though I try to keep up on things literary, I admit the IQ84 phenomenon passed me by, but Murakami's name did ring a bell, and a quick Google search reminded me why. He wrote a non-fiction book on running released a couple years ago, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Intrigued, I downloaded it to my Kindle and started clicking away.

At just under 200 pages, it was a quick - and I have to say enjoyable - read.  Murakami writes from the viewpoint of a dedicated mid-packer who simply loves to run and whose running suffuses his life, influencing his writing and driving his thoughts.  It is a portrait I dare say most people reading these words can fully connect with.

The majority of the book revolves around blog-like essays on his training for and running of a number of road marathons (including New York and Boston), with some triathlons thrown in, and one 100k ultra, which gets set up as the book's antagonist - one possible reason the author's previously un-assaulted love affair with running begins to fray.  (Anyone who's suffered through a bad 100k plus can hardly blame him for doing so.)

What was very strange to me as I made my way through this book was how often it seemed to echo my views of running and my running life.  From his time in Boston and Cambridge spent running by the Charles River, to his drive to excel even when well behind the lead pack, to his views of the relationship between running and writing - this seemed like a book I could have written - if of course, I were a smart, dedicated, and accomplished novelist.

Yet, this familiarity was in some ways a disappointment of the book.  As much as I loved to see myself in the pages, the book didn't transport me to a higher place.  Great essays - those by EB White or Adam Gopnik, just to name two - will take you from a place you know and lift you up to reveal something grander than you'd previously considered.  And given Murakami's reputation, I admit to expecting that sort of experience.  But it wasn't there.

This may not really be fair, of course. He says in the afterward that the book should be viewed more as a running memoir than a true collection of essays, and it does have that feel to it: A tap-tap-tap of thoughts on paper that mimics the sound of a marathon stride.

Still, it's an engaging rhythm, and I could hardly put the book down until I was finished with it.  Murakami certainly isn't an everyman writer, but he is close to being an everyman runner, and it's great to have a book that is essentially a paean to the passionate mid-packer - to those who rarely win races but whose passion and love for the sport is no less rich and no less grand.

More RJ Reviews

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Agony and the Agony: 33rd Annual Baldy Hill Climb

Today was the 33rd Annual Baldy Hill Climb in Sun Valley, Idaho - A true all-comers affair that doesn't seem to favor athletes from any one sport.  All you need is to bring a will to suffer and, if you want to be at all competitive, a training regimen and VO2 max in line with the past, present, and future Olympians who always toe the line next to you.  The course is 1.9 miles straight up the Warms Springs run on the Sun Valley ski hill, climbing just under 3,200 vertical feet and offering no where to hide.

Michael Tobin of Boise - at age 48 - took top honors in the men's division in 37:08. Chelsea Holmes of Ketchum won the women's side in 42:36.  Full results.

My race was more modest. I finished in 47:03, about 20 seconds slower than my PR in the event, set in 2006.  And I felt pretty solid throughout, but, I had trouble pushing beyond the hard-but-within-myself level.  Any time I really worked to pick up the pace a bit, I shot quickly into the red zone and had to dial it down so I wouldn't blow up and limp home in 60 minutes.
Lost in the pain cave. Exit, 1,000 feet up. (this & top photo: KJB)
But, 47 is respectable.  I'm generally happy with it.  It's two minutes faster than a good training effort a week ago, and fully seven minutes faster than an attempt two weeks ago. So it would have been unreasonable to have expected much more.

To cap the day off and to get some extra miles, I took the long way down to the base, following the 11 mile Broadway/Warm Springs trails from the top.  After the single file sufferfest up, it was an easy, sunny, and beautiful cruise home.
Cruising home. Fall in the Castle Rock burn.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Meta-Post: Run Junkie on Flotrack's "Run Junkie"

I've had a few false starts to this post - opening sentences rightfully abandoned for either lack of clarity or richness in sniveling.  For example:
#1  After posting a few tweets on this topic over the last few days, none of which found any purchase on the collective interest (sample), I should probably have heeded the people's choice and just let it go. 
#2  I can't say I don't feel a bit put out by Flotrack (  
Finally, though, I think I came up with a good opening that definitely didn't bury the lede:

What the hell?  Flotrack snaked the name of my site for their new Run Junkie video web series.  

And that pretty much captures the facts and my feelings.  Initially, I had thoughts of waxing nostalgic for losing the originality of my site's name, for taking time to build the "brand" only to see Flotrack's Run Junkie bump up immediately against my Run Junkie in Google search rankings.  But that all seemed somewhat petty - and more than a little bit sad.

Though the name sharing could sew some confusion in the marketplace, in reality each Run Junkie comes from a different running world.  They're covering track and field.  I'm covering mostly trail and ultra.  They're a video series.  I'm mostly static content.  They're a touchstone of running news.  I'm a niche site (to spin it kindly). They're young and vibrant.  I'm.....Well, I think the point's been made.

Who knows, I could even garner a few extra visitors from those distracted trackies mistakenly clicking on the wrong Run Junkie link, and it's not like they're sullying the Run Junkie name.  The Flotrack content is good.  It's infectious.  And the hosts strangely look a bit like I did in my college days.

When it comes down to it, though, I guess what truly irks me is that in my few tweets on the topic (they follow @run_junkie), they haven't even acknowledged this Run Junkie's existence or better yet offered me one of their very cool RJ t-shirts (see it here) as a peace offerring.

To see what this site's up against, here's Flotrack's energetic Run Junkie episode 2:

Watch more video of Run Junkie on

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Winter Replay - Eiger Speed Ascent (Video)

The link to this video made the rounds this winter, but I had to take another look at it with summer coming to a close, and the snow getting set to fall before too long.  Ueli Steck free climbs the Eiger in 2:47, in nothing short of amazing fashion.  The videography is great; the climbing is great, but what I'm always astounded by is how fast he moves once he hits the snow fields.  It's worth a viewing if you haven't watched it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Photo of the Week - "Reflection at Sawtooth Lake"

Crossing the northern cirque of Sawtooth Lake on the way to Observation Peak; Sawtooth Wilderness; Idaho

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Crumbling Will or Smart Racing - Today's Harriman Trail 10 Miler

There's a scene in the fantastically campy 1985 bike racing movie American Flyers (montage) where Kevin Costner's character - in leather hairnet, mustache, and the twilight of his pro career - shows his younger brother a video of the imperceptible moment in a previous year's stage race when he lost his drive - where he essentially handed the win to someone else.

I was thinking about this scene on-and-off this morning as I made my way through the Harriman Trail 10 Miler.  While on paper I had a great race - finishing 5th overall and only a handful of minutes down on the winner - I was left wondering about my will - not to win, per se, since that's rarely a chance I have, but to suffer and to excel.  

What really brought this issue into relief for me was the lead woman who paced off me for much of the race.  Now, she was suffering, and to a much greater degree than I knew I was. Yet she hung in there, huffing and puffing, right on my heels, until the last couple miles, where she barely lost contact.  

Despite a few surges, and a few tests, I just couldn't put myself through that today.

And maybe it was simply smart racing.  A hard, uphill 10 miles is on the edge of my fitness with the reduced miles I've been putting in, and one of my main goals was to race hard but also not to blow up and have the wheels fall off.  So I was constantly doing the self-checks - taking stock of all the sensations to make sure I had the legs, lungs, and energy to finish well.  

I accomplished that, which feels great - but not without concern that something's changed inside, that I've turned some corner when it comes to the will to excel, that I've become Kevin Costner in American Flyers.  The horror.  The horror.