Like books sometimes do, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running fell into my lap just when I needed it. I was working on the first draft of my novel The Shakespeare Girl – my final portfolio piece for a Masters in Creative Writing – and I’d signed up to do the Great Manchester 10 Kilometre Run with a group of friends at work. We wanted to raise money for cancer charities on behalf of our much-loved friend and colleague Reena, who was fighting against non-Hodgkins lymphoma. When Reena lost her battle with that illness in November 2012, the run became something positive for us to aim towards, to honour Reena and the people who had caredfor her. It was a long time into treatment before we knew Reena’s chances of recovery were slim. She died at The Christie Hospital aged 33.
A regime of writing and running happened under a good deal of sadness. Early in the mornings, powered by stress and determination, I started to run. In the evening I came home from the office and worked on my novel. I was exhausted but oddly contented. Then I happened on Murakami’s book, which chronicles the novelist’s obsession with running whilst intertwining autobiographical anecdotes about teaching, marriage, and writing his novels. It had an immediate impact, encouraging me to run and write even when I felt too tired to do either, and persuading me that there could be some kind of fruitful relationship between the two.
Murakami started running at 33, an age that suddenly sounded very young. I had never knowingly run for longer than 2 km. At school I was a sprinter, and even middle distances left me anxious and bored. But I liked to cycle and swim, I was fitter than I thought, and I soon began making good progress with a ‘Couch to 5K’ running app. Before long I was running 6 km at a time and stitching together the difficult plot/sub-plot of my novel in my head as I ran. Just as I was finding a complementary relationship between running and writing for myself, I had an accident and broke my hand. The impact whenever I tried to run caused a jolt in the bones of my finger that was agonising. My training had to stop. I couldn’t type (the cast went from my little finger to my elbow) so I had to use voice recognition software for work and for my fiction. It proved to be an amazing piece of technology that I continued to use from time to time, even after my arm came out of the cast, but it was slow going in the beginning and eventually I had to get an extension to my deadline.
In the office, work piled up. I couldn’t type or do any overtime and almost every email in my inbox seemed like bad news. I speed-edited my novel and submitted it. I didn’t feel any of the relief I was expecting. ‘You’ve just sent your three year old off to day-care for the first time, that’s why,’ said my boyfriend Oisín, trying to rationalise my anxiety at letting the novel go. Just like the teacher who gets sick on the last day of term, a low-lying cough I’d just about been containing spilled over into a chest infection. I worked through it with barely a day off sick, all the while enviously reading about Murakami’s epic runs through Athens and Boston and Tokyo while I was prescribed one inhaler after another and every whiff of pollution sent me into a rattling cough.
Then the cast came off and I began running again, tentatively, with Ventolin and a steroid inhaler. My route took me around the lake at Chorlton Water Park where there were no fumes to trigger my lung irritation (now diagnosed as post-viral bronchial hypersensitivity). With the race only weeks away I decided to invest in a pair of proper running shoes. I was given a running test and was offered trainers with additional support for ‘over pronation’, which is basically running too heavily on the inside of the foot. I began training in my bouncy new techno-shoes. Then overnight I was struck with identical acute pains on the insides of my knees. I went from running 7.5 km with a rucksack on my back, to having Nurofen for breakfast and getting off the bus backwards to avoid shooting pains in my legs.
With a week to go to the run I went to see a physiotherapist about the pain that wouldn’t go away. It took a matter of minutes for him to ascertain that I wasn’t an over-pronator at all. The corrective trainers had damaged my perfectly normal tendons. I only had time for two sessions of ultrasound and massage before the day of the race arrived. My sponsorships had been generous but I was certain I wouldn’t be able to run. I felt like a fraud. My friend and colleague Lianne then reminded me in passing that in the hospital she had mentioned to Reena that we had all signed up to do the run, and that we would be doing so wearing moustaches to honour the iconically macho Ron Burgundy from Anchorman, one of Reena’s favourite movies. I decided I was going to start and finish the Great Manchester Run even if I had to walk the entire route. Some things are more important than running, and even Murakami would agree with that.
On the day of the race I stretched, freeze-sprayed my knees, took Nurofen Express, put on my elastic knee supports and joined my friends at the starting line. After the pistol I stopped and started then stopped again, walked a little way, then jogged, then stopped, walked some more, and tried to block the pain. It became apparent I was having a different race to most of the other competitors. To start with, the opening 2 km was the hardest for me, but no doubt the easiest for everyone else. My knees took forever to loosen up and my opening gait was somewhere between a lollop and a shuffle. I couldn’t get comfortable or find my stride. When the course went uphill I was relieved, much of my training had been done on an incline. When we headed downhill, my knees buckled in pain while runners poured past me as their momentum increased.
Then, somehow, my knees found a motion that suited them and a fainter thud of pain became gradually manageable. Murakami, writing about marathon running and rendering our much shorter race a mere warm-up in comparison, had written:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it any more. The hurt part is unavoidable, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner…
I thought about Reena and everything she’d been through and I tried to remember Murakami’s exact phrasing as I came up to 5 kilometres, then 6, then 7, with brass bands and DJs playing at the side of the road, and a sea of brightly coloured T shirts ahead of me. I am running for my Dad, read the messages on the back. I am running for my son, for my sister, for my friend. When I ran through the blessedly cool shower I had tears in my eyes. For the first time ever, I didn’t get a stitch. When it got too hot, clouds covered the sun. With a kilometre left to go I threw in my lot and started to sprint. As I took off, a young lad at the side of the road shouted, ‘Go on Greg!’ (my name was on my shirt) and so I did. I hit the finish line at the Hilton Hotel at 1:11:11 and I made sure I was thinking about Reena when I crossed it.
You can still sponsor me for The Christie here.