by Alison Conway
Haruki Murakami is a contemporary novelist, famous for his blending of America crime noir conventions and Japanese culture. My first Murakami read was The WindUp Bird Chronicle, which I highly recommend for anyone interested detective fiction and/or the legacy of WW II in Japan. But the work by Murakami that captured my heart was not a novel, but a memoir titled What I Talk About When I Talk about Running.
I came back to running at age 50 with all the enthusiasm that anyone setting out after years of double-shifting full-time work and childcare brings to her new hobby. Which is to say, a lot. Reading about running is almost as much fun as running itself, with hearing about other people’s running following close behind. Murakami’s prose reads like running shoes hitting the pavement, carefully measured in its pacing, but also graceful, poetic.
Murakami claims, “I am no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point” (10). To be an ordinary runner is a wonderful freedom. I run and race for myself and have only my hard-earned, middle-aged personal best times to show for my efforts, times which will soon slip away from me as I approach my sixties. “I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together,” Murakami writes (172). I take perverse pleasure in thinking of myself as racing toward the grave.
But running, for me, isn’t about simply enjoying exercise in middle age. I train for races, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits; that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life,” says Murakami (83). Pushing myself, physically, reminds me to push myself in other areas of my life, especially those where I might feel insecure. Indeed, the mind games I play when heading to a finish line are the same games I play when dealing with difficult situations at work. Avoiding negative self-talk, keeping in mind that the pain is temporary: these strategies help me keep moving forward.
Where Murakami and I part ways is in the company we keep while running. Murakami likes to run alone, and I like to run with other people. I particularly like to run with women friends. On our runs, we can process the challenges we face at work and in our personal lives. Kinship grows as the miles pass, as well as the confidence that we’ve got each other’s backs. When I run down the street with my friends, I feel secure in my pod. And I am proud of the company I keep.
Recently, I was introduced to the work of Victoria Pitts-Taylor, author of The Brain’s Body. Pitts-Taylor is interested in the social brain, furthering the work of feminist materialism, which “explores biology as both agentic and entangled with social meanings and cultural practices” (19). The chapter that got me thinking about women running together is titled “Neurobiology and the Queerness of Kinship.” Here, Pitts-Taylor examines how scientists talk about the role oxytocin plays in forming bonds between mammals. Most commonly associated with mother-infant bonding, oxytocin, Pitts-Taylor reveals, appears in a wider range of bodies than science tends to examine: “Across species of mammals, varieties of social arrangements may reflect different underlying patterns of oxytocin receptors and related circuitry” (105). It is the bonding activity, rather than genetics, which establish kinship ties fueled by oxytocin, Pitts-Taylor argues: “Being biologically related does not have to mean genetically related; it can mean having a biological investment in another, in the form of an intercorporeal tie to another, that is the product of interaction, intimacy, or companionship” (117).
Back to running. Running, various studies show, produces oxytocin.[i] My theory, based only on subjective experience, is that the production of oxytocin in a group already primed by social context to value friendship and community contributes to a feeling of kinship among the bodies that run together. My sense that I belong to a pack or a pod when I run with women may, in fact, reflect a mammalian truth rather than my propensity, as an English professor, to think metaphorically. I like to think of my running friends as my “other” family; it may be that science proves me right in claiming kinship with them.
Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running (2008). Trans. Philip Gabriel. Anchor, 2013.
Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. The brain’s body: neuroscience and corporeal politics. Duke University Press, 2016.
[i] Trynke, R. de Jong, Rohit Menon, Anna Bludau, Thomas Grund, Verena Biermeier, Stefanie M. Klampfl, Benjamin Jurek, Oliver J. Bosch, Juliane Helhammer, Inga D. Neumann, “Salivary oxytocin concentrations in response to running, sexual self-stimulation, breastfeeding and the TSST: The Regensburg Oxytocin Challenge (ROC) study,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 62, December 2015, 381-388
Alison Conway is a Professor of English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UBC, Okanagan. Her favorite workout is running the streets and trails of Kelowna BC.