To be specific, or at least as specific as I can get about something I don’t at all understand, the topic is “Writing & Running”, I think.
I’m one of the organizers of the annual Pasadena Literary Festival, which this year will take place on May 20 and 21. It’s a great event that convenes Los Angeles area novelists, journalists, culture writers, radio and TV personalities, even a runner or two this time around, to talk about books, ideas, politics, what have you. Every year, despite the summertime heat, the crowds get bigger, the book sales get better and the panels we’re able to stage become more and more numerous and diverse. I’m looking forward to sitting amongst the audience as some of my favorite California-residing writers discuss the status of refugees in America and globally in 2017, the possibility that it might just be impossible for any one book to fully encapsulate L.A., and the role of evil in literature. Then there’s what I’ve taken to calling the “running topic,” a panel idea not at all of my making (unlike the others just enumerated) but about which I will have to speak with some sort of intelligence and clarity instead of playing my preferred wallflower position. To be specific, or at least as specific as I can get about something I don’t at all understand, the topic is “Writing & Running”, I think. I forget the exact title, but rest assured I’ll be reminded of it as the gathered onlookers/listeners await the words of myself and my co-panelists. The panel is the brainchild of Jinghuan Liu Tervalon, a writer, marathon runner and obvious superstar. Among the panelists will be Dr. George Wright, a scholar of Olympic history and former runner who almost made the Canadian Olympic team in the steeplechase the year that the Games were held in Montreal. The only chance I ever had at the Olympics was buying a ticket. Nor have I ever run anything close to a marathon distance. Nor will I ever.
I guess I’m on this panel because I’ve always written and I’ve always run. There are no other writers in my family that I know of, though my mother and grandfather on my father’s side could both attest to voracious literary appetites. My mother is a great reader who devours books, op-eds and scholarship by the Amazon van load. My grandfather, a WWII veteran of the European front, read widely and deeply the literature of America’s wars. His son, my father, was less a reader than a storage chest of historical anecdote and information, come upon by means academic and experiential. He was also a runner, my father, a collegiate national record holder for twenty four hours at one point in time, so while my writings are much less the result of natural talent than dedicated labor, the running is in my blood.
The best book I’ve ever read about running is Louis Edwards’s Ten Seconds, which is about a twentysomething ex-athlete who never quite achieved the holy grail of sprinting, the coveted 10 second 100 meter dash. Now, as I prepare for the panel, Murakami’s book on running is challenging that designation: Like all great sports stories, both Edwards’s novel and Murakami’s non-fiction work have very little to do with sports. Edwards’s characters struggle with family and love and shame and poverty and regret. Murakami discloses himself in wonderful, seemingly unplanned ways, running the ancient course at Marathon in Greece backwards and only later finding out it’s actually 25.2, not 26.2 miles, that all the runners in the world have been unnecessarily torturing themselves for centuries in fealty to a false image, and he is OK with this because after all he is a writer and writing is in no way practical or time-efficient or definable within time and space.
I’m four months out from surgery and have been back to my running for about a month now. There are valleys of pain that I’ve come upon that I did not know existed before the surgery and before running after the surgery. My lightness and swiftness of being, something I’ve taken for granted all my life, has suddenly absconded the premises, leaving behind a lumbering writer who runs when he can. In some sense, pain, surgery, infirmity, and aging are opportunities to discover the physical self that we will never see, the self that churns within us on the other side of these thin colored membranes of skin. And this is the case with writing, too: It, in the end, is not about speed or breaking the tape first but about a subtle and slow self-discovery, a means by which to see ourselves and the world that is incredibly unique. It is a privilege, like life. Maybe this is what I will try, with whatever words arrive in me that morning a month from now, to tell folks, that writing is a different way of seeing and feeling and running and not running has helped me to see and to feel just that.
My father, who passed away in 2011, told me that he set a record in an event that no longer exists and that it was broken the next day by a kid on the opposite side of the country. I never thought much of the story until his old best friend, who now lives in D.C. contacted me a couple months after his passing. The friend sent me a newspaper clipping from the Fresno Bee that heralded a relay record, the anchor leg run by one Calvin Norris. So, I thought, the story is true, was true all along. I appreciated the kind archival gesture.
I thought it curious that my father never shared those details of his record that would have verified what just sounded to my innocent ears like another tall tale. He definitely hadn’t kept any newspaper clippings. He could recall effortlessly facts about obscure Civil War skirmishes. But not this. But now, when I think of the story, not the one in the newspaper about his record but the story he told me about how he lost it, I think I get it: It is not really about running at all. I just remember him laughing and laughing, until I had to laugh too, that it came and went so quickly.