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Running is a sport of contradiction. Finishing a marathon is at once extraordinary and unremarkable: Running 26.2 miles is an exceptional achievement, but it’s also one that 1.1 million people complete every year.
In running, themes of life and death coexist. On one hand, it’s a celebration of what the human body can do and achieve. Some events, like cancer charity runs, are associated with the will to survive. But at the other end, in the sport’s most extreme races like the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley, participants teeter on the edge of mortality. The truth is, the marathon was born out of, quite literally, death.*
* The first marathoner, an Athenian man delivering news of a Greek victory after a battle, collapsed and died after finishing his journey.
Other contrasts abound. Sociological analyses of running culture also show how it can be egalitarian and unequal at once: Theoretically, running has no barrier to entry, and all you really need is a good pair of sneakers, but the socioeconomic and racial disparities in the world of competitive running are hard to ignore. The median household income of the Runner’s World print audience in 2022 was $120,050 (well above the 2021 national median of $70,784), implying that running is somehow associated with wealth. (A study on the meaning of running in American society looks at how running perpetuates ideals of capitalism and consumerism.) On the other hand, the simple act of jogging by yourself, in your own neighborhood, can be deadly for those less privileged; the most high-profile running stories in recent years haven’t been about heroes, but victims.
All of which is to say, running can be a complex subject, and essays and features about running fascinate me, especially after I became a runner myself.
The appeal of running isn’t always obvious to outsiders. Until I became a runner, I had been mystified why people would subject themselves to such a tedious kind of suffering. Masochists, I thought, whenever a group of runners passed by me in college.
But now the joke’s on me. I’m that guy running with a varicolored Dri-FIT running tank, six-inch lined running shorts, a Garmin feature-packed to conquer K2. My face is smeared with sunscreen, enough to trap dirt and insects that land on my face.
My transformation from an unbeliever to that friend who guilt-trips you to cheer for me on a Sunday morning happened two-plus years ago, thanks to — what else? — the pandemic. One fateful day in March 2020, after indoor gyms shut down, I decided to run across the Queensboro Bridge in Queens, New York. Back then, I didn’t have a smartphone, so I put my iPad mini in my polyester drawstring bag and ran across the bridge, listening to What We Talk About When We Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. What started that day as a lockdown pastime evolved into something more, and thanks to Murakami, I’ve since added marathon entry fees as a line item in my annual expenses.
I’d like to think that all runners have experienced that moment when they cross over from “someone who runs” to a “runner.” The more you run, the more you experience moments of endorphin-induced glee. But one day you achieve escape velocity — and feel the euphoria of the “runner’s high.”
As the pieces below will show, runner’s high is not the only reason — nor is it the most meaningful one — writers run. If you’re Murakami, the reason can be as mundane as to stay fit after committing to a sedentary job. For other writers, it’s more complicated. The stories in this reading list highlight six writers’ insights on the act and art of running.
“The Running Novelist” (Haruki Murakami, The New Yorker, June 2008)
Longtime fans of the Murakami Cinematic Universe will find familiar elements here: baseball, jazz, understated prose, and non sequiturs. For a time, before Murakami became a novelist, he was the owner of a jazz club in Tokyo. In this piece, he describes how — and exactly when — he decided to write and how his early habits and commitments allowed him to do so prolifically for decades.
Running a jazz club required constant physical labor, but when Murakami started to spend more time at his desk, he started gaining weight. “This couldn’t be good for me,” he writes in a deadpan statement. “If I wanted to have a long life as a novelist, I needed to find a way to stay in shape.” Being metabolically challenged helped Murakami develop his work ethic.
Murakami drops writing advice while making parallel points about running. But the way he does it is frustratingly tantalizing — he’s not the one to share his tips openly à la Robert McKee. Murakami suggests that writing, like running, relies less on quick decision-making skills than patience and long contemplation: “Long-distance running suits my personality better, which may explain why I was able to incorporate it so smoothly into my daily life.”
Murakami calls himself a no-talent — a colossal understatement — but readers who have encountered unreliable narrators in his novels know better: We shouldn’t be so naïve as to take his words at face value.
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins.
Murakami doesn’t debunk the myth of an artistic genius but shows that with a sustainable routine, the genius can be prolific. If you’re reading for concrete advice on writing and a neat analogy comparing running to writing, you won’t find it here. Rather, we get something better: a portrait of the artist as a young runner.
“Why I Run: On Thoreau and the Pleasures of Not Quite Knowing Where You’re Going” (Rachel Richardson, Literary Hub, October 2022)
Don’t let the title fool you. Rachel Richardson has no unconditional praise for Thoreau; she politely defies him. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau spoke to an audience of men as he opined on nature. To him, women were symbols — “for the splay of land on which such a free man saunters,” writes Richardson — rather than his target readers.
To read Thoreau’s essay in 2023 is to be startled by his problematic view of women and puritanical sense of “capital-N” Nature. He would not approve of the urban environment that Richardson describes while she runs: “I was born in a California he didn’t imagine, in a hospital in a town laid out with lawns and gardens.” Her piece is a bracing tonic against the writer’s anachronistic thoughts.
Richardson, like many other runners like me, was not always a runner: “How or why anyone would do this for pleasure was beyond my ability to fathom,” she thought when growing up. But in her 20s, she discovered running as a refreshingly guilt-free activity to do in a world that made her anxious. (People who started running during the pandemic, like me, might agree. Unlike going to the gym or participating in a team sport, which were risky at the time, running was easier to navigate and do on our own.)
Richardson writes that she never knows what her running route will be. But that uncertainty brings relief. Freedom. Inspiration. Running rewards runners with a sense of uncomplicated happiness and goodwill, which Richardson details in this delightful passage:
When I run, I smile and people smile back. Kids wave at me and cyclists nod as they zoom by. Other runners raise a hand of hello or, my favorite, flash a big grin. Sometimes we’re wearing the same race shirt—me too!, I point. Sometimes they’re in a zone I can’t penetrate, with their earbuds and podcast or playlist keeping them company. I still smile, even when they don’t look up. Hey, we’re out here, doing this beautiful thing.
When the endorphins start kicking in, around mile three, I love everybody, even the sourest-faced walker or most oblivious group of teenagers taking up the whole trail and dropping Doritos on the ground. Nice dog!, I shout when I see a dog happily panting at her runner’s side, or You’ve got this! to the struggling jogger stumbling to the end of his route. … I am an unrepentant dork when I run.
“To Run My Best Marathon at Age 44, I Had to Outrun My Past” (Nicholas Thompson, Wired, April 2020)
I have beef with running memoirs that try to overburden the sport with dramatic insights. Not because insights can’t be found in running, but because execution without sentimentality is no easy feat. Thompson’s essay — which deals with, among many things, family relationships, parental abuse and influence, sexuality, ambition, and mortality — is a clear-eyed piece that demonstrates what can be done in the hands of a dexterous editor and writer.
I’ve read this piece many times, and like a good novel, I’m drawn to different themes every time. In my most recent read, two ideas resonated: defining one’s identity separate from one’s parents’ and identifying with one’s masculinity without being poisoned by it. It’s an all-consuming narrative that spans four generations of men in Thompson’s family.
As he would later tell me, running was the rare sport where you mostly competed against yourself. You could learn without having to lose. It was also something he hadn’t failed at in front of his father.
I sent an early version of this essay to my older sister, who saw something clearly that I hadn’t identified yet. “Running solved nothing for [Dad]. You’ve had a longer journey with it, and used it in ways that are much more productive. But I have this nagging sense that your story of needing to follow footsteps (the schools, the running) and needing so much not to follow footsteps (the overindulgence, the flameout, the irresponsibility and failure) are more complexly interwoven.
“To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times, July 1999)
Whereas Murakami’s piece, detached from romanticism, was not a very effective sales pitch for running, Joyce Carol Oates’ ode to running may intrigue any writer who could use more literary imagination; she writes about running as a consciousness-expanding activity, allowing her to envision what she writes as a film or dream: “I’ve never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but as the attempted embodiment of a vision: a complex of emotions, raw experience.”
This piece was written more than 20 years ago. Oates, one of America’s most renowned storytellers, has published more than 70 books in her literary career. For her, running certainly seems to work.
The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort. Running is a meditation; more practicably it allows me to scroll through, in my mind’s eye, the pages I’ve just written, proofreading for errors and improvements.
My method is one of continuous revision. While writing a long novel, every day I loop back to earlier sections to rewrite, in order to maintain a consistent, fluid voice. When I write the final two or three chapters of a novel, I write them simultaneously with the rewriting of the opening, so that, ideally at least, the novel is like a river uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others.
Though I can’t claim the same level of inspiration, something similar happened when I first started running. During my daily runs, I experienced breakthroughs where I felt stuck: A connective sentence or a word I’d been looking for would pop into my head. On some days, this happened so often that I needed to stop every few minutes to record it on my phone, which disrupted my run. Eventually, I learned to run with a waterproof pocket notebook in my left hand and a retractable pen in my right.
“Running in the Age of Coronavirus” (Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated, May 2020)
The May 2020 timing of this piece on Jim Fixx, the “father of recreational running,” was wonderfully apt for pandemic-inspired runners. It was as if Chris Ballard, a seasoned sports writer, was inducting new runners into the history of the sport.
Ballard observed that more people started running during the pandemic, believing it “would in some way do them good, or make them feel better about themselves or the world, if even for a moment.” But the belief that running is good for your body and soul wasn’t always accepted wisdom but once an argument, even a radical and contrarian one.
It may sound glib to say that “running saved my life.” But for Fixx, it really did. And, in a tragic irony, it also killed him. Fixx was one of the central figures of the running boom of the ’70s and whose book, The Complete Book of Running, became “the most lucrative nonfiction title ever published by Random House,” writes Ballard. It was a hit, and the media couldn’t get enough of him. As Ballard writes, “a fad had become a craze,” and for the first time in a year, 100,000 Americans finished a marathon. The book was noteworthy not just because it was an encyclopedia of running; it heralded a certain kind of running memoir, one in which an author details their salvation by running.
Ballard writes both a pocket history guide on how running became a major sport in America and a personal history of the man who made it possible. Although this story has been told many times, Ballard’s reporting is enriched by Fixx’s journals, to which his family offered access for the first time.
After his death, the sports world changed profoundly. Running was no longer a craze, or a miracle cure. But neither did it die. Instead, it evolved. In 1977, 25,000 Americans finished marathons; By ’94, more than 300,000 did. In ’94, Oprah ran, and completed, her only marathon, spurring a boom among those who felt the feat previously unreachable. By the turn of the century, how you ran mattered as much as whether you did. Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run spurred thousands to tromp through the woods barefoot. Ultramarathons gained in popularity. Rock ’n’ roll marathon and fun run entered the lexicon. By 2011, women accounted for close to 60% of the finishers in half-marathons.
It’s not exactly a light read, so let me leave you with an irresistible detail: Fixx’s father was born a Fix but added a second x to his name. Why? He thought, “a person’s name ought to be a proper noun, not a verb.”
“What We Think About When We Run” (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, November 2015)
I couldn’t think of a better piece to wrap up this reading list than a meta-essay about writing on running by Kathryn Schulz who is, after all, a master of meta-writing. (Her piece about Oxford’s “A Very Short Introduction” series is a good example.)
What do runners think about when they run? In the first part of this two-part story, Schulz looks to scientific research and lays out the uninspiring results. She writes: “Like a fair number of psychological studies, this one confirmed the obvious while simultaneously missing it.” But she continues:
Of course runners think about their route, their pace, their pain, and their environment. But what of everything else that routinely surfaces in the mind during a run? The new girlfriend, the professional dilemma, the batteries you need to remember to buy for the smoke detector, what to get your mom for her birthday, the brilliance with which Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson (if you are listening to the soundtrack to “Hamilton”), the music, the moment (if you are listening to Eminem), the Walter Mitty meanderings into alternate lives: all of this is strangely missing from Samson’s study. The British author Alan Sillitoe got it right in his 1958 short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”: “They can spy on us all day to see if we’re … doing our ‘athletics,’ but they can’t make an X-ray of our guts to find out what we’re telling ourselves.”
Then, Schulz points out, with a knowing wit, the shortcomings of contemporary writing on running. Writing about running without schmaltz — like Murakami — is no easy feat, which makes it hard for people to find books that “address the mind of the runner in descriptive rather than inspirational or aspirational terms.” You could also argue that Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, despite being enjoyable, reads like gonzo journalism. And some running memoirs that read like redemption memoirs, such as Robin Harvie’s The Lure of Long Distances, follow the same formula.
Later, Schulz champions Poverty Creek Journal, a book by literary-critic-cum-runner Thomas Gardner, as “the only one to uncover the literary possibilities inside the terse, repetitive, normally unimaginative genre of the running log.” After reading this piece, I read this strangely profound book — it’s a mix of literary criticism, running logs, and thoughts that range from complaints to grief.
When Schulz says running logs are “terse, repetitive, normally unimaginative,” she doesn’t intend it as a criticism. Running is, admittedly, an incredibly understimulating sport to watch, so much so that I suspect even the most avid runners probably don’t sit down to watch the Boston Marathon from beginning to the end.
And here’s a pitfall of sports writing: There’s often too great a desire to imbue a grand meaning to the sport. “Life is a marathon,” goes the cliché. But the thing is, life is like a marathon. So writing about running becomes a balancing act, one in which — without sufficient craft and self-awareness — can be a challenge. But here, Schulz (and Gardner) masterfully explore the essence of running, in all its glory and tedium. A sport of contradiction indeed.
Sheon Han is a writer and programmer based in Palo Alto, California. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Quanta Magazine, and elsewhere. You can read his work at sheon.tk.