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Athens in Midsummer—Running 26.2 Miles for the First Time

Yesterday was the last day of August. During this month (thirty-one days), I ran a total of 217 miles.


156 miles (36 miles per week)


186 miles (43 miles per week)


217 miles (50 miles per week)

My goal is the New York City Marathon on November 6. I’ve had to make some adjustments to prepare for it; so far, so good. I started a set running schedule five months ahead of time, increasing, in stages, the distance I run.

The weather in Kauai in August is wonderful, and I wasn’t rained out even once. When it did rain, it was a pleasant shower that cooled down my overheated body. Weather on the north shore of Kauai is generally good in the summer, but it’s rare to have such nice weather continue for so long. Thanks to this, I was able to run as much as I wanted. I feel in good shape, so even though I’m gradually increasing the distance I run, my body hasn’t complained. These three months I’ve been able to run pain-free, with no injuries, and without feeling overly tired.

The summer heat didn’t wear me down, either. I don’t do anything in particular to keep my energy level up during the summer. I guess the only thing I do specifically is try not to drink so many cold drinks. And eat more fruits and vegetables. When it comes to food, Hawaii is the ideal place for me to live in the summer because I can easily get lots of fresh fruits—mangoes, papayas, avocados—literally right across the street. I’m not eating these, though, simply to stave off the summer blahs, but because my body just naturally craves them. Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.

One other way I keep healthy is by taking a nap. I really nap a lot. Usually I get sleepy right after lunch, plop down on the sofa, and doze off. Thirty minutes later I come wide awake. As soon as I wake up, my body isn’t sluggish and my mind is totally clear. This is what they call in southern Europe a siesta. I think I learned this custom when I lived in Italy, but maybe I’m misremembering, since I’ve always loved taking naps. Anyway, I’m the type of person who, once he gets sleepy, can fall sound asleep anywhere. Definitely a good talent to have if you want to stay healthy, but the problem is I sometimes fall fast asleep in situations where I shouldn’t.

I’ve shed a few pounds, too, and my face looks more toned. It’s a nice feeling to see your body going through these changes, though they certainly don’t happen as quickly as when I was young. Changes that used to take a month and a half now take three. The amount I can exercise is going downhill, as is the efficiency of the whole process, but what’re you going to do? I just have to accept it, and make do with what I can get. One of the realities of life. Plus, I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are. The gym where I work out in Tokyo has a poster that says, “Muscles are hard to get and easy to lose. Fat is easy to get and hard to lose.” A painful reality, but a reality all the same.

In this way August waved good-bye (it really did seem like it waved), September rolled around, and my style of training has undergone another transformation. In the three months up till now I was basically trying to rack up the distance, not worrying about anything, but steadily increasing my pace and running as hard as I could. And this helped me build up my overall strength: I got more stamina, built up my muscles, spurred myself on both physically and mentally. The most important task here was to let my body know in no uncertain terms that running this hard is just par for the course. When I say letting it know in no uncertain terms I’m speaking figuratively, of course. No matter how much you might command your body to perform, don’t count on it to immediately obey. The body is an extremely practical system. You have to let it experience intermittent pain over time, and then the body will get the point. As a result, it will willingly accept (or maybe not) the increased amount of exercise it’s made to do. After this, you very gradually increase the upper limit of the amount of exercise you do. Doing it gradually is important so you don’t burn out.

Now that it’s September and the race is two months away, my training is entering a period of fine-tuning. Through modulated exercise—sometimes long, sometimes short, sometimes soft, sometimes hard—I’m transitioning from quantity of exercise to quality. The point is to reach the peak of exhaustion about a month before the race, so this is a critical period. In order to make any progress, I have to listen very carefully to feedback from my body.

In August I was able to settle down in one place, Kauai, and train, but in September I’ll be taking some long trips, back to Japan and then from Japan to Boston. In Japan I’ll be too busy to focus on running the way I have been. I should be able to make up for not running as much, though, by establishing a more efficient training program.

I’d really rather not talk about this—I’d much prefer to hide it away in the back of the closet—but the last time I ran a full marathon it was awful. I’ve run a lot of races, but never one that ended up so badly.

This race took place in Chiba Prefecture. Up to around the eighteenth mile I was going along at a good enough clip, and I was sure I’d run a decent time. I had plenty of stamina left, so I was positive I could finish the rest of the race with no problem. But just as I was thinking this, my legs suddenly stopped following orders. They began to cramp up, and it got so bad I couldn’t run anymore. I tried stretching, but the back of my thighs wouldn’t stop trembling, and finally cramped up into this weird knot. I couldn’t even stand up, and before I knew it I was squatting down beside the road. I’d had cramps in other races, but as long as I stretched for a while, about five minutes was all it took for my muscles to get back to normal and me to get back in the race. But now no matter how much time passed, the cramps wouldn’t go away. At one point I thought it’d gotten better and I began to run again, but sure enough the cramps returned. So the last three miles or so I had to walk. This was the first time I’d ever walked a marathon instead of running. Up till then I’d made it a point of pride that no matter how hard things might get, I never walked. A marathon is a running event, after all, not a walking event. But in that one race, even walking was a problem. The thought crossed my mind a few times that maybe I should give up and hitch a ride on one of the event shuttle buses. My time was going to be awful anyway, I thought, so why not just throw in the towel? But dropping out was the last thing I wanted to do. I might be reduced to crawling, but I was going to make it to the finish line on my own steam.

Other runners kept passing me, but I limped on, grimacing in pain. The numbers on my digital watch kept mercilessly ticking away. Wind blew in from the ocean, and the sweat on my shirt got cold and felt freezing. This was a winter race, after all. You’d better believe it’s cold hobbling down a road with the wind whipping by while you’re dressed only in a tank top and shorts. Your body warms up considerably as you run, and you don’t feel the cold; I was shocked by how cold it was once I stopped running. But what I felt much more than the cold was wounded pride, and how pitiful I looked tottering down a marathon course. About a mile from the finish line my cramps finally let up and I was able to run again. I slowly jogged for a while until I got back in form, then sped down the home stretch as hard as I could. My time, though, was indeed awful, as predicted.

There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. That’s it in a word. Not enough overall exercise, plus not getting my weight down. Without knowing it, I’d developed a sort of arrogant attitude, convinced that just a fair-to-middling amount of training was enough for me to do a good job. It’s pretty thin, the wall separating healthy confidence and unhealthy pride. When I was young, maybe just a fair-to-middling amount of training would have been enough for me to run a marathon. Without driving myself too hard in training, I could have banked on the strength I’d already built up to see me through and run a good time. Sadly, though, I’m no longer young. I’m getting to the age where you really do get only what you pay for.

As I ran this race I felt I never, ever wanted to go through that again. Freeze my butt off and feel miserable? I’ll pass. Right then and there I decided that before my next marathon I was going to go back to the basics, start from scratch, and do the very best I could. Train meticulously and rediscover what I was physically capable of. Tighten up all the loose screws, one by one. Do all that and see what happens. These were my thoughts as I dragged my cramped legs through the freezing wind, one runner after another passing me by.

As I’ve said, I’m not a very competitive type of person. To a certain extent, I figured, it’s sometimes hard to avoid losing. Nobody’s going to win all the time. On the highway of life you can’t always be in the fast lane. Still, I certainly don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Best to learn from my mistakes and put that lesson into practice the next time around. While I still have the ability to do that.

This may be the reason why, while I’m training for my next marathon—the New York City Marathon—I’m also writing this. Bit by bit I’m remembering things that took place when I was a beginning runner more than twenty years ago. Retracing my memories, rereading the simple journal I kept (I’m never able to keep a regular diary for very long, but I’ve faithfully kept up my runner’s journal) and reworking them into essay form, helps me consider the path I’ve taken and rediscover the feelings I had back then. I do this to both admonish and encourage myself. It’s also intended as a wake-up call for the motivation that, somewhere along the line, went dormant. I’m writing, in other words, to put my thoughts in some kind of order. And in hindsight—in the final analysis it’s always in hindsight—this may very well end up a kind of memoir that centers on the act of running.

This doesn’t mean that what’s occupying me at this moment is writing a personal history. I’m much more concerned with the practical question of how I can finish the New York City Marathon two months from now, with a halfway-decent time. The main task before me right now is how I can train in order to accomplish that.

On August 25 the U.S. magazine Runner’s World came to do a photo shoot on me. A young cameraman named Greg flew in from California and spent the day photographing me. An enthusiastic guy, he’d brought a truckload of equipment by plane all the way to Kauai. The magazine had interviewed me earlier, and the photos were to accompany the interview. There apparently aren’t too many novelists who run marathons (there are some, of course, but not many), and the magazine was interested in my life as a “Running Novelist.” Runner’s World is a very popular magazine among American runners, so I imagine a lot of runners will say hi to me when I’m in New York. This made me even more tense, thinking how I’d better not do a lousy job in the marathon.

Let’s go back to 1983. A nostalgic era now, back when Duran Duran and Hall and Oates were cranking out the hits.

In July of that year I traveled to Greece and ran by myself from Athens to the town of Marathon. This was the opposite direction of the original battle messenger’s course, which started in Marathon and went to Athens. I decided to run it backward because I figured I could start early in the morning from Athens, before rush hour (and before the air grew too polluted), leave the city, and head straight for Marathon, which would help me avoid traffic. This wasn’t an official race and I was running all alone, so naturally I couldn’t count on anyone to reroute vehicles just for me.

Why did I go all the way to Greece and run twenty-six miles by myself? I’d been asked by a men’s magazine to travel to Greece and write a travelogue about the trip. This was an officially organized media tour, sponsored by the Greek government’s Board of Tourism. A lot of other magazines also sponsored this tour, which included the typical touristy visits to see ruins, a cruise on the Aegean Sea, etc., but once that was over I’d have an open ticket and could stay as long as I wanted and do as I pleased. This kind of package tour didn’t interest me, but I did like the idea of being on my own afterward. Greece is the home of the original marathon course, and I was dying to see it with my own eyes. I figured I should be able to run at least part of it myself. For a beginning runner like me, this would definitely be an exciting experience.

Wait a sec, I thought. Why just one part? Why not run the entire distance?

When I suggested this to the editors of the magazine, they liked the idea. So I ended up running my first full marathon (or something close to it) quietly, all by myself. No crowds, no tape at the finish line, no hearty cheers from people along the way. None of that. But that was okay, since this was the original marathon course. What more could I ask for?

Actually, if you run straight from Athens to Marathon, it’s not quite the length of an official marathon, which is set at 26.2 miles. It’s about a mile short. I found out about this years later when I ran in an official race that followed the original course, starting in Marathon and ending in Athens. As those who watched the TV broadcast of the marathon at the Athens Olympics are aware, after the runners leave Marathon, at one point they go off on a side road to the left, run past some less-than-distinguished ruins, and then return to the main road. That’s how they make up for the extra distance. At the time, though, I wasn’t aware of this, and was under the impression that running straight from Athens to Marathon would be the full 26.2 miles. Actually, it was only twenty-five. But within Athens itself I took a few detours, and since the odometer in the van that accompanied me showed it had driven twenty-six miles, I suppose I ran something pretty close to a full marathon. Not that it matters much at this late date.

It was midsummer in Athens when I ran. As those who’ve been there know, the heat can be unbelievable. The locals, unless they can’t help it, avoid going out in the afternoon. They don’t do anything, just keep cool in the shade to conserve their strength. Only once the sun sets do they take to the streets. Just about the only people you see walking outside on a summer afternoon in Greece are tourists. Even dogs just lie down in the shade and don’t move a muscle. You have to watch them for a long time before you can figure out whether they’re still alive. That’s how hot it is. Running twenty-six miles in heat like that is nothing short of an act of madness.

When I told Greeks my plan to run alone from Athens to Marathon, they all said the same thing: “That’s insane. No one in their right mind would ever think of it.” Before I came, I had no idea how hot the summer is in Athens, so I was pretty easygoing about it. All I had to do was run twenty-six miles, I figured, only worrying about the distance. The temperature never crossed my mind. Once I got to Athens, though, it was so blazing hot I did start to get the jitters. They’re right, I thought. You have to be crazy to want to do this. Still, I’d made this flamboyant gesture, promising I’d run the original marathon course and write an article about it, and I’d flown all the way to Greece to accomplish it. No way could I back out now. I racked my brain to come up with ideas on how to keep from getting exhausted by the heat, and finally got the idea of leaving Athens in the early morning, while it was still dark, and reaching Marathon before the sun was high. The later it got, the hotter it would be. It was turning out to be exactly like the story “Run, Melos!,” about a competition to outrun the sun.

The photographer from the magazine, Masao Kageyama, would ride along in the van that accompanied me. He’d take pictures as they drove along. It wasn’t a real race, and there weren’t any water stations, so I’d occasionally stop to get water from the van. The Greek summer is truly brutal, and I knew I’d have to be careful not to get dehydrated.

“Mr. Murakami,” Mr. Kageyama said, surprised as he saw me getting ready to run, “you’re not really thinking of running the whole route, are you?”

“Of course I am. That’s why I came here.”

“Really? But when we do these kinds of projects most people don’t go all the way. We just take some photos, and most of them don’t finish the whole route. So you really are going to run the entire thing?”

Sometimes the world baffles me. I can’t believe that people would really do things like that.

At any rate, I started off my run at five thirty a.m. at the stadium later used in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and set off down the road to Marathon. There’s just the one main highway. Once you run roads in Greece you’ll understand, but they’re paved differently. Instead of gravel, they mix in powdered marble, which makes the road shiny in the sunlight and quite slippery. When it rains you have to be very careful. Even when it isn’t raining the soles of your shoes make a squeaky sound, and your legs can feel how smooth the road surface is.

The following is a shortened form of the article I wrote for the magazine covering my Athens–Marathon run.


The sun’s climbing higher and higher. The road within the Athens city limits is very hard to run on. It’s about three miles from the stadium to the highway entrance, and there are way too many stoplights along the way, which messes up my pace. There are also a lot of places where construction and double-parked cars block the road, and I have to step out into the middle of the street. What with the cars zooming around early in the morning, running here can be dangerous.

The sun starts to come up just as I enter Marathon Avenue, and the streetlights all go out at once. The time when the summer sun rules over the earth is swiftly approaching. People have started to appear at bus stops. Greeks take a siesta at noon, so they tend to commute to work pretty early. They all look at me curiously. Can’t imagine many of them have ever seen an Oriental man running down the pre-dawn streets of Athens before. Athens isn’t the kind of town with many joggers to begin with.

Four miles into the run I strip off my running shirt and am naked from the waist up. I always run without a shirt, so it feels great to take it off (though later I’ll wind up with a terrible sunburn). Until the eighth mile I’m running up a gradual slope. Hardly a breath of air. When I get to the top of the slope it feels like I’ve finally left the city. I’m relieved, but at the same time this is where the sidewalk disappears, replaced only by a white line painted along the road, marking off a narrow lane. Rush hour has begun, and the number of cars has increased. Large buses and trucks whiz right by me, at about fifty miles per hour. You do get a vague sense of history with a road named Marathon Avenue, but it’s basically just an ordinary commuter highway.

It’s at this point that I encounter my first dead dog. A large, brown dog. I don’t see any external injuries. It’s just laid out in the middle of the road. I figured it’s a stray that got hit by a speeding car in the middle of the night. The body still looks warm, so it doesn’t seem dead. It looks more like it’s just sleeping. The truck drivers zooming past don’t give it a glance.

A little further on I run across a cat that’s been flattened by a car. The cat is totally flat, like some misshapen pizza, and dried up. It must have been run over quite a while ago.

That’s the kind of road I’m talking about.

At this point I really start to wonder why, having flown all the way from Tokyo to this beautiful country, I have to run down this dreary commuter road. There must have been other things I could be doing. The body count for all these poor animals who lost their lives on Marathon Avenue is, on this day, three dogs and eleven cats. I count them all, which is kind of depressing.

I run on and on. The sun reveals all of itself, and with unbelievable speed rises in the sky. I’m dying of thirst. I don’t have time to get sweaty, since the air is so dry that perspiration immediately evaporates, leaving behind a layer of white salt. There’s the expression beads of sweat, but here the sweat disappears before it can even form beads. My whole body starts to sting from the salty residue. When I lick my lips they taste like anchovy paste. I start to dream about an ice-cold beer, one so cold it burns. No beers around, though, so I make do with getting a drink from the editors’ van about every three miles or so. I’ve never drunk so much water while running.

I feel pretty good, though. Lots of energy left. I’m only going at about 70 percent of capacity, but am managing a decent pace. By turns the road goes uphill, then down. Since I’m heading from inland toward the sea, the road is, overall, slightly downhill. I leave behind the city, then the suburbs, and gradually enter a more rural area. As I pass through the small village of Nea Makri, old people sitting at an outdoor café sipping morning coffee from tiny cups silently watch me as I run by. Like they’re witnessing a scene from the backwaters of history.

At around seventeen miles there’s a slope, and once over that I catch a glimpse of the Marathon hills. I figure I’m about two-thirds finished with the run. I calculate the split times in my head and figure that at this rate I should be able to finish in three and a half hours. But things don’t go that well. After I pass nineteen miles the headwind from the sea starts blowing, and the closer I get to Marathon the harder it blows. The wind is so strong it stings my skin. It feel like if I were to relax at all I’d be blown backward. The faint scent of the sea comes to me as the road gently slopes upward. There is just the one road to Marathon, and it’s straight as a ruler. This is the point when I start to feel real exhaustion. No matter how much water I drink, a few minutes later I’m thirsty again. A nice cold beer would be fantastic.

No—forget about beer. And forget about the sun. Forget about the wind. Forget about the article I have to write. Just focus on moving my feet forward, one after the other. That’s the only thing that matters.

I pass twenty-two miles. I’ve never run more than twenty-two miles, so this is terra incognita. On the left is a line of rugged, barren mountains. Who could ever have made them? On the right, an endless row of olive orchards. Everything looks covered in a layer of white dust. And the strong wind from the sea never lets up. What is up with this wind? Why does it have to be this strong?

At around twenty-three miles I start to hate everything. Enough already! My energy has scraped bottom, and I don’t want to run anymore. I feel like I’m driving a car on empty. I need a drink, but if I stopped here to drink some water I don’t think I could get running again. I’m dying of thirst but lack the strength to even drink water anymore. As these thoughts flit through my mind I gradually start to get angry. Angry at the sheep happily munching grass in an empty lot next to the road, angry at the photographer snapping photos from inside the van. The sound of the shutter grates on my nerves. Who needs this many sheep, anyway? But snapping the shutter is the photographer’s job, just as chewing grass is the sheep’s, so I don’t have any right to complain. Still, the whole thing really bugs me to no end. My skin’s starting to rise up in little white heat blisters. This is getting ridiculous. What’s with this heat, anyway?

I pass the twenty-five-mile mark.

“Just one more mile. Hang in there!” the editor calls out cheerfully from the van. Easy for you to say, I want to yell back, but don’t. The naked sun is blazing hot. It’s only just past nine a.m., but I feel like I’m in an oven. The sweat’s getting in my eyes. The salt makes my eyes sting, and for a while I can’t see a thing. I wipe away the sweat with my hand, but my hand and face are salty too, and that makes my eyes sting even more.

Beyond the tall summer grasses I can just make out the goal line, the Marathon monument at the entrance to the village of the same name. It appears so abruptly that at first I’m not sure if that’s really the goal. I’m happy to see the finish line, no question about it, but the abruptness of it makes me mad for some reason. Since this is the last leg of the run, I want to make a last, desperate effort to run as fast as I can, but my legs have a mind of their own. I’ve totally forgotten how to move my body. All my muscles feel like they’ve been shaved away with a rusty plane.

The finish line.

I finally reach the end. Strangely, I have no feeling of accomplishment. The only thing I feel is utter relief that I don’t have to run anymore. I use a spigot at a gas station to cool off my overheated body and wash away the salt stuck to me. I’m covered with salt, a veritable human salt field. When the old man at the gas station hears what I’ve done, he snips off some flowers from a potted plant and presents me with a bouquet. You did a good job, he smiles. Congratulations. I feel so thankful for these small gestures of kindness from foreigners. Marathon is a small, friendly village, quiet and peaceful. I can’t imagine how this was where, several thousand years ago, the Greeks defeated the invading Persian army at the shore in a ghastly battle. I sit at a café in the village and gulp down cold Amstel beer. It tastes fantastic, but not nearly as great as the beer I’d been imagining as I ran. Nothing in the real world is as beautiful as the illusions of a person about to lose consciousness.

The run from Athens to Marathon took me three hours and fifty-one minutes. Not exactly a great time, but at least I was able to run the whole course by myself, my only companions the awful traffic, the unimaginable heat, and my terrible thirst. I guess I should be proud of what I did, but right now I don’t care. What makes me happy right now is knowing that I don’t have to run another step.

Whew!—I don’t have to run anymore.


This was my first-ever experience running (nearly) twenty-six miles. And, happily, it was the last time I ever had to run twenty-six miles in such grueling conditions. In December of the same year I ran the Honolulu Marathon in a fairly decent time. Hawaii was hot, but nothing compared to Athens. So Honolulu was my first official full marathon. Ever since then it’s been my practice to run one full marathon a year.

Rereading the article I wrote at the time of this run in Greece, I’ve discovered that after twenty-some years, and as many marathons later, the feelings I have when I run twenty-six miles are the same as back then. Even now, whenever I run a marathon my mind goes through the same exact process. Up to nineteen miles I’m sure I can run a good time, but past twenty-two miles I run out of fuel and start to get upset at everything. And at the end I feel like a car that’s run out of gas. But after I finish and some time has passed, I forget all the pain and misery and am already planning how I can run an even better time in the next race. The funny thing is, no matter how much experience I have under my belt, no matter how old I get, it’s all just a repeat of what came before.

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform—or perhaps distort—yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.


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