In April of 2020, I was in my last semester of college when I suddenly fell sick, upending my studies and finding myself in a downhill spiral. For weeks, my body resorted to a dormant state, plagued by fatigue and inaction, rendering me incapable of performing even the most mundane of tasks. I had lost every semblance of motivation and I barely kept up with my coursework. Numerous doctor visits did not materialize to something abnormal in my body, and eventually, I just accepted my weakness. I decided to rest and be patient.
But days gave way to weeks, weeks to months, and I was growing desperate. As I slowly began to regain my strength, I turned into reading. I read broadly and ferociously, from fiction to fantasy to autobiographies. Especially autobiographies, for I found them the most intimate and inspiring. I read to hang out with others.
And then, one day, in Discontent and its Civilizations Mohsin Hamid introduced me to The Paris Review Interviews, four volumes of in-depth conversations with renowned novelists, poets, and playwrights that rekindled my relationship with the written word and inspired me to take charge of my life. I would get lost in the pages, trying to put myself in the shoes of the writers, to experience their routines and mimic their lifestyles. But, leafing through the volumes, I quickly came to realize that a solitary life doesn’t necessarily equate to an inactive one. Sure, there are many writers that are far from fit — but then there is the running novelist, Haruki Murakami, and his incredible routine.
When Murakami is working on a novel, he wakes up at four in the morning and writes for five to six hours. He then runs 10km or swims for 1500m. Sometimes he does both. In the evening he winds down by reading and listening to some music. As long as he is in writing mode, he never deviates from his routine. “It’s a form of mesmerism,” he says. “I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that case, writing a novel is like survival training. Physical training is as necessary as artistic sensitivity” (The Paris Review Interviews, IV).
I read his interview, and I read it again. Routine. Mesmerism. Physical strength. Artistic sensitivity. The words kept reverberating in my mind. I put my book down and reflected a little. There is something about routines that motivates an innate part of my mind, and Murakami’s routine was a challenge that I accepted. I wasn’t the only one: Hamid writes that he was also inspired by the tenacity of Murakami. He would wake up every morning and walk for miles. As walking became Hamid’s new routine, his energy levels soared, his endurance increased, and ideas for the novel he was working on kept flowing. Walking unlocked him.
I wanted to unlock my mind and body, to break the chains of my sedentary lifestyle — and before I knew it, I was one of them: getting fit with Mohsin Hamid and Haruki Murakami.
The first few days I walked, exhaustively and slowly. Then I attempted to run a few hundred meters — which did not work. So I kept walking, mornings and evenings, and, gradually, my stamina began to return. Then I run again. Then I run a kilometer, then 10 kilometers.
I was on fire, literally and metaphorically. Something had begun to change, and I felt it acutely. My strength began to return and my mind became sharper and more focused.
Motivated by the results, I kept running, and I also changed it up. I learned the ins and outs of the park near my house, then I drove to different parks, next to the ocean, and even climbed mountains. Running became a means of discovering the world and a part of my daily routine, an excuse to get out there, in pursuit of novelty and adrenaline. There is something about engaging in nature that wakes a deeper part of one’s mind. It is an attractive, addictive force that propels you forward. My days of exhaustion and inactivity sipped into a blur in the background as I moved forward.
I decided to write of my runs. Of my runs in the midst of COVID. Of my walks when I was of weak health. Of the trails that I discovered. The scenery that reminded me of intimately familiar places that I have never been to. Of the observations that I made. Of that clarity of mind that I gained.
Sometimes, I would put my earphones on, immersing myself in music or podcasts as I zoomed by neighborhoods and parks. Most of the time, however, I preferred to run without audio, simply focusing on my surroundings — observing, thinking.
Step after step, leap after leap, on the pavement, the grass, or the muddy trails of Kissena park, I was becoming one with the act, choreographing my breaths and heartbeat, pushing myself to higher and higher limits, overtaken by adrenaline and novelty. At times, my lungs and heart would decide that I had enough, after which I would stop, bend my knees, put my hands on them, and inhale deeply and decisively, feeling tingly yet so energized. Running felt like a drug I could easily get hooked on. A solution to misery, I called it. I would then snap out of my trance, look up and around me, reclaiming my stamina and position, straightening my back, inhaling, and continue running.
Running helped Murakami, who writes long novels; walking helped Hamid, who writes shorter ones, and a combination of the two helped me, who pens essays and short stories. In the latter half of 2020, I felt the healthiest I had ever been, and I thank the two novelists that inspired me to get out, breathe fresh air, find intimacy in familiar and new settings — and simply wander.
In 2021, I am writing this essay because the human mind is capable of deceit. Its proclivity is that towards inaction, and thus it is important to occasionally relive the events that have brought out the best in us. I had hoped that this would be enough to get me to my feet, but comfort is too strong a force. Over time, amounting responsibilities and other events effectively shuttered my routine, and I am in need of another inciting incident, as we say in stories, something the can pull me back to that familiar state of mind and body.
Behind me, my worn journal from last year lies flat on my bookshelf, where I documented my runs and the ideas that I came across as I buzzed by the city. I will leaf through its pages for some inspiration. Or, perhaps, the only thing that I need is a forced start, and everything else might fall in place. Regardless, I am determined to reclaim my habit and the accompanied mental clarity it bestows upon me.
I will see you on the streets.