What I Talk About When I Talk About Roller Derby
Keeping Perspective When Goals Become Joyless
I don’t have very much in common with Haruki Murakami. I’m not a 70-year-old Japanese man, nor an acclaimed fiction writer and certainly not someone who has been running long distance for decades. I can hardly run more than twenty minutes without feeling like I’ve had enough for the rest of my life. Even so, when I read his short book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running I couldn’t help but think about my relationship with Roller Derby.
Let me make this clear, this book is not solely about running. I bought it for the reviews in which it was described as a great sort of guide for writing, on dealing with effort and the struggles of life, and it did not leave me disappointed. In less than 200 pages Murakami describes his path from a mediocre runner to an ultra-marathoner. It reads very easily and quickly, which I did like, for I’m more of a ‘sprinter’ myself.
Back in school I always did well on speed, but often struggled with medium to long runs. Murakami’s message is that those characteristics carry through to the rest of your life and I do notice that I often have energy in bursts instead of at a ‘slow and steady’ rate. He assures, however, that there isn’t necessarily a way that is better than another, but that it can be rather useful to realize how it is that you naturally work.
If you shift the focus to Roller Derby it might become obvious that I usually play as a jammer. Short bursts and quick recoveries are easier for me than long stands in the ideal position and the necessary strength to stay rooted yet adaptive. Much like Haruki at the beginning of his book, I’m a mediocre jammer, at best. As you read his memoir you learn about his process and just how many hours of dedication led him to run an official long-distance race in Greece — much like the messenger from the Battle of Marathon, who ran to Athens to warn his fellow soldiers. He describes his detours, his pains and just why he chose to stick to his long-term goals. He always had a ‘talent’ for endurance, but he built it by running every day, which he learned to like, besides the hardships. Running became the routine that fed his other habits.
He also describes how, at a certain point, finishing races stopped bringing him joy. He noticed he was creating goals for the sake of conquering them, but feeling very little when they were accomplished. During those times, having a good (even great) result wasn’t satisfactory. That’s how Murakami came to learn about himself, that he had a tendency to be too harsh, to lose value for what he had accomplished over his next goal. The mindset that allowed him to continue focusing, running persistently and working on technique was proving unhelpful in key moments when he had to make impactful choices. He turned to those who supported him and his initial joy for running, to regain a sense of passion for the activity.
Even though I’ve always been a ‘sprinter’, roller derby has taught me patience. In the time I’ve been practicing it I’ve been a part of a league; I have seen the end of one, been part of a team which was thrown out because they weren’t profitable enough for the space they were renting, watched the end of that team and the rise of a new one, only to be thrown out again. With all this derby drama — besides my general real-life drama — it can be difficult to focus on athletics. I think it is like that, somewhat, for quite some roller derby players.
In Portugal, at least, it is like we’re always looking over our shoulder, and while that really helps with transitions it makes it difficult to go forward. Especially when you must fight hard for them it sometimes becomes difficult to keep the focus on your goals without losing peripheral vision. That balance is not something you can achieve lightly, on an impulse or in a short amount of time. Like Murakami found lessons that echoed in other areas in his life, I can’t help but think of what I learn while being a jammer. And I find myself coming back to a passage at the end of the book:
“Thus the seasons come and go, and the years pass by…One by one, I’ll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can.”