If I were bitten by a zombie today and joined the ranks of the mindless undead, I would probably still go for my run tomorrow morning. I wouldn't know how to exist any other way. I say this proudly; I think this is actually the kind of runner I have always wanted to be. I have had some fun races and fast times in the last two years, and those feel great. The real life-changing running achievement, though, is that I run automatically, almost as if I don't even have to decide to do it.
There is a lot of talk in the zeitgeist about intentionality, awareness, being present, and all of that is great. But really, if I weren’t an endurance athlete on autopilot, I wouldn’t be an endurance athlete. Life is constantly taking my focus and my willpower elsewhere; this summer I have been working on parenting a newly-minted 3-year-old, making a big career change, and moving to a new house. Running was just there in the background, never not happening, and I think this is truly what I have always wanted from it.
The next setback is never far away, but I know that even if it separates me from running temporarily, it won't cost me my connection to the sport.
I have not forgotten when all running was hard. When I started at the age of 19, I was not particularly inclined to self-motivated athleticism; it took effort and focus to run a handful of days a week without letting the habit slide. I had decided to lose weight and get in shape, and I settled on running as my physical activity of choice because there were no external barriers to doing it, and therefore I felt it was more likely than any other form of fitness-seeking to actually stick. No driving to the gym required, no equipment, no other people, just shoes and the outdoors. By the same token, I would have no one to blame but myself if I stopped doing it. I feared losing the will to continue as I grappled with the reality of being a total beginner as a runner. Physically, every run was a minute-by-minute struggle against the desire to STOP ALREADY. Mentally, I spent years fearing that that willpower would give way to laziness, to me the deadliest of the sins (did I read too much Ayn Rand in high school? Maybe!).
Even once I got into pretty good shape and the running itself got easier, I don’t know that it ever became anything resembling automatic. Habitual, maybe, but there were still days when I really really really felt the pull of inertia. Some days, I gave in to it, and when that happened, ‘getting back on the horse’ the next day was daunting. I went through slumps, long periods where if I ran at all, it took maximal coaxing in various forms. Run to this coffee shop and get yourself a coffee after! Drive to this neighborhood and run there to distract yourself! Listen to this playlist while you run with new sparkly songs on it! I kept the habit going, and though I was undoubtedly better off for having made the effort to do so, it took up a lot of mental space.
Sometime over the last two years, since starting to train by heart rate, running has become a gloriously automatic ritual. It actually takes more effort not to run, whether I am recovering after a race or even just taking my obligatory one rest day per week. I get up and I make my way to wherever I stashed my running clothes the previous night and I’m out the door. All year, in every type of weather that Boston throws at me, I run Monday through Saturday, and it feels nothing short of inevitable. I am grateful, though, that I remember what running was like before autopilot. because knowing that I was the same person then that I am now will keep me grounded in times to come. The next setback is never far away, but I know that even if it separates me from running temporarily, it won't cost me my connection to the sport. I am an endurance athlete now and forever. I may have been “faster” at 20, 21, 22 years old, but in those days there was a nonzero chance that I would hide under my covers in tears rather than go out for my scheduled run. I'd rather be this runner, the zombie-adjacent runner who can't be stopped by an oncoming tank. Rather than the stick I use to measure myself against the world, running is the little beeper on my keys that keeps me from losing them in my way-too-big mom purse.