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How I became a long-distance runner
Reading these books led me to building a new and healthy habit
I always hated running. In high school, when we were supposed to run laps around the athletic ground, I used to wait for a moment when the teacher didn’t look in my direction to jump into a nearby bush, wait and hide, skip a couple of laps, and re-join my peers later.
Secretly, I desperately wanted to be a runner, but I just didn’t have the shape. Runners had slim, elegant figures, while I was big and sturdy, more bear than gazelle. I hated running, because nobody – including myself – believed I’d ever become good at it. Over the years, I made several attempts at making running a habit, but it never stuck. While I always admired runners, specifically long-distance endurance runners, a voice in my head kept on telling me I could never be one of them.
Everything seemed to change at the beginning of the pandemic. When the first lockdown came and remote work started, I felt I just needed to get out and move. I wasn’t cycling to the office anymore, and we couldn’t go on our usual hiking trips to the back country. You were still allowed to go outside »for athletic purposes« though, so I gave my running ambitions another shot.
I was in such bad shape that after one mile of mid-tempo running, I was completely exhausted. I couldn’t even reach most of the nicer spots in my neighborhood without having to catch my breath for five minutes, so I chose a deserted graveyard near our house to practice daily. I went there every morning in the next weeks – starting with ten minutes, then moving on to 15, and eventually I was able to run for 25 minutes.
After a couple of weeks of training, I could run three miles quite effortlessly. The quick progress motivated me. Over the next months, I lost some weight and became more active in general. It helped with my mental health as well, as I felt less insecure about my body and my shape. I didn’t hate running as much anymore as I used to.
Then, unluckily, I sprained my ankle, and I wasn’t allowed to run for six weeks. That event seriously threw me off track, and after recovery, I didn’t really know how to bounce back. I felt like I was starting from scratch.
Around that time, I read a great book called »Atomic Habits« by the writer and motivational coach James Clear. It explained to me why I had struggled with running so much all my life. The problem, as I know now, was that I didn’t identify as a runner. I still viewed myself as the heavy kid that hid in the bushes while the others were doing their laps.
See, when we try to establish a positive habit, we usually set goals for ourselves. We know how to do that from our work life, and we just transfer that knowledge into our private life. But a distant, ambitious goal isn’t enough to sustain our motivation in the long term. We will most likely lose interest in pursuing it as soon as things get hard and difficult.
Focusing on the process works better for motivation, but as a method, it’s far from perfect. We might start motivated, but we will get sick or injured or simply have something more important to do, so we will break our routine once or twice, and then we might stop following it altogether. Sheer self-discipline and huge amounts of willpower can get us through these hiccups, but it will be super hard work. That’s what happened when I sprained my ankle.
The explanation for all of this is easy. Goals and process are not things we intrinsically care about. Clear explains that the only way to create a new habit that sticks is through identification. The habit has to truly become part of your identity, so as soon as you stop doing it, you’ll start missing something.
I had never identified as a runner, so when I stopped running, it didn’t feel weird to me at all. I just went back to my default mode of not running. But as soon as I started seeing myself as a runner – a person that runs and loves running – everything changed.
Now the problem is of course, you can’t force yourself to identify with anything. You can’t just start to love something you always hated. So what is the solution, you ask me? From my own experience, I’d say: Find a story that contains the activity you want to make a habit – and start believing in that story.
Not surprisingly, I found mine in another book.
Born To Run
I heard about »Born To Run« by Christopher McDougall in a podcast. When I read it over one weekend, it felt like he was speaking directly to me.
Apparently the author had always wanted to become an endurance runner, but being big and heavy by nature, he constantly injured himself. Even his doctors advised him against his plan and told him to take up swimming instead. But when he shifted from heel-striking to fore-foot running and started training with a seasoned ultra-runner, he soon completed his first ultramarathon – and never injured himself again.
I got enthralled by McDougall’s vivid, Gonzo-style description of a group of eccentric ultra-runners that gathered in Mexico for a cross-canyon race along the Raramuri, an indigenous tribe known for running extremely long distances in rubber sandals.
Specifically his description of Scott Jurek, a vegan ultramarathon champion that apparently loves reading spiritual books and would rather sleep in a tent than in a hotel before a race, made a lasting impact on me. I picked up Jurek’s autobiography »Eat & Run« from the library, and I realized that we shared similar views on many aspects of our lives, from a general criticism of consumer capitalism to a focus on spirituality, simplicity, and nature.
Jurek and his peers weren’t just competitive thrill-seekers. McDougall described these long-distance runners as a secret society of monkish weirdos, bohemian surfer hippies and romantic pocket-philosophers. Reading these books, I felt deeply connected to them – those people suddenly felt like my true peers, so regardless of what anyone else thought, maybe I was born to run, and maybe I could love running after all.
That was the game-changer. From now on I went running two or three times per week at least, sometimes every day. I ran mostly three- to five-mile rounds on weekdays. On weekends, I extended my runs to ten miles and more. What had been a tiresome chore for most of my life, I now Iooked forward to. For the first time ever, I had fun running.
I’ve been running quite steadily since then. I’ve been experimenting with fore-foot running, zero-drop running shoes and barefoot running, and I’ve been reading loads of books on ultra-running. I feel that running has become a small but important part of my identity, which is nothing more than the sum of the stories I believe in.
I think I can say I’ve successfully implemented a new and healthy habit in my life – and I’m extremely happy about that. I’ll probably never be as fast and gracile as some of my friends with more light and slim bodies, and maybe I’ll never finish an ultra-marathon. Still, I’m a runner at heart now – a person that runs and loves running.
Skate For Dylan
That’s not to say that I can’t still feel demotivated sometimes.
This winter, which was a really cold one here in Northern Germany, I clearly didn’t run as much as I would have liked. Also, we were in the middle of renovations of our farmhouse and our move to the countryside, which was a long and exhausting process. Then, as soon as the winter was over, I got Covid. It took me more than a month to fully recover. It felt similar to when I sprained my ankle during the pandemic. Something was different this time though.
I desperately needed a reminder of my story – and I got that piece of motivation through a random skateboarding video on Youtube.
That video shows an event commemorating the late Dylan Rieder. Rieder was one of the best professional skateboarders of all time. Unfortunately, he died from leukemia at the age of 28. This year, for Dylan’s birthday, his close friend Austyn Gillette met with a bunch of other skaters to ride all the way from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, ending at a certain bench where Dylan once landed an impossible trick.
Rieder’s younger sister Makenna took part in the event as well. She doesn’t skate, so she put on her running dress and ran all the way with the rest of the gang. Seeing her in that video, running through Manhattan for her deceased brother, touched me deeply – and it reminded me of my own identity as a runner. All the paralysing thoughts in my head that kept me from going back suddenly didn’t matter anymore.
I remembered that like Makenna, I’m a runner, a person that runs and loves running, and I need to get back out there and run.
James Clear, »Atomic Habits – An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones« (2018)
Christopher McDougall, »Born To Run – The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen« (2009)
Scott Jurek, »Eat & Run – My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness« (2012)
More great books on (ultra-)running, as recommended by Scott Jurek in »Eat & Run«
Dr. George Sheehan, »Running & Being: The Total Experience« (1978)
James E. Shapiro, »Ultramarathon« (1980)
James E. Shapiro, »Meditations From The Breakdown Lane: Running Across America« (1982)
Rob Schultheis, »Bone Games: One Man's Search for the Ultimate Athletic High« (1984)
Jack Heggie, »Running with the Whole Body: A 30-Day Program to Running Faster with Less Effort« (1996)
John Annerino, »Running Wild: An Extraordinary Adventure From The Spiritual World Of Running« (1997)
John Douillard, »Body, Mind, and Sport: The Mind-Body Guide to Lifelong Health, Fitness, and Your Personal Best« (2001)
© 2023 Stephan Kunze