The deeper the runner gets into heavy training, the more essential habit becomes. When the body begins to resist the miles, when the legs feel heavy, or the brain fogs from fatigue, the easiest thing to do is what one did yesterday -- hit the standard loop. We have run it so many times that it almost literally runs itself. We are responsible for a minute or two of effort, but once out the door and on the loop, the loop itself seems to carry us around.
In the same way, the rhythm of running imposes a sort of order of habit on daily life. We put our runs into place, then the rest of life falls in around that order. You see this rhythm carried to the extreme with the streakers. For the streaker, the run takes on an almost metaphysical quality -- it becomes not just a form of exercise or a way of moving the body, but a reality, a necessity, as real to that runner as the rising of the sun and as cold and hard a necessity as the stars that shine on a clear winter night.
These rituals and repetitive behaviors make runners seem obsessive or compulsive, and in a way we are -- some more than others. We worry that all of this running is a symptom of a loss of freedom, that we run like panthers pace a cage. But repetitive behaviors are not always obsessive or the mark of psychological damage, and routine or habit is not always dull. Indeed, some form of daily rhythm is essential to the health of every living organism. A life without routine of some sort is simply a disorganized life.
The older I get, the more I realize that freedom is about the establishment of routine. The very nature of meaningful and free action is bound up in repetition. To live a life with purpose is to make choices that lead us to develop and grow along certain channels. If we find the right channels, they deepen and grow more complex and variegated each time we return to them. This process is often imperceptible; our lives and personalities grow through a force that is similar to erosion.
Not to find these deep channels, not to return to them -- to live as if each day were brand new! This sounds lovely, and this advice is doled out often. But such a life would be a life of surfaces without depth, a life of noises and screens and words, but not music, not art, not meaning. The great musicians and the great athletes know what the runner knows: that talent is discovered and refined through the erosive force of habit.
It is true that ritual and repetition can easily give way to boredom and mechanical routine. Every runner experiences these things, perhaps just as often as the experience of strength or talent or identity. It is tempting to say that these things -- boredom and purpose, mechanical routine and deep meaning -- are two sides of the same coin, but I think such a statement avoids the problem we regularly face.
Is there a way out of this bind? I don't think so. It's the bind that life puts us in: we must adapt to preserve ourselves. Running is both of these things, both adaptation and preservation. It's an attempt to adapt to life; an attempt to build strength and endurance, to learn to deal with pain, to enjoy our bodies, to live outside and in the world, to work alongside our friends. It's an attempt to preserve our life; an attempt to find calm, to escape the demands of contemporary life, to delay the onset of age, to heal minds made foggy by too much talking and not enough moving.
What's my point here? I think it's something like this: let's be careful not to call every routine a compulsion, characterize every rhythm as a type of monotony, or separate the idea of habitual action from the search for freedom. These things come together for us in the same way that the wooden legs and resistant mind of the early miles of the daily run almost magically transform themselves into free and full movement and refreshed consciousness. Just so, dull routine becomes deep experience, reminding us that beauty lies just beneath the gray tones of ordinary life, waiting always to erupt.
This is the lesson of the daily run.