Changing habits

Lisa Allen had smoked, drank and struggled with obesity since age 16. She could barely hold a job for less than a year, and had accumulated $10,000 in debt. And then she changed one thing.

There are books you read and forget almost as soon as you’re done. (If we’re being honest, probably most of them.)

And then there are books you read that stay with you forever. It might be a single anecdote buried somewhere within 400 pages, but it lodges in your memory so deeply, it changes the way you see the world.

That’s what the story of a woman named Lisa Allen, from the opening pages of Charles Duhigg’s 2012 book The Power of Habit, has done for me ever since I read it for the first time a few years ago.

As the book opens, Duhigg tells the story of how Allen, then 34, came to find herself talking with a roomful of neurologists, psychologists and other researchers. They had gathered to interview her because the change she’d brought about in her own life was nothing short of stunning.

Since she was 16, she'd smoked, drank and struggled with obesity. She could barely hold a job for less than a year, and she'd accumulated more than $10,000 in credit card debt.

But by the time she was meeting with the scientists described in the book's prologue, she had left all that behind:

“The woman in front of the researchers today, however, was lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in her chart and like she could out-exercise anyone in the room. According to the most recent report in her file, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn’t drink, and was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm.”

So what had brought about such dramatic change? It's easy to see the uphill battle Allen was facing — even easier to see how anyone might feel completely overwhelmed by it and simply give up, thinking nothing would ever change.

And Allen did feel overwhelmed. She did feel hopeless. But instead of allowing it to defeat her, she unexpectedly found within herself something else. What she decided to do was to change one thing she could control — not everything in her life, just one thing.

“It all started in Cairo,” she told the researchers in the interview, recalling the series of events that led her to fly halfway around the world for a solo vacation in Egypt. Her husband had left her for another woman, which (of course!) devastated Allen.

Figuring why not, she hopped on a plane to Cairo and found herself trying to light a cigarette — only it was a pen, not a Marlboro.

“And then I started thinking about my ex-husband, and how hard it would be to find another job when I got back, and how much I was going to hate it and how unhealthy I felt all the time. I got up a knocked over a water jug and it shattered on the floor, and started crying even harder. I felt desperate, like I had to change something, at least one thing I could control.”

Later, sitting in the back of a taxi in Cairo, she decided she had to have something to look forward to. So she set herself a goal: to come back to Egypt and trek through the desert.

But to do that, she’d have to train, to get in good enough physical shape to make the trek. So, how to do that?

Remember, even though she’d had this epiphany, she was still very much in desperate straits. She was overweight, broke, and knew nothing about what it would take the kind of journey across the desert she had in mind.

As it turned out, that matters less than you think:

“But in the taxi, Lisa didn’t know that. And to the scientists at the laboratory, the details of her trek weren’t relevant. Because for reasons they were just beginning to understand, that one small shift in Lisa’s perception that day in Cairo — the conviction that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal — had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life. Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on. She would start running half-marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house, and get engaged. Eventually she was recruited into the scientists’ study, and when researchers began examining images of Lisa’s brain, they saw something remarkable: One set of neurological patterns — her old habits — had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.”

Notice what she changed, too: she didn’t try to make a wholesale overhaul of her entire life all at once. Instead, she changed just a single thing.

By focusing on just that one thing — a “keystone habit,” the scientists would later come to call it — Allen was able to reprogram other routines in her life that were also affected by it.

How is this relevant to your own running? What keeps running through my mind lately is that in my own situation, because I have a busy life with small children, I often miss days of training that I should be running.

And when I miss those days, I try to recoup my lost running time with heroic efforts to re-balance the scales, so to speak — by running a series of consecutive days in a row, or by running extra miles, you name it.

But inevitably, I drift back into my old pattern, pulled almost as if by the weight of gravity back to my old way of doing things. My old habits. And then I feel guilty all over again, and try to bring heroic effort back to exercise again... and you get the idea.

What keeps popping into my head is that heroic efforts, however well-intended, actually have the opposite of the intended effect. What I need aren't big pendulum swings from one level of activity to another — what I need is a lower, more relaxed level of effort, but one I can consistently apply over time.

Because that's how real change comes about — not by me making some tremendous level of effort all at once, but by applying myself to my training over time. Heroic efforts might feel good in the moment, but they don't seem to produce long-lasting effects (for me, anyway).

Now I just need to find what my own “keystone habit” is that can make that change spiral out into the rest of my life. What about you? 👍

As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running/life/etc. is going — I love hearing from you.

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Races you might love running

Monte Vino Half Marathon

Vesuvius, Va. | Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020

Limited to 100 runners in order to provide a safe environment for participants and volunteers, this race unfolds through the gorgeous hills and mountains of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, along the grounds of 12 Ridges Vineyard. Described by its organizers as “challenging and mountainous,” the race will be run along mostly gravel roads in and around the vineyards, with a mixture of gradual and steep ascents and descents — mostly downhill on the way out and mostly uphill on the way back.

$95 and up | Sign up here

Monte Vino Races at Heards Mountain Road

Covesville, Va. | Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020

Like the Monte Vino Half listed above, this race will also be open to just 100 runners and will unfold along this beautiful rural road in Virginia’s Albemarle County, beginning in the tiny town of in Covesville and heading toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. All along the out-and-back route, you’ll get to take in views of the mountains, farms and orchards, and catch a glimpse of historic churches and cabins from a distance.

$95 and up | Sign up here

The Scream Half Marathon

Lenoir, N.C. | Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020

The scenery for this race is among the most beautiful you can find anywhere in the western North Carolina mountains, as the event takes place inside the Pisgah National Forest, whose more than 500,000 acres lie near the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, just east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Starting and finishing at Brown Mountain Beach Resort, the race is famous for its long, downhill point-to-point course — sure to leave you “very, very sore the day after” — but will be an out-and-back route (and limited to 350 runners) this year.

$89 and up | Sign up here

Lake Mead Half Marathon

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nev. | Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021

Sweeping, panoramic views of the world’s largest man-made lake, located in the Nevada desert about a half-hour drive from nearby Las Vegas, can be found along most of the out-and-back route at this race. From the start and finish line at Boulder Beach, you’ll turn onto the River Mountains Loop Trail, which stretches more than 30 miles and connects Lake Mead with nearby Henderson, Boulder City and the Hoover Dam. Temperatures this time of year should hover between the upper 30s and the upper 50s — perfect running weather, especially when you remember that Lake Mead receives very little rainfall this time of year, so the sky should be sunny and clear.

$80 and up | Sign up here

3M Half Marathon

Austin, Texas | Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021

You’ll feel the welcome as you run the streets of Texas’ capital city at this race, an overall downhill run that offers up plenty of what makes Austin so unique — a mix of funky urban neighborhoods, downtown and the University of Texas, whose main tower in the center of campus looks out over the entire city. You’ll start a few miles north of downtown and then head south from there, running through campus on your way toward the finish line near the majestic red granite Texas Capitol Building.

$109 and up | Sign up here

Glacier Half Marathon

East Glacier Village, Mont. | Saturday, June 27, 2021

Words fall short in describing the beauty of Montana’s Glacier National Park, where you’ll get to run this point-to-point race along the edges of the park boundaries next summer. The race begins just outside the park’s eastern border, near Lower Two Medicine Lake, and from there heads north along Highway 49, one of the best scenic drives around the park (and also known as “Looking Glass Road,” for the historic Nez Pearce leader named Looking Glass who lived here in the mid-1800s). While the first five miles lead gradually uphill, almost all of the last eight miles are downhill or flat, allowing you to take in expansive views of the wide-open prairies and especially the awe-inspiring mountains.

$109 and up | Sign up here

Words to run by

“You can't climb up to the second floor without a ladder. When you set your aim too high and don't fulfill it, then your enthusiasm turns to bitterness. Try for a goal that's reasonable, and then gradually raise it.”

Emil Zatopek