Autumn Ray has always been a goal-setter. But after the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, where she placed 77th, Ray was at a place where she wasn’t reaching those goals.
It had taken her eight years to hit the qualifying time for that race. And then she plateaued. She was burnt out—overtrained, overworked, and ready to start something new.
So, Ray set her sights on a new goal: happiness. She loves the National Parks, so she quit her job as an emergency medicine physician, packed up her life, and headed on a journey to see all of them.
Ray rediscovered a lot of things from that tour, including the pure joy of running. “I love to run and I can do that in a lot of different ways and experience that in a lot of different forms,” Ray says. It also taught her that she could take the time she needed to let her body and mind heal.
“I learned that I could leave it all behind and work and my life and everything was not going away,” Ray says.
Her goal to see all the parks by the time she turned 40 in February was temporarily put on hold due to her father’s recurrence of cancer. Ray moved to Sedona, pausing the parks tour, to spend time with her father while she could. She got another job as an emergency medicine physician and established roots once again. He passed away in 2018, just a few months before she ran her 2020 Olympic Trials qualifying time (2:37:15) at the California International Marathon.
“I got a lot of quality time with him and have no regrets about that decision. He was supportive of both my running and my parks tour. I just continue that because I know he was supporting that.”
When she returned to working, she stuck with a part-time schedule that would allow her to prioritize the things she loves to do, refusing to reach the point of burn out that she was at before. It gives her plenty of time to train and recover. She recently rediscovered yoga, which has allowed her to take care of her body in a whole new way.
She’s also thinking about going back to school to help her move up in her career. “Just like I need a goal to get myself out of bed to run, I like having something that I’m creating and working on to keep my brain going. So I’m looking for a new professional challenge, that’s for sure.” She’s hoping to transition out of direct patient care and into developing better ways to access care and improve healthcare technology.
For right now, her eyes are on the trials. Her training has been consistent and she’s feeling good. The one thing that’s been holding her up? Setting a goal. “I’m still sort of trying to wrap my head around what makes a successful day there.” She was unsure what place or time would allow her to walk away happy.
After a PR on February 8, 2020 at the Mesa Half Marathon of 1:14:48, she decided she was “just excited to be running with the best women in the US.”
In getting to the trials, she also has her team, the Sonoron Distance Project, to lean on. She’s been with the team since its inception around 2013, but she was the only one to go to the trials in 2016. This time around, several women on the team will be joining her. “It’s pretty exciting to have a much bigger group going,” says Ray.
Once the trials are over, she’s heading to Florida to celebrate in her favorite way: with three bucket list National Parks—the Everglades, Dry Tortugas, and Biscayne National Park.
“At the end of the day, I am doing this out of sheer love of running. It is just a really special event to be a part of and I want to enjoy that moment. Besides, the more relaxed I am, the better I run. I am able to tune out all the nervous energy and focus on my own effort when I am happy.”