My first pacer, Andy Roth, has always inspired me with his insights about running and life. In particular, his notion of 100-mile races as “secular pilgrimages” has consistently fascinated me and continues to gain traction in my mind as I prepare for my 7th attempt at the Western States 100.
One of the most compelling thinkers Andy and I have discussed while pounding out the miles on the trail is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee). Csikszentmihalyi is most famously known as the architect of the notion of flow; in Csikszentmihalyi’s research he has discovered that humans enter into a flow state when fully absorbed in an activity during which they lose their sense of time, place and often experience overwhelming feelings of satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Obviously, and not surprisingly, this notion of flow is important in athletics and, I would suggest, particularly important in endurance running. In fact, I would argue that the achievement of the flow state is what draws many people to long-distance endurance running in the first place. Call it the “runners high” or endorphins or whatever, regardless of the name, the feeling of being completely absorbed in the act of running is at once alluring, addicting, and empowering. Add to that the component of competition on ultrarunning’s greatest stage and you have the makings of a downright flowfest.
In my experience, those runners who enjoy the most success at Western States are those that can get themselves quickly into the flow state and remain there throughout the day. It is intensely exhausting to stay focused for so long but to do so is to truly revel in what is, to many, the crowning achievement of their running lives and in the process of this revelation the event actually becomes secondary.
As I sit here five days into my taper with itchy legs and an overly active imagination, I find myself visualizing next week. I find myself negotiating a way into that flow state and staying there for 18 hours. Honestly, in that moment, there is no place I’d rather be.
In 2005 when I finished my 3rd Western States I distinctly recall finding that place of flow relatively early on (I think around Red Star Ridge) and carrying it with me all through the day. By the time I reached the Green Gate Aid Station I literally could not wipe the smile off my face and, upon reaching the Highway 49 Aid Station, I was in such a state of flow-induced euphoria that I needed my crew to point out that it was still actually light out and that I had completely dropped my pacer!
Obviously, in nine days time, I hope to get back to that place once again. Time will tell and many variables will come into play but, rest assured, standing on that starting line in Squaw on June 26th I will be doing everything I can to channel the energy of flow to find my way successfully down to Auburn.