The Pleasure of Flow

AJWs TaproomMy long time friend and 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 reflect on a 20-year career in ultrarunning.

One of the most compelling thinkers Andy and I have discussed while pounding out the miles on the trail is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high-ee). Csíkszentmihályi is most famously known as the architect of the notion of flow; in Csíkszentmihályi’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. Csíkszentmihályi 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 and other high profile races 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 on the cusp of spring I find myself longing for that flow state. Honestly, in that moment of clarity, there is no place I’d rather be.

In 2005, when I finished my third 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!

As runners across the country and around the world prepare for their summer challenges, it is my hope that you all find a way to enter into the flow state and become one with the experience of running. It’s worth every minute of preparation to get there.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Monkeyboy’s Beer of the Week

pFriem Family BrewersThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from guest beer reviewer Scott Wolfe:

In celebration of the fourth MUC race in the Gorge this weekend and the wet weather that is scheduled to hit the gorge, a great après run way of celebrating your run would be to head up the road to Hood River, Oregon and visit the Pfriem Family Brewers and warm up with a glass of the Belgian Strong Dark. A 2014 beer of the year in the Portland Beer Guide, the taste is complex like the weather in Flanders, but unfolds with a spicy chocolate finish and smooth sipping that you won’t want to rush your way through. A perfect way to reflect on a 4 a.m. start and long day enjoying the waterfalls and singletrack of the Columbia River Gorge. The simple satisfaction of a beer and run well done.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • When have you last seen or experienced flow in running?
  • Do you have a favorite memory of running in a flow state?
  • Have you found any methods by which you can facilitate transitioning into a flow state?