You glance at the summit but it’s still quite far. There are several switchbacks and large rocks still to negotiate. You calm your breath. Taking shorter strides, you guide your whole body vertical. Bringing your gaze lower, you focus your attention only on the 10 feet ahead. The task is compartmentalized into something to focus upon in the here and now. Disregarding anything beyond that short stretch of gnarly trail, you think only about this very moment. You are absorbed into the immediate challenge before you. This step. This breath. Now.
Each rock is familiar from past runs. Images of past training flash through your mind in total clarity providing confidence that all things are possible. You are invested physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It is an experience beyond the corporeal. Perhaps there truly is a communication taking place between you and the earth in this intangible place. One thing is for sure, the buzz of information which filled your head in the first few miles have now silenced. Now it is just movement, effort, and a slow dance to the top. You are in the flow.
Runners high? Perhaps…
Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues people are, “happiest when they in a state of total concentration and complete absorption in the task at hand.” (1) Whether we call it “Runners high” or any other name, we as ultrarunners put ourselves in a place of moving meditation that is known by athletes and artists as, “The Flow”. Into the flow, you lose sense of time and space. Your focus is razor sharp. There is nothing left to be concerned with other than the challenge before you.
Steven Kotler spoke about “Fear and Flow” in a 2009 article in Psychology Today. Kotler writes, “Flow requires a person to feel challenged and want to push themselves, but not desperate. You want to trigger a response that releases a number of the brain’s high performance chemicals (like dopamine and anandamine), but not push yourself into an adrenaline fight-or-flight response.”
I liken this description to the familiar trail runner experience of technical downhill running. Fast, quick steps with complete focus. You are challenged by the physical act and the risk of falling is very real. But, you are in control…and the increase or decrease in effort and speed is at your command. You are not afraid for your life but you feel the rush of navigating the natural environment with your entire body. This act allows these incredible natural chemicals to flow through your body,further enhancing your experience.
Trail running is an experience. It is extremely difficult to explain why we do this sport to people who have never been absorbed in a moment of flow on a mountain trail. But, it is really our duty and obligation to share such a thing?
Whether it be a training run or a key race, acknowledge those magic moments of perfect experience. You need nothing else than to be there in that moment, absorbing that elusive dream state. You are a runner…and that moment is a gift.
Run long and prosper,