Sunday, February 15, 2015

In Search of Flow: The Journey of My Second 50-mile UltraMarathon

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer  

"Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further ... past what your mind wants to let you. That's what ultrarunning is all about; introducing you to a self you've never known." -Rex Pace

Ride the wave. Breathe, Susie. Keeping riding. Just breathe. Let it take you up, let it take you down. Breathe. The wave will carry you. 

This exact sequence of words I must have repeated to myself hundreds of times over the course of running 50 consecutive miles on Saturday June 7th, 2014. It wasn't a mantra I had practiced over my eight months and 600 hours of training prior to the race. But, four days before the North Face Endurance Challenge Washington, D.C., in the midst of the most pre-race nerves I've ever experienced, when I asked for a dream, a feeling, or a sign that all would be okay on race day, it was the image of a giant tidal wave that washed across my brain.

In the months leading up to TNFEC I had begun immersing myself in the study of "flow." The investigation was part professional research and part personal intrigue, based on my previous experiences with endurance sport.

I wanted to know the answer to questions about what helps us endure any type of suffering in life, including chosen suffering. I wanted to know what was actually happening inside of our bodies--chemicals, brain waves, neuro-muscular connections--and inside our spirits to make this possible. I wanted to know what it was about this "flow state" that made me look forward to, instead of dread, taking myself to my physical and mental limit.

Previously called "peak experiences" in a happiness experiment conducted by Abraham Maslow, the new term flow states was coined by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does." 

In 2009, on the marathon course in the Louisville IRONMAN, for the first time I encountered what I now know to be flow. It snuck up on me, and in a literal instant, it permanently changed my life. In the first blog I ever wrote, not knowing much about this state, I nicknamed it "the truth zone." The feeling was that of time slowing down, heightened awareness of everything around/within me and full use my personal potential. It would be out of this experience that would firmly press play on my life and within weeks I had pushed the plans forward for creating studio s.

As Csikszentmihalyi observes, "Flow is more than an optimal state of consciousness--one where we feel and perform our best--it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? Flow is what makes life worth living."

In almost every endurance race after IRONMAN it has visited me again. Some encounters are short and sloppy--like trying to grasp one of those ever-moving water wiggle worm toys and feeling it plop to the ground. Others times I'm able to inhabit it with more precision--as if writing a poem even though it feels like someone else is moving my hand to scribe the words. But no matter how rocky or smooth, each dip into the river of flow has only left me with more questions and the desire to be able to access it again.

Two weeks before I toed the start line in Washington, D.C., my husband Chris asked me if I could explain what it was about racing an ultra marathon that made it so deeply satisfying to me. I only needed one word to answer the question-- curiosity. The curiosity of whether or not I would find flow again and the curiosity of seeing what is possible for an everyday athlete like me, given a perfect, injury-free training season, an amazingly supportive community, and the desire to go all out.

The big day approached and time moved like a slow cruel joke. A week felt like a month, a day like a week and the day before the race like a never-ending, slow, deafening gong the Big Ben inside of my head.

When the enjoyable, predictable routine of running six days a week for eight consecutive months, sometime hours and hours on end, comes to a screeching halt during taper mode two weeks before the race, it's like stopping a hundred ton freight train in milliseconds. I had stopped, but my body's momentum wanted to keep going. No matter how I tried to distract myself, my steam engine's wheels where sparking and screeching against the rails. It was painful but necessary to slow the force of momentum. I knew I needed rest to be ready for the big day and past precedent told me the taper would work. 

My incredible crew planning their route for the big day. They were such a gift! 

"Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use a of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul's resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger." 
 -William James 

As I stepped up to the start line in the pitch black of the 5AM morning with only a few boom lights projected out onto a dormant meadow, I could feel my heart beating in my chest. I felt sick to my stomach and, at the same time, like a strong caged animal rearing for the lock to be unlatched. I stood in the dark, nervous silence of 350 or so other runners clutching their flashlights, tying and re-tying their shoelaces; each looking like the first moment a headlight catches a deer's eyes.

It is in the presence of intense risk that flow most often presents itself. As discussed in The Rise of Superman, athletes in "extreme" sport are known for their ability to quickly tap into flow states. In these moments, there are two response options for the body/ brain 1) go into the high stress state of "flight, fight or freeze" or 2) to flow. Researchers have found that if one's fight or flight reaction is accessed then flow is impossible. I stood just one step shy of entering fear and therefore possibly negating flow. I knew I couldn't over-think it but that I needed to stay ahead of this deeply ingrained human mechanism. I had many, many hours ahead of me and I needed to flow not to fight. 

The announcer called the second wave of runners up to the start line and as the others sheepishly hesitated, I hopped right in front. Fifty-miler #2 here we go! And with that, the countdown three ... two ... one of the start and our first footsteps were behind us. 

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

In the first miles of the race, even though the mind is fresh, not getting too far ahead of oneself is crucial. Thoughts like, “Forty-nine miles to go,” cannot be allowed to enter the brain, it must be highly controlled and kept locked tightly like a vault. Focusing on one breath, the feet in front of you, the subtle shift of light in the headlamp or some other repetitive detail is the only way to survive. 

As the anxious, overly-ambitious pace off the start line wore off and our headlamps lit the dewy grass underneath our feet, we began to shuffle into order. After working our way across a few muddy boardwalks, down a gravel path and double-backing a figure-eight section of trail with the elites whizzing by us, a silent, rhythmic cohesion began. Unlike my first 50-miler, where the lonely darkness of the early morning set my race off to a bad start, this time I felt like part of a powerful tribe. We merged from individuals into an unstoppable and unified pace line. Like a giant serpent weaving its way through single track trail, outlined by waist-high wildflowers, prairie grasses and poison ivy, we grew in cohesive momentum. What would normally be a deserted mud path outside of the suburbs of D.C. came alive with the sound of breath and foot strike. Occasionally in the distance I could hear faint words of runners swapping stories or telling jokes, but for the most part we ran in silence. It was a meaningful silence though, and one that spoke way more than any sound potentially muttered.

Our pace didn’t budge, there was no room for a mis-step, a pee break, or even wanting to scratch my nose. I couldn't get out of line or the momentum of the group would be ruined. “Stay put and begin the ride,” I began repeating to myself. 

Like any experienced distance runner, I had studied the course repeatedly and formed a plan. My strategy was to gain as much pace as possible in the first 11 miles of relative flat trail and make up for any time I would certainly need later on during three laps of vertical intensity. Moving in time with this powerful human pace line gave me just what I needed to accomplish that goal. Occasionally, I would glance left to take in the majestic Potomac River, still steaming from the morning fog and getting wider as we began to approach the Great Falls. But, by the time I looked at my watch, we had hit the 10-mile mark and I began climbing.  

 "Success is never so interesting as struggle." -Willa Cather

Over the course of the day, never did I doubt that I would finish the 50 miles. But, around mile 13, I began to wonder how I would make it to my next target. I had successfully completed my first section of the trail ahead of schedule, but in doing so had failed to eat according to plan. I had watched the minutes tick by knowing I was entering the danger zone of low carbohydrate stores, a move I would inevitably pay for later. Instead of eating and therefore loosing momentum, I kept running---my first and, probably, my only mistake of the day.

I needed to make it to mile 15 where I knew my crew would be waiting for me. I needed to make it through a tough section of climbing and out of the woods that were beginning to feel like The Never Ending Story
I needed flow but I knew this elusive state wouldn't simply appear when I wanted it to.

Ride the wave. Breathe, Susie. Keeping riding. Just breathe. Let it take you up, let it take you down. Breathe. The wave will carry you. 

The day before the race, Chris and I checked out a section of the course that I knew I'd soon be approaching. Knowing what to look for in those moments made all the difference in the world. My eyes scanned the trail for anything that looked familiar. Just around the corner ... anytime time now ... it has to be soon. I rounded the bend of a tall grass field and, suddenly, I saw the dirt path from the day before. I had made it and I knew my crew had to be close. That's when I heard it--the hooting and hollering of my team cheering on runners ahead of me! I was only a small portion of the way through my day but something inside of me knew I was coming out of what would be my most difficult moments.
As I approached my crew, I wanted to cry. I wanted to wrap my arms around them and stay safe for the rest of the day. But all I could muster was a half smile as I passed through their love. I had work to do and I needed my energy. As I exited their tunnel of joy, I yelled, "When do I get to see you again?" I needed my next goal and upon hearing Chris enthusiastically squeal, "Two miles," I knew I was going to be okay.

"Fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it all passes away; and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue, distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points." -William James

Two miles down the road, I began a three-loop section of the course. Three times through and I'd only have one section left-- a ten mile segment back to the start/ finish line. The farther away I stepped from my support system, the more nervous I became. And then, somewhere around mile 19, on a downhill in the middle of the dense woods, I found flow. I have no idea where it came from and I didn't know how long it would last. But as soon as I felt it click into place, I mentally re-engaged the image of my tidal wave. I was going to surf right on the edge of that wave and see if I could get this powerful state to stick, even if only minutes instead of seconds. 

Ride the wave. Breathe, Susie. Keeping riding. Just breathe. Let it take you up, let it take you down. Breathe. The wave will carry you. 

There are moments and feelings in life that change us forever--ones, like my Louisville IRONMAN experience, that are so powerful that we will never forget them. Through miles 19 to 21 I felt like nothing in this universe could stop me from anything I wanted ... ever. I remembered that this is why I run. I remembered that I am more powerful then I allow myself to be. And I made a promise to come here often, to have a tactile sense of what it means to live freely and fiercely, without reservation of who I am and what I want in this life. 

Flow states are often compared to drug-induced states because they are thought to shut down the same filtering mechanisms in the brain. As a result of minimizing one section of the brain, another portion is able to magnify with greater details, taking in the surroundings at a much higher rate. This explains the often found "one-with-the-universe" feeling that accompanies flow states. Due to the lack of filters, your brain is not able to determine where self stops and other begins. 

And so, it felt as if everything around me was cheering me on--the trees, the rocks, the air moving through my lungs-- all, powerful helpers aiding me in the difficult journey. I was riding my wave, I was flowing and I was on such a roll that I feared loosing it to stop for water and fuel. I needed this energy and I didn't want it to go away. But the tighter I gripped, the more it dissipated, and by the time I hit the end of loop two at mile 29, the wave had slowly crashed and washed ashore.

I rounded the final bend of loop two to find Chris suited up as my pacer. Though in my power state of flow, I doubted whether I would even need a pacer to finish the day, his new energy gave me another lift as I escorted him along the course that had begun to feel like home over the last half marathon. 

He entertained me with his normal mix of philosophical ponderings and joker-esque banter. Most of the time I unenthusiastically grunted in response, even though I was filled with gratitude for what he had agreed to that day (I often joke that it's easier to run an ultra then to crew/pace one). Finishing the third loop once more along the Great Falls, he shared some history about the geological wonder we were passing and I apparently retorted with, "Fuck the Great Falls!" I don't remember saying these words, but I do remember feeling raw with very little care about anything else but finishing the task at hand.
In my experience, mile 40 is where the reality of an ultra-marathon truly sets in. Nothing is appetizing, nothing is funny, everything hurts and your body is urging you to be done. And yet, it is also in this space that the rhythm of your body moving in the same pattern for over nine hours straight, becomes amazingly automatic and almost melodic. Rationality and sensitivity have long since disappeared and you are running on grit and momentum. 

I didn't want to stop, I wanted to be done--at mile 50 (what actually ended up being a solid 52). Stopping, slowing, eating, peeing, all meant delays of a finish line that I knew was close. I had accomplished almost everything that I had come for--another powerful encounter with flow along with the realization that success is often achieved with equal parts willpower and letting go. All I was missing was the last step across the finish line.

At the final check point of the day, mile 49, I got another gift. My best friends Shelly and Katie were waiting for me, as they had been at every pit stop along the way, and side-by-side down the gravel path we made our way toward the finish. They smiled and trotted alongside of me, observing my need for very little talking, as I squeezed out every ounce of focus left within me. Though I couldn't express it, I felt as if life couldn't get any better than it was in those last moments of this long day. I had triumph, but more importantly, I had people in my life who understood my need for this crazy journey and loved me nonetheless.  
"Perhaps the genius of ultra-running is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runner knows this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being--a call that asks who they are ..." -David Blaikie
Though the red balloon-like arch of the finish line sat in the exact spot where I started my 50-mile adventure many hours earlier--everything looked different. Not only had the light of day changed, the contours of the trail come to life, but I had become more of myself. 

A GIANT thanks to all of my crew & pacers of the day! I couldn't have done it without you.