Pine To Palm 100 - From a Crew's Pespective and My Epiphany of Flow State

My friend and fellow Ranch athlete, Monica Moore
completing the Pine To Palm 100 Miler 2014.
I'm back from The Pine To Palm 100 after crewing and supporting my friend and fellow Ranch athlete, Monica Moore - who, by the way, completed that bitch of a course in sub 30 hours. So proud of her!! It was strange to revisit that course from a crew's view. I got to see a bit of that course again where it intersected the runners as I had to pass a few on my way up to the crew points. I was unexpectedly surprised by the climbs - climbs in which, as a runner who ran that course last year, I have little recollection of. But, the realization hit me... as a runner who has 100 miles ahead of her, I don't think about the climbing, or about mile 90 or mile 100 for that matter, my only focus is the next step with my right foot or my left. It's probably why I can't remember much of that part of the course and now I realize it's the only way I can cope with the distance. And in that way, running the super long distances is an exercise in being present in the moment. It was an experience in flow.

Yeah. That was sort of an epiphany.

I hear people say all the time that they won't sign up for a 100 miler (yet) because they can't even wrap their head around the distance. Frankly, I don't think its necessary (or even possible if you've never tackled that distance before) to wrap your head around the distance before you've ran it.

It's nearly impossible to wrap your head around that shit before you're in it - because you're not there. You're not standing on the start line waiting for the gun to go off.

There's something about being in that moment that allows your mind to break free from all its thoughts and be ready... for anything. Even a hundred miles. Because you have to. You've trained your ass to be ready so let go and just... be... in that moment.

And when that gun goes off, you're not thinking about mile 100 yet - you're just dealing with the next mile, or the first climb, or the next aid station or in my case at mile 53, putting one foot in front of the other and just "checking out" for a while cuz the next 18 miles is ALL UP and cuz I do that.

"Checking out," turning off my brain and letting the white noise take over is how I cope. Kinda like when you're driving on the freeway and go into zombie mode where you can't remember driving past that last exit. Yeah. That's a bad thing when driving - that lack of attention is likely to make you roadkill - but, in ultra running this is a great tool.

What is flow?

I would suspect that a lot of runners do this, but I'm not sure how aware we are of it. There's a concept emerging in the sports world and it's called "Flow." Its a term mainly used to describe an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. It's a peak state of awareness and experienced by many athletes who are involved in extreme sports where last minute decision making is vital. I would suspect that even in ultra running, many runners experience this state at some point. Many people who experience flow note a different sense of time - things either speed up or slow down and you lose track. I remember experiencing this during Pine to Palm last year. There were points where I felt like hours ticked by super fast and I had almost no recollection of the last few miles. It's a fascinating concept and I heard about it from my coach who sent me a link to a podcast that interviewed Steven Kotler, the author of the book "The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance."

Apparently, there are many triggers to this state of consciousness: 4 psychological, 3 environmental, 9 social, and only 1 creative trigger.

I can say with almost no doubt that I have at one time or another (mostly while running my 100 miler) experienced all the psychological triggers of the flow state and I would suspect other runners have experienced these as well. In fact, my term "fiyah" came out of this exact concept although I hadn't heard of flow at the time. All of those psychological triggers are internal strategies that we, as runners, employ to drive our attention into the "now" so we are better able to cope with the challenge and circumstances that lay ahead. Ultra runners know that it's not about "if" something will go wrong during a 100 miles, it's more a question of "when" and how you will react when it does.

The four psychological strategies that create flow are:

Intensely Focused Attention - long uninterrupted periods of concentration often produce flow state. The state almost always requires solitude and focus.
Clear Goals - flow can't happen if your mind is wondering what to do next. When running long distances the only clear goal is the finish line or a specific time. That is what we are there for and usually, as runners, we have this already mapped out in our heads. Our goals are unwavering.

Immediate Feedback - many of us runners have learned to assess our bodies almost mechanically while running. It's like we touch a button and our minds run a program that says... "Have you eaten? Have you drank? Have you peed? Do you need electrolytes? Am I going too fast? Am I going too slow? Can I push my body harder?" We constantly assess our bodies internally and externally for signs of disruption and do our best to address those in real time. Sometimes we don't even notice that we are making tweaks because it's second nature. These rote adjustments only contribute to our natural ability to access the state of flow.

The Challenge/Skills Ratio - flow exists in this sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. If we are too bored we lose focus, if the challenge is too hard our brains exit the present moment and try and find an escape route. I found flow the most during my 100 miler at night. The course got pretty technical and it forced me into a heightened state of awareness, but it wasn't impossible so long as I stayed alert. After having over 70 miles on my legs and fighting the urge to sleep, fatigue coupled with questionable terrain is a challenge. But it's a challenge that can induce flow.
I recognize that as ultra runners we are rarely in a situation that requires immediate decision making unless we're bombing the downhills or face to face with a mountain lion, but, nonetheless, because of the distance many of us run I believe we have the ability to induce an altered state of consciousness and many of us do this out of pure necessity to cope with the challenge of the distance. 

So I'm deeply curious if any other ultra runners have ever experienced this heightened sense of awareness called flow. What is your experience and what do you think the triggers were?

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  1. Well, i'm still just preparing for my first ultra but, i notice i get flow when i'm tired and want to stop but push thru and fall into my training. So now you're running fine even though your mind wanted to stop. Then you realize that you can do this even though it doesn't make sense and you listen to your body rather than your mind

    1. Exactly! Much of running is mental. You have to cross that boundary sometimes and get to the other side. I also think that it's your mind that controls how your body feels - and in the flow state, your mind is free from premature judgement that your body may feel crappy and it's not influencing your body anymore. At that point running becomes almost a meditation.

  2. Great post, Krista. No ultras for me though.


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