Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that three times fast) is one of the foremost experts on flow. His book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience defines flow as: "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it" (4). This is a good starting point for trying to define flow -athletes often call it being in the zone- but this definition seems to suggest that simple focus and enjoyment of an activity can lead to flow. Runners will talk about getting their second wind late into a race or about the elusive runners high. Here's the thing though, if flow happens, if you manage tap into that runners high, it generally only comes after intense effort. Sure you can go out for an easy run or ride that is well below your all-out pace for that distance and you can do it almost without thinking. It's certainly a type of flow, but not what I'm interested in. Csikszentmihalyi studied many athletes as part of his research and readily acknowledges the extremes in effort required to reach a state of flow: "...the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times...the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile" (3).
Flow then, is directly linked to happiness. What an odd thing. To find flow, to find this sort of happiness, we must regularly push ourselves to mental and physical extremes. Triathlon is an excellent vehicle to do both! For a long time my e-mail signature was this simple insight from ultrarunner Dean Karnazes: "Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness." There is a lot of truth wrapped up in that simple statement and flow is part of the wrapping.
|Zoning out, but not flowing at Leon's Tri last weekend.|
The extraordinary physical and mental demands of ironman racing seem to make it easier to find flow. I've experienced some flow states in every ironman race I've done. In thinking about my experiences with flow, it is actually a track race that stands out. Towards the end of my junior year at Augustana College I was racing a big late-night invitational track meet at North Central College. I had built up good fitness throughout the season and I was in the race with a couple teammates of similar abilities. Running really late at night under the lights made the whole experience somewhat surreal to start with. As I recall it now, it seems like the first two miles were just perfect flow. Dead-on pacing, just sticking on my teammates Ryan Chapman and Matt Fisher's shoulders and clicking off quarter after quarter. Of course, you can't really flow through a whole race and when reality sets in that last mile its back to guts racing. Still, those first two miles were far easier than they should have been.
Unfortunately there is no sure-fire way to achieve flow in endurance sports. In my experience you are more likely to bonk and wallow in second-by-second agony than you are to find flow. Knowing that it is out there makes the pursuit worthwhile. Remember we are only entitled to the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself!