Finding Your Flow

by Karl Gruber
“Every person, no matter how unfit he or she is, can rise a little higher, go a little faster, and grow a little stronger.”Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, professor at Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

This quote from one of the world’s premier teachers of positive psychology is something to keep in mind when training for and running a marathon. The marathon does not discriminate. It does not care if you are young or old; if your skin is light or dark; if you are male, female or transgender; if you are rich or poor; if you are overweight or underweight; if you are a janitor or are a millionaire businessman. The marathon will challenge anyone and everyone — but it will also reward you with a shiny finisher medal dangling from your neck and the countless new friends you will make during your running journey. 

Visions of successfully running non-stop for 26.2 miles may flash through your mind as you start to think, “I can do this! I can run 26.2 miles!” However, you will never know in advance the numerous big hills that lay before you as you huff and puff your way to the top, nor the countless miles of wear and tear on your body and shoes. Simply committing to a race will not give you an inkling of the sore muscles, the minor injuries, and the weeks and months of training that it takes to conquer a marathon. 

But don’t let the unknown keep you from tackling the 26.2 mile challenge. Though the marathon is a mighty feat of running, it is worth taking it on because it will change your life for the better in so many ways!

As Professor Csikszentmilhalyi so eloquently points out, one beautiful benefit is that it will help you find your “flow.” What is flow exactly? Wikipedia states, “In positive psychology, flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, 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.”

Experienced marathon runners will tell you this is exactly what happens when training and racing 26.2 miles. Many in the running community call this the “runner’s high,” but that is more of an out-of-body experience in which you feels that you are floating easy and effortlessly though your body is undergoing extreme effort. For me, I feel as if I am simply a passenger in a car objectively observing everything that passes by, particularly when I have been running late in a race. Flow, however, is a bit different. 

Many athletes, no matter what the sport, experience intense effort and focus as time seems to slow, and they are unable to hear or see anything except that which lay before them as they perform. As a marathon runner, whether you’re on a long training run or during the race, you will get into your “flow” or “The Zone.” As Csikszentmilhalyi’s quote states, your physical state doesn’t matter; once you’ve made the commitment to run 26.2 miles and stick to the training, you will go a little higher and grow a little stronger.

In many ways, I think flow is like a drug for us marathon runners — a good drug that’s addicting and keeps bringing us back for more of the 26.2 mile challenge. “What? It’s 10 degrees outside and six inches of snow fell last night? I don’t care, I’m getting my eight miles in so I can run my marathon well!” Flow, like the marathon, does not care when, where or what the situation is. Rugged dirt trails, heavy rain, 85 degrees and humid? No problem. Flow, or The Zone, will sneak up on you as you run.

Whether you are ready to take on a marathon for the very first time or you just signed up for your hundredth marathon, the weeks of training and the race itself will provide you with some amazing, unexpected, incredible and unique experiences. As four-time Berlin Marathon winner Haile Gebrselassie once said, “Without running there is no life.” He and I agree that running goes far beyond the race and impacts so many other aspects of life. It allows a flow of excitement, joy and physical experience like no other!

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