The race director abruptly yelled “go!” Jamie Dial bolted out of the school parking lot and made the turn toward the trail. He was quickly out of sight. Three of us formed a chase group, still running very fast for the start of a trail 50K. Since this was the first time I had set foot on the Stump Jump course, I was glad to have two local runners lead the way over the winding trail system on Signal Mountain in Chattanooga. After several miles we realized that we hadn’t seen any course markings for a while, and there were no runners behind us. Reluctantly, but with no choice, we turned around and doubled-back.
At first my attention was focused on finding trail markings, or at least spotting a runner. As it became clear that we had gone about a mile out of our way, and so would not only give the rest of the field a two mile head start, but would also run a race that was two miles longer than everyone else, I felt my already rapidly moving blood start to boil. We stumbled back on course at the back of the field. Instead of slowing to a sensible pace and methodically passing runners, I began to run like a man possessed. I picked up the pace and had to focus intently on the footing as I led our threesome past the other runners. When the trail descended steeply on narrow single-track that dropped off precipitously on one side, I ran faster, yielding completely to gravity. My feet found all the right places to step as we plunged down and around other runners. There was no time to think, let alone consider each foot placement. I was in the zone.
Eventually I was alone, with only a handful of runners still in front of me. The course, and the temperature, was climbing. I automatically filled my bottle at each aid station, and slowed on each climb. I relented to the circumstances that had gotten me here, and gave up the notion that I could control the outcome of the race. The effort to get me 20 miles into the race had stripped my ego away. There was no self left at the helm. Just the rest of me, moving forward unthinkingly. I was surprised to catch and pass Jamie. It snapped me out of autopilot. I had been peeved that he went out so hard. He knew the course well. Had I been able to go with him from the start, I would not have gotten off course. That he paid the bigger price for this decision was come consolation, though I didn’t really savor it. There was too much work left.
I was also surprised when I heard at an aid station that only 1 runner was ahead of me. Glenn Redpath had come in from New York to run the race. I was already running what I could run, though, so I didn’t pick it up, and I was again surprised to catch up with him. When crossed the road at an aid station before the last ascent, I asked for ice. I was beginning to feel overheated. They didn’t have any. As we climbed, I slowed considerably. Glenn pulled away. Halfway up the climb I passed him. He was walking. When I topped the hill I was able to pick up the pace again and finish uncontested.
I have had similar experiences in many, many other ultras. I like to think ahead and plan. When I race, I like to imagine that I am in control of the outcome. Short races, or the rare race in which everyone goes right, can fool me into thinking that I was right. Much more often, things don’t work out as planned. Occasionally some minor adjustments can be made and I can get back on track. A significant portion of my races, though, completely disabuse me of the pretense that I can call the shots at all. I am forced, either by circumstances that don’t fit my preconceptions, or by utter exhaustion, to submit completely. I may pity myself briefly at my bad fortune, but ultimately all I can do is move forward, and let things unfold as they will. The best phrase I can think of to describe this state of mind is low flow.
You probably knew what I meant when I said that I was in the zone early in the 50K. Athletes will experience this when their attention is completely focused on a demanding task. The sensation, ironically, is of near effortless, automatic execution of the skill. Although there is an expanded sense of having time to respond immediately, overall time passes quickly. Psychologists have referred to this phenomenon as flow. It can be one of the greatest rewards of training, or extensive practice with any endeavor. Mathematicians, musicians, visual artists, can experience flow when fully engaged by a challenge for which they are prepared.
The descriptions of flow don’t cover the range of experiences induced by running ultras. We’re lucky to have a small fraction of an ultra “pass quickly” as we are fully engaged in a challenge that we readily rise to meet; running along a technical ridgeline for a few hundred meters, for example. I’d like to introduce the term high flow to describe this kind of experience. We know these experiences are transient over the course of a 30 to 100 mile race. At some point we are very likely to feel, as I described above, that we really aren’t up to the task at all. The task is too big or has deviated too much from that which we expected. We let it go. We shed ourselves of the illusion that we can control the situation any longer. But we keep running. It can seem almost miraculous. We let go of the thinking part of our striving, yet our legs are still moving. I want to call this low flow.
I have come to think that capacity for low flow determines success in ultras. As with high flow, however, low flow isn’t just a state of mind. We still have to do the work. Flow, of both kinds, is possible because of extensive training. We cannot escape the physical demands of running, but we can immerse ourselves in them.
This morning I climbed the Columbine Trail in North Cheyenne Canyon 3 times. Each climb lasted 30 minutes and spanned 1000 feet. After my final return trip, I sat in the North Cheyenne Canyon Creek. The cold rush of water bit into my body. I watched a bird forage for nesting materials on the opposite bank.