The concept of “flow,” or “being in the zone” is oft thrown around and has become a popular anecdote for all manner of folks who are largely trying to sell us something. The flow state occurs when a person has developed skill in an activity and is pushing the envelope of that skill. They lose some sense of self, become totally engaged in the task at hand, and invariably do something wicked cool. For a runner pushing to a PR, this state allows them to “break through the wall” or keep going well past when their stomachs flip and their feet have turned to hamburger. The problem with all this is you have to keep pushing past your comfort zone if you want to keep getting into flow. 5k, 10k, marathon, BQ, ultra, longer ultra, tougher ultra… you get the point. The other problem with flow though, is it’s extremely flighty. It’s not too hard to drop the hammer and get in flow for the few minutes of a 5k, or even for an hour in the last chunk of a marathon. But ultras take hours. Days. Dropping your hot cup of ramen noodles in the middle of a freezing desert night can knock you out of flow for hours. I know, I’ve seen me do it.
Fortunately, there’s another trigger for flow that aspiring runners can use, and one that I’m incredibly blessed… and cursed… to have stumbled on. The book “The Rise of Superman” (it’s not about some nerd with heat vision) calls it “group flow.” You see, humans are social animals, and if you get the right bunch of them together with the same goals, they’ll just push each other right off the cliff. I saw it first with my local running club, settling in with a group of runners all with the objective to get faster. And get faster we did. My half marathon PR is the strongest of all my efforts thanks to that fall and winter of hard training. When the last mile came and every part of my legs and lungs were on fire and every neuron in my brain was screaming and flashing alerts, I had someone there to chase, to focus on and finish strong. I dry heaved into a bush after that race. Like a boss.
In the last two years, as my focus has shifted to ultras, that motivation has come from the PRorER running team, a group that spans the globe and features a wide demographic… but has a singular focus on doing dumb stuff in the woods (Or small parks in central Ohio… I don’t know…) and more importantly, doing it together. The Superman book calls out the following requirements for group flow:
- Concentration, shared goals, and an element of risk – With the over-arching focus being on running super far in the dark, these pretty obviously covered.
- good communication, familiarity, close listening –In our Slack channel, we can communicate instantly about our concerns, fears and victories…and pets and lunches. Running together in real life, we spend hours talking to each other (and definitely is true on Saturday long runs with the Holland Running Club too.) At races we dismiss pain, encourage each other to keep going and help tease out what issues and needs people have.
- Equal participation and the blending of egos – PRorER is incredibly humble. We build each other up. We celebrate each other’s wins before our own. Victories are shared across the team. I can’t stress enough how supportive the team is; it’s a family before anything else. This group has and will saddle up to help a team member in need, on and off the trail.
- Sense of control – The team chooses its own races, sets up epic aid stations, and takes care of their people in their hours of need.
- Always say yes – There’s not a lot of point in asking “should I sign up for X race?” in the Slack channel. When the option is between doing something stupid or going out for brunch, the answer is always “definitely both.”
Seems we’ve accidently built a near perfect environment for group flow. Oops. In the last two years, distance and pace PRs have been absolutely crushed by the team. Not just a few bright spots; dozens and dozens of individual and shared victories. It has been amazing to watch. We’re still on the way up. I don’t know where it will go. When you can blend the egos as we have, now it’s not just the personal victories that put you in flow, now when anyone on the team wins, everyone wins. The goalposts move. The team suddenly has the ability to do even more.
The moving goalposts, however, can be a dark and even dangerous side of flow. Sure, the team is kicking ass, but at the end of the day, running is a highly individual sport. When the goalposts are constantly moving you really only have two choices: push harder or stop playing. Pushing harder means signing up for a big training plan, working through mental and physical issues, and making sacrifices elsewhere in your life. It’s a big commitment. Not playing means FOMO and a fear of being left behind. Either way, it can be a significant mental strain and an added stress to everyone’s already stress filled life. This is supposed to be fun!!
I do believe this potential mental stress can be mitigated, but it’s not easy. And it’s important to understand that the training cycle, preparation, and race day for an ultramarathon is inherently mentally stressful. They say that 80% of ultrarunning is mental and the other 30% is all in your head. I firmly believe this is true (maybe not the math…) so we don’t really need any added stressors right? I mean shoot, just trying to write about this makes me feel like an imposter. Who am I? I haven’t even finished 100 miles yet. It’s silly right? I’ve done some cool stuff. It’s truly hard to look objectively (and proudly) at your own accomplishments and aspirations when others are just absolutely crushing it. Here’s what helps me:
- It’s ok not to play for the win. Man, I suck at this one, and it’s the most important one. Some of our team is really good at going out and having fun, letting off the gas (or never getting on it) and just going to a race to see folks, get some miles in, and eat some tacos. Showing up means you don’t lose the connections, you get to help the team, and you don’t feel left out. It plays right into the second bullet:
- Just because it’s not your time doesn’t mean it never will be. Don’t confuse someone else’s middle with your beginning. Training is cyclical, and so is life. Now might not be the right time. And that’s OK. You can’t be in peak condition all the time, and you might not be in the right season of life to go after this right now. At any given moment, folks are going to be ramping up, peaking, ramping down, or tapping out. Look at your own goals, set your own plans, and don’t rush or crush them the moment someone else does something cool. You’ll get yours. A good group of running peers will constantly remind you of this.
- Failure is what makes all this fun. Conditions and circumstance have a huge impact on the race outcome; and trying to apply standard measures across efforts is a fool’s errand. We’re attracted to ultras because, for a group of folks accustomed to winning, it’s one of the few things that’s tough to calculate our way through. The training cycle might wreck you. The course might end up being shoe-sucking mud, or it might be 100 degrees out. Maybe those nachos were not a good idea, even though they worked last time.
Put it all together, and the real theme is patience. Which pretty much sucks right? Who has time for that? Runners are not patient. They are persistent. They don’t do patience, but most of them do process. So just remember that it IS a process. It’s a cycle that should grow and change over years, not weeks. Everyone is on their own journey and everyone’s life has its own challenges. Every challenge overcome is a huge victory. Celebrate your own and celebrate others. Get into flow and lean on your peers to stay there. The support system is crucial. It gets you in flow and keeps you from falling out of it. Just because you aren’t peaking right now doesn’t mean you never will again, nor does it invalidate the times in the past when you were and kicked ass. So get a team; find some folks who love what you love and build them up. Let them build you up. We’re better together than apart. Be ready for a runaway train of awesomeness, and be prepared to ride it… or jump off and catch it at the next station when you need to.
The last 5 weeks for me have been pretty great. I’ll have about 260 miles in over that time, and for the first time, speed is coming back, and I’m actually starting to feel a bit like my old self. I wouldn’t say I’ve been the picture of patience throughout the last year, and I might still be pushing my own agenda (and my poor hip joint) a little too hard… but I think I’m ready. Hungerford is in two weeks (good lord I need to follow my own advice on this one. Easssssssssyyyyyy.) and Sleepy Hollow is in four weeks. It’ll be a weird taper through Hungerford into the 24HR race… hopefully I can go at Hungerford easy enough to be able to put a few decent runs down the week after. We’ll see. Still trying to take care of the ole hip, seems to be holding up OK. As mileage ramps down I’ll ramp up the PT again.
Until next time, keep kicking ass, and don’t break your stuff.