The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K in Marin County, California, might be the most scenic ultrarunning race in the country. Dirt jeep roads and winding singletrack take runners along the jagged Pacific coast, up and over grassy hills with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and through dense redwood forests. But at mile 11, I wasn’t taking in the scenery. I was floating.
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Runner’s high. Being in the zone. Whatever you want to call it, psychologists call it a flow state. In essence, it’s concentration so deep that you don’t realise you’re concentrating. In the 1970s, a California psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began studying what he referred to as optimal experience and found that everyone from artists to athletes to CEOs were fueled by flow to push creative and physical boundaries. More important, he discovered that these flow states were some of the happiest moments in people’s lives.
While in flow, parts of our prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain that deals with most of our higher cognitive function, all but shut down. Which might be why things feel so effortless.
One of the problems with flow states is that staying in them can be as difficult as achieving them in the first place. At the race, I went out faster than I should have. Somewhere around mile 24, I came abruptly back to earth with the biggest physical and mental explosion I’ve ever experienced in five years of racing. I was at flow’s polar opposite: the pain cave. I hobbled to the finish line.
Does that mean my search is over? Far from it. The pursuit of flow is nearly as gratifying as the feeling itself. Before I was able to walk normally again after the race, I’d already begun scheming about how to get my next fix—time for a surf trip.