Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Race brain: flow and the art of running

Calm, float, detachment, immersion.  One foot in front of the other, again and again, in the predawn mist.  Given that it's been many years since I was last a competitive athlete, and in a different sport, I'd forgotten what race brain is like.

From the points race at the 1995 collegiate national track cycling championships, I'm left with a vivid memory of sweeping from turn 3 into turn 4 just before my teammate Thia and I successfully attacked and stayed away for the rest of the race.  I knew the crowd was roaring, but I couldn't hear them, and I didn't see them either.  I didn't feel any pain or fatigue.  The shape of the race in front of me carved itself into my brain.  I felt both a hundred miles away and everywhere in the pack at once.  My eyes found my teammate's.  Everything was still for a moment.  And then we jumped.

I call that "race brain."  It never operates during training, when I'm often subject to fatigue, mental reservations and self-doubt (I don't think I can make it!), random pains, distraction, you name it.  I almost never have the "perfect" training session that I've heard other athletes talk about.  On the bike, I used to struggle up hills.  On my feet, I struggle to complete a 14-mile run at 9:30.

But put me in a race, and suddenly my everyday brain flips off and my race brain comes online.  Race brain is exceptionally calm, in a strange way both removed from the immediate environment and preternaturally aware of it.  Race brain calculates pack placement, looks for holes to move up, monitors heart rate and breathing, evaluates pains (race brain somehow knew that the sharp calf pain I felt at about mile 5 of the SF half-marathon would resolve if I backed off a bit on Lincoln Hill, and remained unconcerned), reminds me to take water at the stops, reassures me that my arm warmers alone are enough to defeat the fog and wind on the Golden Gate Bridge before dawn even though I'm shivering.  Under the influence of race brain, I ran a 1:40:58 first-half SF marathon and took second in my division, in my second half marathon ever, and almost never felt out of breath.  That's not to say I didn't work hard:  it was a very difficult race, and I'm not sure I could have gone any faster.  But it felt controlled and smooth.  Race brain was in charge.

 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a more elegant term for race brain: he calls it flow.  The "flow" state is characterized by immersion, absorption, and complete attention to the moment.  It resembles mindfulness practice.  Faced with a very difficult task, you must focus, engage creativity, and reject fear, even when fear feels like an insurance policy.

I remember what it was like to let go of fear on the bike.  Bicycle racing is not for the faint of heart.  It's dangerous, sometimes extremely so, and to keep yourself in one piece until the finish-line sprint takes self-possession and a good dose of calm.  For me, the key was not to think about it: "don't look where you don't want to go."  That's not to say that I didn't think about technique, pack placement, trajectory, and line; you have to think about that stuff to avoid crashing in corners and flying off cliffs.  But you have to transform a lot of that into subconscious calculation, reserving the conscious brain for several dimensions of strategy.  And then the conscious body just feels, and deeply, the joy of efficient movement.  It feels as close to flying as we get in this world.

Letting go of fear is really different in running, but you still have to do it.  Certainly, you can't crash, and we may feel relief in that.  But on the other hand, unlike cycling, in running you can't coast; you get no rest.  That means if you miscalculate and go out too fast, you can be cooked for miles.  But if you go out too slow, you've lost your chance at peak performance.  So letting go of fear means letting race brain take over and tell you how fast to go.  No fear--just you, flying and flying.

Now if only I could figure out how to access flow in training...let me know if you have any hints!

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