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Phenomenon of Flow

This is an excerpt from Running Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,Philip Latter & Christine Weinkauff Duranso.

On the most important day of her life, Shelby Hyatt woke up unable to breathe. The 16-year-old high school junior from Bryson City, North Carolina, swept her hands all around the nightstand trying to find her rescue inhaler, but in the pitch-blackness of an unfamiliar motel room her effort proved futile. Shelby sat up in her bed and tried to remain calm, but the stuffy, stale air churning from the wall heater did her no favors. She had to get out before it became any worse.

"My chest felt really tight," she says. "I could take breaths, but I couldn't take a deep breath. I didn't panic as much as you might imagine, because I didn't want to wake my teammates up. So I just tried to be calm and collected."

Outside seemed like a whole different world. A violent rainstorm pelted the motel's roof and left the parking lot in standing water. It was snowing back in the mountains surrounding her hometown, but here in the lower elevations of the Piedmont it was just blustery and miserable. Shelby huddled against the wall and inhaled the cold, fresh air. Bit by bit, her breathing steadied. It was 5:30 a.m.

For more than a year, Shelby dreamed and prepared for the events of this very day - the state cross country championships. The year before, as a first-year runner competing in the 1A (small school) division, she had placed 11th - one spot away from All-State honors. In the ensuing year, running became her passion; running defined her as a person. That confidence translated into other areas as well. Shelby earned a seat on the homecoming court and began dating a popular classmate. Buoyed by these positive events, she appeared right on track to achieving her All-State cross country dream.

Pneumonia changed all that. For 6 weeks in the middle of what was supposed to be her defining season, Shelby gasped her way through hard and easy runs alike. Some days were decent; some left her holding back tears. A naturally quiet person, Shelby said little about how the physical symptoms were affecting her mental health. Still, the effects were obvious as the rough days outnumbered the good ones. Her teammates and coaches tried to encourage her as she put out tremendous effort with little to show for it. Doctors tried various antibiotics, inhalers, and corticosteroids, but the results were minimal. As every major race turned out a little bit worse than the one before, training was proving to be an exercise in faith.

Sitting against the motel room door, her three Swain County High School teammates asleep inside, Shelby tried not to feel sorry for herself. They still had big goals for the day, even if physically she wasn't 100 percent capable. Knowing her team supported her eased her mind but increased her worry. What if this happens again when I'm racing today? she thought. What if I can't do my best or help my team?

Eventually her breathing calmed enough to go back inside the motel room. She lay awake for several hours. Outside, it continued to rain.

A few hours later at breakfast, she told her coaches about the breathing episode, but already she was starting to downplay the event. The rest of the day flew by in a haze of team bonding and race preparation. By the time she and her teammates toed the soggy starting line, Shelby felt calm and collected. Her face portrayed no anxiety. The warm-up run had gone well. Her legs felt snappy. Most important, her lungs could take in air. Whether the panicked breathing episode was a catharsis or the calm before the storm couldn't be known, so she stopped thinking about it.

"I felt really confident, like I knew that after everything that happened things weren't looking good for me, but I felt good," she says. "That helped with the pressure. I knew I wasn't expected to do so well in the race."

The starter barked out a 1-minute warning. Shelby stood on the line next to her teammates and surveyed the wide expanse of puddles and muddy grass in front of her. Deep breath in; deep breath out. The rain had ended, but she didn't notice. Her eyes showed a steely resolve and a narrowed focus. Nothing else mattered.


In the ensuing chaos of the muddy start, Shelby stayed wide. The leaders pushed through the mud, battling the course as much as themselves. The northern wind howled at a steady 20 miles per hour (32 kph) as they ran headlong into it. Shelby tucked in with a couple of her teammates, confident that this was the best strategy. The first 7 minutes passed in a blur of mud and runners jostling for position. At the mile (1.6 km) she was in 40thplace. Given her physical condition, it seemed wise to start at a moderate effort and continually increase the pace if possible. Her breathing remained steady and untroubled.

"After how good I felt the first mile, I decided, okay, I need to pick it up," she says. "This could go good or bad. I'm not sure. I just decided that I'd try to pick it up as much as possible and see what happens."

The next mile confirmed her suspicion. She felt better with each stride. With doubts about her breathing slipping into the background, Shelby aggressively worked her way through the field. She moved to 20th place, then 15th place, and finally crossed the 2-mile (3.2-km) mark just outside the top 10. Realizing her yearlong dream had merit, she redoubled her effort. Just ahead was her talented freshman teammate Emma. While Shelby's lungs fought through pneumonia, Emma quietly took the mantle as the team's number one runner. With clear goals in mind and no physical obstacles in the way, Shelby set out to reel her young teammate in.

The last mile of the race played out like a Hollywood script. Shelby moved into the top 10, then the top 8. With a half mile (800 m) remaining in the race, she caught Emma just as the course doglegged into an open meadow. The momentum catapulted Shelby past her teammate as her coach and spectators screamed support. Shelby was in sixth place and closing on fifth.

The girl with pneumonia - the one who had worked so hard but felt she had nothing to show for it - was now surging faster than she ever had in her life. She crested a small hill at a full-on clip, the muted late autumn sun silhouetting her against the dramatic backdrop. Charging harder and harder, Shelby passed one final opponent to move into fourth place with only 200 meters remaining. Down the final straightaway a small smile escaped her face as her focus widened and the magnitude of what was occurring settled in.

A flow experience helped Shelby Hyatt run the race of her life in the North Carolina state cross country meet.
A flow experience helped Shelby Hyatt run the race of her life in the North Carolina state cross country meet.
Courtesy of Jeffrey E. Sides.

Counted out just that morning, Shelby Hyatt ran the race of her life and finished fourth at the state meet.In the process she not only achieved her All-State goal but also helped her team to a school-best third-place finish. The cherry on top was setting a personal record (PR) while running through mud puddles in a howling windstorm.

"It doesn't make sense to me, but it felt easier [than any other race]," she says. "My breathing, my body, my legs felt like they could go forever."

In the aftermath of the race, as exhausted athletes sought out their parents and coaches, Shelby got separated from her team. When she finally found her coach, they embraced in a warm hug filled with shock and surprise. As they separated, Shelby took a step back and smiled. "I think I flowed today," she said.

Phenomenon of Flow

Shelby was right. She experienced flow, a phenomenon people often call being in the zone or locked in. Few experiences in life are more memorable than flow moments; these moments make life worth living. A great benefit of flow is that this state of consciousness is available to all people who engage their passions and commit to achieving their goals.

Running is unique in that it offers opportunities to experience flow in various settings and with a high degree of frequency. Racing gives competitive athletes a structured, challenging environment to test their skills. Trail running presents technical challenges and thought-provoking scenery in an anxiety-reducing environment. Running on the beach can lull you into a meditative trance as the waves lap up on the shore. Even flat road running can be highly pleasurable if you lock in on the rhythm of a smooth stride and the wonderful sense of lightness it creates.

While this book primarily focuses on runners and their flow experiences, note that optimal experiences of this nature can occur any time you direct your full attention to a challenging task. Researchers have studied and validated the flow experiences of chess players, rock climbers, dancers, cyclists, gardeners, swimmers, writers, basketball players, and actors. Although the details vary by passion, flow's causes and feelings are universal.

In general, flow occurs when you believe you have the skills necessary to overcome a challenging situation. Your perception of time warps as your attention narrows to the task at hand. This attention is so sharply focused on the task that all extraneous thoughts and anxieties disappear. Clear goals drive your actions while all internal and external feedback verifies that the goal is achievable. Despite feeling invincible, you are aloof to what others think of you as your self-consciousness recedes into the background. All that matters is mastering the moment.

It is empowering, motivating, and above all else, enjoyable. Flow experiences are so enjoyable that people seek them out even at a great cost, when no promise of material return on their physical, emotional, or economic investment exists. That's because flow experiences are autotelic; the activity itself is the reward. A runner in a state of flow runs for the sake of running. That doesn't mean that flow experiences don't produce external rewards. Many of the world-class athletes you'll meet in the coming pagesreported entering a flow state during races that produced Olympic medals and national championships. However, those same runners will be the first to tell you it's the experience, not the outcome, that resonates most strongly in their memories.

The overwhelming sense of pleasure that accompanies these experiences helps explain why engaging in challenging activities is still so prized, even as people live in a society where laptops and smartphones make leaving the couch unnecessary. As coauthor and esteemed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (hereafter referred to by his preferred nickname of "Dr. Mike") pointed out in his 1990 bestseller Flow, enjoyment comes back to actively engaging our passions. "Contrary to what we usually believe," Dr. Mike wrote then, "moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . . The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile" (p. 3). Hence the reason a morning 10-miler (16-km) usually brings a runner greater pleasure than having breakfast in bed.

As the flow experience resonates in the conscious mind, it increases the desire to pursue whatever task caused flow in the first place. This intrinsic motivation leads to increased desire to perfect your skills, leading to improved confidence in your abilities. As your skill level improves, you become better able to tackle bigger challenges, increasing the likelihood of flow. It is a highly positive cycle.

"Flow got me really excited about what was to come in running," Shelby says. "It changed my attitude. With the pneumonia I was feeling sorry for myself, and after that it was all over. A lot of times before I run, I go back to that memory and it helps."

Every runner deserves the chance to have an optimal experience like Shelby's. However, flow is a shifty phenomenon that doesn't respond directly to intentions. To increase your likelihood of experiencing it on a regular basis, it helps to understand how current understanding of flow has evolved to its present form.





Learn more about Running Flow.

More Excerpts From Running Flow



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