at the races Get With the Flow State

Get With the Flow State

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Howdy! I’m Diane Chesla and am Co-Race Director of the Niagara Falls International Marathon (NFIM) exploring the mind-body connection of running and how lessons from running can be applied to life.

In this article, I want to introduce you to the concept of “flow.” (My last article was about how you can use the body to control the mind). Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has been studying and writing about the concept for decades. It can be thought of as that state we can get ourselves into, especially in sport where time seems to stand still and our activities feel effortless.  I’m going to share with you one of the most profound experiences I’ve had running, which I’ve barely shared with anyone. If we can think of flow on a spectrum of intensity, this particular experience was definitely off the charts.

When I was in my thirties I accompanied a friend to Collingwood for the day. I went for a run while he did a course. I really had no agenda, plus I had a ton of time on my hands. I ventured out into the amazing hilly countryside and became totally lost. All I knew was that the town was down the escarpment through the thick trees.  At the start, especially climbing the escarpment, my run was “average,” with a bit of boredom and some noticeable effort thrown in.  But something changed when I realized I was lost. I became so alive, so invigorated because it became a great challenge to actually find my way back to town. I remember thinking: “Oh Di, not again…”  (as in, another adventure I inadvertently found myself in).

I had made it to a country road and decided a left turn felt good. Only a few minutes later my body went into autopilot. I mean—real autopilot. I felt like I was floating with every step. I was so bemused by what was happening that I stuck my hand out beside me and started to wave at myself. Logically I knew it was my hand waving, but I had the distinct sensation that I wasn’t “in” my body. I could “see” my body running forward, but “I” was just along for the ride. I was enjoying this sensation so much that I kept going for as long as it was happening. I don’t remember much more after that—only because it ended and life went on. 

 This is a classic “flow” state (and a really good one at that). I’ve never been able to replicate that experience and it was much different than the “highs” or states of flow I’ve ever had while adventuring in the mountains. It was freaky and lovely at the same time, and has propelled me to explore these states in every facet of my life.

So how did I enter that state of flow that was so intense and physically distinct? I wasn’t famished. I wasn’t tired and I definitely had no barbiturates in me (just thought I’d clarify that). My body had that “muscle memory” we so often refer in being able to engage in the act of running—without my mind telling it what to do. It was not forced. Csikszentmihalyi says “flow” is all about the experience we have when our individual capacity (our skill level) meets a challenge we engage in. If the challenge seems too great we experience anxiety. If it seems too easy, we experience boredom. Flow is when the challenge, and your talent, align.

This is a lot to take in so relating it to life outside of sports is a curious challenge. That said, I can tell you that there are a few reasons I LOVE race directing. Keep in mind that I am conscious of states of flow so exploring how I can experience these in my work life is purposeful. Here is an example of how I get into flow at work:  I LOVE the challenge of coming up with a very creative expo booth for NFIM that will make people remember us. My fave is our foam sculpted mini “Niagara Falls” structure that ran real water down the face thanks to a water pump.

I spent a fair bit of time designing this structure in 3D, figuring out how to carve foam to look like rocks and installing the water pump.  My state of mind was very focused during the project and to say I was tickled pink every step of the way is an understatement. While not quite an out-of-body experience, this is an example of how I achieved flow at work—and creativity, and joy!

In my next article I introduce a specific technique for how you can use running as a hack for exuding confidence on the job.