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Four questions to ask yourself about running

This is an excerpt from Happy Runner , The by David Roche & Megan Roche.

Flow state is the Holy Grail of athletic endeavors. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the foremost positive psychologist and author of Finding Flow, defines it as an "optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best." It goes deeper than that. Flow is "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." Find flow, and you find running nirvana.

Flow is a lot like buried treasure guarded by ancient spirits. You can try to find it, but you have to do a lot of work to get there.

There are 10 factors Csíkszentmihályi discusses, with the most important being a deep sense of meaning, lost sense of self-consciousness and doubt, and a high level of skill developed over time. Flow is a requirement for peak performance, and knowing your "Why?" is a requirement to find flow.

If your "Why?" isn't fully fleshed out, you'll never be able to put in the work to gain the proficiency to find flow. And if your "Why?" is based on comparison, it'll be hard to maintain meaning and lose self-doubt in a sport where failure is a constant presence along the way, whether it's through injury, aging, or simply having a bad training cycle.

You have probably found flow, perhaps without even realizing it. Maybe you were running down a slight hill, seemingly floating on air, when you threw your arms out and screamed at the top of your lungs. Maybe you were in a race, with a maxed-out heart rate and quiet mind, cresting the final hill of the day. Or maybe you finished a one-hour run and couldn't remember a second along the way, as if you were on autopilot. We call these experiences "moments of effortless transcendence," and it's a background reason to do this sport in the first place (along with post-run pizza).

But most of the time with running, you are not finding flow. One time, David pooped 11 times on a single run. Megan had to run around a one-third mile field at 3 a.m. during med school occasionally, and on one 12-mile run, on each lap she alternated saying to David, "I love you" (whoosh) "I hate this" (whoosh) "I love you" (whoosh) "I hate this."

We kept running, though. Everyone reading this probably has their own stories of comic relief from good running gone bad.

They say comedy is tragedy plus time. Well, one athlete we coached, Ryan Kaiser, was racing for the final time before he and his wife had twins when he starred in his own tragicomedy. He knew he'd be run-deprived while sleep-deprived, so he put all of his eggs in this race basket as a last hurrah (at least for the first month or two). At mile 78 of the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival 100 Miler, Ryan was leading by more than five miles, well ahead of record pace. Suddenly, in the dark of night, his feet hit pavement. He was on a road. The course didn't cross any roads.

Oh fudgeballs, that's not good. Ryan was miles off course, in the middle of nowhere, like a horror movie set in rural Idaho. If the Deliverance banjo started playing in the darkness, it wouldn't have been a surprise. Ryan survived to tell the tale, but he wasn't able to finish.

The heartbreak didn't deter him, though, even for a second. He said a few cuss words, had a hearty laugh, and gave his wife a kiss. Since his "Why?" was related to exploring his limits and not comparison-based metrics, the wrong turn was a chance to guffaw rather than give up. A few weeks later, he was back at it, more motivated than ever. Only this time, he was back as a dad runner.

Setting up your own framework to know your "Why?" is as simple as 1-2-3 (then 4). Get out a pen and paper, and do this at the same time you are penning your affirmations and evaluating your long-term goals to structure your process focus. The process of documenting your goals, and keeping track of your progress, has been shown to be a key factor in successfully changing your behaviors, just as Gretchen Rubin did in her Happiness Project and Ben Franklin did with his "Virtues Chart." So try to take these questions outside of your brain, whether that's with a checklist, a coach, a therapist, or anyone else you trust (EVEN YOUR DOG).

Make sure the "Why?" is authentic to you—not to the person you want to be, or the person others want you to be. In fact, make sure it's independent of external evaluation altogether. Making this list, and sticking to it, can change your running life forever. And if it doesn't reach that point, it can at least be a good exercise in thinking about what drives you.

  1. First, ask yourself: "Why do I run at all?" This is the big one that drives your identity as a runner. It can be a multitude of reasons, as long as it's not "to beat others." Megan's is that it makes her a better person over time, just like that little girl who ran laps around the house to find contentedness. David's is that it takes away some of his self-doubt and allows him to find the person he truly is, just like that little boy who lived unhappily inside of his own head. Layered on top of that are some other reasons, big and small. "Purpose" for Megan. "Community" for David. Essentially, make sure your answer is grounded in positive emotions, like love, instead of negative emotions, like envy. And make sure your answer recognizes your ultimate fragility as a runner, and ultimate demise as a human being.
  2. Second, ask yourself: "Why do I run each day?" This one is more granular, driving your decision to get out the door each day. It can be less meaningful and spiritual too. Megan's are endorphins and the power of running to instantly provide positive emotional input. David's are experiences and the power of running to make everything feel more real and less ephemeral. For both of us, well . . . we love eating. Runners have to eat a lot to stay healthy and improve. It's truly a glorious positive feedback cycle.
  3. Third, ask yourself: "Why am I racing at all?" This one structures not whether you are a runner, but the choices you make in your running life. It's a question we ask of every athlete before letting them race, because if racing does not have a "Why?" independent of comparison, it will eat you alive, eventually. Megan's is the satisfaction of giving her all to a task. David's is the motivation to push himself and stay the course over time. On the start line, we usually share a laugh and kiss. The training was the work to answer that question, the race is the celebration that the question is answered.
  4. Fourth, ask yourself: "Why do I have my long-term goals?" This one does a lot of the work in driving the long-term process focus described in the previous chapter, with the other questions filling in the empty spaces. Now, since long-term goals are always in the future, the answer can involve some performance focus, like wanting to reach your ultimate potential. The key is for the answer to be enduring, so that it applies even after the initial goal has passed. For us, it's simply that it drives the process that we know we love, that we know makes us better people, that we know we want to do for the rest of our lives.

A big goal is a means to an end. Once the end gets there, you're left with a means that made you a happier person along the way.

You don't have to know all the answers. It would be crazy to know yourself like Ken Jennings knows all the daily doubles when playing Jeopardy. The answers can even change a bunch over time.

Yes, we hid the ball in this chapter. We got all this way just to tell you what you probably gathered while reading: It's all about asking the questions.

It's like a pump fake when playing fetch with Addie, only to see her sprint across the field in search of the ball. YOU GOT ME AGAIN, HOOMANS. YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY—FOOL ME 8,746 TIMES, SHAME ON YOU. FOOL ME 8,747 TIMES, SHAME ON ME.

So maybe the goal isn't to know your "Why?" at all. Instead, the goal is to think about your "Why?" Do that while lovingly embracing the process of a running life, and you might just stumble upon some principles that help you unconditionally accept yourself along the way.

More Excerpts From Happy Runner