Thursday, May 29, 2014

ramblings from the proving grounds of Mt. Toby

Noon on a Thursday-- the good people of the world are at work. I am singularly focused on the trail in front of me, the undulating and variable seventeen-percent-grade rocky footpath up Mt. Toby.  Today's task-- four ascents.  How I've negotiated this indulgent time into every day, even during the hell-mania of the semester just completed, is a privilege I still can't believe.  But anaerobic panic swelling in the brain demands total presence, so no time for such reflection.  Be Here Now. In the brutal moment, alone on the trail, completing a workout that cannot possibly be rationalized as hobby or recreation.  This is far beyond what anybody should do for pleasure or health. What the hell am I doing?

Whether or not upcoming races results will reflect it, I am, especially on days like this, the runner that I want to be.  A silly endeavor of self-improvement.  But today, like all really good days of running, it's about more than running. The state of mind I forced myself into today for those four intervals up the mountain is difficult to describe. Others have said it better. Csikszentmihalyi calls it "flow"-- a psychological state of perfect focus.  There's also an element of being totally present, with an empty mind, as the Buddha beseeches (to risk pretension). The mix of panic, suffering and excitement specific to hard running is described in Once a Runner as "The Orb", which the runner must be careful not to rupture.

By the second interval the anaerobia set in immediately, even on the relatively-flat lower portion of the trail.  In these first few minutes I was able to comprehend ideas like the ones above-- focus, meditation.  But the last 7 minutes of each interval banished all thought. Total presence; total suffering.  Something my addled mind never achieves while stationary. Bad suffering, that which you're not fully controlling, is of course horrible.  But suffering contained within The Orb-- that which you control, pressing harder into the pain without fear-- is a very, very powerful feeling.  Getting to this state feels like omnipotence, if only for fleeting moments.  I wonder: How did this unique psychological state evolve?  After all, every human trait with even a slight genetic or biological component is the product of millions of years worth of differential survival and reproduction.  As one biologist put it: We all come from a long line of winners. In the competition of biological (even psychological?) traits, you represent the best of all options evolution has had to work with.  Flow, The Orb, total presence, are not accidental.  These psychological states must confer advantages to those who can best access and control them.  Unfortunately for me, my only vehicle to such awareness is 2 hours of all-out exertion.  So I'll flog myself on the mountain again next week.

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