Hacking Your Flow State Pt. 2

Previously I wrote about Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman, and my personal experience with “hacking your flow state”. At the time I had just finished reading the book and wanted to try to reverse engineer the process. I decided I would try and get there via physical exertion at a local gym. In short, I had a goal of more than doubling my previous best time on the Jacobs ladder. Oddly enough I didn’t reach the heightened sense of awareness until after the exercise. But it quickly became obvious what Steven was talking about.

That was over a year ago and since then I haven’t really pushed myself to that point of exhaustion again. (The idea of getting into flow is great but in my experience it takes a lot of work to get there. The same way people meditate for hours just to get to this mental state.. it’s a lot of work)

Over that time I had been playing with the idea that training was more for your mind than your body. In other words, just a way of using past experiences as a crutch for your mind to get through the task you were trying to accomplish. Hypothetically, you could trick your brain into recalling experiences that didn’t actually happen. Consequently you might not really need to train for what you want to accomplish at all.

Sounds a bit crazy, I know.

The Updated Hacking Your Flow State Story:

I turned 26 just over a week ago (2015). Knowing my birthday was coming up I wanted to do something big to get some early momentum on the year.

Sitting at work on Thursday I was like fuck it this is a perfect time to test my theory. And I dislike people who spend a lot of time talking about what they are going to do but ultimately never actually do anything.

With those thoughts bouncing around in my head I googled “marathons this weekend”.

One of the first results was a website for a trail run happening in San Francisco. I’m a big fan of the city and the fact it was on trails would surely be easier on my knees. It was a bit weird that it was at night but I was thinking it could be cool to see the Golden Gate and it would work out well with my travel schedule. (I was already planning on going out Friday night with some friends and the race was Saturday night). Registration literally closed in a few hours so I just booked it.

My friends were giving me a hard time since I wasn’t really drinking Friday night (on my birthday). I hadn’t told really anyone my plans for the weekend as they would surely think I was insane. I managed to get home at a fairly decent hour for the early flight the next day. Fast forward to landing in SF at just after 2pm. I quickly hit up Dick’s and Target for some last minute night running supplies and general running gear. I had never actually ran a marathon or even a half marathon at the time. Even still my biggest concern was getting in a big meal before the event. If I learnt anything from years of playing hockey, a pre game meal is pretty crucial if you expect to have the energy to perform. Chicken penne in the hotel lobby restaurant would have to do.

Quick gear check in the hotel; flashlight batteries, a couple layers of sweaters, good playlist on the iphone and it was time to hit the road for the 7pm check-in.

I uber’d over there, across the golden gate to Rodeo Beach at the base of Golden Gate Recreational Center. That nervous/anxious feeling when you’re about to do something you’re uncertain about was settling in. I love that feeling, especially when you are confident that you can handle what’s coming at you.

I got over there and it definitely wasn’t the sunny San Francisco I had imagined, fog had set it and it was really windy. Luckily, I had picked up another sweater and some long socks at Dicks. I spent the hour awkwardly chatting up runners and trying to study the course map.

night sweats course.PNG

For some reason I assumed it would be obvious where to go.

There were only 40 people running the marathon with 130 or so opting for the 15 km run. I was still completely oblivious to the elevation chart that was staring me in the face. So without a second thought I left my bag under a random bench and got ready to giv’r.

The amount of planning I put into this was dangerously low. I brought some snacks in a pouch and a water bottle with me along with my iphone and an external battery source in case I got lost. With those supplies I figured I was set.

I took off with the group at 8:00 pm trying to settle into a steady pace. In my head I figured I would spend an hour or so getting going at a fairly easy pace. This I could handle no problem. Then I would find flow and that would carry me about 2 hours and I’d battle through the last hour. Looking back that was almost comical.

Virtually the entire race was a battle. Luckily I ran with a couple experienced guys to begin. They gave me some tips like if the hill is steep save your energy and walk up or use your headlamp to light up the trail so you don’t twist an ankle.

Not even half an hour into this thing darkness had set in. The fog was so heavy that the light originally coming from my head lamp was almost useless. I followed the guys advice and opted for lighting up the trail with a hand light. Maybe the fog was a blessing since I couldn’t see how high these hills were and having not looked at the elevation chart before hand (that was just stupid) I really had no idea what to expect.

Anyway, I ran to the first checkpoint fairly fast. I was by no means trying to do well as far as placing went but I would have been in about 10-13th. The way the trail had lead me there I didn’t have a clue where I was. But after a quick look at the map I knew the red leg was going to be a long haul. I crushed any type of food, Gatorade, pop I could get my hands on and left feeling really good. It helped being on an actual groomed trail for a while.

Outside of that the trail was brutal. I mean it was about as good as you could expect I suppose, but at night it was brutal. I’m actually surprised I didn’t twist my ankle. I had a lot of close calls. The hills weren’t like “oh I’m going to climb up the hill at the park” it was like a downhill mountain bike trail with loose rocks and ruts everywhere.

elevation chart.PNG

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see that beforehand otherwise I might not have done the race. So needless to say this was not a lesson on hacking your flow state. For that read part 1: Find the natural form of cocaine and hack your flow state.

The hills broke up the race too much and I couldn’t really find a stride. In my head I was constantly coming up with excuses as to why I should quit. It was embarrassing really but I couldn’t help it. Many times I would get flustered with those thoughts and start getting super anxious. Even to the point where my heart was racing and every step was a battle. I found relief from that by focusing on the sound of my shoes hitting the trail. I couldn’t listen to music, it was too distracting from trying to make sure I wasn’t getting lost out there. (The trail had like one glow stick every km or so.) Focusing on this rhythm was really the only thing that occupied my mind for hours.

I got to the half way aid station with no clue how far I’d gone. Finally I saw the sign and immediately thought “ah shit this is ridiculous”, another 13 miles to go! I was already so tired. Whatever though, what is another couple hours at this point.

The problem was leaving this aid station my body started to say this is far enough. Again, I’d never ran more than like 15-20 kms back home. My legs started cramping not long after that. Consequently my thought process changed from time of finish to damn I better get through this and not finish last. Unless you’ve had leg cramps before it’s hard to understand how painful they are to run through. This might be slightly dramatic but they’re the worrrst, believe me. I got passed by a bunch of people at this point and was just struggling to keep running. It actually really helped that everyone was extremely supportive. I didn’t even know what salt pills were for but thankfully at the last aid station (19 miles in) I popped a couple of those and they cured the cramps.

The guy said I had 7 miles to go which was a relief, I could handle that. The only issue was the last big incline was still in my way. I’m thinking it could take me an hour just to get out of this damn valley. I walked up the first part eating a bunch of the food I had on me. My feet were killing me at this point. My body was like oh ok that was fun but we’re done now. I basically convinced myself that we were still just going into the third period and I couldn’t quit yet.

I got near the top of the peak and someone else caught up to me. By this time I was running at a fairly steady pace again, just dying to come upon that blue marker which indicated the home stretch. We found the blue together and I asked him how far we had left. Right around 5 miles. In my head that was nothing but probably my biggest mistake was underestimating how far those last miles were. I naively picked up the pace looking for the finish line.

The way the start was setup I was picturing coming out of the trees and the finish line being right there. Instead, when we got out of the trees there was a totally different picture. I had drove in on this road and there was still a long ways to go. I down geared significantly and it was all I could do to keep moving forward. Surprisingly there wasn’t too many times throughout the race I found myself breathing really hard. Although my feet were killing me and my legs were toast.

After getting passed on that home stretch by two guys, I finished at 5 hours and 34 minutes or just past 1:30 am (results). It sounds really slow but the conditions were bad and that elevation change was not cool to say the least. The winner was in just over 4 hours and I ended up 22 overall which I was pretty happy with, considering. (2016 update: I ran a 3:18 in the Vancouver Marathon and I was only in maybe 30% better shape)

I had a quick lay down after the finish line and limped over to my uber cab for a ride back to the hotel shortly thereafter. By the way, Uber is unbelievable. The guy picked me up in less than 10 minutes from a really remote area and was extremely accommodating of my basically paraplegic state. My feet are still sore a week later but I’m really glad I followed through and finished it.

The things I learnt from the race were:

– Don’t let “can’t” enter your mind. Quitting isn’t an option so don’t even waste time thinking about it.

– Keep moving forward at all costs. You’ll get there eventually if you do.

– “hacking your flow state” isn’t something that can be forced. It’s like golf for me, if you try and swing really hard you are probably just going to get hurt. Instead, focus on the rhythm.

– No matter how steep the hill is going up it’s guaranteed to get easier on the way down

If you have some idea that you’ve been dying to act on you should just go do it. The short term pain is always worth it.