The Running Man: Chasing Flow

In distance running, breaking the five-minute mark for the mile (1600 meters) is a right of passage. Going sub-five doesn’t mean you’re fast, but you can’t be fast without dipping below five minutes.

It was the year 2000 when I broke the five-minute mark, and I was 15 years old; in 1999 Hicham El Guerrouj had just set the still-standing world record of 3:43.13 in an astonishing display of power and command of speed, hovering around 55 seconds for each lap.

I dreamt of blowing through laps with the consistency of El Guerrouj. I had 15 seconds between me and breaking five minutes.

Me and the other distance runners would go on hour-long, slow training runs to build the base mileage needed to absorb the high-intensity interval trainings later in the season. As the shorter, intense intervals on the track increased, the long runs were pushed to the margins, and when competition started, confined to a lone Sunday.

We bundled ourselves in hats, gloves, and jackets for those long, slow miles to keep late-winter’s chill from biting. All manner of fuckery ensued; sometimes, we’d run to one of the runner’s houses and play video games. We all thought his mom was hot. I’m sure she asked if we should be running, but he he’d explain it away.

By the end of the season when the spring bled into summer’s heat, I’d chase the sun under the horizon, regularly running 13 miles (21 km) per day. I couldn’t stop running. I wasn’t trying to make up for the wasted time at the beginning of the season: I wanted to dive further into that fluid mental space carved by breaking five minutes. This is, though, a look over the shoulder from the present. At the time, I just really liked running and the solitude.

When I finally broke five minutes, I ran 4:55, and felt like my mind had to catch up with my body because it couldn’t understand what the thing it moves had just done. I felt fast, but more importantly I felt like I was going somewhere faster and faster. And this couldn’t have been a better feeling for the spring—like the trees around me, I was bursting and branching out.

Eventually running 4:44, I qualified first for regionals. In the qualifying race, the top runners agreed to run a slower pace, saving themselves for regionals; I, however, was an unknown quantity and was left out of the circle. I came in first, sprinting around the leading group of runners, much to their confusion, in the last 100 meters, soaking in the victory only to be easily dispatched in the first two laps of the regional race. I finished dead last; I ran 4:40.

I missed my cousin’s college graduation in Atlanta, because regionals were a big deal. My mom went without me.

And I just kept running, feeling like my legs could take me anywhere, and they did on many summer nights, pushing myself miles away from home. I came home feeling like I had gained something intangible, what psychology calls flow--being so immersed in an activity that everything else falls away, and where reflective self-consciousness gives way to a peaceful nothingness that is felt as unbridled joy. Here, we’re at our most creative, our fastest. We struggle, we let go, and then we flow.

All along, this is what I’d been running after, why I couldn’t stop running, not El Guerrouj’s consistency, but my own space.

Now, some 16 years later, I throw my leg over the saddle, inching closer to 1600 km, and I feel like I’m still running, chasing flow.