Hitting the tarmac of a paved road never felt so good. It was because I usually don't feel like such an utter and complete amateur when it comes to sports, especially "endurance" sports. We're talking 100% out of my element, uncomfortable with every slight move my body made, absolutely zero fluidity of motion, and not an ounce of mental calm. On this day, the sense of complete incompetence was nearly overwhelming. My mind had been hyper-focused, but not in the clarity-producing, time-slowing "flow" kind of way, rather the "HOLY SHIT, IF YOU FUCK THIS UP YOU ARE REALLY GOING TO BE HURT SO DON'T MESS THIS UP BECAUSE YOUR BODY HAS NO DESIRE TO BLEED OR BREAK AND CRAP THERE'S A ROCK AND REMEMBER DON'T HURT YOURSELF AND SERIOUSLY THERE'S ANOTHER ROOT AND THIS IS REALLY KIND OF SCARY AND THERE'S A ROCK AND A ROOT SIDE BY SIDE AND WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING AND THERE'S NO WAY YOU CAN GET BETWEEN THOSE TWO ROCKS" sort of way. This was the anti-flow state: five or ten minutes felt like an hour, maybe four. Hitting the tarmac of a paved road really never felt so good.
The funny thing is, I have run those trails countless times, the very trails that were producing the "anti-flow," and reached a flow-state on multiple occasions. Those days the running was easy, fluid, natural; body, mind, and environment worked in such complete harmony that literally hours would pass in an instant. Why, to paraphrase Jewish tradition, was today different from other days?
It all comes down to perspective. Simple, simple, perspective. You see, those days that achieved flow were when I traveled the trails powered only by my feet, my legs, and my desire to explore. When I ran. Years of practice had brought my skill and confidence to the point where I could run nearly any terrain, nearly any distance, with some level of fluidity, some level of competence. This was not hubris, but awareness, an absolute absorption, and sense of self-control. From the perspective of running I was enjoying every moment, and didn't have to consciously think about a single movement - I could "read" the terrain intuitively and react instinctually. This day of "anti-flow" was different from all others because my perspective was not that of a runner. It was that of a very, very, very inexperienced cyclocross rider.
It has been just over nine months since I've been able to run at a competitive level. In that time I had roughly four weeks of "training" in July and August before being sidelined by yet another injury. While unable to run, I've turned to my eight-year old road bike and been able to log some decent mileage. Still, biking has never filled me with the same passion that running does, but I've found I can capture a bit of the adventure I enjoy by simply leaving my house with no destination in mind, getting myself lost, and then getting myself home, all just by "feel." I've been doing it enough that biking has begun to feel easier. I am starting to feel "in shape." Still, the necessary maintenance, the cleaning, the greasing, the rain, the potential for road rash, makes it just enough of a hassle that it's not as enjoyable for me as it could be. But, as I would ride by trails I used to run, or trails, much further from home, that I wished to explore, I decided it was time. It was time to buy a new bike, one that could get me onto the trails. Maybe it's my midlife crisis (at 34 and 3/4 I really hope not!), but I bought a cyclocross bike, hoping to recapture some of the flow I've felt running the trails in the past. Funny how quickly perspective can alter your perception.
As I biked down the trail, in between the images of my wrecked, broken body lying under the fancy new frame, I was continually amazed by one thing: how each and every root and each and every rock, no matter how small, would put the fear of God in me. Each of these features, some literally no bigger than my six year old's fist, was a nearly impassable obstacle for me. Beyond knowing how to simply pedal a bike, I was way out of my element. I was awed at the thought that others could cruise these same trails on bikes at speeds that for me would be suicidal (or at least self-maiming), or simply navigate between (or over) obstacles that I had to dismount for. I could run these trails nearly twice as fast, but now, these malicious rocks and roots, the same that, while on my own feet and not wheels, were non-issues, were threatening to spill me every time I passed one. By putting me on two wheels, these evil, evil features were like little devils. Each posed real risk, and I realized one thing: this feeling of utter ineptness, of utter amateurishness, was, perhaps, even better than flow, even better than that sense of total competence and ability.
Perhaps, when I really think about it, really think about why this day, this ride, was different than all others, it was not simply because my perspective was from a bike and not my feet (which really was a big part of it!), but because my perspective was that of a complete novice. While getting back to the relative safety and familiarity of the pavement was a welcome relief to my white-knuckled fists, when I got home, it was that perspective of being a total newbie that enthralled me. I had a entirely new appreciation for folks just getting into trail running. I knew what it was to willingly put oneself into a situation where one struggles immensely - not just with the terrain, but with that most difficult of challenges, one's own mind. It is different than a hard hill or speed session - those I knew, at least on some level, I could gut out. My feeling on the 'cross bike is one of total inability. It is at once scary and thrilling: scary because, frankly, I'm so horrible at it (and I just invested in a new bike!), and I really don't want to get hurt (again), but thrilling because how often do I actually and honestly put myself into a situation like this - a situation where the potential for incredible personal learning and improvement exists in such a concrete way? A situation where I was forced to master all those mental traps and doubts I was setting for myself simply to get off the trail? The answer is very rarely. That, in and of itself, is exciting. And, one day, when I'm able to run these trails fluidly and effortlessly again, I will try to remember these days of "anti-flow," these days when each pedal stroke was a struggle and a danger. And those memories will make each step that much sweeter.