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Diane Van Deren is a top ultra-runner. When Diane runs, she isn’t thinking.
She is only running.
She loses herself in the activity. She runs for very long distances. Sometimes she runs all day and all night, but its not difficult. She doesn’t complain.
She doesn’t think about how difficult the running is. She doesn’t think of how tired she is. She doesn’t think of anything at all. Her mind becomes quiet.
She hears the sounds of her feet. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. She feels her breath going in and out. In, in, out, out. In, in, out, out. Her breath and her feet are in rhythm. One, two, three, four. In, in, out, out. She runs and runs to this music. One, two, three, four. In, in, out, out. She feels but she doesn’t think. She is calm. Her mind is at peace. She is running at her best. She is in the zone’.
To be in the zone’ is a state that many athletes and successful people have experienced. It’s also called a state of flow. The zone, or flow, is a state of calm and complete focus while doing an activity. This can happen in many different situations. Some top-level athletes feel this when they are performing at their best. One thing people often say is that their mind becomes empty.
They are not judging. They are not worrying. They are not thinking about what to do next. They are not thinking at all. They are just doing. Sometimes people in the zone’ also talk about losing their sense of self and their sense of time. Time either slows down or there is no sense of time at all. This is how Diane runs. Without thinking or worrying, she is completely in the moment.
When Diane was younger, she wasn’t always in the zone’, but she was always a successful athlete. As a small child she played on a boys baseball team and used the name Dan. In high school and college she played basketball and became a champion tennis and golf player. After college, she became a professional tennis player. She spent four years traveling the world competing in tennis tournaments. She always ran to stay in shape for tennis, but running was not her main sport.
At the age of 21, suddenly Diane began to have seizures. She had epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a serious condition that affects one percent of the population.
Sometimes Diane would lose consciousness and fall down. Other times, she would have much worse seizures. Her body would lock up and her arms and legs would shake. She would lose complete control of her body. Diane was an athlete and the mother of three children. With epilepsy, her life completely changed. She could have a seizure at any time. With each seizure, there was a chance of death. People die from seizures all the time, but she refused to give up. She continued to do sports and she continued to drive, but her children had to learn to drive from a young age. If she had a seizure when driving, her children needed to be ready to take over the car.
Many people with epilepsy feel auras before a seizure. An aura is often a tingly feeling or a feeling of floating. This feeling is a signal that a seizure is coming. Diane found an unusual way to stop her seizures. When she felt a seizure coming, she would put her shoes on and start running. This running stopped her seizure. This is very rare. Most people with epilepsy cannot do this. Diane had found the answer to her problem. Sometimes she would run for hours and the seizures would never come. Her family was worried. What if she had a seizure outside? What if they couldn’t find her? Luckily, nothing bad ever happened. She could always stop the seizure by running. But as time went on, the seizures started to come more quickly.
She would still feel the aura, but the seizure would come too fast. She eventually didn’t have time to put her running shoes on.
Finally, she lost control of her seizures. They were becoming more frequent and stronger. Sometimes Diane would have them two or three times a week. This was a very dangerous situation. The doctors said they could take out a piece of her brain and maybe stop the seizures. There was a three percent chance of dying from the operation, but if she continued to have seizures there would be a ten percent chance of dying over the next ten years. She was afraid, but her decision was clear. The doctors cut open her head and cut out a golf-ballsized part of her brain.
The operation was a success. Diane’s seizures stopped. After her surgery she began to run again. At first she was just running for fun. Then, she decided to compete. To most people, running a 42 km marathon is incredible. Diane’s first race after her operation was 80 km. Her second race was 160 km. Diane had found a new sport: long distance ultra running. She didn’t just compete in these races, she often won them. First place in the Alferd Packer 80 km run; first place in the Bear 160 km run; first place in the Tahoe Rim 160 km run; first place in the 24 hour Frisco trial run; first place in the Dances with Dirt 80 km run; her accomplishments go on and on.
The effects of the surgery weren’t all good, however. When they took out that golf-ball-part of her brain, she lost some things. For example, her memory was damaged. She sometimes has trouble remembering important events in her life.
Sometimes she can’t remember meeting people. Her awareness of time was also damaged.
This often causes her to be late. She might be talking to someone in an airport, not realize how long she’s been talking, and end up missing her plane. Strangely this isn’t always bad. As an ultra- runner, it helps her focus. Diane was always an athlete, so she always had good focus, but now it was even better.
The hardest race Diane has competed in is the Yukon Arctic Ultra. Many people think this is the world’s coldest and most difficult race. In this race, Diane pulled a 50- pound sled of supplies for 692 km. She did this in temperatures that fell to -50 degrees. This took her 10 days with only one hour of sleep a night. During this race, many of the other runners were probably thinking about time.
How many days have they been running? How many hours have they been running?
When will it end? Not Diane. Diane always runs in the present. One, two, three, four, in, in, out, out. She is breath. She is the rhythm of her shoes hitting the ground. She is free from worry and thought. She is free from the past and the future and even her sense of self. She is in the moment and at her best. She is in the zone.
Being in the zone or in flow is a mysterious state. Many successful people often have this experience of calm focus, quieting the thinking mind, losing awareness of time, and performing at one’s best. Some people experience this in sports or at work. Diane’s similar experience shows that being in the zone’
is a brain state. While we all can’t be professional athletes in the zone’, some people think these high performance states can be trained. Read more about it by searching online for the psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi and his idea of flow. Or search for the similar Eastern idea called mindfulness.