IN THE ZONE


We waited 35 minutes at the 12 mile mark for the rest of the group to catch up. By then, the two of us had had lunch, stiffened up, I had hiked back a quarter mile looking for the others, and we still had to finish the last 14 miles of the McKenzie River National Scenic Trail.  We waited earlier 15 minutes at the 3 mile mark. Unless we got permission from the hike leader, it was going to be a long day with more waiting to hike the 26+ mile trail. I had been told we would be hiking at 3 mph, but the leader invited a friend who was still recovering from a leg injury, and there were others that were not hiking anywhere near that speed.

I convinced my partner to ask if we could go on ahead, and we got permission.  There was a climb out from where we ate lunch, and at first, I was slow, but then I got warmed up, and before long, I was in cruise mode.  I’m not a sprinter. I like endurance activities, and once I find my zone, I can hold my speed for a long time.  We started cranking out a mile every 17 minutes, and at the 18 mile mark, took a break for 5 minutes by the clock. I emptied my boots of some dirt, drank some water, had something to eat, and put my boots back on. Off we went, along the beautiful free running McKenzie River to our left.  

McKenzie River
Blue Pool. The water goes underground and comes out here, but in heavy snow years, the water floods the woods about a mile away and comes over the part at 11 o’clock like a waterfall. This is a third of the way.

I wasn’t stiff, and we continued making good time.  We hit that special moment when the odometer reads “20.00,” and took another break at 22 miles, doing the same routine we did earlier. Seventeen minutes later, I knew the end was coming, an hour more, maybe, then a half hour, a quarter hour. There was the highway nearby, the trail left the river and paralleled the highway at the end. I was there, along the road, and I was done. I felt fine. I could have done 30 miles that day. Five minutes later, my partner finished.

Lighter than a GPS, and every gram carried matters.
End of the trail.

That’s being in the zone.  I would do the hike a year later with a faster group, but one person took videos to post on his Facebook page, costing us 20 minutes of prime hiking time when it was still cool, on a day which we knew would be much hotter.  One woman had diarrhea, another developed a blister, and I hiked four miles in atrial fibrillation, which was an interesting experience.  I converted to normal rhythm at lunch. It took us almost nine hours.

                        * * *

I was at an elementary school in Oro Valley, Arizona, 30 years ago, shooting free throws. I was by myself and had to fetch the ball, so I reset each time I shot. I hit two in a row, then 5.  OK, not bad.  I dribbled once, held the ball, flexed my legs, then shot. Six.  A short while later, 10.  Hmmm.  Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish, and I was at 15, finally ending my streak at 20 in a row.  It was amazing. I felt like I couldn’t miss, and I wasn’t getting any gifts, like bouncing off the back iron 5 feet in the air and dropping straight through.  Normally, I was a 65% free throw shooter. Assuming that, a streak of 20 in a row had an expected value of 1 in 5000 tries. If I shot 20 five times every day, which I didn’t, maybe once in 3 years I could do this.

Mind you, I know there is a considerable body of evidence to say the hot hand really doesn’t exist, but the evidence isn’t conclusive. There are days where difficult tasks don’t seem difficult, where everything comes easy. That day, I was beyond any performance limits I knew of. I was in the zone. Everything clicked, and I shot like I never had before…or ever would do again. 

* * *

Nearly 30 years before that, I swam the 400 free in a high school meet—that would be 400 yards—and I was ahead. Way ahead. I felt like I could swim forever.  I won the race by 35 yards with the best time I ever had—5:19.3. The fact that I remember that race, never forgot my time, slow as it is today, among all the races I did, and even the ones I won, is testimony to the power of the feeling. I was in the zone. A team member told me it looked like I wasn’t even working.  But let’s be real: the national record for 500 yds, 25 yd length pool, is 1 minute 12 seconds faster than I swam 400 yds. 

* * *

I ran only one marathon, with three goals—to finish, to finish without stopping, and to finish without stopping or walking.  I did all three. My time was not particularly stellar—3:25.48—but again, I remember it exactly.  What else I remembered about the race was that 5 miles into it, I actually felt I was sitting in a car watching the scenery go by.  I was detached from all the effort my body was going through.  At 5 miles, I was just getting started, for whatever my athletic skills are, and they don’t amount to a lot, I do well at distance.  Indeed, my time for the second 10 miles—77 minutes—was exactly the same as it was for the first 10.

* * *

In 2002, I rode the 160 mile Tour of Cochise County, the second longest of the four rides the Perimeter Bicycle Association of America sponsors (the longest was 252 miles) that day. I was with a group of five, and we had to have our own Sag support. For the first 70-80 miles, much was flat with some downhill, and I stayed in the back drafting off the sprinters.  I remember going through Tombstone upwards of 25 mph, drafting, and I was barely turning the pedals. 

After lunch, at about 100 miles, I was doing fine, “just warmed up,” I told others. There was almost no wind, a gift in Cochise County. One of the sprinters went to the front, seemed to be tired, so I said, “pull over if you wish.”  He immediately pulled over.  Two of us took over at the front, the sprinters drafted, and I did two-thirds of the pulling. I stomped out the cadence, over and over again, two miles at a crack, 540 strokes, then sat in the pack for a mile, before going back out to pull.  I was in the zone, and it took us 8 hours to do the ride, the best single ride I ever did or will do.

* * *

On skis, some days I could hit a mogul field and pound myself down one after another—air, turn, hit, compress; stand suddenly, air, turn, hit, compress; stand suddenly,…down the bumps, until I finished or stopped because of exhaustion, and shook my fist in the air.  That’s being in the zone. It’s a dopamine high, receptors reacting, a sense of everything working.

I was in the zone once on a portage, when I was 100 yards on the trail and didn’t remember putting the canoe on my head.  I knew it the other day, when I took over the power brusher duties, wanting to finish the trail, and didn’t stop until I did. I know it on hikes, when I say to myself, “this is a special day out here,” when I am covering ground and thoroughly enjoying myself. 

I can’t predict when I will be in the zone:  the day before and the day after, nothing is special. But for a short time or a day, a glorious day, everything is in sync, in tune, and alive.

These guys are for real. They have the right genes, eat right, train right, but only two of them will go to the Olympics, Men’s 3000 m steeplechase, US Olympic Trials, Eugene, Oregon, June 2012. I’ve seen performances here that for one day a specific individual was in the zone, smashing his personal best, and sometimes going to the Olympics. It’s exciting.

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