When I woke up on the day of the Newport marathon, I hadn’t planned on running 26.2 miles in under four hours. In the five months of training, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind once. When I decided to go for it, it was an hour before the start of the race, and I was staring at a plate of scrambled eggs. If I could finish a marathon in less than four hours, I thought, maybe it would trigger something.
The truth is: I don’t run to get in shape. It’s not my escape or meditation. I run to pursue what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience,” a feeling of perfection. Time slows down during a peak experience. For that reason, it’s often associated with flow state, the feeling of being totally absorbed in an activity. Maslow sometimes referred to a peak experience as the “oceanic feeling.” Your consciousness expands. You feel interconnected. At peace. But, as Maslow discovered, these experiences are elusive. According to the psychologist, only two percent of the population has ever had one.
The marathon began at eight a.m. in downtown Newport, Rhode Island. When the gun fired, five thousand runners left Easton’s Beach and jogged into a salty breeze, down tight roads hugging the ocean and past sand dunes and bushes, cottages and rolling hills. It seemed fertile ground for a perfect movement.
Before Maslow began his study of peak experiences, he assumed they only happened to saints. But he found that peak experiences were not religious in nature. In interviews, people from all walks of life reported blissful moments—times when they felt limitless, and enormously powerful. “Anything that feels close to perfect triggers a peak experience,” said Maslow. Triggers include sex, nature and music. Maslow spoke with a teenage football player who had a peak experience after scoring a touchdown on a breakaway run.
Consciously or unconsciously, I think we all have a profound desire for these psychological elixirs. They replace our drab, mundane world with a brilliant flash of glory. The mythologist Joseph Campbell touched on this when he said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think we’re seeking an experience of being alive. So that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
At their worst, peak experiences lodge themselves in our consciousness forever and live on as a wonderful memory. At their best, they go to work on you, and can have a transforming effect. In the latter regard, psychiatrist William Miller said a peak experience can stimulate “quantum change.” Such is their therapeutic value. In a world where change seems incremental, a peak experience has the awesome power to trigger a radical shift in consciousness, instantly. While there’s no formula for manufacturing a peak experience, I think we all have a general sense of our own triggers. Running, I’ve found, is my drug of choice. The physical benefits are all well and good, but it’s the spiritual rewards I’m after.
The Newport Marathon is referred to as a “destination race” for good reason. Keeping a quick pace, I passed some of the most scenic locations in the small Rhode Island town. We jogged through Newport’s city center, down historic Thames Street, hugged by shops, restaurants, inns and colonial buildings, some of which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century. We circled around Fort Adams State Park, passing picnickers enjoying panoramic views of Newport Harbor. We passed the Newport Country Club and the iconic clubhouse, a mansion built in the classic Beaux Arts style. We ran along Ocean Drive, which gave us spectacular vistas of beaches and the Atlantic. We then turned onto Bellevue Avenue and marveled over the mythical mansions, many of which date back to the turn of the twentieth century. At mile thirteen, the course folded back toward the starting line, and I felt strong, untouchable. At mile nineteen, my body staged a revolt in the form of cramping legs, hobbling me every few minutes until the tightness in my quads released.
Just as I had started to make peace with the fact that I wouldn’t break four hours, I asked a nearby runner if he was trying to keep a pace. “I am going for four hours,” he said, coincidently. He told me that if I stayed with him that I, too, would achieve such a time. I told the man I would try to keep up, thinking perhaps a peak experience was still in reach. With three miles left, I had lost sight of the runner, but I knew I was close enough. I just knew. As I turned the last corner on the course and saw the time of 3:55, I got my trigger. Suddenly, I felt spread out — enlarged, and light. The backs of my eyes became wet. I felt alive. As I crossed the finish line in a state of ecstasy, I knew I had tasted glory. I knew I was changing, quantum-style.
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