A Touch of Magic: That Moment of Mastery
Reaching for a new level will leave you feeling sore and blah—until the day darkness turns to dancing
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It happened on the last climb, seven miles into an eight-mile trail run. That elusive whiff of magic, a wave cresting beneath me, tumblers falling into place.
I’ve been running new trails with new people lately, and frankly, they’ve been kicking my butt. Where my runs used to be relatively flat at 3000 feet above sea level, they now start at 5000 feet and often climb 600 to 1600 feet over the course of four to 10 miles. I’m working hard just to keep up, and more than a few times I’ve had to beg off and walk up a steep, rocky, stair-stepping incline.
But this day, five weeks after my first foray into this new running world, I was able to keep up both the pace and a conversation throughout the run. Facing the final climb of the day—a half-mile ascent I had walked up a week earlier—my training buddy offered me the lead, and I kept a steady cadence (if slow pace) as we powered up.
Nearing the top, two women coming down the trail on mountain bikes pulled over to let us pass on the narrow single-track, and I picked it up a bit to get by quickly. My feet flitted across a rough section, I leaped sideways to a solid footplant, pushed off powerfully—and suddenly I was flying, accelerating effortlessly, my steps coming smoothly, instinctively. I felt like laughing. I did dance.
We maintained the increased rhythm going over the top and down the open slope to the trailhead. The effort returned, but the pace felt right. Back at the trailhead, looking at our GPS splits, I noted that they weren’t as impressive as they felt—but that was irrelevant. I was able to do something I couldn’t just a few days ago; I had mastered this trail so that I could now dictate the pace and enjoy the ride.
Moments of mastery like this one keep luring me out, run after run, year after year. They can happen on the road, track, or trail, but I’ve learned that they don’t happen by accident. My little breakthrough was a direct result of the runs where I struggled, of the mornings I woke still sore from new muscles being worked, of days of feeling blah. As Carl Jung said about dealing with problems, “We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.”
Mastery, by definition, requires growth. The joy of mastery is the feeling of conquering a challenge that was previously out of reach. Not reaching will keep you out of the darkness, but also precludes the magic that waits on the other side.
In psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow construct, low skill meeting low challenge results only in apathy. The emotion is, “Yea, I can do this, but even I don’t care.”
It requires building and using a skill—getting better—before we can face a challenge that would have previously overwhelmed us and say, “I’ve got this.” The full immersion of Flow is rare—fleeting moments where high skill meets high challenge and our bodies and minds are stretched to their limits in total focus—but we can often experience the enjoyment of doing something we couldn’t do a few weeks or months ago.
As runners, we can get this feeling regardless of our ability. Fast is relative, but fast-er is universal. An added plus, runners never arrive at the top. If we had to stay at the same challenge level when our bodies got fitter, we’d quickly get bored. But running enables us to raise the bar at any time, be it going farther, getting faster, or tackling new terrain. Mastery entices us to look higher, which inspires work, which leads to new skills. And as we spiral upward in skill, each new level of mastery provides a new sense of satisfaction.
“If you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote. Or, as five-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman said when we caught up with him training for the 2020 Olympic trials, “I love running. I’m good at it.”
Abdi is indeed good at it, and in comparison, it feels absurd to say I am too. But when I float up a steep hill on a rocky trail and fly effortlessly down the back side, I feel good at it—and that amazing feeling makes it a good day. After 45 years of running, that moment of mastery still inspires me to want more. You never know when a touch of magic is right around the corner.