By Christopher Cudworth
For point of reference in terms of achieving a state of bliss from running and riding it is perhaps necessary to step outside the confines of those two sports and consider the meaning of bliss all on its own.
Bliss is a bit metaphysical you see. True bliss transcends even the normal happiness you feel at working out. It exceeds a feeling of contentment as well. Bliss is both relaxation and engagement combined. That is, it is enlightenment.
That level of heightened awareness does not come along every day.
It is also true that achieving bliss may require some pain along the way to enlightenment. So in that regard, running and cycling create a wonderful path to opening the mind.
Relationship between bliss and pain
In some situations the states we know as bliss and pain may actually be conjoined. When asked how to deal with the discomforts required of great athletes, one African distance runner years ago observed (and I paraphrase): “If you try to run past the pain, you will never break through. But if you learn to run with the pain, you can succeed.”
That’s like combining the yin and yang together. The dividing line between pain and bliss becomes blurred.
Different fields of bliss
For me that blurred line between pain and bliss becomes more visible each week during yoga class.
If that statement sounds counterintuitive, consider that yoga is more similar to running and riding than you might think. It engages a faction of your brain that is normally used only in competition. Yet yoga is not by definition competitive. It instead forces your body to sustain muscular contraction and stretch past points where your mind tells it to shut down. You do not seek pain, yet neither do you entirely avoid it. You are literally stretching the mind while you stretch your body. All transcendent states seem to follow a similar path. The things that normally engage or ensnare the mind are removed from our paths.
That state of existence reminds me of the amazing song Strawberry Fields by Beatle and composer John Lennon. “Let me take you down, cause I’m going to to, Strawberry Fields…Nothing is real…and nothing to get hung about…”
That type of physical and mental passage is quite similar to the active engagement required in an interval workout where those who run and ride push past limits of race pace to increase oxygen uptake and muscular response to speed.
When it is all done and the workout or practice is complete, the mind is often cleared off all other thoughts than recovery. In yoga you position yourself in a relaxed state and concentrate on breathing. How very, very similar those two states can be.
Often during the relaxation stage, the mind feels released following a yoga practice.The brain simply ignores the normal boundaries of thought. A meditative state takes over. At times a feeling of bliss envelopes and releases all thoughts. The channels of the universe seem to open up and the thing we call thought takes on a different form entirely.
We think of fictional works such as The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda. In a series of compellingly fanciful books, we travel with a master and his student through passages of fear and enemies. The body is only a portal to be utilized. The mind controls all and the earth is not so physically fixed a place as we might imagine.
Breaking the code
In modern context we find the same philosophies in movies such as The Matrix, where a higher state of being and an active state of bliss result in the main character NEO being able to see through the very code controlling reality. At the end of the movie he is even able to fly. Don’t we all wish for such a release from limitations.
There have been moments in training and racing where that feeling of total release has occurred. I recall clearly a workout at the University of Illinois-Chicago track one summer afternoon. Twilight was approaching and we had already run a series of 400 and 800 meter intervals. Then our coach Tom Brunick prescribed a mile at race pace.
But something else was afoot among the runners that day. As we passed the first 400 in just over 67 seconds the group seemed to vibrate with potential. No one wanted to slow down. So we kept going and the sound of our footsteps seemed like wingbeats of birds.
We finished the interval at just under 4:30 for the mile. Coach Tom was not pleased. “Way too fast for a workout!” he admonished.
But none of us cared. The feeling of bliss we got by running so smooth and so fast was worth the departure from common sense. It was quiet as we jogged the next curve but on the backstretch another runner turned to me with shining eyes and said, “Wasn’t that great?”
It was. It was blissful running. No one felt tired. No one was worried about leaving anything in the tank.
The ability to engage in competition without worry, and having faith in yourself without doubt dragging you down is the ideal state of mind for anyone who runs and rides. You become a force of nature then because nothing is forced. You are running free.
Personal record bliss
I went on to set a personal record 31:10 for 10K following that 4:30 mile run in practice. That following weekend running 5:00 pace felt easy. Bliss has its purpose. It releases the mind from constraints of perceived pace and personal limitations. You might be anchored down by someone who once told you that a certain pace was impossible. Or you might have fallen into the habit of letting teammates or competitors dictate how fast you can go in practice or in races. Allowing yourself the mental and physical space to break through those constraints is how athletes achieve higher levels of performance. Bliss in the effort and embracing the pain as a passageway to achievement can be that catalyst.
In cycling there are no fewer opportunities for achieving bliss. In fact the potential may be greater thanks to the periodic effortlessness of rolling along on a highly tuned bike with wheels so hard they barely kiss the ground.
A downhill descent takes over the mind like no other experience on earth. On a warm July day in southwestern Pennsylvania I did a stupid yet brilliant thing. Climbing to the top of a mile long hill, I crested the steeper portion and looked ahead to the gray strip of road ahead. And then I hit the pedals and began to pick up speed. 2omph. 30mph. 40mph. At that speed everything starts to change. Your eyes flicker with light and the fauvism of ground and trees flashing past. Wind roars in the ears and the entire world disappears except that stretch of pavement ahead.
Then came 50mph and the turn of my helmet caused the bike to swerve. At 54mph the road started to level and I eased off the pedals. It occurred to me that I might never ride that fast again. This was a peak experience. It was also a state of bliss to be riding faster than ever before.
At the bottom of the hill I pulled the bike over and looked back up the hill. It was quiet and still. The air was hot and thick. It seemed strange to be motionless now, as if I’d passed through a time machine and was thrown into another dimension. Crickets chirped quietly as if they sensed a strange soul in their presence.
And it was bliss.