I just spent a recent weekend in paradise at a half Ironman competition. Honu 70.3 to be exact. I was a participant in a relay team – the running leg – which meant that all I had to do on that beautiful Saturday in Hawaii was run a half marathon (13.1 miles). The real athletes that day had to swim 1.2 miles in the Pacific Ocean, then bike 56 miles along an extremely windy highway (the kind of wind that made it difficult to keep my compact rental car in the proper lane) with hills that were not meant to be ascended without the aid of a motor, and THEN they had to run 13.1 miles.
This race was special, mostly because I was competing with friends. After completing the whole shebang – swimming, biking, and running a grand total of 70.3 MILES – one of my dear friends ended up in the medical tent suffering from vomiting, severe leg cramps, and hypothermia. I went to the tent to check on him. I was suffering my own, um, gastrointestinal issues following the race and my friend suggested that I stay in the tent and let the medical staff help me as well. So the two of us laid there on our makeshift hospital beds (plastic lawn chairs) as the doctors and nurses treated us for dehydration. This medical tent was a HIPPA nightmare – several competitors laying in their “beds” side by side while medical staff obtained histories and administered treatments. I looked around at people attached to IV’s, wrapped in aluminum blankets to conserve body heat, and one man in severe pain from a knee injury (who was also alarming hooked up to an ECG to monitor his heart), and all I could think was, “We have all done this to ourselves”. It was shocking to me really, that each one of us had paid good money to fly to Hawaii and instead of lying on a beautiful beach or snorkeling or hiking an incredible trail, we had chosen to compete in a race that landed us in a medical tent. WTF was wrong with us?
From the medical tent, I composed a text message to my brilliantly talented brother (a psychologist) and asked him that very question – WTF is WRONG with us? Why, as a species, would we do this to ourselves? He pointed me towards some articles that concluded what all athletes know intuitively – that pushing our limits brings us a sense of self awareness and satisfaction. I dug a little deeper and found a connection that I really wasn’t expecting – you guessed it, a connection between pursuing difficult athletic endeavors and creativity…
In order to begin to understand this connection, we first need a short introduction into the workings of that incredible electrochemical organ of ours: the brain. Our brains produce four different types of electric waves that operate at different speeds – alpha, beta, theta, and delta waves. Beta waves are the fastest of the brainwaves and the ones we experience most as we function throughout the day; they are also the brainwaves associated with stress. Theta waves are much slower and can be achieved through deep meditation or, interestingly, when we completely zone out while driving home and arrive in our driveways only to realize we have no recollection of actually having driven there. Delta waves are the slowest of the our brainwaves and we only experience those during sleep.
Alpha waves, though, are where the magic happens. Alpha waves are slower than beta waves but faster than theta waves. Alpha waves are the ones that carry us through what creative folks call “flow” and athletes call “the zone”. The two mental states are one and the same. When do our brains drop into alpha waves? When we are faced with a task that is at the upper limits of our abilities, be it a mathematical equation or a half Ironman. Alpha waves lead us through those difficulties, placing us into an incredible metaphysical space wherein nagging self consciousness and doubt of our abilities falls away and we are lead to the answer, or across the finish line.
Alpha waves are responsible for the greatest works of art and literature, Michael Jordan’s superhuman displays, and saving countless lives. Medical professionals – the good ones, anyway – drop into alpha wave activity when faced with an emergency. Alpha waves allow your doctor to remain calm, to deftly asses your situation and perform the practiced procedures necessary to save your life.
Anyone who has experienced life on the alpha wave knows that it is blissful, it’s like discovering your superpower. You can’t quite identify the source of your ability and in the end you’re a little surprised and quite pleased with the result. But we can only achieve this magical state if we are willing to put ourselves in situations that truly challenge our abilities, situations that at first seem almost impossible.
My friend – the one who ended up in the medical tent? Well, just a few short years ago he weighed nearly 100 lbs more than he does today and had a severe cheeseburger addiction. Another friend of ours (who just happened to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship thanks to her performance in this race) was hit by a car while training on her bike and fractured several ribs just six weeks prior to the race in Hawaii. If these two hadn’t found “the zone” they most certainly would have never found the finish line. And they most definitely would not have found “the zone” had they not first put themselves on a path that seemed nearly impossible.
Please understand that I am not encouraging recklessness; you can’t simply decide to do something that is seemingly impossible and find yourself in the alpha state. You do require training and practice. Throwing yourself fully into a task that is well beyond your abilities will put you in full beta-mode (those pesky stress-associated brainwaves). But pushing yourself just a little beyond what you think you can achieve will eventually get you where you want to go – riding the alpha wave. Full disclaimer: it might also land you in a medical tent…