When I did my first swimrun event back in 2011 I was immediately hooked. Racing in pairs brought in many new dimensions:
You win as a team and you lose as a team.
You have a responsibility for your partner’s well-being.
You need to put aside your own ego.
You are not stronger than the weakest link, but paradoxically you are stronger together.
Although things have changed since those early days, swimrun remains a relatively undeveloped sport. It is still very much an adventure highly connected to nature. We construct the experience together and due to terrain and conditions, it is very hard to objectively measure and compare every session.
Coming from road running and triathlon that was a change, but I believe it’s beneficial for the sport. Swimrun communities are still very inclusive. Another parameter in a swimrun race is that you are at the mercy of the weather conditions and the course. To be good you need the ability to adapt and problem-solve on the fly.
If you are reading this you have probably already experienced the uniqueness of the sport, but is there something more profound? Is Swimrun uniquely positioned to trigger fundamentally positive deep psychosomatic responses in the brain?
Tom Jenkinson and Teamie – Bartos ‘Das Boot” Pastula
Scientists have known about the relationship between flow and peak performance for more than a century. Nevertheless, a real understanding of the relationship has been slow to develop. In the best-selling book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler explains “This [flow] state has four signature characteristics: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, STER for short”. The Greeks had a word for this merger – ecstasis – the act of “stepping beyond oneself” and I will make an argument for why swimrun is the ultimate flow activity!
The profound self-awareness and cognition that turned us from weak, hairless apes into tool-wielding apex predators came at a cost, no one built an off-switch. The self “is not an unmitigated blessing” writes phycologist Mark Leary in The Curse of the Self “It is single-handedly responsible for many, if not most of the problems that humans face as individuals and as a species… [and] conjures up a great deal of personal suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions.”
More than any other activity, swimrun, specifically pairs-racing, shuts off the self, providing us a non-ordinary state that allows access to more. If you are new to pairs racing you might experience this initially as something less. You have been so tuned into ‘the self’, so losing it may feel like something is missing. But as the relentless hum eases, you will find what psychologists call “transient hypofrontality” where the focused thinking part of our brain takes a rest and other functions become more dominant.
With that tension out of the way we often find a better version of ourselves, more confident and clear. Through immersing ourselves in extended states of this swimrun selflessness, we gain flexibility in how we respond to life and its challenges.
We are in a state of time poverty. We borrow from tomorrow, and tomorrow you have less time than you had today. It is a rather costly loan.
Time is a distributed perception in the brain, but our old culprit, the prefrontal cortex, is highly responsible. When we take it offline, we can no longer perform this calculation. We are plunged into an elongated present, what researchers describe as the “deep now”.
Energy normally used for temporal processing gets reallocated for focus and attention. We take in more data and process it more quickly. As we share the experience of running a trail, our feet subconsciously following the sensual template laid down by nature, or the melodic flow and sensory deprivation of a long swim, the complex and neurotic part of a brain calms down.
In his book The Time Paradox, Philip Zimbardo describes it this way: “When you are… fully aware of your surroundings and yourself in the present, [this] increases the time that you swim with your head above water when you can see both potential dangers and pleasures… You are aware of your position and your destination. You can make corrections to your path.”
When we slow life down we find the present is the only point in the timescape we get reliable data anyway. Our memories are unstable and constantly subject to revision, and our future forecasts are no better.
When our swimrun state triggers timelessness, it delivers us to the perpetual present. This is the place where we have undistracted access to the most reliable data and where we truly find ourselves at full strength.
Just as the selflessness of an altered state can quiet your inner critic, and the timelessness lets you pause your hectic life, a state of effortlessness can take us past the limits of our normal motivation.
As we achieve flow, six powerful neurotransmitters; norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, anandamide, and oxytocin come online in varying sequences and concentrations. When an experience is intrinsically rewarding the effort becomes justified.
In solo ultra-endurance events, I have struggled to reach this state. In pairs swimrun, I am convinced that the combined impact of selflessness and timelessness contributes to effortlessness. The impossible becomes somehow possible.
The final characteristic of ecstasis is richness, a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. Umwelt is the term for the sliver of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It is the reality that our senses can perceive.
As we achieve swimrun flow the cascade of neuro-biological change that occurs in this non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us. In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt.
In our swimrun state, we get access to more data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. The Greeks called this sudden understanding ‘anamnesis’, literally “the forgetting of the forgetting” a powerful sense of remembering!
3rd Place Men’s Team – Long Course
Swimrun is not only good for the body, it is good for the mind. Mental health affects many people. Recent estimates from the UK state that 1 in 6 adults experienced a ‘common mental disorder’ such as depression or anxiety in the past week and 1 in 6 children aged between 6 and 16 experienced a ‘common mental disorder’ in 2021. In 2020, the leading cause of death for people aged 5-34 was ‘intentional self-harm’.
As a community, we are more likely to discuss paddle size than mental health, but it is a real problem. Remember to spread the swimrun love.
This content was also published in swimrun.com on the 3rd of November 2023.
I will be at the Swimrun Hydra on the 25th of November endeavoring to reach ecstasis (the total moment of being). This time I partnered with my son Sebastian as Team Envol – Apollo and Zeus.