Blowing snow freezes my eyelashes shut, almost blinding me as I near the peak of this snowy Russian mountain. Fear, sadness and adrenaline surge through my body, but I know I can’t stop, because somewhere out there, the Soviet viking who killed my best friend isn’t stopping. It was only supposed to be an exhibition fight, but Ivan Drago punched him dead, and now I am training for the fight where I will avenge his death . . .
Or wait, that was the training montage of Rocky IV.
I’m actually just jogging through a Denver trail during a blizzard, enjoying the drama of pushing through tall snow-drifts on uneven ground. It must have been the song “Hearts On Fire” playing in my headphones that transported me into Rocky IV, unearthing the 28-year-old memory of watching Stallone chop wood, bail hay, and summit mountains before battling the colossal communist played by Dolph Lundgren.
Though perhaps more than just the song, it was the 20 milligrams of cannabis I ate an hour earlier that is causing this cinematic hallucination.
People are often surprised when they hear I am a runner. After all, I smoke cigarettes, dabble in hard drugs, and make my living sitting at a desk composing sentences. The template of my faux-bohemian existence doesn’t jive with competitive sports. I’m a nerd, not a jock.
No one is surprised when they hear I love marijuana, but their eyebrows jump like electrified caterpillars when I say it was marijuana that got me into long-distance running.
I am hardly the first person to discover the euphoric rush of speedballing cannabis and jogging. Earlier this year I wrote a story for The Guardian about the trend of ultra-marathoners eating cannabis edibles during their runs. Colorado’s Avery Collins (who won a 200 mile race through the Rocky Mountains in 65 hours) told me that around fifty percent of the marathon runners he knows use marijuana, but almost none of them are open about it. Collins has been sponsored by Colorado edibles company, Incredibles.
The World Anti-Doping Agency currently bans marijuana, but won’t say whether they consider it a Performance Enhancing Drug.
The emotional levity and reduction in fatigue known as the “runner’s high” (an evolutionary mechanism that allowed early humans to run down prey over great distances) was for years thought to have been triggered by endorphins. But several recent studies show that it’s the brain’s natural marijuana factory—the endocannabinoid system—that is at work here.
We’re gonna get a little heady here with some neuroscience, but stay with me. I know the idea of the brain naturally producing marijuana may sound like the dorm-room rant of a trustifarian, but the endocannabinoid system has actually become one of the most exciting fields of neurological study in the last two decades.
Within our brain and body are what’s known as cannabinoid receptors, that either receive the natural cannabinoids our brains produce (which regulate mood, appetite, memory, pain-sensitivity, and other functions) or the foreign cannabinoids like THC from a cannabis plant.
“These receptors were discovered when learning how THC works in the brain,” says Dr. Gregory Gerdeman, assistant professor of Biology at Eckerd College, and one of the earliest neuroscientists to study the endocannabinoid system.
Gerdeman and several others have pursued fascinating studies about how the endocannabinoid system orchestrates a homeostasis of emotional balance, particularly in relation to long-distance running. He has found that when humans (or dogs) engage in 30 minutes of moderate paced running, a cannabinoid called anandamide is released. This neurotransmitter (which gets its name from the word “bliss” in sanskrit) acts similarly to THC, says Gerdeman, and will reduce fatigue in the body and elevate the mood in the brain—the two essential ingredients for long-distance running.
There has yet to be a study on how marijuana interacts with the endocannabinoid system in relation to long-distance running, and whether it could make for an effective supplement for runners. But that hasn’t stopped me from getting blasted on edibles and running until I collapse on a regular basis.
Like most excessively-romantic drug users, I have had my share of epic breakups that make me question the nature of my existence. One of these occurred in the winter of 2013, when I was living in a tiny cabin in the mountains of Evergreen, Colorado. The isolation granted me acres of time for self-loathing, desperate panic attacks and endless Morrissey albums. Mercifully, these days were punctuated by weekly trips to Denver, where I worked for an alternative weekly newspaper, and would also visit a therapist named Jackie, who was trying out something called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy on me.
It sounded an awful lot like Scientology to me when Jackie first brought it up. But this was a legit hospital, and I was poor enough that Medicaid was footing the bill, so what the hell?
By using the repetitive movements of two pulsing buzzers in each hand, the EMDR patient is guided through traumatic memories of their past, engaging emotional processing mechanisms of the brain that would otherwise be disabled if not for the hypnotic rhythms employing tools that sooth the mind. It was immensely helpful, yet thoroughly exhausting, as it dredged up a lot of fossilized memories from my childhood, which then triggered current emotions about my breakup.
At this same time I was doing a lot of reporting on Colorado’s burgeoning marijuana industry, which gave me access to a lot of cannabis products.
One particularly anxious evening, I ate a 30 milligram edible and went for a long hike in the woods. Mountain life was still new to me, and the absorptive darkness of these trails was overwhelming. The EMDR session earlier in the day had cracked me open, and those hypnotic rhythms continued to teeter-totter in my head. David Bowie’s “Panic In Detroit” played in my headphones, matching the therapy tempo of Jackie’s EMDR buzzers. My feet involuntarily stepped at the same pace, and soon I was jogging.
I’d just turned 30, and had never been athletic a day in my life, but in that moment I felt like I weighed twenty pounds, and was being pushed like a sail.
Miles passed beneath me, as the feeling that I was being chased crept up my spine. Fear and pleasure entangled. Memories of childhood bullies floated down from the trees, as my iPod switched on the Smashing Pumpkins “Everlasting Gaze.” Existential panic washed through me during Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland 1945,” as my legs continued to churn up the steep hills, my lungs burning like I was sucking on a hair dryer. The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” suddenly transported me into the film Billy Elliot, reliving both my own childhood angst and that of a fictional character I’d once watched on TV.
Like the endocannabinoid system, the experience of listening to music engages dozens of brain mechanisms, particularly those involved with memory processing.
“Music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward and emotion,” writes neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in This Is Your Brain On Music. “When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”
There is a universal response in humans to the hypnotic trance of repetition. Whether it’s African tribal music, the artwork of Andy Warhol and Shepard Fairey, or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, repetition transports us into a childlike state of wonder and vulnerability, thereby able to open ourselves to processing heavy emotions.
The therapeutic rhythms of EMDR sessions matched with the music of my iPod, along with the endocannabinoid activity of both the edibles and the miles of running, transported me into a state of emotional bliss and traumatic processing that both thrilled and terrified me.
Leaping over fallen trees, flipping cartwheels beneath wide-eyed owls, I felt like Sonic The Hedgehog, zipping through the darkness in high speed somersaults. Bass throbbed in my ears. Feet demanding I go faster. Riding the lightning. Walking on sunshine. I was Fred fucking Astaire dancing on the lip of eternity.
Since that night I’ve made a point to load up on edibles and music at least once or twice a week and head out for a long run. It’s a bit of cerebral spring-cleaning, blasting out the emotional cobwebs of my brain. Afterward I’m in a post-orgasmic state of uselessness. So I almost never run in the mornings. It’s only after absorbing eight to ten hours of stress at my desk that I must go scream around the Cheesman Park trails, Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and Little Richard pounding in my headphones.
The more time I spent covering the marijuana industry, the more I began to hear casual whispers about the trend of stoners taking up running (or vice versa). I’d known so many people who fit the stereotype of the vertically challenged stoner—without acknowledging that I knew plenty of lazy people that didn’t smoke weed—that I assumed I was the only one who felt like running several miles whenever I ate edibles(1).
With my utter enjoyment of running high I became curious about how I’d do with other kinds of athletics while zonked on pot. As I mentioned, I was never into sports as a teenager, so the whole catalogue of fitness games seemed as new and exotic as learning sanskrit or homebrewing.
If you learn anything from this essay, here’s a good tip: Don’t try out soccer for the first time when you’re high as fuck.
I’d been invited to a game in City Park by a friend, and was eager to try out a new sport with my customary dose of edibles, assuming it would be fine that I didn’t know the first thing about soccer.
My eyes were as blitzed as stoplights under flood waters before I realized that these guys were experienced soccer players who took the game very seriously. They (understandably) became angry when I would wander throughout the entire field, never staying in my assigned spot, forgetting which direction I was supposed to be kicking the ball and often scoring in the wrong goal.
I was terrified, my cognitive functions completely frozen, unable to comprehend the simplest instructions.
There’s little doubt that marijuana affects your short-term memory, and ability to learn new tasks while high. Yet at the same time there has been fascinating research showing that activation of the endocannabinoid system can strengthen other areas of the brain, and aid in processing buried memories. It just all depends on the context.
“One of the biggest frontiers in neuroscience in the last twenty years has been neurogenesis, which is the growth of new neurons in the brain,” says Dr. Gerdeman. “For decades, it was presumed that you’re born with all the brain cells you’re ever going to have, and they get pruned back from there. But that’s not true. It’s actually important that we develop new neurons throughout our lives.
“A lot of studies have found neurogenesis to be dependent on endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors that THC activates. And with exercise you get neurogenesis. When rodents exercise, they have an enhancement of neurogenesis in the brain. . . . There have been some studies that show that THC delivered to animals also increases neurogenesis.”
One of the primary benefits of neurogenesis, says Gerdeman, occurs in the hippocampus.
This seahorse shaped mechanism could be viewed as the brain’s librarian of memories,
helping you to place emotional experiences in an understandable context. When stress hormones like cortisol overwhelm the hippocampus (as likely happened during my 4/20 soccer game), it cripples your ability to process feelings and learn coping techniques.
“Part of how we endure and build resilience to everyday stresses is to build new neurons through neurogenesis,” says Gerdeman.
Though like with most drugs, the context of your environment is everything. Running like a madman in the woods while high as a giraffe’s balls and listening to T-Rex was a very therapeutic experience for me. But strip me of headphones and place me in the city with a bunch of professional athletes in a game I have no understanding of (yet am still just as wildly intoxicated), and I’m more likely to create traumatic memories rather than process them.
Yet in the end, I’m not as motivated by self improvement with my ganja-jogging sessions as I am by the visceral rush of a really good high. The psychological and health benefits are really just a pleasant bonus. I am an addict, and nothing gets me as high as the trifecta of high-tempo, sentimentally charged music, matched beat for beat with the pace of my running shoes, seasoned with a just-too-much dose of edible cannabis.
“I’m aware I’m a wolf,” shouts Kanye West in my ears, as I round the corner of a trail at sunset, carnal euphoria shooting up the back of my neck, exploding in pixie tingles down my arms and back. One more mile. One more dose. The cold, sober world waits to creep in once my feet stop moving. One more lap. One more song. The world can wait.
The Runner’s High Soundtrack
1.) “December 4th” Jay Z
2.) “Janie Jones” The Clash
3.) “Rusty Cage” Johnny Cash
4.) “Grey Seal” Elton John
5.) “Surrender (Live)” Cheap Trick
6.) “Judy Is A Punk” The Ramones
7.) “Going Mobile” The Who
8.) “Bad Girls” M.I.A.
9.) “Black Skinhead” Kanye West
10.) “Rosalita (Live)” Bruce Springsteen
11.) “Jet Boy Jet Girl” Elton Motello
12.) “Town Called Malice” The Jam
13.) “Jump Into The Fire” Harry Nilsson
14.) “Movement” LCD Soundsystem
15.) “7/11” Beyonce
16.) “Joga” Bjork
17.) “Panic In Detroit” David Bowie
18.) “Holland, 1945” Neutral Milk Hotel
19.) “Ready Teddy” Little Richard
20.) “The Rat” The Walkmen
21.) “Bulls On Parade” Rage Against The Machine”
22.) “Walking On Sunshine” Katrina & The Waves
23.) “Drain You (Live)” Nirvana
24.) “Honeybear” Yeah Yeah Yeahs
25.) “I Love Livin’ In The City” Fear
26.) “People Who Died” The Jim Carroll Band
(1) It’s noteworthy that this wasn’t the case when I smoked weed. I know many runners who do smoke before long runs, but it wears me down too quickly. It’s great before hitting a dance-club, but you can get away with sloppy windedness a lot easier in that environment.