How Running Saves Your Soul: Part 3: By Getting You High

Getting back to the series on how come running was/is so important to me/us in the midst of crisis, I'm actually going to pull a Jonah Lehrer and plagiarize myself from a post I wrote back at the beginning of 2011 - before I was a trail runner, and hence before I knew most of the runners I know now, and also hence before there was really any audience for this blog beyond my mom and wife.  This post is timely with the recent passage of I-502 here in Washington, which legalized pot for recreational use, and made runners high and regular high equally acceptable conditions to be found in publicly.

Reprinting this post is actually a fun little timewarp for me - at the beginning I wrote that "I ran 25 miles", and in fact that was, by about 6 miles, the furthest I'd run at that point.  It's a nice historical example of subtly obnoxious bragging in the midst of training for my first marathon.  I don't know that I'll ever be able to brag about a 25 miler again - last week I felt like a wimp profiling a race where I only ran 21 - so it's nice to revisit the good ol' days.  (See what I did there though?  I figured out another way to slip in a subtle, but transparent, brag.)  

It is also a way to step back into the situation that I wrote about in my first two posts in this series - I wrote this one soon after I had completed, and started to post, the blog/book that chronicled my departure from the religious world.  I was actually very much in the heart of the painful emotional process that accompanied that departure, and therefore very much appreciated the high that came along with long distance running.  During that stage of the journey, it was a new discovery for me that running was a way that I knew I could reset if I was having a bad day, and a way to reliably pick up my mood if I was feeling crappy.  This post, which almost nobody read, and which isn't particularly well-written, was a way to signpost the importance that running had taken on for me at that point - actually replacing one of the roles that religion used to play.  Here it is, from a February 2011 post titled "Runstafari":

I was going to learn some statistics today, but then I ran 25 miles and slept for an hour and a half and am preparing to make dinner, so I've given up on that idea. All the same, because Angel showed me an interesting article from the New York Times that I was thinking about while I ran around Seattle. The title is "What Really Causes Runner's High?", and the argument is that, while endorphins are usually credited with causing the "pure happiness, elation...feeling of unity with one’s self and/or nature, endless peacefulness", and so forth that athletes feel during strenuous exercise, there's a good chance that it's actually a chemical similar to the one found in pot. The chemical is called endocannabinoid, and they say that it might be a part of a positive neurological feedback mechanism that leads us to enjoy exercise and may help exercise facilitate cognitive improvements. As the person who gave Angel the article said, instead of all of this running, we should just smoke a joint.

There are a couple of reasons I find this interesting. One is that we talked about the problems with the endorphin theory in my Physiology class recently. Basically, science hasn't yet figured out a way to replicate the 'runners high' experience using endorphin supplements. You can't inject/smoke/huff endorphins to get a high. Pot (which contains cannabinoids similar to the endocanibinoids that your body produces), you can, it turns out.

I've mentioned here before that exercise has replaced religious disciplines for me in a lot of ways, and the article brought some of that up for me as well. It's been a long time since I've experienced it, but as a teenager my main source of euphoria was from religious practice - usually worship services, but also personal experiences of communion with God. I don't know about the effect of endcannabinoids in religious experience, but there's definitely some overlap in the experiences of endurance exercise and being religious. Not just because you have to be disciplined and all that to do both, but because you end up feeling that unity thing it talked about above in weird and unexpected places. And running, at this point in my life, is a reliable source of that feeling in the way that religion was when I was a teenager.



Adventure Mom said…
Does the running high give you the peaceful feeling in your soul that the spiritual high gave you?