t’s a blistering hot morning in downtown Denver, and I’m running as fast as I can. Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” is playing at full volume on my headphones as I dodge traffic, turn cartwheels, and leap over park benches. I’m about to enter my second hour of running, and I’m stoned out of my mind on marijuana edibles.
The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” comes on and a narcotic rush shoots up my spine, exploding into gooseflesh across my body. I’m pinballing around the city, effortlessly traversing miles between one park and another, running lap after lap before jumping back into traffic. There is no discipline involved here. No fitness goals. I’m not even tracking my distance or time, but I feel ready to chase down a fucking gazelle.
Up until the age of 30 I was the least athletic person imaginable. But for the last five years, I’ve been regularly loading up on cannabis chocolates and sprinting through the city, feeling weightless as I leap up steep hills and tackle distances I never thought possible. The combination of music, stress, and weed blend into a euphoric stew that has somehow turned me into a runner. And a troubled addict.
When I first stumbled upon this experience I knew nothing of the science behind it, or that there was an underground trend of athletes using marijuana in their training. All I knew is that it was the greatest high I’d ever experienced, helping me quit smoking (cigarettes), nurse a broken heart, and gain 20 pounds of muscle.
Growing up in the suburban evangelical culture of Iowa, my physique as a child resembled Bobby from King of the Hill: skinny limbs, chubby gut. I knew nothing of professional sports (to this day I have trouble naming a single celebrity athlete) and couldn’t even run a block without collapsing in pain. I lost all my baby-fat when I moved to Colorado as an adult, but this was mostly due to a diet of Adderall and hand-rolled cigarettes.
In my first year as a freelance journalist my weight dropped to 135 pounds (on a six-foot frame). I was a nocturnal mole, living in a windowless basement writing album reviews and music history essays for a local alt-weekly newspaper. My pay for this worked out to less than minimum wage while living in a city that was about to become the next gentrified San Francisco. I couldn’t afford more than two small meals a day, and lived a mostly sedentary lifestyle of stress and insomnia.
Economically squeezed out, I found myself moving to a mountain-town cabin an hour outside of Denver, commuting by bus to the newspaper each day. Surrounded in rural darkness by elk, mountain lions, black bears, and rattlesnakes, I worried for the safety of myself and my dog—and still had trouble paying rent.
To supplement my income, I began writing reviews of weed products in Colorado’s newly minted recreational marijuana industry. Despite being a seasoned user, I made the rookie mistake one night of misreading the label of some edibles and ate several times what a sane human should consume. “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide was playing on my headphones when I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of alarm. My heart pounded, muscles trembled, and before I knew it I was out the door, running barefoot through the trails outside my house.
As my arms pumped and lungs huffed, I could suddenly feel all the stress of poverty, displacement, childhood trauma, and general existential panic being funneled into my legs. The cannabis, spooky music, and Blair Witch-like surroundings were artificially engaging my fight or flight mechanisms—and I was definitely choosing the latter.
It was terrifying, yet purifying. Each rotation of my legs in sync with the rhythms of each song drained the misery from my body, replacing it with an ecstasy-like euphoria. It was the sensation of being chased, immediately followed by the relief of escape. Over and over. It was so cathartic, I searched for the creepiest music I could find as I continued to run through the night: Marilyn Manson, Scott Walker, Wagner, Norwegian death metal.
When I got home I felt awash in satisfaction, having exorcised all the stress out of my mind and body. Not only was it a relieving purge of unwanted emotions, it was a hell of a lot of fun. The experience became so addicting, I found myself centering my life around it; I quit smoking cigarettes, ate properly, and built up my running muscles through an intense strength-training routine. All my life I viewed exercise as the recreation of bullies who tormented nerds like me. I had no idea that with the proper soundtrack and psychotropics, it could be better than sex.
Just as heavy drinkers will use alcohol to both celebrate the good times and nurse the wounds of the bad times, running high was my answer to everything. It wasn’t just relieving negative emotions, but also enhancing positive ones. The right soundtrack would transport me into a cinematic wonderland, tricking my brain to think I was Rocky training in the Russian mountains, or Billy Elliot skipping through the working class streets of Northern England.
In the interest of getting paid to research my favorite hobby, I wrote a story for The Guardian looking at the science behind running high and the athletes who swear by it (without naming myself among them). Recent studies had shown that the natural “runners high” marathoners speak of occurs in the brain’s endocannabinoid system (which regulates mood, appetite, memory, pain-sensitivity, as well as your ganja buzz) and not endorphins, as was previously believed. This suggests a neurological relationship between cannabis and running that could explain their complementary effects.
It would also explain its popularity among other athletes.
As for the relationship between marijuana and music: This should be obvious to any music freak who was introduced to grass at an impressionable age and suddenly felt like they were hearing Pink Floyd, Radiohead, or Kanye West for the first time.
“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.”
And anyone who hits the treadmill with headphones in understands how well music pairs with running. Research has even suggested benefits to listening to music both before and after as well as during your run.
New York Times running journalist Jen A. Miller actually advises against running to music, citing her experience jogging to the Hamilton soundtrack as “too much motivation.”
“I kept changing my pace to match the music. ‘Yes you are Alexander Hamilton!’ I thought and shot out to a too-fast first mile,” she writes. “By the end of the first act, I was completely entranced. The intense ‘Non-Stop’ came on at the midway point of the race. After the line ‘How do you write like you need it to survive?’ I yelled ‘I don’t know!’ and startled the woman running next to me. At the end of the song, I pounded down a bridge in time with the music when, for the sake of my quads in the rest of the race, I should have taken it easy.”
When I first read this, I was incredulous. What she described as an unpleasant experience was exactly the sensation I was going for. Then again, she was an athlete looking to achieve a competitive race time, whereas I was a drug user simply looking to get high. Also, she was careless with her playlist. Running to music requires the sonic curation of a DJ, pre-selecting songs with a specific rise and fall of tempo that matches the pace of your run. It’s an element that requires as much experience and attention to detail as the cannabis you’re consuming.
After the article came out I was overwhelmed with messages from friends and strangers alike saying they mixed weed and running, but rarely told anyone. I found myself joining running groups where blunts or even dab rigs would be passed around before hitting mountain trails. Soon my emotional equilibrium was dependent on getting blitzed and listening to Elton John’s “Grey Seal” a dozen times in a row while sprinting through downtown traffic.
I started participating in 10Ks and half marathons, jogging alongside thousands of bourgeois corporate types I’d otherwise have nothing in common with. When marijuana companies began sponsoring these races (and eventually started their own, like the 420 Games), I wondered how many of these 1 percent douchebags were as high as I was.
There was no question I was addicted to the experience, but Capital-A “addiction” is a difficult subject to articulate when it comes to marijuana and exercise—mostly because no one takes either seriously as an addictive substance. It bears saying: I know of no research looking at the addictive properties of pot, exercise, and music in concert with each other. (Studies vary on the addictive nature of marijuana, and there are a lot of of semantics and politics involved in the issue.)
But like Jared Leto shooting smack into his diseased arm in Requiem for a Dream, I was running on injured knees and ankles (only noticing the alarming pain once the edibles wore off), listening to hours of music at a deafening volume, and eating so much cannabis I began to hallucinate. Running sites will give you advice on how to safely run while high. What I was doing wasn’t safe. I was a lab rat hitting my drug button again and again, ignoring the electric shocks that accompanied it.
When a girlfriend of three years dumped me and moved to Chicago, I found myself running long past exhaustion every night. I’d be dehydrated and malnourished in 100 degree heat, rounding my tenth mile as I cried behind dark sunglasses—egged on by the breakup songs of Rilo Kiley, Belle & Sebastian, and Wilco. If Denver parks had a bartender, I would’ve been 86’d as an unruly customer.
This behavior came to a head when I ran the Ragnar Relay—a 17-mile race up and down mountain peaks.
As a city runner, I was intimidated jogging alongside steep cliffs that dropped thousands of feet, sometimes on both sides of me. These trails reached 12,000 feet above sea level, where the air is thin and often punctured by clouds. The race was broken up into three legs with a six-hour break in between each—short enough to prevent restorative sleep, yet long enough to prevent a sustained adrenaline drip.
The first two legs of the race were wonderful: zipping through trees at sunset to a soundtrack of Beck, Little Richard, and the Flaming Lips, then again during a full moon at 2 a.m., climbing rolling hills while Prince and Motorhead screamed into my ears—as high as Sputnik after eating 20mg-edibles each time.
But when 9 a.m. rolled around and it was time for my final leg of the race, my body screamed for rest. There was a bit of a party atmosphere amongst the thousands of campers killing time between their races, and I’d had a few beers between my second and third legs. The thin air, which had been a fun seasoning to my ganja high earlier, was now mixed with excessive sunshine and heat, making me dizzy and unsteady.
This race was three miles of incline before any break, and no amount of edibles, energy gels, or Pixies songs could prevent my legs from locking up. I was grunting and stumbling along the path, looking like an injured villain in a horror film, chasing an unseen victim.
I was only in more trouble when I reached the summit and had to contend with the descent.
“Coming down the mountaaaaaaaaaain!” Perry Farrell screamed into my ears as my body lurched forward, blurry eyes attempting to avoid rocks, fallen trees, or the edge of a cliff. I was randomly passing or being passed by other runners, only aware of their presence a split second fast enough to avoid collision. Soon my overactive imagination was conjuring the worst, thinking how easy it would be to not hear someone’s footsteps and send them flying down the mountainside, paralyzing them for life all because I wanted to get blasted and listen to Weezer at full volume.
Risking my own health in the pursuit of a transcendent high was one thing. But fucking with other people’s well being for my own pleasure was some Trump-level narcissism I just couldn’t live with.
So I stopped, pulled my headphones down around my neck, and completed the last few miles at a slow, peaceful trot. There were no pixie-tingles shooting up my spine or cathartic blasts of emotion pushing me toward the finish line, just the steady clip-clop of one foot in front of the other.
Like countless young male writers, I’d lived by the Hunter Thompson adage: “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
Pushing myself with running and cannabis was an aggressive pursuit of the edge, but while finishing the last few miles of Ragnar at the age of 34, I lost the taste for it.
I still run high, but I’ve cut down on my dosage and distance, sometimes not even listening to music at all, just flowing at an unhurried pace with no manic energy springing beneath my feet. The supreme euphoria of running at full tilt with a head full of grass, music at a thunderous volume, is the most addictive sensation I’ve ever known. But there is no satisfactory summit of pleasure, only a ceaseless hunger to take things one step further. I worried that pushing this experience into full marathons and ultramarathons would be flying too close to the sun. And I’d like to keep my feet on the ground for a few more years.
By: Josiah Hesse, Esquire