Denver writer Josiah Hesse was hungry for a new addiction when he picked up some running shoes and threw himself into the sport. He’d heard about the coveted runner’s high — and how health-conscious adults were willing to sacrifice sleep to experience it — and he wanted a taste for himself.
He was instantly disappointed.
“I had just turned 29 or 30, and I was trying to get the anti-depressive, anti-anxiety (effects) I’d read about, but it’s just so not fun,” Hesse said. “I was agonizing through it, which is a familiar sentiment that you hear from people who try and exercise.”
So Hesse sweetened the pot. The next time he went looking for a runner’s buzz, he popped a couple of THC gummies. The experiment paid off. He remembers how the candies warmed his blood and quieted the aches and self-doubts. Instead of agony and frustration, he felt free.
“Not only was (running) not painful, it also was not as difficult,” he said. “I felt a playful, joyful energy that helped push me through the experience in a way that was night and day from what I experienced before. I felt like I weighed 50 pounds as I was running up a hill.”
For Hesse, the marriage of exercise and mind-altering cannabis was life-changing, providing the lift he needed to transform from a sedentary, out-of-shape journalist to an ultrarunner capable of exceeding marathon distances. For the past 10 years, Hesse has run at least 3 to 5 miles a day supported by 10 to 20 milligrams of THC and a carefully curated music playlist. He’s run the Colfax Marathon and the Ragnar relay in Snowmass, where teams work together to cover a 114-mile course in what he describes as “bumper-bowling” compared to serious races. In April, he competed in the 50K Rattler ultramarathon in Colorado Springs.
Running stoned turned into an obsession, spawning a years-long investigation into why pot and exercise make such a great pair.
Hesse details his findings in his new book, “Runner’s High,” going deep into the underreported culture of “cannabis-fueled athletes” and chronicling how runners from diverse backgrounds use the drug to train, recover and compete.
He chases his sources on challenging terrain with a recorder in his hand and THC in his blood. He interviews Avery Collins, an ultramarathon runner and outspoken weed proponent, on a trail outside Silverton. Combat veteran Brent Connell, who began running high in nature to treat his PTSD, leads Hesse up a mountain with a pack of surly goats. Hesse struggles to keep up with wheelchair athlete André Kajlich, who started using marijuana to deal with the physical and mental trauma of losing his legs. Hesse also runs on a lab treadmill in a University of Colorado weed and exercise study, speaks to 420-friendly gym owners, travels to conventions, and interviews scientists, including Raphael Mechoulam, the father of cannabis research.
Many elite athletes use the plant for pain management and recovery due to its anti-inflammatory properties. The opioid crisis has helped push the needle as many people are on board with alternatives to painkillers. Even the NFL, a historically anti-pot institution, is funding cannabis research.
It’s hard to resist eye roll when stoners speak about the science behind why weed is so great, man. But it turns out they are right. Our brains release anandamide, aka the bliss molecule, when activated through exercise. The neurotransmitter is responsible for the natural runner’s high, not endorphins like previously believed. But the internally-made intoxication is hard to come by, especially for those who are out of shape. Hesse said the inherent high is achieved by 30 minutes of cardio exercise at 70% maximum heart rate. One theory why most people don’t experience the sensation is they go too hard or too slow.
Luckily, anandamide acts in a way shockingly similar to THC. Both regulate the endocannabinoid system, a signaling network that controls sleep, mood, appetite, pain and more. It explains why marijuana and hemp act on a multitude of biological functions.
His findings were actually nothing new
Hesse thought he had stumbled upon an undiscovered insight that cracked the code to exercise — the payoff without the punishment, but he was surprised to learn just how many people were doing the same thing. Hesse cites a University of Colorado survey where 81.7% of cannabis users in legal states endorsed using concurrently with exercise, and that it increased enjoyment. Many pros have admitted to sparking up before or during competition.
Hesse references Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin, who said he got high to deal with the anxiety from massive crowds, and Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Shaun Smith, who said he smoked two blunts before every game to mellow out and get in the zone. “These athletes are myopically devoted to their sport, and that can be crippling when it comes to maintaining the playfulness that is required to be a good athlete,” Hesse said.
Sprinter Sha’carri Richardson said she used weed to cope with the death of her biological mother. A failed THC test caused her to miss out on the Tokyo Olympics. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates doping rules globally, lists marijuana as a banned substance because it is a performance-enhancing drug that violates the spirit of the sport. (WADA is currently reviewing the ban.)
Hesse dissects these vague terms in the book but settles on the fact that the plant isn’t a magic cure that takes people beyond their organic limits. A ping pong player won’t start pole vaulting after a bong rip. But it likely won’t hurt their ping pong game either.
“If it’s (an activity) you’ve been doing for so long, it’s on autopilot. It’s not likely to impact your hand-eye coordination to a severe debilitating degree,” Hesse said based on anecdotal evidence. The same cannot be said for first-time activities.
It’s an open secret that trail runners take a few hits from a vape pen during competition, and marijuana can arguably make the grueling experience easier, but it could never erase the inevitable screaming pain during the 16th hour of an ultra race, Hesse said in the book.
But much about cannabis is still up for debate.
“It’s unfortunate that the people who are saying we can’t legalize until we get more science are the same people who are saying we can’t get more science until we legalize,” he said in the interview.
How dose-dependent its effects are and the variability in how the plant affects people are other factors preventing full acceptance. Founder of the lit Olympics-style event, the 420 Games, Jim McAlpine, took a 100-gram edible and swam from San Francisco to Alcatraz, a feat that is supposed to be impossible. The dose was manageable for McAlpine but might be too much for Hesse, who uses 20 milligrams on runs.
For most people, marijuana is most effective in smaller doses and with other cannabinoids like CBD. The market has a high tolerance for high-potency THC strains, but that doesn’t mean it’s better quality or better for athletes or recreational users. Hesse provides a cautious how-to at the end of the book and stresses a low dose for beginners.
He very quickly mentions the negative side of marijuana, almost as an obligation. Too much THC can result in induced lethargy, anxiety, paranoia, vomiting, and other discomforts. But he’s not worried about criticism from think-of-the-children types for promoting unhealthy habits.
Hesse’s more than familiar with unhealthy habits. He grew up as a zealous evangelical in poor rural Iowa — a chubby kid on Adderall who was more likely to be seen singing show tunes than running laps. He was picked on for it. Self-consciousness about his own physical ability formed a strong resistance towards exercise and competition. As a child, the only time Hesse worked out was when he was speaking in tongues and convulsing on the floor at church, which morphed into alcohol-induced dance sessions at Lipgloss, a party at Denver nightclub Milk Bar. After moving to Colorado, he left religion behind and replaced it with casual cocaine use, smoking, heavy drinking and junk food.
Weed put him on a healthier path. He thinks it can help other people who hate exercise, too.
Side cramps, burning lungs, aching knees and feeling lost among strange contraptions and bulging biceps keep most people from utilizing their $40-per-month gym memberships. Only 22.9% of Americans meet federal health guidelines recommending 75 to 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week plus muscle-building activities twice a week.
“Research shows that the more fun exercise is, the more likely you are to do it on your own accord,” Hesse said. “Not because you’re trying to look good for someone else or because your doctor told you you need to.”
However counterintuitive it may seem to some, he’s suggesting marijuana as a tool to get healthy by promoting a sense of play to enjoy exercise. To use it for the same purpose as the athletes in “Runner’s High” — not to check out, but to tap in.
“It helps the mind-body connection and helps you push away the rest of the world and focus on what’s going on inside of yourself,” Hesse said. “It is crippling if you get too locked into the discipline and the pressure of being a professional athlete—or just being any exercising human. We all have a lot of hangups about exercise that cannabis has the potential to alleviate.”
Runner’s High went on sale Tuesday. The release party is on Friday at the Tattered Cover at 2526 E. Colfax Ave. at 7 p.m., followed by an after-party at Milk Bar at 1037 Broadway in Denver.