Cannabis and the runner’s high

I loved playing football as a kid. Running around in the park on cool autumn afternoons, three-on-three or five-on-five, or playing what we called rough-tough-tumble: Everyone would get behind one kid who would blindly toss the ball over his shoulder, then it was a mad giggling scramble and ensuing mayhem as everyone tried to grab the ball and run to daylight.

Gumby-like, we absorbed the worst punishments we could deal each other, which was never much. We assigned ourselves the names of star Packer players and imagined ourselves heroes. The flicker of the streetlights was our two minute warning — time to stop running roughshod, gulping air and laughing, and head home with grass-stained knees and a light coating of sweet prepubescent sweat.  

By junior high it was clear I didn’t have the size or speed to play the organized game. Yet I kept at it. My dad had played wide receiver and earned his high school’s trophy as best scholar/athlete. Maybe I was trying to follow in his footsteps as I went out for high school football, slogging through all four years. I wore #15, but I was no Bart Starr — nor a star of any sort, strictly third string —  although I did somehow score a six-yard touchdown for the junior varsity. Mostly I enjoyed the camaraderie, which included, it must be said, regularly getting high before practice. More mad giggling.

Were we born to run? I was. 

But I had no business on the football field. A few years later I discovered I was born to be a distance runner. I took this literally: Quite often I would drop the needle on Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as I stretched lightly then laced up and ran out the door. The miles began to stack up and I quickly became hooked; there was a reliable euphoria that kicked in after a few miles of loping. It was chemical, and I felt palpably worse, body and mind, on days when I didn’t run.

This was the famous runner’s high, and Runner’s World and everyone else attributed it to endorphins. Whatever. I just knew I was committed. I tracked my miles in my Jim Fixx running log, recording the distance I covered, and how I felt that day.

One year, coming back from college, I announced that I had run 1,256 miles that year.

“Holy smokes!” said my grandpa. “What the hell for?”

Such is the nature of addictions, right? Who on the outside can understand? How could I explain the heightened sensory awareness, the effortless ease, the glorious sense of escape that just naturally lifted my mood? It seemed to me a reward for the work of putting one foot in front of the other — one of the most fundamental things about being human — and doing it until I got as efficient and good at it as I possibly could. To this day I continue to run, not as frequently or as hard, and I seldom attain that high anymore. But I’ve gotten much out of running over the decades.

The myth of endorphins

So, news flash: There’s now evidence, as reported recently by the New York Times — thank you to the multiple Kannaboom readers who sent this link — that it never was endorphins pumping through our bodies on those distance runs. Turns out it’s likely endocannabinoids. That is, endogenously produced cannabinoids, which are subsequently detected by receptors with that specific purpose. We feel ‘high.’ And we produce these chemical compounds  through the hard work of running.

Wait, this is rather huge news: We love to run because it turns on our internal cannabis generator? All this time, I WAS MAKING MY OWN CANNABIS AS I RAN?

“Grandpa, it’s reefer madness that makes me run out the door every day.”   

Holy smokes indeed. But it doesn’t really get to it. Let me try again.

“Grandpa, I ran all those miles because I found out it triggers my body’s internal reward system.”

Getting there.

“Grandpa, we have evolved with this plant, which is a miraculous pharmacopeia unto itself. With it we can supplement the biochemicals we already produce, and safely and effectively find relief from many types of pain and suffering.”

Followed by, “Holy fuck, Grandpa, can you believe it?”

Your body rewards you with endocannabinoids

If the runner’s high is an effect of endogenous cannabinoids, it’s quite likely that the giggling madness of rough-tough-tumble was too. We weren’t just born to run, we were born to go outside and play and laugh and gulp fresh air — and when we need to we can supplement our body’s self-made medicine with phyto-cannabinoids. Because this plant helps us defeat pain, anxiety and many other afflictions.

This is why we need continuing research, federal decriminalization and an end to the ridiculous and criminally stupid stigma around cannabis. The past 100 years were an anomaly. For most of human history, our ancestors had the good sense to value what this plant offers. We went off track with a crazy, racist narrative about the devil’s weed. Today we have the scientific tools to really understand cannabis, and we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

It’s important to play, laugh, enjoy each other and periodically escape the troubles of being human. Cannabis augments our body’s built-in systems for doing this. Why are some still so resistant to this truth?

“Why, Grandpa, why?”

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