See that fellow over there? He’s running a half marathon. He’s probably in a world of pain. Possibly, though, he’s running laps around heaven itself.
It’s 6:10AM, last Saturday. It helps that I’m a morning person. I never need to set an alarm. I’m just awake. I suit up. Contact lenses. Take the asthma meds. Put on the iPod. Head out.
My dad taught me long distance running. I don’t think he meant to give me a safe, cheap, legal, and unbelievably transcendent way to get high. But he did.
I might as well admit it. The runner’s high is the only reason I run.
Other highs exist. I’m just not as interested. I do like alcohol. I was into pot for a year or so. I’d never try heroin — I expect I’d hate it. I’d never try cocaine or speed — for the opposite reason. Psychedelics? It’s like asking about the deep ocean: First, it is beautiful; and second, you wouldn’t want to live there. Tobacco is nice, but it doesn’t do well with the asthma, or the running.
The first steps off the back patio. I’m trying for a half-marathon today, 13.1 miles. Haven’t run this far since high school. Don’t quite know if I’ll make it. But then, how many people know they can run a mile?
There are other benefits to running besides the high, and very few downsides: I have the calorie intake of a typical American man, probably more, but I’ll never get fat. My heart shouldn’t give me any trouble. I don’t need to look for anything extreme to stay in shape. I sleep wonderfully almost every single night. I’ve only once injured myself while running, in seventh grade, long before I knew what I was doing. (Yes, even then I was chasing the high.)
Down the first big hill, about a mile and a half from home. My left shin’s all wrong somehow. It feels stiff, and cold, and it means I’m landing too heavily on my left foot. I can hear it. Slap, slap. I won’t be able to continue — should probably walk — if it keeps up. I’ll take it easy up to the school, just past the next hill. I’ll know better by the time I get there. I will stop. I mean it. If I absolutely have to.
Unlike sex, unlike alcohol, tobacco, or any of the other drugs, no moralist has yet thought to condemn distance running. On the day he does, I will cheerfully classify him with the others. Let them all rot, because life’s too short. Or let them listen. If they fear pleasure, they really ought to fear this, too.
The blood’s moving. My shin’s warm now, in a healthy way; it feels just like the other. No pain; a steady gait. This works. Here I am, passing the 4-mile mark. It’s my usual turnaround point, but not today.
How do you chase the high? Most people can run. I understand swimming works too. But the high comes easier for some than for others. I would appear to be a damn lucky bastard. It happens for me maybe a quarter of the time. Then again, I chase it on purpose. I’ve been doing it for years, and I know exactly what I’m after.
Alas, the science is spotty. Some say the whole thing is a myth, but they’re wrong. It’s no more a myth than the female orgasm, and it’s denied for exactly the same reasons. I’ve run with tears of joy streaming down my face. I’ve had to stop for fear of an out of body experience, which wouldn’t be too safe on the roads. Not hypoxia, either: I’ve had that, I know the difference. I’ve come home and been unable to control the giggling.
Running sometimes feels good but without the high. A lot of times it feels horrible. And then — only sometimes — it’s bliss. (“Cross country is a great sport,” said a high school teammate, “if you like feeling pain every day of your life.”)
Here’s what I recommend: Wear good shoes. Go out when the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold; the ideal for me is 50-65F. A light rain is excellent. Start slowly. Don’t push yourself early in the course. Listen intently to what your body is saying, the ways it wants to move, the ways it doesn’t. Accept that you will feel some discomfort. Accept that you will get winded and sore. Learn how to feel strong about it.
Above all, listen to music. Anything with a clear, regular beat will do. It doesn’t have to be good music, but it sure doesn’t hurt:
I’m five and a half miles in. I have the sense, now, that I am much stronger than I realized. That I am running a lot slower than I need to. I want to eat this course alive. And I will. I know it now. I will.
What’s the high like? To compare it to an orgasm is natural enough, I suppose. I already did. But it’s also quite wrong.
The orgasm is a species of wanting. As such, it’s never quite enough — not until it’s over. And the conclusion can’t help but disappoint. From the outside, the orgasm looks precisely like what it actually is: a cheap evolutionary trick, a whatever-it-takes to make sure that you keep right on doing this. When it stops, and if you’re even halfway reflective, you’ll have to wonder what all the fuss was about. Until you want it again.
A runner’s high lasts a lot longer. Ten or twenty minutes, sometimes with a pronounced afterglow of as long as an hour. More importantly, it isn’t a form of wanting. It’s a plenitudinal, all-encompassing presence. It’s timeless and sudden. An orgasm desires. A runner’s high doesn’t need to desire. It is. In surging, expansive euphoria.
At least for me, an orgasm commandeers the mind. It forcibly calls up the same idiotic, animalistic thoughts, time and again. Admittedly I seem fond of these thoughts, but still: With the runner’s high, the thinking is unbelievably clear, and focused, and I can direct it wherever I like.
I would almost say it makes me smarter. If you’ve ever liked anything I’ve written at this site, there’s a good chance that I first composed it while transorbitally high. I remember the essentials — the high seems to help — and I reconstruct the rest later.
Seven miles in, and the high’s still going. I know I have to pace myself — I’m only just over halfway done. The problem is that I don’t want to pace myself. I have to fight against sprinting. It’s foolish, but I’ll be sorry if I don’t back off. I slow down, and the euphoria surges in protest.
So should I feel guilty? A deontologist might say that there’s nothing wrong with pleasure, per se, but that the aim of an act should be something higher. To act for the sake of your own pleasure is no good at all. If, in your pursuit of the moral law, an abject pleasure just so happens to result, then fine. But don’t go looking for it.
Still, I am looking for it. If it were pills, you’d hate me by now. The machinery of the state would be gearing up, and many of you would approve. Pityingly. I don’t want to make this political — too much already is — but can it be that mine is a high-status drug? And that’s why I escape censure? Or is it the low risk? But we’ve gone after many still more harmless pleasures, haven’t we? Or is it the difficulty of prosecuting? Again, we’ve reached for the law, even when there was never a chance of a prosecution. Might as well send a message, right?
The politics depresses. So why bother with it?
And anyway, now you know something about me that I don’t often mention in public. I probably won’t have to mention it again. I probably shouldn’t. If I’m lucky, it’ll be forgotten. If not, I’ll be mocked, at least by some. I’m certainly not winning any medals for speed. The asthma burned my lungs out long, long ago — I can’t keep up in that department. Never could. And anyway, I’m getting old.
The high fades. The last three miles are hell. I expected they would be. I consider stopping. I’ve had to before, plenty of times. The mind plays games. Funny how it goes from ruling the world to bargaining with the asphalt.
The next step — it’s going to hurt again, isn’t it? — yeah. It is. It just did. Both quads. Something weird with my back, too. I’m slowing down a lot. I’m almost there. And then I’m home.