Trail Runner’s Book Review – Runner’s High by Josiah Hesse

Runner’s High: How a Movement of Cannabis-Fueled Athletes is Changing the Science of Sports, by Josiah Hesse. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

From the moment I picked up Josiah Hesse’s book, Runner’s High, there was something familiar about it. And sure enough. The cover sported the same pale-blue background as Born to Run, accented with yellow and white, a combination which marketing experts deem most appealing to the casual browser. Well, it worked for me. Immediately I felt a strong connection between this unknown and one of my all-time favorites.

But I was pleased to discover that this link goes beyond the mere superficial. Josiah Hesse and Christopher McDougall share a fascination with investigative journalism. There is no stone left unturned, no rabbit hole too small to enter, no random thought too insignificant to explore. Whether or not you agree with Hesse’s premise that cannabis-fueled running is a good thing, you can be assured that the pros and cons will be laid before you clearly and concisely.

And as weird as it might seem, that is my problem with this offering. I had tried CBD (cannabidiol) with little effect and was more than mildly skeptical. Hailing from the permissive Denver landscape and frequent contributor to many cannabis-specific publications, I was expecting more of a gung-ho approach. And at first, that appeared to be the case. So much so that I was prompted to persuade a friend who was passing through a foreign state, to purchase an edible. Truth in advertising: I hail from New York, and while marijuana use has recently been legalized, there are still only medical dispensaries available.

Runner's High

I eagerly read Chapter Eight, The (Reluctantly Composed) How-To Chapter, only to have my doubts resurface. To his credit, Hesse is very open that this practice may not be a fit for everyone, and he does not mince the pitfalls. All I wanted was someone to tell me what to do. In other words, a return to childhood perspectives. What I got was adult decision-making. And that made me respect the author all the more and his quest to honestly present the highs and lows. For me, the jury is still out. Following Hesse’s admonitions, I commenced with small doses. So far, nothing much has happened and I am unsure at this point how far I wish to go.

So why would a runner wish to give this a try? Obviously, there is the temptation to mask an injury with more than just Advil. And Hesse sites the recovery benefits to muscles that are more relaxed. But as a fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow and later Running Flow, I have been working to recreate that elusive experience where your legs and mind are in complete harmony with your surroundings and running becomes effortless. That is a natural high unlike any other and try as I might, am unable to conjure it at will. But apparently that experience is much easier to come by with a helpful nudge from cannabis to unleash your more playful self. And do I even want this? Would easy access make this tenuous accomplishment less satisfying to me when it occurs? Sort of like having Christmas every day of the week? It remains to be seen.

One thing that Hesse makes abundantly clear are the medical benefits for those with PTSD, inflammatory diseases, chronic pain. But what really intrigues is Hesse’s theory that the reason some folks truly dislike exercise is that they need access to their playful side. Turns out, marijuana helps the body release anandamide which makes exercise a pleasurable experience. We should be able to do this naturally, but stuck in our modern lifestyle of sedentary habits, poor sleep and processed foods our brains have difficulty processing this chemical. Turns out, cannabis is the key that opens the floodgates. Perhaps that explains why regular runners, more attune to their bodies, are able to experience a fleeting runner’s high.

Ultimately, Hesse, with his penchant for rabbit holes, raises more questions than answers. But that is part and parcel of the “fun” of being a thinking, exploring person –there are always new possibilities. Personally, I have progressed from a firm no, to a wavering perhaps, all the while realizing I have a lot to learn. I need to decide if I am satisfied with a hard-earned runner’s flow or if, occasionally, I would welcome a little help.

Runner's High

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