Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enhanced Running

This is the first part of a series of posts exploring the moral and practical importance of pleasure and happiness.

In this post, I would like to share the most pleasurable thing I know of that most people don't know about: distance running under the influence of cannabis.

Every time I run the trails and fire roads in Los Angeles (which is almost daily), I wonder: if there are four million people wandering around in the city down there, why am I the only one up here running?

Here's a really sad statistic: 86% of poor pre-schoolers in cities have not developed age-appropriate basic motor skills like running. This might even apply to you: a shocking percentage of moderns are simply not learning to run in childhood. This, despite the fact that we are a species with many adaptations specific to running, indicating that we are, in an important sense, born to run.

Clearly, running is a Civilization and Its Discontents issue: the patterns of modern life do not match the patterns in which we evolved. While our food has gotten sweeter and easier to get than our ancestral diet ("superstimulus food"), moving our bodies has come to be seen as eccentric and optional, or perhaps as a chore to be completed for moral reasons, not for pleasure.

The solution: superstimulus exercise, exercise that's so good you get addicted to it and have to force yourself to do less of it than you want to. My thesis is that running while high on weed is just this kind of superstimulus exercise.

While I understand that marijuana remains technically illegal in many states and other bullshit political entities like the United States of America, almost half of Americans report having used it illegally, and hundreds of thousands of people like me use it legally with a magical note from their doctor that makes it not recreational, but medical, because there is totally a difference between health and recreation. (Health is moral; fun is not.)

Running high on marijuana has been the single most important factor in making life bearable for me for the past three years. I find it shocking that this healthy pleasure is denied to millions of people who could benefit from it.

What It's Like to Run High

It makes you free. You can go anywhere, and it makes the city feel like your territory. Running while high is an excellent mode of exploration; as a runner, you occupy a well-understood role that is both socially approved and socially ignored. It's the perfect disguise to enable an introvert to move around the world in the sunshine. You can go almost anywhere, even blatantly trespassing, and no one says anything because they barely notice you except to think that they should really start running, too.

It's easy and effortless (especially as you become more experienced). It would take more effort to stop running or break the rhythm than it takes to keep running fluidly at the same pace.

You get to see deer and coyotes and foxes and owls and bunnies and dogs and lizards.

It's engaging, especially trail running - an ostension of fantasized Imperial speeder bikes maneuvering perfectly through the forest, avoiding all the trees efficiently and with perfect concentration.

It's insanely pleasurable, with every part of your body screaming (in chemicals) that this coordinated motion is exactly what you're supposed to be doing. (Which ties in with the recent discovery that endocannabinoids are probably what causes runner's high. It feels to me like weed jump-starts the process of experiencing exercise as pleasurable, which, even as a life-long athlete, I experienced as much less pleasurable before becoming a stoner.)

It's transcendent - it often feels like another being is controlling your body, like you can step away from yourself and "create a void," as Haruki Murakami puts it.

Running is not only pleasurable in the moment; it makes everything else in life more pleasurable, too. Running fills me with happy chemicals for hours after the run itself. It gives me an appetite and helps me sleep. It increases my sex drive and the intensity of orgasm. Marijuana does those things too, but those are the acute rather than sustained effects of the drug. Both pieces are necessary for the magic to occur.

When you are running, it is none of the government's business what chemicals are in your body, the way it is when you are driving a car or even riding a bicycle.

Running high is not just more pleasurable than running sober; it's more pleasurable than just sitting around being high, which is itself pretty fucking pleasurable.

Running high is so pleasurable and addictive that the main danger (in addition to commonsense dangers) is wanting to do it too much (see Appendix: Secondary Enhancements for more enhancements that are dangerous in this way). I experience beautiful grouch logic moments where I say to myself, "I'll be good and just sit on my ass and eat ice cream all day today, so tomorrow I can run as much as I want!"

The Meaning of Pleasure

Running high is the best thing ever. What is the importance of this?

Would it be morally important if there were a major, easily accessible, healthy source of pleasure that is denied to the majority of people through ignorance and politics?

If pleasure is not enough to give meaning to life, what is pleasure's moral value? Is there negative value when pleasure is denied? Is that negative value different for existing versus never-existing people? Is it different for those aware of the deprivation versus those unaware of it?

And what is it that gives a sense of meaning to life - a sense of wanting to go forward in your story and see what happens next?

Appendix: Secondary Enhancements

There are two other enhancements I use to push running into the "superstimulus exercise" category. One is paleo-happy, minimal "barefoot" running shoes; the other is an iPod Shuffle. These are not nearly as important as marijuana, but running in giant squishy "running shoes" doesn't feel as good and is associated with more injuries than running in flat shoes or barefoot.

That said, I would not be surprised if nonscientific reports of a "barefoot running injury epidemic" were true, i.e. that lots of people get injured while running barefoot nowadays. The most likely causes of the purported "barefoot running injury epidemic" are (a) a lot of people suddenly running barefoot, with predictable injuries (probably at a lower rate than with shod running); and also (b) the fact that barefoot running is so pleasurable that you want to do more of it than is healthy for your body.

No study has ever shown that cushioned running shoes reduce injuries. 79% of all runners are injured every year; we humans tend to attribute bad consequences to any salient deviant behavior we detect, hence the blame on barefoot shoes. Few ask: would these folks have been injured wearing cushioned shoes? What if they hadn't been running at all - what are the risks of no exercise? (I should add that I also don't stretch or warm up - I just roll out like a Tarahumara.)

The iPod Shuffle (or other tiny little clip-on MP3 player) accomplishes two goals: (a) music piped directly into your (perhaps marijuana-enhanced) brain, and (b) not having to schlep anything bigger than a house key. This is by far the most important piece of blood electronics that I own. While no iPod Shuffles have yet been found in burial sites of our pre-agricultural ancestors, I still put this in the "paleo enhancement" category. I don't know what it is about music and repetitive physical activity that is so great, but it feels important. My evidence for this is from D. E. Brown's list of human universals, which includes ten separate entries relating to music, including "music related in part to dance" and "music related in part to religious activity." Running to music allows one to synchronize one's motions to the music, an activity very similar to moving in sync with other people. From Pyongyang to Burbank, in military and civilian use, there seems to be something going on with people moving in sync. A new study suggests that moving in sync makes a group more willing to engage in (a laboratory equivalent of) coalitional violence. Whether for violent or other purposes, moving in sync may help a group cohere; humans love it and want to watch it and do it. Running with a partner is nice, but running with music may give our bodies the same burst of feeling like we're moving in sync.
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