Making exercise pleasurable

Josiah Hesse tackles cannabis use in athletics in ‘Runner’s High’

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Josiah Hesse
Glenn Ross

Growing up in Northern Iowa, artistic, bisexual, and throttled by religious fundamentalism, Josiah Hesse had no interest in sports. 

“I’ve had a very standoffish attitude toward sports and athletes because I just saw athletes as the homophobic, meathead jocks that kicked my ass in high school,” he says over the phone from his home in Denver, where he’s lived since 2004. “So I was always like, well, that’s a world I’m not going to enter.”

Yet here he is promoting his first nonfiction book, Runner’s High, a look at how athletes of all stripes are using cannabis to treat pain, go deeper, and train harder. But sports is just the medium by which Hesse addresses the larger issue of ongoing Reefer Madness: how East Coast publishers responded in anger to the pitch for Runner’s High; how we can tell children that pot makes them lazy, then tell athletes that pot is a “performance enhancing drug.” 

“I keep getting jarred by how much of a bubble I live in Denver,” Hesse says, “and how much of America is really still living in Nancy Reagan’s America and have no idea that cannabis can have a positive influence on someone’s life, that it could help them with something like physical activity, that it can be a source of energy.”

Hesse turned to running several years ago to treat his ongoing anxiety and depression, but found the impact on his joints too painful to take much solace in the activity.

Luckily, edibles with consistent doses were coming into the market. 

“When I incorporated edibles with my run, it was a completely different experience,” he says. “I felt lighter, I felt a sense of joy. I didn’t feel as much pain in my body. I felt a huge passion for running itself.” 

And so his love affair with running began, leading him to the Colfax Marathon in 2015, where he found he wasn’t the only stoner in the crowd. 

“My eye catches a nearby trash can and I notice something peculiar,” Hesse writes in Runner’s High. “Mixed in with all the deflated energy gel packets, discarded bottles of Advil, and running salts is a collection of wrappers belonging to a different kind of supplement. While the labels of these products advertise flavors like honey and lime, and treats like mints, cookies, and gummies, they also have the acronyms THC and CBD. It’s a discreet, seemingly innocuous detail—but it lets consumers know that they’re about to ingest a substance that has divided our country for nearly a century.

“At that moment, I’m shocked to see these at a marathon.”

The race was a catalyst for Runner’s High. His research led him to athletic stoners across the globe, from the British cyclist who biked 20,000 miles while getting high every two hours, to the “glitter-drenched aerobics instructor puffing on a vape pen while leading the Mary Jane Fonda class” in Portland, to the Iraqi War vet who tackled his PTSD with a regimen of running stoned with a pair of goats. 

“I also learned that anywhere between 70 to 90 percent of professional athletes are using cannabis regularly,” Hesse says. Kenyon Martin, former power forward for the Denver Nuggets, told Bleacher Report he estimates some 85 percent of the NBA uses cannabis. Martellus Bennett, former tight end of the Dallas Cowboys, puts the number around 90 percent for the NFL. Just last year, following pressure from the players’ union, Major League Baseball agreed to remove cannabis from its list of prohibited substances. 

Then there are the ultrarunners, like Avery Collins, who is the only endurance runner sponsored by a cannabis company, The Farm in Boulder. (Collins, it should be noted, has been turned down by other sponsors because of his connection to cannabis.) Hesse takes a run with Collins and his girlfriend, fellow ultrarunner Sabrina Stanley. Both are serious competitors, the kinds of athletes Hesse avoided for most of his life—and they changed his perspective. 

“Maybe these aren’t the homophobic meatheads that kicked my ass in high school,” Hesse says. “Maybe I have something to learn from listening to people who really love competition. I have kind of a hangup about competition coming from the arts world—it’s always bad for you, we should have no competition. And hearing people give a poetic, eloquent description of a competitive mind state opened my mind.”

Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system, a complex cell-signaling system that plays a role in regulating sleep, mood, appetite and memory. This system is there and working even if you don’t use cannabis—but weed sure can help.

“Exercise should be as pleasurable as food, sleep or sex,” Hesse says. “It’s something that’s just in us. It seems so intriguing to me that you don’t have to convince anyone to eat sugar or to sleep or to have an orgasm . . . So it was intriguing to me why so many Americans do not feel the runner’s high. Cannabis could be a key to opening up that door and making exercise as pleasurable as any of these other hedonistic activities.”