A colleague asked me recently what runners’ high felt like. I quickly responded to him that I didn’t know. It would really be impossible to describe. It’s one of those know-it-when-you-see-it kind of things, and frankly I’m not even sure I’ve ever actually experienced it. People try describing it as all sorts of incredible things. Total relaxation. Tolerance to pain. A host of magical sounding symptoms. But if I have even felt it, I can’t tell you what a runner’s high feels like any more than I can describe to you what blue looks like or what an old book smells like. I can show you the sky, sure, and I can take you to a bookstore and let you peruse the shelves until you understand, but I can’t explain it. What I can do is take you for a run.
Like anything else people love--endorphins or endocannabinoids or whatever actually chemically causes runner’s high--the effects of a good run lessen with time. One cup of coffee may have used to do you for the day, but now it gets you only as far as the Starbucks at your bus stop. Similarly, once you run for a while, a little half hour jog won’t have the same effect as it used to. Eventually you need to move from Grande to Venti. For me, feeling like I’ve had a really good run takes two hours.
Going for a run is never actually easy. If you’re not a professional athlete, and even if you are, you’ll always have that little voice saying “stay in bed.” Sometimes you can catch a wave of motivation and be changed and out the door before it’s too late, but more than often you wake up at the crack of dawn and the thought of leaving seems ridiculous.
But, you said you’d do it, so you begrudgingly sulk to the closet and begin preparing your kit. Gels. Belt for water. Phone. Headset. A new audio book. Shorts. Shirt. Shoes. You make it downstairs. Oh wait, socks! You think you have everything you need and start to listen to a song or two to try to pump yourself up. Are You Gonna Be My Girl? by Jet and I Feel Still by Portugal. The Man. You eat your first gel while you jam out and do some light stretching. Six minutes and seven seconds later you feel like you could fight the world. The gel’s kicked in. This one had some caffeine in it. Shoes are on. Water’s full. It’s time to go.
It’s cool. A hat might have been a good idea. You packed light because it’s somewhere near freezing and the sun’s supposed to come out, but your legs aren’t happy. Your breathing isn’t matching your pace, either, and if the air doesn’t warm up your lungs might be spent before too long. You’re way too focused on everything around you and the audio book is taking its sweet time with the prologue. This will not do.
They call it “shaking off the cobwebs” for a reason, I guess. You ran three days ago and you felt physically great all of yesterday. You slept well, just shy of seven hours, and you weren’t stiff at all when you woke up, but now you feel like your joints have rusted. Each step is a chore. Each impact you feel right up your spine. Your quads and calves don’t seem to want to cooperate on which way your knees are supposed to face. So you fumble along. Knocking your knees together because your rhythm is off and you’re unbalanced. You’re pushing harder suddenly because the sidewalk dips and you aren’t ready for it, and then a paver rises to meet your foot at exactly the wrong time and you stumble over it. You feel like if anybody saw you now they’d think this was your first run ever.
At this point you start to think about escape routes. You’re running a big square mostly on beltway cycling paths. Up a hill, down a bigger hill, then up another hill back to home. It’s a big box around most of the city. If you turn right after five minutes that’ll take you back home in a total time of fifteen. Ten minutes and you can hook a right and be done within thirty. Both are good plans. You’ll see how you feel in five.
You didn’t turn the first time. It was embarrassing. You don’t want to come back so early. Not that anyone will notice, but it’s a point of pride. So you kept going.
You’re climbing now. This run is going to take you on a grand total of six different roads and paths, and the first one is a meandering avenue which crosses ravines and weaves through wealthy neighbourhoods. One of those neighbourhoods is really high above the rest of the city. Seems like you’re entering it now.
On the bright side you aren’t knocking your knees together anymore. You’re on a bit of an autopilot now. Not kick-back-take-a-stroll-into-the-galley-and-chat-with-the-flight-attendant autopilot, but you don’t need to worry about pitch and yaw. Momentum has taken over balance. You feel like as long as you keep moving, you won’t have any problems. Your stride has lengthened out into a comfortable gait. You’re sitting at about 75 steps per minute. Good solid pace. Feels right. And the book’s starting to get interesting too.
Forty five minutes
You feel like you understand the main character’s motivations pretty well at this point. Running’s become almost an unimportant state of being in your day, but you’re still exerting yourself. You check your watch. Pace is still good. Heart’s pumping. About time for a gel. And a drink.
The water is really what’s amazing. It’s as cold as the air but you’re hot so as you drink you feel the coolness flow from the back of your neck to the base of your spine. If you had some way to feel that all the time you probably would, liberally. The gel is less fun. No caffeine this time. Just a berry-flavoured honey-based sugary ooze. The water you drink to wash it down isn’t as satisfying. But you feel the effects fast. You weren’t feeling tired before but now you’re feeling electrified. You make it to a little dip in the reasonably flat landscape you’ve been running for the last twenty minutes and just blitz the hill. You can’t feel anything wrong with anything. Your legs take every impact like a well oiled piece of machinery. Beyond having had to hold your breath to eat, your lungs feel alive as if you’ve lived in clean air country all your life. What a good run.
You reach the turn. It’s a bit farther on the way out than the way back. You planned the route that way. Unfortunately you also planned the route with a climb at the beginning and the end. Now, as you turn towards home, you’re halfway through a long descent that’s going to put you well below your starting altitude.
The descent was good though. You feel strong coming into the last hour of the run. Everything feels tight. Your quads are working, your core is working, and you bet you look just awesome plodding down the path. Maybe you look a little rosey from breathing hard and a little silly because you’ve had your mouth open for the last hour--and that won’t be improving--but you look damn good anyway.
Water bottle number one is empty but that’s why you carry two. Gel two is wearing off as well. The hill is starting to flatten out as you get closer and closer to the city harbour. The next half hour of your run is going to be on totally flat quays and dockland. Might be time for another gel soon. You have some water to tide you over and you feel a momentary relief. A little touch of exhilaration. Not quite like before, just your chest feels cool, but that also may have been because you’ve gotten a little sloppy with the cap and you’re dripping each time you drink now. Who’s to say? Your whole front is wet from sweat and spills. Your hair’s totally soaked. You don’t feel your shirt sticking to your back, so to speak, but you know it probably is.
Might as well not worry about the little things.
Your third gel doesn’t quite do it the same way. Caffeine in this one again, so maybe you’ll feel it later. Your water’s warmed up with the heat off your back, too. You might still be sweating but your whole being is drenched so you’re not sure if you’ve got anything left to sweat out. You figure since you haven’t dried off yet, you must still be fine.
The main character in your book has had some revelation which you saw coming ten minutes in. You’re getting a little less interested as the plot rises in predictable ways. So you focus on the running, no longer background noise.
You’ve been running on flats for twenty minutes. Contrary to popular belief, flats are harder than hills, and downhill is harder than uphill. You did plenty of downhill already. You still feel the heavy impacts of that stretch. Now on the flats you’ve got nothing to work towards. At least uphill means accomplishing something impressive. Flat is flat. It’s just running. Nothing going on. Step. Step. Step. Keep going or you look bad. Keep going and not much happens.
It probably doesn’t help that you’re in an industrial part of town now and there’s not much to look at either. The odd runner is coming up along the path. You smile for them, forcing yourself to close your mouth for the first time in an hour and a half. That’s when you realize how dry your mouth’s gotten. You have little sip of water as a stop-gap but you need to save. One quarter of the bottle left and still a gel to get down. Time to ration.
Climbing. Climbing for ten minutes now. But you’re making progress. Uphill is better than flat, is better than downhill. Uphill means accomplishment. You have ten minutes to go, by your count. Double accomplishment. You’ve just crossed the last major intersection you need to cross and thank goodness you didn’t need to stop for the light. Now you can really motor.
And you want to. Before your felt like every muscle was tight and doing exactly what it was meant to. Now your body is in harmony. Your pace is effortless. Your stride is elastic. You feel like every impact is being transformed exactly back into upward and forward motion. Even running uphill, even having your stride forcibly shortened, you feel like you’re gliding over the ground.
The ridge of your skull is singing. It might be dehydration, or endorphins, or anything else but there’s something electric in the air. Five minutes to go now. You turn off the audio book, switch to music, and now you’re really pumped. This is a big distance but you feel like you could almost double it right now. Maybe you’ll do an extra lap past your house around the block, just to make sure you’re not cutting yourself short.
You reach the end and you can feel your heartbeat in your ears. You feel buzzed. Accomplished. You’re waddling a little as you pull back the throttle and let your momentum carry you to the door. Every muscle’s done it’s share and is ready for rest. Time for coffee, and a shower, and maybe you’ll go see if you can return that audiobook easily.
Now you remember why you got up this morning.
Twenty five hours
The soreness is always worst on the second day, but it’s bad today too. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to say if it was worth it or not, but right now the odds look like they could fall either way. It might be a little bit before you do that again, but not too long. It might take two hours and five minutes next time, but you’ll chase down that feeling again soon.
If you have any comments or questions about the above or anything else click here and I'd be happy to chat. What do you think of the new audio format? Let us know!
This blog is supported by ads. Thank you for reading.