Outdoors/Adventure

Remarkable but sometimes almost unrecognizable, runner’s high is worth chasing

I remember hearing about runner’s high as a non-runner. I thought that it must be absolutely made up, the kind of thing someone might invent to make what they were doing less horrible.

Yet, I also found myself intrigued. Did it exist? Could I, too, conjure up a runner’s high if I got through the running part first?

Runner’s high proved to be what I hoped it was, but also … not at all. I thought that, if it existed, at some point as a runner I’d access a video game-esque level where it was just me floating through green fields surrounded by tulips and bluebirds.

But the high wasn’t like that. It existed in fleeting moments that I couldn’t tamp down and sustain, even when I kept running. The feeling was green grass, bluebirds and tulips. But it was a split-second blip vs. a whole experience. It didn’t make the running part less difficult. Over time, I found I had to run farther and harder to access the feeling at all.

This, my friends, is how addiction works. On a spectrum of highs to chase, I’d say runner’s high is one of the more benign. If anything, the awareness my mind balloons to in those moments when runner’s high floods my brain spills into other areas of my life. Runner’s high helps me to stick to difficult tasks in pursuit of a breakthrough or completion even when it’s grueling. When I’m overwhelmed, the point of reference of runner’s high allows me to use my most elemental senses to take in the world and ground myself.

Runner’s high offers me pure, unexpected, uncontrollable hits of happiness amid a life that is so often focused on unpleasant activities of daily grind. It frees me. Even in moments when I’m not running or experiencing runner’s high, I have it as a point of reference — of something I am capable of experiencing, and can even draw my attention to as a touchstone as needed throughout my day. It’s awe, in lightning-strike form.

Here are some distinct moments I experienced runner’s high, or something close to it.

• At 10 p.m. under a starry sky at altitude, campfire smoke threading pockets of cool, clean night air. I knew Lake Tahoe was somewhere on my left, in its famous and well-photographed depth. The night was serene; the only sign of other people, the muted conversations I could hear from the campground I ran quietly past. I’m not normally a night runner, but that’s what made this special: after the day-long hullabaloo of participating in leg after leg of the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey relay race under bright sun with many faces always surrounding me, I was suddenly plunged into this calmness, alone. I was so distracted by the sensation I could barely perceive that I was running. I felt it: a moment of exhilaration, awe and gratitude.

• Screaming into sunny, bright yellow woods in Fairbanks as I ran my way past the fabled Chute section of the Equinox marathon, practically pulled into a brilliantly golden aspen and birch forest ahead. The sun shined bright in an electric blue sky and the temperature was a perfect mid-50 or so. What was I yelling about?! Something to the effect of, “I did it! It’s over forever!” after thrashing my legs while hustle-running down the absurdly steep section. The euphoria I felt settling into a normal cadence, on soft forest trail, under a miraculously perfect autumn Interior day was instant; enough to briefly distract me from the part where I was putting my body through a marathon.

• Orbs appeared in the inky darkness, bobbing in my vision as I jogged along. They were lanterns, adding to the spooky serenity of the pond-side trail at night in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was on the second leg of the same 13.1 mile course that added up to a full marathon distance at the end of the iron-distance triathlon. So, I was familiar with the landscape by day, but at night it took on that uniquely humid, thick, loud with life and yet serene feeling characteristic to the region. It was cool out in October, but not chilly. Running through the night, I felt like magic incarnate. I felt light, like stars. I’d trained so many months for that moment, and when it came I was fully capable and fully in it; the fireworks went off in my head as I realized I was, indeed, going to complete the race under beautiful starlight. I ran right through to the end, even speeding up to the very finish — the word “careen” popped into my mind as I rounded the final corner.

I can’t create the circumstances that lead to runner’s high except to keep running, and keep working on staying present in the moment to take in the experience.

Even when I do get it, it’s so ephemeral that I can’t quite pin it down and say “aha! There it was.” Maybe that’s a sign that, like I originally suspected, runner’s high is something that I made up to justify running. Either way, whatever it was and is infuses moments with an electric, joyful awareness. I’m grateful for it when it happens, as well as how it spills into the rest of my waking life.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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