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It is this tendency to "psych themselves out," to reach for some transcendent perception while running, that seems to hook unwary runners and turn them into addicts. Peele says, "The need to obliterate consciousness—which is exactly what Morgan is talking about with the term 'dissociation' among non-elite runners—is an essential symptom for any form of addiction."
Ah, but therein lies the joy of running for many, doesn't it?—the idea that running allows one to become another being, to lift the mind out of its daily slough, to rise out of a troubled and banal life and enjoy another kind of existence. This is the high that the addicted runner is ultimately hooked by, though it may well be lovely, harmless, ephemeral, too. One of the more common states of gentle transcendence for runners is the sense of returning to a childlike state. George Sheehan writes in Being & Running: "Like most distance runners, I am still a child. And never more so than when I run. Like most children, I think I control my life. I believe myself to be independent. Like most children, I live in the best of all possible worlds, a world made for running and racing where nothing but good can happen."
There are, of course, the other, more destructive highs connected with running, not the least of which are intense feelings of superiority over all other humans and delusions of omnipotence. Usually these feelings are directed toward other people, particularly the moral slugs and physical laggards who never run. But occasionally the sensation of superiority encompasses inanimate objects. Morgan wrote in The Runner about a weird example of "illusory omnipotence" related by a runner he knows: "One day last spring I was having an exceptionally good run. I was running about 10 miles a day at the time and on this particular day I had decided to extend my workout. I was around the 14-mile point, and I was preparing to cross a one-lane bridge when, all of a sudden, a large cement mixer turned the corner and began to cross the bridge. I never thought for a second about stopping and letting the truck pass. I simply continued and said to myself, 'Come on, you son of a bitch, I'll split you right down the middle, there'll be concrete all over the road!' The driver slammed on the brakes and swerved to the side as I sailed by. That was really scary afterward, but at the time it felt really good!"
Somewhat along this same line is the insufferable quality of relentless religiosity that infects many runners. "There has gotten to be a cultic dimension to running, complete with infernal gurus like Sheehan," says Morgan. "I think the exercise evangelists and the running messiahs have gotten to a point where they could ruin a good thing. They treat running as if it were a panacea. They believe their sex drive is enhanced, their sleep is dreamless, their blood pressure is good—as long as they run. They are like religious fanatics."
The concept of running-as-religion has been advanced considerably farther—though perhaps more than a little facetiously—by Victor Altshul, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, who, in a report to the American Medical Joggers Association, compared the miracle of Easter to the Boston Marathon: "The Christian has his Holy Week. He lives with Jesus through the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through a crescendo of dramatic events climaxed by a three-hour crucifixion beginning at noon and ending at three in the afternoon, through the agony, death and burial and followed by the resurrection and mystical appearance before the disciples. Similarly, the dedicated Boston marathoner at precisely the same time of year—April, symbolizing the rebirth of nature—begins his preparations a week in advance of the race with his triumphal depletion run. This is followed by an ordered sequence of ritualistic dietary practices culminating in a solemn Last Supper of spaghetti and beer the night before his moment of truth. The following day, precisely at noon, he begins his own passion, which, if he is at all typical, ends in his 'death' around 3 p.m. Sometimes he is said to 'die' on the hills—Calvary—sometimes as he staggers across the finish line, thence to be buried in the bowels of the Prudential Building where he is placed twitching on a cot and swaddled in white linens. Later he emerges reborn, rejuvenated and joyous, to utter cryptic and incomprehensible things to his friends, believers and heathens alike."
This would seem to be the ultimate runner's high—beginning a race as a mere mortal and ending it a resurrected messiah. Of course, such dreams are the stuff of hallucinogenic drugs. There is a theory, in fact, that certain runner's highs could be the result of intrabody chemistry. Substances in the brain called endorphins are, in some ways, similar to morphine. They are part of the brain's neurotransmitter system, and apparently cause, among other things, a deadening of pain. There is also a theory that acupuncture techniques may increase the release of endorphins, helping to regulate pain and, in some cases, introducing a sense of euphoria. One other theory, unproved and practically untested at this point, holds that extreme exercise releases endorphins, causing a chemical high. Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, a San Diego psychiatrist who has treated patients through running with them, says that he has occasionally noted that people on antidepressant drugs act as if they have had an overdose when they are running. It is as if the combination of the drug and the naturally produced endorphins add up to a double dose of the drug. But for now most doctors and academics studying running addiction discount the possibility of a mysterious body chemistry providing an addictive catalyst for runners.
It is an odd and ironical turn that something as intrinsically good for most of us should become so bad for some. But it is true; there is an obsession to it, a derangement that can make running a burden, a pain and a danger. And instead of being a thing of light and inspiration, the runner is driven by fear and self-loathing. "Just as the alcoholic fears that just one drink will obliterate restraint and open the floodgates of ceaseless drinking," says Altshul, "so the joylessly compulsive runner fears that one day without a run will feel so good that he will never feel like getting out of his bed—much less his car—again."
There is a bit of this joyless addict in every runner. But there is also a bit of something else, for another kind of runner's high always goes with the franchise. "What runner has not arisen before a winter's dawn," Altshul has written, "preparing perhaps for a 20-miler, and while trying to shake the numbing lethargy out of his brain and bones, felt distaste, apprehension and dread sit like a cold lumpy porridge in his gut?...[Yet] he drags himself sluggishly through his miserable run, summons what seem to him boundless quantities of courage to stand up to pain and adversity and feeling every inch the romantic hero that he has always wished he was. And in this relentlessly unheroic contemporary age, what fantasy could be more therapeutic than this?"
Ah, yes, what indeed.