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Marching to Euphoria
William Oscar Johnson
July 14, 1980
In pursuit of an elusive feeling of well-being—even invincibility—some unsuspecting runners may actually have turned into addicts, and the monkey on their backs is wearing jogging shoes
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July 14, 1980

Marching To Euphoria

In pursuit of an elusive feeling of well-being—even invincibility—some unsuspecting runners may actually have turned into addicts, and the monkey on their backs is wearing jogging shoes

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Listen, runners! Listen to this tale of damnation and ruin told by one of your brothers in addiction! Listen to his story and repent!

"I suffered intense pain in my foot whenever I started my daily run, but at five miles or so into it, I would develop a sense of invincibility. I was truly indestructible in that transcendent state and the pain would leave me...."

Invincible? Indestructible? Not likely. This man is a mere mortal, a poor runner. Listen and weep!

"Even though I could work through the pain during my runs, afterward the pain returned—more and more excruciating each day. Soon, I had to walk downstairs backwards in the morning. I knew something was wrong, but I just could not give up my running. It felt too good, it meant too much, I had to have it...."

Hear the pitiful words of this miserable runner, snared in the trap of his habit. He is hooked. He is hopeless. He is beyond help!

"Finally one morning I awoke and I was unable even to go downstairs backwards. I visited an orthopedic surgeon who asked me, 'Where did you put your Achilles tendon?' It was necessary for me to undergo surgery to reconstruct the damaged foot. The surgery was quite successful, but I can no longer run. And I will always walk with a limp...."

Yes, he broke his habit, he escaped his addiction. But at what a terrible price! O, repent, ye panting runners, repent before you, too, become addicts, doomed to a life of limping and lamentation!

So far, there are among us no running-and-brimstone evangelists like the preacher suggested above. But the horrifying tale told by the runner is absolutely true. It happened to a real man, a former college professor in the Midwest who wishes to remain anonymous. It is no exaggeration and it is pretty frightening—particularly because it is an example, though an extreme one, of a phenomenon that has surfaced recently among physical-fitness devotees. Some experts choose a gentle, bland term to describe it; they call it "exercise dependence." But among those who like their socio-psychological diagnoses unfuzzed by subtlety, the preferred words are chilling: exercise addiction.

Experts agree that any kind of strenuous physical exertion—swimming, calisthenics, cycling, running—can produce a powerful dependency that approaches addiction. According to New York's Dr. James Nicholas, for many years one of the country's leading sports physicians, "When you are through exercising, you feel a sense of accomplishment, emotional pleasure. Also, your pulse rate is better, your oxygen transport system is more efficient. Thus, you are stimulated both physically and psychologically, and eventually you can develop a compulsory need to repeat this pleasing experience again and again. I prefer the term 'dependency' to 'addiction,' but, yes, there is an addictive tendency to strenuous exercise because of the good feeling it generates."

There is a growing body of academic and medical literature that addresses the subject of exercise addiction. Yet nearly all of the work in the field has so far been directed not to exercise in general but to runners and running. This is undoubtedly because of the amazing number of Americans who have been seized (or at least touched) by the running habit—30 million is the latest guess. It is difficult to think of another 20th century sports phenomenon that has cut so widely and deeply into American life. Of course, this makes running an irresistible subject for serious sociologcal, psychological and psychiatric research. Beyond that, the fact is that a great many scholars and doctors choose running as the subject of their research because they happen to be mildly hooked runners themselves.

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