Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Running IS an Addiction, Be Careful

I had a few friends who ran the Indiana Trial 100 with me as their first 100 miler and after their success, they were already talking about doing stuff like the Midwest Grand Slam next year. They had just accomplished a new level of running achievement and before their muscles were recovered, they were talking about the next level to achieve.

I contend this is a slippery slope, and I want to try to explain why. But first, a disclaimer:

I am about to compare running to a drug or alcohol addiction. But please do not interpret this as A) negative reference to those with serious drug problems or B) that addictions are healthy. I am merely trying to explain a phenomena that I have seen with ultrarunners and the similarities with drug and alcohol addiction. ---Please, do not be offended---

People try drugs or drinking because to makes them feel good, reduces stress, put them elsewhere emotionally. When you are doing drugs or alcohol you can do too much or you can do it in moderation.
Doing it too much leads to a certain tolerance and then you have to do more and more and eventually you have to start doing more hard core drugs. Think cocaine to crack. Meth. Heroin. You know the stories. Alcohol is the same way. If you drink a lot, you get a tolerance and need more and more and it starts not being good enough.

And you can never really go back a level. You never hear of a person who has a cocaine problem, goes to rehab, goes back to smoking dope and enjoys it and can handle that level. True alcoholics who drink serious liquor can not easily go back to enjoy 1 glass of wine with dinner.

Moderation, however is a good thing. Many people stay at one level for quite a long time and are happy with that level. There is a point in addictions that you start chasing level 'upgrades' faster than you should. This is where the problems really start.

Ok, so lets talk about running and why we even do it. All runners know of what is called a 'runner's high' that comes from the endorphins coursing through our blood when we have a good solid run. This is a totally natural thing and evolution has supported it. Nature wants us to exercise so we stay fit so we can catch our food. It's all good.

Eventually we grow to like it and want more, so we run more. We start running a little longer and it might take us 5 miles to get that feeling. Then we want more.

We enter an actual race. Get a bib and toe the line for actual competition. We scream through our first 5K and we feel awesome. The high we feel can last for days. We may even wear our race shirt to work the next Monday and talk about it incessantly around the water cooler, annoying our coworkers.

The 5K is the first step, the first real level of addiction. Think of it as your first beer.

Eventually for many of us runners, 5K's soon become not enough of a high. We start needing a heavier drug so we might start training harder and go to a half marathon, or even a full marathon. (Malt liquor for our example)

Do a few of those and then that high after each one subsides. You need more, so maybe a marathon in every state, or running marathons in consecutive days, or trying to run 30 marathons in 6 months to get another 'star'. (Wine, if you are following along)

Then, it gets really bad. because by now you really enjoy the 'moving up' getting closer and closer to the edge of the crazies. You like being unique, the 'weirdo' at the office. You enjoy being different and you want to be more different.

The next step in this addiction is of course the ultra marathon, 50 miles +. The difficulty starts getting steeper, but that is what you want. If it takes more effort, the payoff is going to be higher. (And yes, we have reached the hard stuff, liquor)

So you run a 100 miler and it feels AWESOME when you finish. Amazingly, the emotional high of finishing your first 100 mile race is quite similar to the emotional high many people feel after their first 5K and their first marathon. You feel on top of the world.

But by now, you have gone through quite a few levels of running, and you starting to actually enjoy the increasing of difficulty. You are changing drugs so fast, you enjoy finding higher levels. You are moving up so fast you have no intention of leveling off. Let's go crazy.

And there are levels to go to. You can do a series of hundos in a short time frame (the Original Grand Slam, or the Midwest Grand Slam). You can run the toughest footrace on the planet, Badwater. You can do the Badwater double, or heck, the Badwater Quad. You can do 150 or 200 mile races. You can race across the state of Tennessee, or run ocean to ocean.

My point is this, if you start chasing up the ladder to fast and not enjoying the intermediate challenges, you are going to run out of news drugs to try. I know friends who run their first Hundo and then do several and within literally a year, Hundos bore them and need something bigger. Going back down a level is never really in the cards.

My name is Mark, and I am an running addict. I suffered this problem in my own life. Once I finished my 50 state quest, I needed a new challenge and I went straight to Hundos, skipping 50 mile and 100K races (I have never raced either distance) but when I started taking the Hundo drug, I consciously decided that I was going to stay here and enjoy it. I was going to cap my racing to 3, maybe 4 Hundos a year, no more. I want the races to still be a big deal. I want to enjoy the training, the lead up, and the post race bliss. I want to still have those same feelings I did when I ran my first marathon. I have done 8 now, and I can already feel the high weakening.

Right now, I still love the 100 mile distance. I am training hard for it and getting better, always learning from my mistakes and successes. It is still a lot of fun and challenging. Of course I am going to run Badwater. Of course I will probably run across the entire state of Michigan. Of course I will run across the entire United States. I am just trying to take my time and enjoy each challenge. I don't want to run out of new drugs before I die.

There is a lot of marrow to be sucked out of each level of running addiction. Take some time to enjoy each one or you will run (ha!) out too soon.

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