Josiah Hesse's New Book Explores the Science of Cannabis and Sports

Glenn Ross
Josiah Hesse is the author of Runner's High.
Several years back, Josiah Hesse was surprised to discover that he was not the only person consuming cannabis while he worked out.

He'd grown up an artsy feminist queer boy in a hyper-masculine, stoic, small-town community in northern Iowa. He was a low-level pot dealer and stoner. Jocks called him a fag, he recalls, and he found solace in music, art and drugs.

“In middle school, I was just goofy and weird and, like, chubby and skinny at the same time — just pretty soft,” he recalls. “I was just bullied mercilessly by these jocks, really just by masculine men in general at that time. That’s what I associated exercise with: folks who were very homophobic and very violent.”

After he dropped out of high school, he moved to Denver to become a journalist. The state was on the brink of legalizing medical cannabis, and while his first pitches to outlets were ignored, he found that editors were quick to give him assignments about marijuana. Westword offered him some of his first chances as a writer, something he's grateful for to this day, and he began covering the weed beat aggressively.

While he continued writing about marijuana, he soon took on other subjects: music, politics, activism, science and religion. Sports was one topic he largely avoided.

Through his twenties, he found himself drinking and drugging, like many other writers. Exercising? Not so much.

“It was over a period of years that I started learning that, oh, Joe Strummer was a runner and Bob Marley was,” he continues. “And when I met [comedian] Ben Roy and did that feature story for Westword, I went on a run with him to do our interview. He was talking about how we shouldn’t let the jocks claim running. It’s a fun thing to do, and there’s no reason we should keep this as something for meatheads. The punk-rock kids like exercising, too.”

Hesse started heading out on runs to relieve anxiety and depression, but he was now about thirty, and exercise proved to be mostly painful. Although he had also been using cannabis for quite some time, he'd never considered consuming while working out. Then he watched the documentary Pumping Iron, which ends with Arnold Schwarzenegger taking a hit off a joint. Hesse learned that many of the California bodybuilders were enjoying marijuana as they worked out, and he decided to try the same thing with running.

At the time, edibles with reliable doses were just showing up on the market, and he started taking between ten and twenty milligrams of THC when he went out for his jogs.

“It was a complete game-changer with running,” he remembers. “It made me feel lighter. It made me feel more connected between my mind and my body. It made me more tapped into the rhythms of my feet and fueled by the music that I was listening to; it went from something that was the way a lot of people view exercise as a kind of begrudging chore that you need to get over to a playful activity with no sort of destination.

“It suddenly became my favorite part of the day,” he recalls. “And I started running in the evenings when I finished with work, and I’ve been doing that regularly for ten years now.”

But it wasn't until he was at the starting line of the Colfax Marathon, where he looked into a trash can and saw lots of edibles wrappers, that he realized just how much cannabis had become a part of running culture in Colorado. Still, he assumed he had stumbled onto something fairly unique — until he started reporting stories for the Guardian and elsewhere about athletes who were regularly using cannabis as part of their training. He discovered that it was happening in golf, the NBA, the NFL and, more openly, in trail running — but most people just weren’t talking about it.

So he dug deeper and pitched a book about cannabis and sports. The result was Runner’s High: How a Movement of Cannabis-Fueled Athletes Is Changing the Science of Sports, whose release he'll celebrate with a party at the Tattered Cover Colfax on Friday, September 17, followed by an after-party at Milk, where he'll deejay some of the songs he mentions in his book.

Runner's High, inspired by Michael Pollan’s narrative-driven science writing and Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, digs into how athletes are using cannabis, the science behind the drug and the body’s response to exercise, the regulation of marijuana in sports, and the cultural assumptions about both athletes and cannabis users. Driven by his own stories and those of dozens of athletes plus plenty of science, he makes a compelling case for why cannabis makes exercise fun.

While Colorado is a hotbed of both exercise and cannabis, Hesse notes that most people around the country are still hung up on the Cold War-era stereotypes about pot users being lazy — and his hope is that the book corrects that myth. Perhaps it might even help end the ban of cannabis use in sports.

“I think we kind of live in a bubble in Colorado with thinking like, ‘Well, of course, you can be an upstanding member of society and use cannabis.’ But in half the U.S. and most of the world, it’s still Reagan's America, particularly Nancy Reagan’s America. And we still have all of those same tropes about who cannabis users are, and I think that’s what’s behind the bans on cannabis in sports. ”

In the meantime, he offers tips about how to work out high safely and sanely, encouraging readers to take it easy: Speak to an informed budtender about the best edibles to try, dose lightly, shut off your phone, and avoid running where you might get lost.

Ultimately, he pushes them to get off the couch and engage their bodies and minds.

“I think cannabis helps to tap into those regions of the brain and bodies that make physical exercise a very appealing idea," Hesse says. “I've certainly had times where I didn’t plan to go for a run, but I got high, and I noticed that I had a free two hours or so...and I’m like, ‘Hey, you know what? We should go for a run. Doesn’t that sound like fun?'"

The Runner's High release event is at 7 p.m. Friday, September 17, at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. Celebrate at an after-party at 10 p.m. at Lipgloss at Milk, 1037 Broadway. For more information, go to the release party Facebook page.