I Tried to Become a Cana-Athlete Runner. Here’s What Happened to My Runner’s High.
“One thing I love about the weed community is that we already know how to inhale and exhale,” my personal trainer for-a-day tells me. “So you already got one form of breathing down—now let me teach you nine or 10 others.”
It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I’m standing in a park in Sunnyvale, California, a suburb that bills itself as the heart of Silicon Valley. Not far from the yoga mat where I’ll be learning the breathing techniques that will supposedly help me become a more focused and efficient runner—and only slightly further from the big rock where I’ll soon be sitting down to smoke a bowl—kids swing from monkey bars, and dogs chase frisbees. My built, smiley trainer fits right into these wholesome surrounds. Brian Kaho has been coaching athletes, as well as mere exercise enthusiasts like me, for more than a decade, and he’s come to embrace what he describes as the “organic version” of working out—an inside-out-type approach that prioritizes ligaments, organs, tissues, and breathing patterns over muscle-building and fat-burning.
“Those are just the cherry-on-top benefits,” says Kaho, who before today I’ve known only through his upbeat, pot-positive Instagram account: @weedoutbadvibes. “This holistic approach helps clients pinpoint problems and truly focus on the body. Everyone knows they’re supposed to eat organic produce and organic meat, but you gotta ask yourself, are your workouts organic? Are your workouts green?”
“BY BEING IN A HIGH STATE BEFORE EVEN STARTING A RUN, MARIJUANA CAN MIMIC YOUR BODY’S ENDORPHINS—YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO GO LONGER THAN USUAL, LESS AFFECTED BY ANXIETY AND PAIN.”
I’m still not sure whether the latter is intended to carry double meaning. At the start of 2017, Kaho was tapped to become head trainer of Power Plant Fitness, the world’s first cannabis gym, set to open late this year in San Francisco, where pot-based business models (think marijuana delivery, Avon ladies shilling weed, and dating apps that match 420 enthusiasts) are flourishing. At Power Plant, members will be able to smoke, consume edibles, or apply weed-infused topical gels before, after, and even during workouts, some of which will be tailored by “budtenders” working synergistically with trainers. There’s been a lot of buzz around weed/exercise pairing and, as Power Plant is a quick BART ride from where I live in Berkeley, I’m curious as to what exactly cannabis can do for runners. Which is how I ended up here—excited, a little nervous, and ultimately, terrified that one of the frisbee dogs, an adorable husky puppy, totally knows I’m baked out of my skull.
But before we get there, Kaho promises to show me some breath tricks that’ll help me run more efficiently. His method is to pair exercises with breathing techniques designed to facilitate either endurance, strength, speed, or power. While we decide to start with a sober circuit, this already strikes me as a little trippy.
Kaho has me hold my breath while doing burpees (endurance), expel lion-like roars while long-jumping (power), and purse my lips to “blow bubbles” while lying flat and frantically grabbing my ankles (speed). We run through a handful of other strange, mostly difficult exercises—the idea being that if I just focus on these weird, non-intuitive breathing patterns, they’ll help me through all the reverse jackknives and heel-tap jumps he has me do. Ideally, I’ll learn to channel these breathing techniques the next time I need to sprint to a finish line, power up a hill, or keep pushing through the exhaustion and monotony of a long run.
Though he works with clients ranging from wake-and-bake stoners to people who never touch bud, Kaho says ganja can do wonders to help one focus on that most crucial part of working out: breathing. “I became a runner within three months of discovering cannabis,” says the self-described late bloomer, who only started smoking after his high school linebacker days, when he was desperate to relieve the pain brought on by all that bench-pressing. Weed not only numbed young Kaho’s ailing muscles and joints, but also helped him last longer during workouts. “[Cannabis] does enhance your natural senses—everything from vision to touch to feel—so what it did for me was, it just put me in the zone; it made me focus,” he says. “And when you’re in that zone, you can just keep running. Even more so if you’re listening to music—then it’s like you have a private concert in your ears!”
At this point, he’s really selling me on a stoned jog. I’ve been running with some regularity for about half of my 32 years. It’s never been a competitive thing, but I’ve run more than a dozen half-marathons, and three fulls. I’ve been smoking and ingesting weed, on and off, and never all that regularly, for about the same amount of time. Since becoming a citizen of California in 2009 and entering a marijuana doctor’s tent set up on Venice Beach—where I explained to a fat man dressed like a Hawaiian criminal that I suffer from anxiety and menstrual cramps—I’ve been doing so legally.
However, because I’m a far cry from those stoner enigmas blessed with the ability to socialize, work, and not conk out immediately after the milk duds run out, it’s never occ
PHOTO COURTESY OF KATIE O’REILLY
As we sit down on the aforementioned rock to fire up Kaho’s bowl—”Okay, be low-key now”—he explains that marijuana’s chemical compounds, cannabinoids, bind with receptors in the brain that regulate mood, anxiety levels, pain, appetite, and interest. “Those same receptors also get stimulated naturally, and are responsible for that age-old runner’s high,” he says. “So, by being in a high state before even starting a run, marijuana can mimic your body’s endorphins—you might be able to go longer than usual, less affected by anxiety and pain.”
But before going for a run, Kaho wants me to go through another round of weird breathing exercises. He says this assessment will reveal the smartest ways for me personally to work out under the influence of cannabis. “Listening to your body is what it’s all about—knowing how to fix yourself,” he says, as I fight back a post-puff cough. “Ultimately that’s the key, the formula, to life.”
This statement triggers a deluge of deep thoughts I’m not equipped to process. That’s largely because I can’t hold onto a single one of them before being distracted by the husky puppy, who’s now abandoned his game of fetch and is staring at me with his icy wolf eyes. Damnit, I think. I’m stoned. Stupid stoned.
I try to focus my gaze on the nearest drinking fountain, realizing that what I’d subconsciously hoped for—that fit, energetic Kaho’s weed would proffer some new, magical high that would make me only want to work out—is far from the case. It’s just get-ya-good-and-stoned, garden variety weed. “A sativa blend, pretty standard,” Kaho says with a shrug, referring to a strain of marijuana known for its uplifting and often anxiety-producing head high.
“Get up!” he commands cheerfully. “The biggest risk to canna-athletes is over-consuming.” And after that? “It’s waiting too long to start, until the motivation to work out goes away.”
“THE BEST PART OF BEING HIGH IS THAT YOU GET TO CHANNEL THE CHILDLIKE WONDER YOU ONCE HAD, BACK WHEN EVERYTHING SEEMED MAGICAL, BRIGHT, SHINY, AND A LITTLE CONFUSING.”
Kaho asks me to do some deep “power” breaths while jumping from the ground onto a ledge that was probably two feet high.
“I’m sorry, but that’s a lot for me right now,” I say. So, it’s onto a closer-to-the-ground power exercise: roaring while leapfrogging. I do it, but I’m so paranoid about who can see and what they’re thinking that I’m ecstatic when we switch to a more straightforward endurance exercise: Kaho challenges me to inhale and exhale slowly, while doing jumping jacks rapidly. That I can handle.
He’s being sweet and encouraging—he’s a good trainer that way—but I know the truth: I’m sucking at all of this. My thoughts are scattered, everything’s overwhelming, I’m scared of the puppy and of his owner—both of whom are now watching us quizzically from the water fountain—and I’m enchanted to the point of distraction by the chlorophyllic hue of the park’s baseball diamond. In short, I’m impaired. Which is sort of the point of going to town on a joint or a weed lollipop when it’s late at night and you’ve got nothing to do except tackle your Netflix queue. But today in the park, I’m not functioning well. I get the sense Kaho, too, knows this, because I soon get to “graduate” from a complicated hopscotch-like exercise to one in which I simply pick up and slam down a medicine ball as hard as I can, while grunting.
Finally, we finish the assessment and Kaho recommends I take a slow, solo jog to see how it goes. I lumber around one block before becoming convinced I’ll get lost forever. So, I lie in some grass and focus on power breathing until I feel sober enough to call a Lyft home. “I’ll run a familiar route when I get there,” I tell myself. Which I do, but not right away.
Instead, I spend a good deal of time lamenting to my partner Wes about how I wish I were one of those “high-functioning stoners,” like I suspect Kaho is. “You’re pretty high-functioning at eating all the pizza right now,” Wes quips, hungrily. It’s then that I notice that the box containing the half-pie we’d saved from the previous night is suddenly empty.
Uncomfortably full now, I leash up Maeve, our enthusiastic pitbull-vizsla mix and the best running partner I’ve ever had, pop a chocolate-covered weed espresso bean—Kaho mentioned that some runners like to pair caffeine with weed—and head out on a familiar, four-mile route in a forested section of the Berkeley hills. I figure nature will be extra transcendent under the influence, and more importantly, that we’ll run into fewer creatures there than we would on the streets. The husky’s piercing gaze haunts me still.
Luckily, naturally dopey Maeve seems oblivious to my dopey state. We set off with gusto, but it only carries us maybe a quarter mile. Because it’s sunny as hell out. And I’m sleepy. And full of cheese. And everything around us—our neighbors’ houses, the trees, the horizon—is so vivid and intriguing that I rationalize that we should slow down to take it all in. Meanwhile, I try to focus on the breathing patterns Kaho taught me—though I’m not sure whether I should be breathing to shore up speed, endurance, or power. I realize that what I need most is the strength to stay awake. But between maintaining any semblance of a breathing pattern, keeping Maeve from lunging at squirrels, and appreciating the fact that all of Berkeley suddenly feels like a fancy botanical garden, it’s a lot to juggle. So, I stop running altogether.
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Maeve and I enjoy a lovely walk that at times feels enchanted. The best part of being high is that you get to channel the childlike wonder you once had, back when everything seemed magical, bright, shiny, and a little confusing—and when your crappy short-term memory rendered just about all experiences new and exciting. Familiar patches of woods assume Narnia-like grandeur. I take a dozen photos of Maeve sniffing a banana slug (equal parts wondrous and scary). Once we return home, I tell myself I’ll lie down for 20 minutes, but wake up three hours later, still in my sweaty running duds, and late for a dinner with friends.
And, so it goes for my next few attempts at canna-athleticism. Kaho has recommended that I start out with three short cannabis runs per week. I try my best to follow that guidance, but what they all turn into is rambly, bewildered jogs that without fail devolve into walks. At this point, I tend to forget I’d ever set out to run in the first place—I’m having too grand a time. Just as weed can make monotonous tasks like folding laundry or vacuuming seem engrossing, so too can it can turn a routine run into a Nintendo game—one starring a trepidatious jogger whose objective is to dodge eye contact with all fellow humans, and collect as many weird iPhone shots of flowers, bugs, and strange dogs as she can.
There’s certainly something to be said for promoting feelings of well-being while out on the trail, and for distracting yourself during difficult feats, like mounting steep hills. I learn to put my head down and put one foot before the other, concentrating only on dodging roots and rocks, until suddenly the terrain changes, and I become confused, but then happy to realize that it’s because I’ve summited. There’s even more to be said for stoned post-run stretch sessions, ideally timed so you can simultaneously catch up on Master of None, and then pour yourself into bed. There’s a lot to be said for how standard-issue beds feel like clouds after you’ve gotten baked and thoroughly opened your hips up.
But, as they say, the same bong rip that eases the relentless impact on an ultra-marathoner’s joints can make someone else put on thirty coats of Carmax and pass out scouring YouTube for acoustic versions of Toto’s “Africa.” In my case, there’s never any getting past the fact that weed slows you down physically, by increasing heart rate, decreasing cardiac output, and making you sleepy. Or that it decreases your reaction time, worsens hand-eye coordination (I’ve tripped over roots, and even rolled down a hill while high—much to poor Maeve’s alarm), and scatters your attention span.
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I hate to admit it, but I never quite manage to channel Kaho’s breathing techniques, and I certainly never achieve runner’s high. And, figuring out how to squeeze stoned runs into my busy schedule gets stressful, fast. I know this is an obnoxious, privileged grievance. But I soon find that the only time I can hope to “research” this story without ruining my day is after 10 at night—hardly the safest time to run, no matter your state.
While I typically prefer to run in the morning, this fitness experiment does rekindle my appreciation for sunset jogs (sober ones), followed by long tokes, steamy showers and, just as the lactic acid and fatigue settles in, pre-bedtime Netflix-and-stretch sessions. And I will note that on a recent trip to Park City, Utah, popping some ganj-laced espresso beans before tearing up Mt. Baldy did help me through an ear-popping, breath-shortening bout of altitude sickness. I was able to get so (literally) high I ended up rolling in snow on an 87-degree day. However, the beans also caused me to run back down the opposite side of the mountain, and into an unfamiliar faux-Nordic resort area. Let’s just say I don’t know how stoned runners managed before the advent of Google maps and ride-share apps.
“I HAVE COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT I’M A WANNABE CANNA-ATHLETE WHO JUST CANNOT.”
The age of technology may masquerade as the stoned age. Considering legal marijuana sales in the United States are expected to exceed $21 billion by 2021, according to a 2016 ArcView Market Research report, we’ll likely be seeing more in the way of cannabis gyms, pro-athlete pot endorsements, and “ganjapreneurs” marketing recovery products. This will be great for some runners—perhaps for many.
I know one guy, a daily weed smoker as high-functioning as they come, who loves waking up early, blazing, and running in a group, as this triggers, he explains, an ancestral memory of roaming the planet in neanderthal herds. Various friends of mine, both serious and casual runners, swear by weed during long runs. Many respected doctors are known to recommend pairing exercise with small doses of CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that cancer and epilepsy patients in even some of the reddest states can legally be prescribed, thanks to its anti-inflammatory, muscle-relaxing, and pain-relieving properties. But when it comes to cannabinoid receptors and body chemistry, we’re all special snowflakes. And I have come to the conclusion that I’m a wannabe canna-athlete who just cannot.
However, now that I’ve experienced my favorite trails at their most fantastical, I find that during long, sober runs, I can channel that sense of myself as a Nintendo protagonist, motivated to collect proverbial coins I’ll mentally cash once I reach the top of a given hill or the end of a trail. I’ll recall the way that, while stoned, the look of a certain neighborhood conjured fairy-tale villages, how patches of wildflowers made me crave Confetti cake. Specific trees will trigger memories of that time I jogged (well, most likely walked) by while I was out of my gourd and miles-deep into memories of a beloved children’s book, or thoughts on the ideal burrito to order after “running.” These days, many of my go-to trails seem infinitely more Narnia- or Neverland- or Terabithia-like.
So, stoned deja vu, if that’s a thing, has in some ways made me a more joyful and motivated runner. Now when I lace up and head out the door, I’m sufficiently awake, less overwhelmed by my thoughts and surroundings, and more likely to, you know, actually run, without taking so many selfie breaks. I’ve also developed a new appreciation for stretching, which I’ve never been great about, but which is one of the most sublime ways to ride out a body high.
When I’m sober, Kaho’s inhale/exhale advice actually makes sense. More importantly, I can recall his techniques, and accordingly employ long, slow breaths when I’m going for distance, and deep, powerful ones when I need to haul myself up a hill. And who knows? Maybe my ligaments and joints are faring better for it. In any case, that fabled runner’s high, for me, is now easier to attain—as long as I’m nowhere near actually high.