The Runners High

“What the hell was that?”

Breathless, I sat beside Spring as we got into the car. Spring spoke but there was a dull ringing in my ears that muted her voice. Eventually I heard her say “something got into you eh? You just took off, how long were you waiting for me at the end?”.

We drove home and pulled into our driveway. Spring got out, she noticed that I wasn’t following and asked “Are you coming?”. I responded “In a few minutes”.

I needed to understand what had happened. Where my mind had gone. Before distractions dulled this experience and reduced it to something imagined at a later point in the day. Like a dream, precisely like a dream to be exact, I needed to not let this memory fade into the ether now that I had regained composure, regained consciousness.

I looked at the running app on my phone. I had run the fastest split time for that distance in my life, at least 25% faster than when I had ran the same trail and distance a few days prior.

I rejoined Spring in our apartment; “I think that was it” I said, “I think that was a runners high”.

This experience happened some months ago. In the period between then and now I have battled with whether I should write about it or not. I’ve written drafts of this post and then scrapped them.

I’m skeptical by nature. I spend my leisure time in the mountains and take calculated risks. The key point is that these activities require me to be calculated, to evaluate the hard evidence, to mitigate dangers and to move safely through the terrain. There’s no room there for flights of fancy or the unquantifiable. I like the raw honesty of the wild and the trust I can put in those experiences. Rock is hard, Ice is cold and the Mountains are eternally indifferent.

I’ve heard of climbers refer to being in “the zone” but it always sounded foolish to me. Nobody plans a trip and says “ok, when we get to the base of this climb we’ll enter The Zone and then climb effortlessly to the summit”. It sounds farcical. The sporadic nature of accounts about this heightened state of awareness naturally leads one to be skeptical.

Yet I couldn’t deny my own experience. That state I was in while running was not normal consciousness, it was not a normal level of awareness. It was different.

I’d read about the purported “runners high” before. It always seemed like marketing fluff to sell more race tickets or running shoes. Or just another way for Runners as a tribe to raise their chosen pastime into ever higher and higher elitist echelons. To give some credence to a pursuit that could easily be deemed as the height of futility. I started running not to join this tribe but to better prepare my body for the rigors of the mountains and life in general. Getting high off it was never a consideration.

I also long imagined this “high” as merely being a hit of endorphin’s caused by exertion or fatigue. I’ve felt endorphin highs in the past from exercise. While studying for a degree at University I had access to a free gym on campus. I used to lift heavy weights with friends until exhausted. I remember it giving me an endorphin buzz afterwards that lasted for a while. The “high” runners sometimes feel must be the same thing I reasoned.

Every time I run I get an endorphin buzz, a pleasant state of calm afterwards where I can think clearer. But only once have I experienced what I now believe is a runners high. It wasn’t only a feeling of calm caused by endorphin’s but a state of heightened awareness. I’ve been chasing that experience ever since. I’ve come close on a few occasions but never fully repeated it.

The experience had another effect though. It brought back to the surface an event that happened when I was half the age I am now, when I felt something akin to what I felt running those trails.

What I’m about to describe is going to sound pretty dorky. I’d love to describe an event that was triggered by listening to Vivaldi or from reading Jean-Paul Sartre but it wasn’t. It happened in the months after I’d seen “The Matrix” in the cinema for the first time.

In a lot of ways, The Matrix was and still is an important film for me. Say what you will about it as a movie but it’s narrative is strongly grounded in a lot of philosophical concepts that have been around for millenniums. As a teenager, it introduced me to a lot of concepts I had previously never heard of (remember, it was in cinemas in 1999 when the internet in general was still in its infancy). This scene in particular had an effect on me at the time.

Again, as I type this it feels so dorky, but at that time, when I was 16, the concept that “there is no spoon” and what that meant was profound. It was a catalyst to thinking that reality might be more related to an individual’s perspective then a cold hard fact.

A few days later I went to a community soccer match. I’m Irish and it’s common for guys in Ireland to arrange weekly soccer games. Guys from all ages participate. As young as 10 to as old as 60 sometimes. It’s about having fun, but usually the guys in their late teens to twenties dominate every week over everyone else.

I usually never scored a goal and got precious little contact with the ball most weeks but it was fun all the same. Something was different this week though, my mind was on fire. What if the guys in their twenties only dominated because I believed that they would? What if I didn’t score goals because I expected I wouldn’t? What if limits like age, size, agility, ability were defined in the mind and not entirely in reality.

Once the ball kicked into play the game was a blur. I scored multiple times, played a portion of the game as goalie and saved everything. I ran the pitch faster than I ever had, dribbling the ball around opponents with ease. During quiet moments guys would come over, put their hand on my shoulder and whisper “What’s gotten in to you? How are you playing like this?”

The game ended. It felt like I’d been moving in slow motion for the entire match. It felt effortless.

The next week I tried to summon that frame of mind again but couldn’t. The more I tried to force it the worse I played. I eventually gave up on the idea and returned to just playing like I used to. I forgot about that game were I somehow surpassed all my perceived limits and chalked it up to a fluke.

14 years passed by and I’d long since forgotten about that game of soccer and then, on a seemingly random trail run with Spring my mind enters that state again. A state of limitless potential and effortless execution.

On subsequent runs there has been nothing close to it though. I get the endorphin calm as usual, but no heightened state of awareness.

Weeks and then months pass, I try to write about it, but pause as I type the words. I’d ask myself: “do I really want to admit to experiencing something that, before I had experienced it myself, I had balked at and mocked before on a number of occasions?”. The answer was always “No, I do not” and I’d scrap the blog post.

Then one day recently I watched this:

Runners High, The Zone, Zen, Flow. Whatever you want to call it, I realized that people are talking about it. People are talking about how to get into this state and talking about what being in this state feels like.

I felt that I should also.

So here’s what happened and what it felt like for me.

I had been running for a few kilometers behind Spring. She had been steadily pulling away. My mind was on running but if I’m honest, it wasn’t fully on running. I was thinking about other things like what was for dinner later, how hydrated I was for this run, thinking about doing some stretches for my lower back in the evening and any other number of distracting thoughts going on in my stream of consciousness..

I began to notice though that, even though Spring was running faster and pulling away from me that she wasn’t running the tangents of the curves in the trail. I set my focus on that singular objective, to run the tangents and see if I could catch her through running the trail more efficiently. I picked up my speed also. I remember feeling like my body was yelling at me “you can’t sustain this pace, you need to slow down now!”. I ignored it. I kept ignoring it, focusing on the curves in the trail coming up ahead, running faster, using my more efficient running line to maintain more speed and then it happened.

It felt like tripping a power fuse and entering a state of detachment. Like somebody had pulled me out of the driver’s seat of a car and I was now watching that car roll away. But instead of looking at a car I was looking at myself in the third person. I know decisions were made, and I know I made them, but my memories are of watching the actions take place and not being involved in the decision-making process. It was a state of clarity watching my body run faster and move better along the trails.

What I remember as being different was that during that time my mind was on nothing but running. I have no memories of thinking about anything else other than that act. Usually I remember sections of trail and trying to think quickly ahead of time whether I should step on that exposed root, whether that rock is wet and slippery, if there’s mud in the trail that I can avoid. I have memories of making decisions. I make them quickly and on the fly as I run, but I’m actively evaluating my options and then making a choice. But while I was in that state my mind wasn’t evaluating options, the first choice was always the right choice, I flowed from one movement to the next without hesitation.

My memories of it are like remembering a dream. I don’t use the word euphoric lightly but that is exactly what it felt like. A blissful calm when my body performed with as much strength and speed as it contains without any of the perceived limits that I have given it.

“I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions” – Primo Levi

This experience has reinforced my opinion that there are states of consciousness that are different to what we experience daily. If we’re honest we’ll admit this. Intense emotions, or intense physical stress can give us these “out of body” memories that are hard to describe to others, when the sound around us dulls or when we feel like we’re looking at ourselves from a few feet away or we’ve sunk back behind our eyes.

This isn’t supernatural, I feel it is simply our brain entering a different state. A state where our decision-making process is altered. Similar to how our personalities change when under the influence of drugs I feel there are states that are natural and instinctive that are subdued under normal, secure and habitual existence.

Sleeping is a great example. I sometimes would mention to Spring as we got into bed that “how crazy is what we’re doing. We’re going to make ourselves unconscious and immobile for a third of the day. Everyone does this every day, they lie down and shut off their mind and let it enter a different state, a state where our brains create narratives and then we wake up and largely forget all about them. One third of our life is spent being involved in stories our minds create daily that we largely never remember. This is so weird and amazing!”

Similar to sleep, I believe this “flow” state, or the “Runners High” can’t be forced. Try to force yourself to sleep, you can’t. I actually have tried in the past and proceeded to make myself stay awake for longer. Sleep is something you slip into, it sneaks up on you when your mind is not focused.

I’ve tried something similar with my mind while running and I’ve come close on a number of occasions to getting back into this state. The key for myself has been to try to not think about it and to try to focus my mind on a singular thought, the thought of running. I don’t think about the past, or the future, my world is only running. I have always been running and I will always be running, there is nothing more to reality. I find this works to keep myself in the present.

I also push myself hard, past the point where my body is telling me to slow down. This is usually where I fail though. On that day when it happened I didn’t just want to run faster and run the tangents, I needed it. I couldn’t hold myself back from that pursuit. When I run now I want to run faster but I feel my mind knows I don’t really need it anymore. The state I get to feels like taking my hands off the steering wheel but I’m aware that I could put my hands back on it at any moment if I wanted to. It isn’t the complete state of disconnect that I got to before.

I’ve experienced this quasi-state of disconnect before a few times. Mountaineering at my limit for example, rock climbing, definitely, when I’m leading, Mountain Biking technical trails, Yoga also. Any activity where I have to either accelerate past or throttle back from these limits that are defined for myself in my mind.

But, so far, I haven’t achieved the same state of complete calm and clarity that I did running those trails. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying though.

As for you, the reader, please share your own experiences with running highs or entering the zone. If you never have and are still skeptical then there’s nothing more I can say. This is only an account of my own experience. Where you go from there is a choice I leave to you.

Runners High

Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting post thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve felt this way swimming on various occasions and painting and writing as well.

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    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve recently been doing more research into this. As I push myself several times a week I find that I enter this state more often. I’ve begun using a GPS watch to track my pace on runs. I find if I push myself a little bit faster than my previous run, about 5%, to make it uncomfortable but still bearable that eventually my mind enters a bit of a runners high. It’s worth trying out.

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