Running From Addiction

How the once mythical "runner's high" is helping former users kick the habits, one mile at a time.
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How the once mythical "runner's high" is helping former users kick the habits, one mile at a time.
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For me it happens around the eight or nine mile mark; a sensation that starts when the hairs on the back of my neck start to bristle with static electricity and that nagging pain in my legs begins to subside. Just at the point when I’m rounding the tip of Manhattan’s Battery Park City, with the Statue of Liberty blinking in the half-light, when I feel like my heart is about to burst and I’m on the verge of collapse, my feet grow wings and I begin to fly. What had been agonizing drudgery is now effortless motion. I feel simultaneously calm and energized, like I’m floating on a fast-moving cushion of air. My senses are heightened. I smell the damp grass in the park and the diesel fumes trailing the Staten Island ferry. I am unstoppable. The sensation doesn’t last long—maybe 10 minutes—and it doesn’t happen on every run, but when it does the effect is thrilling and all-encompassing like a hit of crystal meth or crack. No wonder, then, that athletes who have previously been hooked on drugs can get addicted to the buzz.

“Sometimes when I run in places like the Grand Canyon,” says ultra-runner extraordinaire Charlie Engle, a former addict who kicked his habit on the way to becoming one of the world’s elite extreme athletes, “I swear to God, it’s like I’ve been shooting coke for two days.”

They call this sensation the runner’s high—a feeling of euphoric well-being that runners report after prolonged bouts of physical exertion. For years some skeptical scientists have claimed that it didn’t really exist. “A total fantasy in the pop culture,” one University of Michigan researcher told The New York Times in 2002. But this past February scientists used new brain imaging technology to establish that the runner’s high is a very real event occurring in the neurocircuitry of the human brain, caused by endorphins, the body’s naturally occurring opiates. At the same time, a number of addicts for whom traditional treatment programs have failed are turning to running to quit drugs. An Ohio-based organization called Racing for Recovery is one of a number of groups that regularly organize triathlons and 5K runs all over the country, where everyone from smokers to crackheads to OxyContin junkies run their demons ragged in what might be termed replacement therapy: a classic example of a positive addiction substituting for a negative one.

Engle could be the movement’s poster boy, the man who spent 111 consecutive days running 4,300 miles across the North African desert, an epic and grueling journey chronicled in the documentary Running the Sahara. Engle is a legend in ultra-running circles, having traversed not just the Sahara but also the Gobi Desert, the Atacama Desert, the Amazon rain forest, Vietnam, and the jungles of Borneo. The 45-year-old regularly runs 40 to 50 miles a day, what a midlevel runner might cover in a hard week. But for 10 long years he was a hardcore coke addict, until in July 1992, after spending six days smoking crack in a seedy motel room in Wichita, Kansas, he gave up drugs for good.

Engle doesn’t regret past substance abuse. “Drug addiction was my training ground,” says the runner, who still dreams about cocaine. “That’s how I learned to be good at endurance. Without those 10 years of torture, there’s not a chance in hell I’d be doing the things I’m

doing today. I figured out I didn’t need to trash my addictive traits in order to be good at something other than taking drugs."

As researchers have come to learn, the drug high and the runner’s high have a lot in common, namely brain chemicals, the mood-altering neurotransmitters that substances like cocaine, marijuana, and heroin mimic or activate. The difference is that running is a whole lot cheaper and won’t leave you with a bloody nose or get you locked up in the big house.

The popular theory about the cause of the runner’s high emerged in the 1970s as the jogging craze was sweeping the country. Scientists discovered endorphins, a brain chemical whose structure is similar to morphine’s. Endorphins became the main theory to explain the high, especially after tests showed a dramatic increase in levels of endorphins in the blood of subjects who vigorously exercised. Who needed illegal substances when you could get a similar rush by running? The problem for many scientists was the belief that endorphins were too large to penetrate the brain. And if the endorphins failed to reach the brain, the skeptics claimed, then they couldn’t get you stoned. In February, however, the scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany settled the dispute. They examined 10 long-distance runners before and after a two-hour jog and were able to show conclusively a marked increase in the release of endorphins in the brain.

In addition to endorphins, researchers have identified other chemicals that are stimulated by intense exercise: dopamine, the substance that allows us to feel pleasure; serotonin, which acts as an antidepressant; and epinephrine, the body’s natural amphetamine. It seems likely, then, that the runner’s high is caused not by a single substance but by a whole cocktail of chemicals. This helps explain why celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Kiedis, and Owen Wilson have conquered their demons by becoming workout junkies.

Todd Crandell, who founded Racing for Recovery seven years ago, shares a similar life story with Charlie Engle. At the height of his addiction, he was drinking two fifths of Jack Daniel’s and snorting three or four grams of cocaine a day, supplemented with heroin, crystal meth, Valium, LSD, marijuana, Quaaludes, basically anything he could get his hands on.

"When I woke up in the morning, my first thought would be, Damn, I’m still alive. How much of this stuff is it going to take for me to overdose and die?" says Crandell. "It was a nightmare."

After 13 years as an addict, Crandell stopped using in 1993 and started participating in Ironman triathlon events, which consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Since 1999, the 41-year-old has completed more than a dozen Ironman challenges and has written a book about his struggles, Racing for Recovery: From Addict to Ironman.

"When I’m running, I feel like I’m on amphetamine," he says. "People say to me that I’ve just swapped one addiction for another addiction. They’re both highs, but one is destructive and the other is extremely productive."

Just how productive is evident from the testimonials of the many addicts Crandell’s organization has helped. A year ago, 33-year-old Eddie Freas’ crack cocaine habit was so bad he was suicidal. Then he saw Crandell being interviewed on ESPN and contacted him. Crandell moved Freas from his hometown in New Jersey to a facility called the Lifestyle Center in Toledo, where Freas began running as much as 50 miles a week. While he admits he still gets cravings, Freas says he hasn’t touched cocaine in six months. Recovering alcoholic Aaron Dalley, 28, lives and works at the same facility. "I wouldn’t say that if you go running you automatically get sober," he says. "But the exercise changes you. You sleep better. You eat better. It boosts your self-esteem, which makes it easier to concentrate on staying sober."

Researchers from Butler Hospital in Providence seem to back up Crandell’s program. They found that alcoholics who took part in 12 weeks of aerobic exercise were two and a half times more likely to remain clean and sober than those who didn’t exercise.

"There’s no doubt the drug high is more intense than the runner’s high," says Charlie Engle. "The main difference for me is that, with the runner’s high, I can enjoy the experience and not have to worry about the police coming to bust me. And afterward I can still go and pick my kids up for dinner."