The Stoniness of the Long Distance Runner

Ultramarathon is a grueling endurance test, with runners crossing over ridge lines and bouncing down rocky trails in races that last anywhere from 30 to 200 miles. The (amazingly) fast-growing sport requires endurance, stamina, and perhaps, a certain level of insanity.

Ultramarathon is the realm of the uber-jock. But, as recent reports from The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian indicate, it is also, and increasingly, the realm of the reefer smoker. As counterintuitive as it may initially seem, some ultramarathoners claim that using marijuana helps their performance. Scientists aren't so sure, but that isn't stopping the racers from resorting to the weed.

Smoking anything would seem to be inimical to success in extreme long-distance running, but there's no shortage of ultramarathoners ready to tout the benefits of pot for their sport. 

"If you can find the right level, [marijuana] takes the stress out of running," 22-year-old professional ultramarathoner Avery Collins told the Journal. "And it’s a post-race, post-run remedy."

Collins said he use before and after—but not during—races. The five-time ultramarathon winner said he doesn't smoke it, but uses edibles, inhales it from a vaporizer, and uses a cannabis balm on his aching leg muscles. He finds especially useful after a race, when his heart is pounding and his legs are throbbing.

"You’re running for 17 to 20 hours straight, and when you stop, sometimes your legs and your brain don’t just stop," Collins said. "Sometimes [pot] is the only way I can fall asleep after racing."

"The person who is going to win an ultra is someone who can manage their pain, not puke and stay calm," said veteran runner Jenn Shelton. "Pot does all three of those things."

Shelton added that while she has trained using marijuana before, she doesn't use it in competition because she thinks that would be unethical. She sees pot as a performance-enhancing drug, and if does indeed allow long-distance runners to perform better, it would be.

But neither the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), which controls drug testing in international sports, nor American professional and collegiate sports operations see it quite the same way. Marijuana is banned, but not for its alleged performance-enhancing qualities. A WADA spokesman told the Journal it is banned because it "violates the spirit of sport."

"You can find some people who argue that marijuana has performance-enhancing characteristics," said veteran drug tester Don Catlin, who founded the UCLA Olympic Analytic Laboratory. "They are few and far between," he said. "It’s seen more as a drug of abuse than as a drug of performance enhancement."

But it could help ultramarathoners.

"There’s good science that suggests cannabinoids block the physical input of pain," said Dr. Lynn Webster, founder of the Lifetree Pain Clinic in Salt Lake City. Marijuana has also been used to treat nausea from chemotherapy, and nausea is a plague on long-distance runner, since it stops them from ingesting needed calories and nutrients.

Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied medical cannabis since 1996, told the Guardian pot would help with pain and nausea. He cited placebo studies with HIV patients, but said he didn't need to rely on them.  

"I’ve been an oncologist for 32 years," Abrams said. "I don’t need a placebo study to tell me that cannabis is useful as an analgesic and for treating nausea induced by chemotherapy."

Dr. Stanley Tashkin of UCLA, a leading expert on marijuana and the lungs, said that while his research simply showed marijuana "didn’t have an effect on impairing lung function" it "does have an effect of symptoms of chronic bronchitis."

But A 2012 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that even sustained heavy marijuana use didn't diminish lung function. That same study found that some pot-smokers actually performed slightly better on lung function tests than non-smokers, perhaps because pot smokers had trained themselves to take deep breaths and hold them in.

It may not be that ultramarathoners are embracing marijuana so much as marijuana users are embracing the extreme sport.

"There’s a great degree of rugged individualism in every ultramarathoner," said Jason "Ras" Vaughn, who runs the ultramarathoner blog "My impression is that the runners who use it are people who already smoked it, who now happen to be ultra runners."


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