Riding the runner’s highs and braving the lows

We’ve all heard about the  “runner’s high” and for most of us runners, we’ve experienced them in one way or another. Some actually describe the “runner’s high” as a sense of calm that washes over them for extended period of time, while others (like me) experience them as brief, intense moments of pure euphoria. Oh yes, if you ever see me during a runner’s high moment, you should definitely run the other way! It’s a when-Harry-met-Sally moment of extreme bliss when I no longer feel pain, there is peace in the middle east, and techni-colour rainbows spontaneously appear out of the sky. Leprechauns and pots of gold and all. Okay, but seriously, in those moments, I feel connected to the people around me, the loved ones in my life, and I’m infinitely positive about the future. I’m Claudia Schiffer on the runway circa 1990, Barack Obama on the day he was elected President, Gaddafi from last week (er, delusional in his confident belief that everyone loves him. Okay maybe that one was a stretch, but you get my point).

For the skeptics out there, the runner’s high has actually been scientifically proven. A few years ago, German researchers conducted a study that measured the level of endorphins in runners’ brains before and after a two-hour run. The data shows that not only was the brain flooded with endorphins (the feel-good neurotransmitters) during a run, but that they were attaching themselves in particular to the areas associated with emotions – the limbic and prefrontal areas, which are apparently the same regions of the brain that become active in romantic love affairs (!) (see this New York Times article for an overview). That explains the rainbows, perhaps.

But what about the flip side? What about the runner’s lows? We don’t talk much about these dark moments, but they do exist. Maybe we don’t talk about the runner’s lows because we just accept they are inevitable. Unlike the runner’s high, the runner’s low makes sense. Of course you’re going to feel down at some point during a run when everything is hurting and the finish line is nowhere in sight… right? But here I’m talking about the real lows. Those black moments you’d rather forget.

Experienced runners are able to deal with the lows in stride. We know they come, but we also remember they go. The problem is reminding yourself of that when they hit and figuring out how to get yourself through them.

I’ve been going through a rough time the past couple of weeks – let’s call it a “life low” – and someone I met during RacingThePlanet Australia reached out to provide an ear and some worthy advice.  (As you may know, I am partial to nicknames and so this individual will be called 007 for his spy-like qualities of observation.) Although we didn’t talk much during the race, our tents were beside each other and so we got to know a bit about how each other ‘worked’ under difficult conditions.  Apparently, one moment that stuck out in his mind was on the day after the long 80km stage when we were all resting in our tents. At this point, the race was practically over. All we had left to do was a measly 5 or 10 km the next day. I had second place in the bag and was incredibly happy with how the race had gone.  In fact, the entire race I had been over the moon. Happy to talk to people, learn from others, experience the Australian outback, laugh at my injuries… the works!  Poster child for GI Jane confidence. So on that last day before the finish, I should have been at my happiest… But all of a sudden I got hit with this wave of immense sadness. It is hard to describe, but I just got overtaken by emotion. Maybe it was the struggle of the week catching up to me or maybe it was a combination of hunger and exhaustion… who knows. I kept trying to fight it and put on a brave face (what on earth did I have to be upset about??), but at some point, it became too much.

I warned my the others in my tent that I was going to have a pity party, but not to worry, I just needed to do it and it would only last five minutes. And I did it. I laid back on the plastic floor of the tent, bugs crawling over my legs and gnawing hunger in my stomach, and allowed the sweat to roll down my face along with my tears… I was embarrassed (tough girls don’t cry!!!), but I knew I had to just get it out.  I had been in control the whole race, but, as 007 reminded me, no one can be all the time. He observed that as soon as I just went with my emotions, I was much more relaxed afterwards… and that can’t be a bad thing.

I suppose the trick to getting through these runner’s lows is to allow them to happen. Go with it, but know that they will end. I’m not saying you should let all hell break loose. By all means, do not get comfortable down there! But it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a break and let go of control every once in a while. Sometimes fighting against things isn’t the answer. Let the low come, experience it, and then move on. It might be five minutes, it might be an hour… or maybe even a whole day during a multi-day race. But it will end. And it’ll make the next runner’s high simply delicious.

As I’m climbing out of this “life low”, it helps to be reminded of these lessons from running. And on that note, I’m off for a run in the hopes of getting a runner’s high. Lots of good things on the horizon!

Product reviews still to come, but up next is an amaaaaazing interview with a guy who is breaking all boundaries. Alex Flynn of 10 Million Metres to follow… Stay tuned!

-Ultra Runner Girl aka Stephanie Case

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Categories: Musings about life

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