clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Reasons to run: Experiencing a runner's high

My business partner, Tanner Bell, and I began an interesting journey eight years ago. We decided to start the race my father, Steve Hill, had dreamed about – the Wasatch Back Relay. Since then, that little business venture has grown into the largest relay race company in the world.

I just finished reading "Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen and the Search for Transcendence" by Rob Shultheis. It follows his search for transcendent mystical experiences through extreme sports.

The book follows Robs 15-year quest to discover the source and cause of the "peak experiences" or "runner's highs" that many endurance athletes experience. He studied Zen states, shamans and the chemical processes that take place in our minds and bodies that put us into these states. He also embarked on several perilous adventures, trying to get himself as close to the edge as possible. His research and experiences are fascinating and enlightening. I won't spoil the book. I highly recommend it to anyone.

As I read I reflected back to some of the "peak experiences" and "runner's highs" I've experienced in some of my runs and adventures. Probably the greatest among them was the feeling I had as my friends and I participated in the Ragnar Relay Florida Keys.

We took a different approach to a Ragnar Relay. We ran our legs like normal, but instead of climbing into a van between legs we hopped onto road bikes and did the mileage on bikes. in all we rode our bikes about 180 miles and ran 15 miles over a 30-hour period.

It was at about mile 50, as we rode through the Everglades under starlight, that the magic came for me. I remember feeling some of the purest joy I'd ever experienced. I felt that everything in my life was in perfect balance; that my life was in harmony and exactly what it should be, and that, if I could keep it in harmony, everything would always ultimately work out for me.

This joy and clarity never went away for the duration of the ride. The joy lasted all through the sleepless night, though another 130 miles of cycling and another 11 miles of running. It lasted through no sleep, no shower and no "real" food. As the ride went on I felt better and better, and stronger and stronger. For a full two weeks after the ride the glow lingered. There was really nothing that could upset me. And even now, two months later, it's easy to get myself back into a similar, if less powerful, mental state.

I've heard dozens, if not hundreds, of stories from Ragnar participants who have had similar experiences. I'm not sure what brings the magic. Is it psychological, spiritual or physical? It may be all completely chemical, a mixture of endorphins, adrenaline, hypoxia, and sleep deprivation.

I personally believe there is something bigger going on. I also believe the team element is important to the mix. The joy that comes from experiencing extreme adventures with friends heightens the magic. This is one place I disagree with Rob. He concluded that the magic only comes when people are alone. My observation is that it comes easier with friends.

I've felt for years that there is something deeper to the Ragnar Relay experience than what is obvious. It's as though something in the experience awakens a part of us that lies mostly dormant in our modern world. We live a life that is almost completely void of true physical struggle, unless we seek it out.

For our ancestors long nights of physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation and teamwork may not have been uncommon. Maybe our minds, bodies and souls were programmed to enter these joyful peak-states to help us cope with the struggle. Maybe there is even more to it than that.

Whatever the reason, physical, psychological, spiritual or some combination, I'm convinced that it's real and repeatable. I'm grateful that I've discovered it and equally heartbroken that many people never have.

Dan Hill is a runner, cyclist and co-founder of the Ragnar Relay race series. He is also a husband, father and lifelong Utah resident. He and his friend, Tanner Bell, record their running and Ragnar experiences at