the psychedelia of running
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
Allen Ginsberg (excerpt from Footnote to Howl)
Before I ever established any semblance of a running routine or could even fathom calling myself a runner, the first run I went on was an impromptu 13-miler. I was tripping balls as I looped twice around the 10km loop of Central Park, feeling like a celestial being traversing the surface of a strange and beautiful planet under the heavy blanket of NYC summer humidity. A friend had gifted me some LSD and my day was pretty open so I figured, why not? I couldn’t walk for the next week or so afterward (too much too soon; classic noob runner) but I discovered something vital that day: a lens for understanding, framing and sublimating this deep and frenetic inner energy source that had otherwise overwhelmed and plagued me for as long as I could remember; a way to situate a previously inexpressible element of my being. What was it about the LSD that opened that up for me? This essay is an exploration of this question—an ode to that discovery, of The High as an organizing principle, my love letter to the psychedelia of running.
I’ve always been a pretty fidgety person. Even as an infant, my parents would have to begrudgingly pack me into the backseat of the car and drive around the streets of Bangkok, a feat in and of itself, just to lull me to sleep. This stubborn restlessness persisted and manifested itself in other more disruptive ways as I got older—racing thoughts, anxiety, insomnia, major depression, a bipolar disorder misdiagnosis, addiction, rehab… Basically, ever since I can remember, there’s been this inconsolable well of energy inside of me and I couldn’t understand what to do with it. And the way we’re taught to frame it when we seek help for it often results in it being this gangrenous, toxic thing. The presupposition upon entering most available (and affordable) institutional spaces for help with mental health is one necessarily of abnormality. I mean, I am seeking help with my mental health because it is becoming an impediment to my ability of interacting “optimally” well with others, right? Subjecting myself to this mode of treatment caused me to situate this ever-present part of myself—this deep-seated volatile energy—in relation to some divine and asymptotic definition of normality. But what is normal? And if the basis of a lot of treatment is predicated on it, how could I possibly learn to love myself this way? Do I even want to be fucking normal?
I was inspired to try LSD after reading a New York Times article about how microdosing it saved Ayelet Waldman’s life, her last-ditch effort to find mental equilibrium for her depression and bipolar disorder. The piece outlines how countless pharmaceuticals had failed to stabilize her chronic mood disorders and this deeply resonated with me. For those unfamiliar, Waldman was a “hard-charging career woman”: she was a corporate lawyer in New York, and later worked as a public defender in Southern California (she graduated from Harvard Law School in the same class as Barack Obama, in 1991). My point being, while I have some background in enjoying drugs recreationally, the draw to LSD wasn’t recreational—I was searching for a way to find my own mental equilibrium. Years of putting myself through institutional spaces for psychiatric care also resulted in countless failures for me and I was ready for something different. Fortunately, a good friend of mine knew someone who synthesized it.
A week or so later, I received the vial of pure liquid LSD from my buddy in the mail and was eager to get started. I had originally planned it so that I would just stay in my apartment so I could safely understand how it affected me. I took the acid vial my friend gave me, used the dropper to put what I believed was a tame amount into a glass of water, drank it around 11am or so, and waited. I realized within 45 minutes or so that I took a larger dose than I intended. I became restless, as the first sign it was coming on revealed itself to me: an inexplicable rising anxiety. And like my own inborn organic non-GMO anxiety, it was a restless kind of energy. My room suddenly became oppressive and cluttered, as though it were disturbing my chi, so I tried to channel some of this energy into obsessively cleaning and organizing. But as I got closer to peaking, doing these tasks became too particular and menial for the vast abstractness that was setting in. The energy levels were high and I didn’t know what to do, so without even consciously thinking to, I put on my headphones, some gym clothes and sneakers, and booked it out of my building as quickly as I could toward Central Park.
Getting to the Frederick Douglass entrance of the park was the last clear sequence of event that I can recall with any meaningful linearity. At this point, my body seemed to have dissolved and I became purely flowing energy. It felt holy—as though that inconsolable well of energy in myself had finally been tapped and was flooding itself without abandon but with meaningful force into the form of running. I felt undifferentiated, completely at one with my environment, blissed out. Never had greater beauty immersed me in its flood. I was able to temporarily rid of this self-punishing lens with which I viewed myself and recognize for all its awesomeness the substance contained behind the armor that was my ego, and it was a unique liberation. The trip revealed to me the severity of the tension and strain under which I lived and how much of it was self-inflicted and invented. The difference between my usual state and the one I enjoyed during this experience was so great that it could be compared to the lifting of a heavy burden. Ultimately, like some therapeutic compass, LSD pointed me toward running as a space for healing. I must have looked like a madman, laughing and crying as I ran around the oculus of Manhattan. But that day I became a runner.
The beauty of meditation is the possibility of achieving a higher state of consciousness through untethering the mind from the often tyrannical grips of the body. The therapeutic appeal of meditation always deeply intrigued me but my attachment to my physical, fidgety-ass body was always too much of a limiting factor. Running engages so many physical elements of the body with such synchronization and repetition, that once I can settle into a goldilocks pace, I am able to attain this meditative state. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does what separates me from my environment dissolves and just as it was during the acid trip, I can think and feel with unparalleled liberation and depth. Adjacent to the physical realm I embody is one where destinations are no longer physical and time is no longer linear. It is the absolute antithesis of normal because it eludes any stable definition. This is what the runner's high is to me, a mechanically induced intoxication that is a kind of sublimation of the highest order.
While LSD revealed this to me, I no longer use or need it to achieve this state. I just run. A lot and far. And no, not every run is an insane acid-like experience, in fact most aren’t. But that’s also the beauty of it. As we all learn in different and difficult ways, the most rewarding things in life aren’t supposed to come easy. The High is not guaranteed. Becoming a runner has changed me in so many productive and positive ways, has made me reassess and reformulate my values and interests in my mental and physical health, has introduced me to so many like-minded individuals and is my mode of meditation. My physical body and my social and psychic life have been irrevocably transformed. I became more thoughtful of what I put into my body and its effects on my performance and surroundings, adopting a plant-based diet after six months of running and learning to cherish veganism for both personal and worldly reasons.
Being a runner, the act of running, is a metaphor for life. Exactly one year after starting, I ran my first 100km ultramarathon. An unfathomable distance for me prior, I really did experience the entirety of my life over the course of that 17 hours. There were moments when I felt elation, where the distance became unreal and unimportant and I was that celestial being traversing a beautiful planet again. And then there were moments when it seemed physically impossible to go on, bonking at mile 30 with over 30 more miles to go. And like life, there were many moments in my adolescence where another 15 years of living with that volatile energy felt unfathomable. But here I am, 31 years old. Life truly is like running, in that as long as you’re not dead, all you can do sometimes is put one foot in front of the other. And in this movement I have discovered mental equilibrium, growth, fortitude, beauty, wholeness and holiness.