Josiah Hesse on ‘Runner’s High,’ Athletics and Smashing the Stigma
Written by on September 27, 2021
When I heard my Denver writer colleague Josiah Hesse was releasing a major-deal book on cannabis and running, Runner’s High, I knew I had to chat about it with him for High Times. All writers have a struggle story, but Hesse’s is particularly powerful. Self-educated as an author, he independently put out his books and others through his previous job with Suspect Press in Denver.
When the magazine took a hiatus, and the world shut down, like many, Hesse was at a crossroads. But through the combined joy of toking up and working out, he was able to not only rediscover a love for running, but also come up with an idea for a major, groundbreaking book on cannabis. We caught up on how it all went down and the meaning behind the narrative.
Runner’s High Answers Burning Questions About Cannabis and Exercise
Walk me through how the whole thing came to be, from the process of coming up with the idea and working on it to actually landing such big book deal, which we know is not easy.
I first got into running just for mental health reasons, to sort of improve some depression and anxiety symptoms. But I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I tried it later on with edibles around the time that legalization had hit Denver, and it was a very different experience for me. I felt lighter; I felt happier. There was less pain, less effort. It felt really good, and I started doing it all the time.
But, it was a while before I started meeting other runners and got into trail running and learned that cannabis is very popular with endurance runners, ultra marathon runners. And I thought that was interesting. It was so popular that I wrote an article about that for The Guardian, and the vast majority of professional athletes said they were using cannabis in their training and their recovery.
Additionally, I learned about the science behind the runner’s high, the sort of more sober, organic runner’s high, and it’s from endocannabinoids that exist in our brains, produced by our brains and bodies so that anyone who enjoys running, not just those who consume cannabis, but anyone, they’re experiencing a type of cannabis high.
So learning that these two things are sort of intrinsically linked really just piqued my curiosity for the subject. And you know when you’re a journalist and you get excited about a subject, typically, you’ve got a whole lot of other people working on that subject, but no one was covering it yet, so there was no competition for this beat, which was very exciting to learn that something was so prevalent with amateur athletes and with professional athletes, and yet so was so under-reported.
Me and my agent then crafted the proposal and went around to New York publishers. A lot of them thought it was a ridiculous idea and didn’t believe that anyone was using marijuana in conjunction with exercise. Some of them were even angry that the pitch landed on their desk. It really illustrated the difference between the East Coast, New York and the bubble that we live in in the West.
When we landed with Putnam, they were really excited about it, but they made a point to tell us, “This isn’t in our wheelhouse so we trust that you know what you’re talking about.”
Then things just kind of serendipitously came together when the story with Sha’Carri Richardson and the Olympics happened to drop just a couple months before the book came out, and it is something that a lot of people are talking about now and you see a lot of the cannabis industry. Now businesses are creating products designed for athletes and there are podcasts and publications on this, so it is becoming a part of the industry, and a part of the conversation in all avenues of sport. Just a few years ago, we were getting laughed out of meetings because people just thought this was a novelty book.
I’m so glad it’s taken more seriously now. How did having a background with DIY writing and publishing help when it came to writing for a big book deal?
I think what helped with Runner’s High in that regard was having written a couple of books and having gone through the marketing process from an artistic standpoint, being knowledgeable when it came to like actual, targeted marketing and strategic marketing wanted to make the marketing part of the creative experience. And so, you know, having written the books, and then gone through that, I had a sense of what I wanted and what I didn’t want for a book like this. It could so easily become a novelty book in the wrong hands.
What do you want people to take away when they read it?
That’s a great question, and there’s a lot of things that I hope Runner’s High achieves, like breaking the stigma about people who use cannabis and allowing professional athletes to be open about their cannabis use, allowing the cannabis industry to enter the world of sports in the form of sponsorships and endorsements and advertising. But I think the number-one thing that I want to emphasize with this book is that exercise does not have to suck.
I think that’s where a lot of Americans are at when it comes to exercise; they think of it as something that they have to get done. You know, the way I would think about like doing my taxes; I really hate doing my taxes; it’s a pain in the ass, and it causes me a lot of stress. I know for some people it’s fun, but I hate doing it, but I do it because it’s something I have to get done.
I think that’s the way a lot of people approach exercise, and they think of it from a cultural standpoint, like, “I’m not that kind of person who goes to the gym; I’m not an athlete.” There’s body dysmorphia; there’s pain; there’s all sorts of the barriers that people feel about exercise, both physically and psychologically, that I think cannabis has the power to help and change people’s relationship to their body and to the practice of exercise.
In terms of your own personal achievements, do you have any plans after the book for releasing another in your fiction series, or anything else you can share?
I would love to write Carnality Three, the third book in my fiction series. And I’d like to do a memoir because I really want to do just a straight piece of reporting about my childhood and my hometown. There’s lots of stuff I’d like to do. I want to write a biography of Pete Doherty. I think there’s always a lot of ideas; I I’ve never been short on ideas for projects, but there’s so many other factors.
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