The Drug of Exercise

“Exercise is for those who can’t handle drugs and alcohol.”
-Lily Tomlin

Tomlin was right on with that one. As an artist who specializes in experimental music, I’ve seen my share of drugs. They are endemic to my profession, and people have been offering drugs to me since I was in high school. Still, though, I’ve kept them at arm’s length. I tried marijuana during my undergraduate years and I still drink a beer on occasion, but that’s it. Narcotics never interested me and although I’m fascinated by hallucinogenics I’ve never really tried them as I’m not sure how I would react and am not interested in a bad trip.

But I understand why artists use them, especially pot and hallucinogenics. It’s for the Sense of Wonder. Sci fi writers first coined that phrase and it describes that incredible feeling when your entire worldview shifts and you see and feel and think things that are entirely new. For creative people it’s a magical feeling, a drug in its own right, powerfully addictive and alluring.

Of course the main sources of my daily dose of the Sense of Wonder come from composing, practicing, listening to great music, and reading great literature, but in the past four years I’ve gradually come to realize that equally powerful for me is exercise, especially endurance sports.

Four years ago I completed my first sprint triathlon. I didn’t know what I was doing and entered it on a lark and finished third to last, but I had a lot of fun and it was more productive than my usual puttering around the gym. One thing led to another and now four years later I’m averaging about seven races a year, consistently placing in the top third or quarter, training up to 12 hours a week, and working with a team. This passion of mine has become a major lifestyle shift. Now that my body has adapted to the training and the shorter races, I’m seeking bigger and more difficult events. This coming year I’m planning to complete my first 50K trail race, as well as my first 70.3 (half Ironman) triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run). I also have my sites set on finishing a 50-mile trail race in 2012 and then a 100-mile trail race.

2012? But isn’t it only 2010? Yes, but endurance sports take a lot of careful training to avoid injury and maximize race potential. Indeed, one of the things I like most about this is its cerebral nature. One simply can’t do enough research about training and diet and about the human body. The more one knows, the better one can train and eat and push through physical and mental walls to reach greater heights of human experience.

And that’s where things get interesting. Even as I’ve progressed beyond the beginner stages as an endurance athlete and have become more seasoned, that Sense of Wonder still kicks in, and usually when things have become difficult. When my heart is pounding, and every cell in my body is screaming at me to stop, and every other rational being in the universe would be kicking back on the couch, I’m still going, pushing through walls of pain and exhaustion. Bursting through those walls is an indescribable euphoria. Finishing a tough training day or race produces feelings of incredible power. The world literally looks different. You see your potential. You feel it. And you learn that humans are capable incredible things, way beyond what you might have imagined before you started that race several hours ago.

That is the most powerful drug I’ve found so far, much stronger than regular drugs. And at this point I’m a full on junkie. I build my days around the training–still meeting my obligations as a father, husband, and professional–but if I have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to train I do it. If I have to get my run in after the kids are asleep then I do that. Whatever it takes to get that Sense of Wonder. I think this is why my in the last few years my creative powers have opened up and my percussion playing has gotten better. As I’ve trained my body to withstand longer, more punishing events, I’m more in touch with the Sense of Wonder and my own potential. The Romantic notion of the drug-addled creative genius is false. My creative powers are within me, and I can push them out only with intense, sustained effort. No pill, plant, or drink can do that for me.

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