Miembros de Runners High Chicago el 30 de marzo. Foto de Molly Morrow
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It’s an unseasonably warm March day in Chicago, perfect weather for a run on The 606 trail in Logan Square. Carlos Ramos is the only one there when I arrive at 9am sharp, but about ten more participants trickle in as the warm-ups begin. I assume Ramos has known everyone who arrives for years based on his enthusiastic greetings, only to learn that there are several new faces today.

After introductions are shared and hamstrings stretched, the run begins. A few members zoom off immediately, but most settle for a pleasant jog. Ramos is the last to take off, and he makes sure to pepper his run with a few stops to snap action shots of the group for Instagram. That doesn’t hold him back, though: for most of the run, you’ll probably only be able to spot him by his “Runners High Chicago” T-shirt, a point of reference that gets steadily farther and farther away until you lose him entirely. By the time I reach the end of the route, he’s already back, basking on a rock in the sunshine as though he hadn’t run at all. As more runners reach the finish, the high-fives and cheers grow more boisterous, a fitting celebration for a run well done. 

Runners High Chicago began a little over two years ago when Carlos Ramos and Anakaren “AK” Ramirez met up before the Chicago Turkey Trot race. Both Chicagoans are entrepreneurs of cannabis-related businesses: Ramos founded Up Elevated Cocktails, a line of handcrafted cannabis-infused drinks, and Ramirez runs AK40SEV, which sells merchandise, from stickers and T-shirts to lighters and digital pocket scales. 

The two had heard about each other’s work and decided they should connect. As they recall it, they shared a blunt on the way to the race and, on the way home, thought about how nice it would be to create a run club for other people who also used cannabis during their workouts.

“I’ve always been an active stoner,” Ramos said. “I’m not the type to play video games and eat Cheetos. I want to hike or skate or swim or run. We talked about how it would be cool if there was a community of like-minded people who consume as part of their health and wellness regimen.”

And just a few months later, in June 2022, Ramos and Ramirez hosted Runners High Chicago’s first run.

Runners High is the first (and only) group of its kind in the city: a run club geared toward cannabis consumers. Every Saturday at 9am, they meet for a run (4.20 miles, of course—a nod to the cultural holiday celebrating cannabis) at a different location across the city. In the spring and summer, they run together three times a week. 

Their mission, as they say, is to “get lit, get fit, and break the stigma.”

Not all members use cannabis, but most smoke or take edibles before and after their runs—except one member who, as Ramos and Ramirez joke, likes to smoke the whole time to make a point. “For lung capacity,” Ramos laughed.

Though part of what makes them different from other run clubs is the combination of cannabis and running, Ramos and Ramirez emphasized that neither is required to participate in their events. 

“Everybody is welcome. You don’t have to necessarily consume. You don’t have to necessarily run with us. You can walk. You can just enjoy the vibes,” Ramirez said. 

And while most people who’ve joined the club can run the full 4.2 miles, Runners High is still “very much an all-faces, all-paces type of group,” Ramos said.

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For many, including the members of Runners High, cannabis and exercise are a surprising but natural combination, with both often cited as means of stress relief and mood regulation.

Ramos points out that a traditional runner’s high, usually attributed to endorphins, is instead a reaction within the human body’s endocannabinoid system, which is thought to control functions ranging from emotional processing to inflammatory and immune responses. Journalist Josiah Hesse highlights this phenomenon in his 2021 book Runner’s High, which recounts his own experience combining cannabis with running. 

In the process, he discovered that the practice is more widespread than he initially thought, among ultramarathon runners and beginners alike.

Many members of Runners High Chicago, too, say the combination of cannabis and exercise helps them manage the stress of day-to-day life.

Ramirez, for example, began running during the pandemic and found that it made her calmer and more focused in her busy life as a government employee, entrepreneur, and single parent.

“I didn’t even realize I liked running. I hated running,” Ramirez said. “My thing was, ‘There’s no way I can run. I smoke too much.’ And I was limiting myself.”

With the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in many states, including Illinois in 2019, there’s also a growing (but still small) body of research on the potential benefits and downsides of combining cannabis with exercise.

Research generally backs up the hypothesis of Runners High Chicago. Cannabis has been shown to increase enjoyment while running, according to studies conducted at University of Colorado Boulder, though these same studies suggest it can also slightly increase exertion. Cannabis not only may alleviate symptoms of anxiety or stress but can also ease chronic pain during exercise. It’s a practice that has grown in popularity with both amateurs and more experienced runners.

While combining cannabis with exercise has potential benefits, it’s still important to be mindful of one’s limits and tolerance, said Hanna Molla, an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Human Behavior Pharmacology Laboratory, which studies drug usage and its effects on mood and physical and cognitive performance.

“Individuals may respond differently to cannabis, and factors like individual tolerance as well as dosage can significantly influence performance outcomes,” Molla said. 

But while research dispels some of the mystery around cannabis and wellness, Runners High wants to break the stigma. 

“Every person who consumes cannabis has probably been called a ‘lazy stoner’ in their life, and it’s unfortunate because we are living proof that connotation or stigma is incorrect,” Ramos said.

They also want to question prevailing assumptions about more accepted practices within running, such as alcohol consumption.

Ramos considers it to be a sort of double standard, particularly because the negative effects of consuming alcohol before, during, and after exercise are well-documented but booze is generally more widely accepted at running-related events.

“There’s beer at every 5K. People are drinking beers at 9am and no one’s saying anything about that, whereas when I spark up a joint post-race people look at me funny,” Ramos said. “I’m not trying to demonize alcohol the way people have demonized cannabis; I’m just trying to put the real information out there.”

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Reactions to Runners High Chicago have been a mixed bag. Some members of other run clubs have expressed how much they appreciate all the work they do for the community. Others have looked on with confusion or made disparaging comments during races. But Ramos, Ramirez, and a loyal group of runners keep hitting the trails and logging miles.

Besides getting high, part of what makes Runners High Chicago different from some other run clubs is that they do a lot more than just run. At each run, all the participants evaluate their morning on a scale of one to ten and say a few words about what they’re grateful for or what’s causing them stress. 

“Something that I really appreciate is that, because we are a smaller group, we can like check in with each other and actually connect before running,” said Alex Galván, a regular Runners High participant. “And it creates a community that seems to be mostly built up of creative people—people who are very open, very supportive, and who are unified around cannabis.” 

The group also offers yoga classes and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts, hosts public mental health discussions, and leads monthly community clean-ups at parks in the Chicago area. 

And this year, Runners High will host its second annual 4/20 run. 

Last year, the group got restaurants and dispensaries to help sponsor the race, complete with T-shirts with screen-printed bibs that read “420.” This year, they’re continuing the tradition with a formal run along The 606. They’re also hoping to start other 4/20 races and other Runners High chapters in cities around the country. One already exists in San Diego, and there’s a Washington, D.C., group in the works.

These events serve their broader goal of engaging with the community and creating well-rounded programming for like-minded individuals—many of whom weren’t runners before they joined Runners High.

“Most of our members hadn’t run a mile in their adult lives and probably wouldn’t have started to if there weren’t cannabis and the community there,” Ramos said.

This extends to their other community initiatives, such as the monthly clean-ups. “People see the trash in the parks, but they’re like, ‘I don’t want to clean this up by myself,’” Ramos said. The running group has turned picking up garbage into an enjoyable, community-building activity. 

“It’s a good way to build community with people who are on the same page. And that’s fun, it’s like you’re playing together—adult play,” Galván said.

That focus on community is in line with the group’s broader wellness goals. For its founders and members, both cannabis and running are about relieving stress and instilling a sense of calm amid the chaos of everyday life—and doing so with a group of people with similar interests who can inspire you to keep going, during runs and after.

“So many people see Saturday mornings as their happy place,” Ramos said excitedly. “AK has become a really great friend of mine. We have friends that we hang out with all the time, and we met them through Runners High. We have goals, and we’re motivating each other. We’re not just a club that meets up once a week, and I’m proud of that.”

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Molly Morrow is a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago. She’s also the editor-in-chief of their political newspaper, The Gate, and a freelance contributor for the Weekly.

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