By Christopher Cudworth
Given that it’s Mental Health Month and Mental Health Awareness Week, it might pay to run through the subject of drinking, drugs and self-medication.
I don’t know about you, but my running and riding buddies all like to drink a little. A few also did a fair share of pot smoking back in the day. It was fun. We got crazy. But it cost us at times as well.
Drinking too much is not good for athletic performance, especially in endurance sports. You can talk all you want about Mickey Mantle partying it up when he was one of the best baseball players in the major leagues. But standing on a baseball field nursing a hangover is a lot less difficult than running 6.2 miles at a hard pace when you feel like you want to puke.
Yet we did that at times, at least on training runs.
We worked too hard to waste chances at races by drinking too much the night before. Yet one of our college teammates downed an entire pitcher of beer the night before running a 24:25 8K at nationals, barely missing All American status by two places. So there are no real rules for whether you should drink or not.
“Whatever works” is not really good advice however. The blind factor in consuming alcohol is just that: It blinds you to what you might have achieved had you not been engaged in drinking.
With all drugs there is risk of dependency if not addiction. Handling nerves and stress and pressure by drinking is a form of dependency. If it gets too habitual it can turn into addiction. One running teammate who drank a lot on weekends drinking funneled his frustrations in violent, angry episodes such as punching walls with his fist when a girl turned him down for a one-night stand. He lay unconscious the next morning when we came to rouse him for a workout. His fist was bloody and swollen and there was blood spattered all over the wall. The same intensity that drove him to be a great runner was a destructive force when processed through alcohol.
Pot was an entirely different type of problem. If anything it seemed to take the drive right out of people. One runner who placed 26th at nationals as a freshman in college never made the varsity again. His eyes were basically bloodshot from pot from his sophomore year on.
My own experience with drinking had its share of ugly moments. The cross country party that resulted in a liver-cringing blackout. The tug and pull relationship with a woman in college that saw her forcing me to drink rum on a weekend trip to the point where I passed out in a McDonalds. She was jealous, she told me, of the time I spent running.
So often the problem with drinking is that these propensities come from outside our better core. Everyone deals with weird crap in their life. Everyone. Some suppress their instincts on how to handle the world through religion. Others pump it into escapes like gambling or sex or drugs.
We seem to either associate or dissociate with our problems. It’s just like the mental framework of running and riding, in other words. Some absolutely choose to relate to the act of running and riding, looking for body response and signs to monitor progress. Others would rather think about anything other than what’s going on. They pump their heads full of music and try to ignore the pain.
A group of us once thought it would be interesting to down four beers and go for a four-mile run. Given that we’d already run a 20K race that morning it was already a stupid idea before we got started. But we learned a lot.
Running while slightly drunk is really no fun at all. You don’t have good control of your body, for one thing. Your brain can’t concentrate on the matter at hand, for another. We all got back to the house at different times and weren’t even laughing about the experience. “Well, that was stupid,” one of us burped.
“And it hurt,” another friend groaned.
It’s true. Drinking can hurt an athlete. As can smoking pot or doing any of a litany of other drugs now available. The so-called War On Drugs has had no effect on the availability or abuse of drugs in this world. If anything it has made the matter worse by criminalizing pot and putting thousands of people in jail for selling or using pot. That’s just stupid. But it is profitable to those who run the jails. Those who fear anyone using drugs or view it as the ultimate sinful foible are not easily persuaded that legalizing the whole thing could make life a lot simpler. If putting people in jail makes them feel powerful and smart then they really are the ones with the problems.
For those of us who run and ride and like to drink or have other fun, the balance between doing all that stuff for kicks and getting up to work out is always a tradeoff. 5:30 in the morning comes awful early when you’ve been up drinking wine until 11:30 p.m. You wake up dehydrated and with a headache. Your legs feel like clay and your gut roils like a Waring Blender. So you take care of business the best you can and go out and run 10 miles or bike 50. When you get home you still feel like crap but at least you’re halfway to recovery that day. The rest will have to come from Coca-Cola or coffee. Throw in a few Oreos and life starts to look a whole lot better.
We’ve got to figure there are some benefits to a little fun drinking with friends. There’s the social component for one thing. A little bit of loose sex with your companion at the end of the evening never hurts either. All that is part of the balance of life.
So you won’t find any indictments of drinking here. Just this: If you sense there is a problem in your life with any of that, there probably is. When friends or family complain about your drinking or doing drugs in any way, you must take it seriously.
Good mental health is a product of balance and choices made for the right reasons. We all walk around with a bit of personal history rattling around in our heads. It could be early family issues, or a dose of abuse as kids that lasts us a lifetime. Hiding that pain can be costly, and trying to drink or smoke it away never works. The pain of life continues in so many ways. Broken relationships. Failed marriages. Personal loss and the death of friends or loved ones. All these triggers. So many bullets in silver cans and tall shiny bottles. That’s a potent combination.
All that liquor advertising is not lost on us. Those companies know that drinking is fun because social taboos can be broken when you’re high or drunk. The thrill of busting out of standard behavior is what makes it all so compelling.
Teens and college kids use drinking and smoking as a rite of passage. Lacking challenging stimulation in other ways because society is too damn busy to engage them in constructive ways, youth take matters into their own hands. They invent games and hold parties to “knock it out of the park” when it comes to excitement. There are role models for that kind of behavior everywhere. It seems like the right thing to do.
We now know that guys like Mickey Mantle were the real pros at the whole drinking thing. They could party it up and get it done on their field of business the next day. While there’s something admirable in that, there is something tragic as well. Why make things harder than they have to be?
That was the question we all asked that day when running with four beers in our gut. If this is how it feels in real time, what might the holdover effects be on our athletic performance? That’s the question all who run and ride have to answer for themselves.
Is drinking and doing drugs really worth it?