Runners, High: Some Notes on a Stoned 5K at the 420 Games

A Marijuana Olympics sounds like a hackish joke. But the 420 Games are a real thing that really happened in San Francisco. They were more normal than anything else.

Aug 20 2015, 5:35pm

Photo courtesy of 420 Games

While most people interested in the issue of weed legalization are concerned with the upcoming (and critical) 2016 elections, the current year has undeniably been significant for the mainstreaming of cannabis culture—and those words, "mainstream" and "cannabis," could not always comfortably inhabit the same sentence. Hempfests and smoke outs have been dependable human-interest stories throughout the past half-century of prohibition, for better or worse, but things have gotten more interesting lately as advocates recognize the importance of respectability politics in making their case for pot as a part of American life.

Hence the 420 Games, whose 4.20-mile "5K" in San Francisco last weekend was something that I, a real-life cannabis attorney and an avid runner, couldn't miss.

Read More: The NCAA's Weed Policy, a History of Ignorance

Stoner athletes are not a particularly new phenomenon. While marijuana remains almost universally banned across professional and amateur sports, a large (and growing) number of athletes have stepped out of the cannabis closet. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, my hero in this realm had always been the outspoken pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee, who in the 1970s sprinkled his organic buckwheat pancakes with weed before running five miles to Fenway Park each day. Since then, the evolution of how we talk about weed in the sports world has paralleled the widening acceptance of the drug in general. The current campaign toward full legalization has inspired a few athletes, including Jamaican track and field god Usain Bolt, to admit past use. However, with a few noteworthy exceptions, the outsized punishments and idiotic commentary associated with weed forces most athletes to keep their use secret.

In California, the massive consumer base for weed has created an absurdly robust marketplace built around a quasi-legal medical system. Some businesses already tout products geared toward athletes, like cannabis chews for endurance. Others, like Koma Konfectionz, discovered that their existing products—in Koma's case, salt-water taffy with high levels of THC and CBD—were being repurposed by jocks looking to combine the edible's fast-acting carbs with drugs that can soothe pain and inflammation. "I had no idea," Koma's Steve Walker told me, "but I'm not surprised seeing how diverse our patients are."

A portrait of the author as a youngish, fairly high, extremely sweaty man. Courtesy Stefan Borst-Censullo

Before training for this event, I'd never intentionally mixed my pot use with my running. Competitive running helped me escape the self-destructive cycle of a nasty eating disorder in college; similarly, weed became a method of controlling the anxiety of law school. While I knew that both coping mechanisms worked for me, combining the two had me worried about conforming to some negative stereotypes. Would I reveal myself to be, in Shannon Sharpe's undying and unparseable words, a "marijuana junkie"? Would I wind up personifying Jon Stewart's annoying enhancement smoker? ("Have you ever done fartleks ... ON WEED?")

Jim McAlpine, who founded the 420 Games with the goal of destigmatizing marijuana, more or less anticipated these misgivings. On a given weekend, California boasts a plethora of themed runs as well as any number of pot-related concerts and festivals. Despite increasing tolerance of on-site cannabis consumption—if not expressly, at least with a wink and a nod—the messaging from the 420 Games was decidedly different. Getting high at the event was explicitly banned, although a few determined individuals could be found on the outskirts at Golden Gate Park, politely toking up out of view of park rangers. Thanks to a slew of emails from organizers and promotional materials that directly attacked the stoner image, most participants were on their best behavior. That is to say, we discretely ate edibles well before hitting the start line.

Once underway, the run was surprisingly difficult. The 420 Games tagline is "Everything in moderation except sweat," and to that end organizers sadistically incorporated extra distance and hills to the course. Booths from the event's sponsors greeted runners after the finish line. Smaller operators were side by side with industry heavyweights like Kiva chocolates and Eaze, the self-proclaimed "Uber but for Weed," which recently received a huge and highly publicized investment from Snoop Dogg. Weedmaps was also out in force; depending on who you ask, Weedmaps is either the Yelp of Weed or the drug's monopolistic Standard Oil stand-in.

The run sounds like a stereotypical "only in California" event, and to a certain extent it was just that. But, as with everything involving this drug and this state, the reality is more complicated than traditional media outlets care to acknowledge. Legal pot can claim the title to "fastest growing business in the US," with current revenues of over $3 billion annually. Now that operators have mastered the American ideal of ravenous capitalism, it makes perfect sense that they are expanding their legitimacy via the American ideal of individual athletic excellence.

TFW you just won $500 worth of marijuana because you ran fast. Courtesy 420 Games

The vibe at the 420 Games was downright Norman Rockwell-esque. Representatives from Eaze were on hand to encourage runners on the last quarter mile. A budtender from PureCure was one of the first women to finish. Employees from Harborside Medical, San Francisco's biggest dispensary, made friendly jokes about beating their Berkeley-based rivals at BPG. A MMA fighter crossed the finish line and immediately greeted his wife and stroller-bound child. It was as uplifting and communal and prosaic and unremarkable as any other race, anywhere else.

The only people disappointed with the run, in the end, appeared to be the members of the media on hand. They turned out for a wacky feature story and instead found themselves covering a slightly more reggae Race for the Cure. Bad luck for them, but encouraging for everyone else. A crushingly normal race signals, perhaps, that the forces of weed capitalism have fully embraced their role as the funders of a unique social movement. This run, with its diverse set of participants trying for personal bests, pushing strollers, or just being happy to finish, represents the future of legal weed: complete cultural assimilation.

As I crossed the finish line, I wasn't pondering the possible end to the drug war. I wasn't even feeling particularly high. It felt, more than anything, like any of the other races I've run. In other words, it was a very nice day to be outside with fellow awkward people in spandex.

McAlpine, the 420 Games organizer, seemed to have a similar experience. "The right people showed up," he said in an email. "Everyone understood the mission. It was an athletic event that had a cause, not a cannabis event."

It's a humble thing, organizing a race whose sole purpose is to seem like other races, but the sheer ordinariness of the 420 Games is perhaps its greatest achievement.