With one hand in the dirt and another reaching for a shard of jagged rock that will ferry me to safety, I suddenly feel the presence of the Lord. From where I’m awkwardly crouched on top of the Devil’s Causeway, there are sheer cliffs to either side with a 1,000-foot drop below. All things considered, it’s a pretty good time for a lapsed Catholic to have a religious experience.
Avery Collins told me this run would be epic and I had no reason to doubt him. He spends most of his days exploring the Colorado mountains as part of his 140-mile-a-week regimen, which seems absurd. Then again, my regular 40-50 miles used to seem like a lot, too.
We’re on a 10-plus mile loop that will take us up and over the north end of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, about a 45-minute drive from Steamboat Springs. It’s a warmup for Collins, but for most people it’s the run of a lifetime.
From the trailhead near the Stillwater Reservoir, we were already at 10,200 feet of elevation. A three-mile uphill climb took us another 1,600 feet to the causeway, which is where I’m having a moment. Collins catches my vibe and says, “It’s a very spiritual thing to get high before a run.”
He dances across the causeway and directs me to pose for the obligatory photo, which breaks my spell. Fortified by guidance coming from God knows where, I get down to business, hugging the rocks and slithering slowly back to terra firma.
Ahead of us lies a 5K along the ridge line at almost 12,000 feet of elevation. Beyond that is a four-mile descent that will ravage my calves and test my technical mettle. There will also be a close encounter with a bull moose, but we’ll get to him in due time.
For now, it’s my turn to lead. The single track is narrow, and my ankles click together. It takes a half mile for my breathing to normalize. Finally, a rhythm emerges. I’m sensing the ground’s outline before my feet make contact and my stride is true. For the first time all day I feel like I’m running.
I want to be clear that we were not carried up the mountain on a golden cloud of marijuana smoke. The amount of THC in our system wasn’t enough to get us baked or blazed. Before the run I took a solitary hit from a bowl, which constituted the entirety of my consumption on my trip to Colorado. This was also not my first time running high.
I’ve been preparing for this ever since experiencing a brutal day at the Boston Marathon last April. It was the most grueling race of my life and I carried a heavy mental burden for weeks. In an effort to shake out of my funk, I went to the woods and began to explore my psyche.
What I found during a handful of legal experiments before I went to Colorado was that my runs became bigger, bolder, and more vibrant. Out in the wild and a little bit stoned, I discovered a more mindful approach to the miles. The closest thing I can compare it to is the concept of panoramic awareness as described by Sakyong Mipham from his book, “Running with the Mind of Meditation.”
“We are not just lonely runners pounding out the miles, but living creatures running on the Earth. When we acknowledge that, we feel alive. We do not have to fight our environment.”
What’s interesting is that I’ve become more adept at getting into that mindful head space even when I’m not high. I’m clearly tapping into something, although I’m not entirely sure what it is, to be honest. Thanks to the federal prohibition against marijuana, the science of running high is hazy at best.
One emerging theory is that the mystical runners’ high is tied to our body’s natural endocannabinoid system, which mediates the effects of cannabis and is found in our brains and central nervous system.
Endorphins, which interact with our brain’s opioid receptors and can release feelings of pleasure during exercise, are simply too large to travel through the blood-brain barrier to trigger that heady, euphoric feeling. Those tiny flowing endocannabinoid molecules, however, are just right.
The runners’ high is not really the same as running high — one is fleeting and ethereal, the other is more of an immersive process — but it feels like a symbiotic relationship. To run high is to run unconsciously, to embrace the run for what it is, regardless of time or distance. To put it another way, running high has opened up possibilities that once felt far beyond my capabilities. Like say, running up a mountain 12,000 feet above sea level.
It should be noted, dear reader, that running high isn’t for everyone. Hell, being high isn’t for everyone. One person’s focused creativity is another’s flighty confusion, and you really don’t want to be roaming the mountains looking for enlightenment without proper training and some kind of guidance. All of that is what brought me to Avery Collins.
Collins stands about 5’8 with piercing blue eyes and a tuft of blonde hair that he’s never quite sure what to do about. He’s clearly fit in the way most people are fit in Steamboat Springs, where he lives with his girlfriend, Sabrina Stanley, who is also an ultrarunner.
It’s not until you get up into the mountains with Collins that it becomes obvious he is an elite athlete. He runs up on his feet, like he’s poised to take flight at any moment, and he has remarkable body control. He stumbled only once on our run while I flopped and flailed a dozen times. He is most of all a quiet runner.
In Steamboat, where he has a full-time job managing the Twisted Trails running store, Collins can choose any number of mountains to run. Since he doesn’t have a car, he’ll often ride his bike out to the trailhead. In the winter he’ll hop on his splitboard and ride down to the base of Mt. Werner before the gondola starts running. He’ll then skin up to the top where he can carve fresh trails before most people have their coffee.
Collins is prone to the occasional stoner moment, but he’s remarkably focused for a 25-year-old. With his sponsorships and his job managing the store, Collins is able to train year-round, making him a full-time ultrarunner, as well. He runs four to five times a week, averaging between 20 and 40 miles per outing with elevation gains in the thousands. And he usually runs high.
If you’ve heard of Collins outside the clannish world of ultrarunning it’s because of his cannabis advocacy. He’s the only endurance runner sponsored by a cannabis company: The Farm in Boulder. In addition to a signing bonus, The Farm picks up a chunk of his travel expenses and supplies him with a discount at their dispensary.
His embrace of cannabis makes him somewhat controversial, but Collins notes it has long been part of the trail running scene. Running high may feel like a trend, but it’s really nothing new. What’s changed is the public’s curiosity. Regardless, Collins knew what he was doing well before his picture appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, bong in hand.
“It was something that obviously no one had done,” he says. “So it was a niche, and in ultrarunning you have to have a niche to make any kind of money. For me, it was just important to stand up for something I believe in.”
What he believes is that cannabis is a safer alternative to hard drugs and alcohol. He’s also found that it helps with pain mitigation. What it really comes down to is he likes getting high and he likes running. It seemed only natural to combine the two.
Collins is a proponent of what he calls “responsible consumption”, and he’s found an acceptable level to enhance the experience. Sometimes he smokes a little and other times he takes an edible about 30 minutes before a run, but what works for him may not work for someone else.
My experience is way more limited — I’ve never run on an edible — but we both agree that a nice little head high is enough to get things flowing in the right direction. Hence the solitary hit at the beginning of our journey. What he’s found is similar to what I’ve found, that cannabis makes him a more mindful runner. That includes managing the aches that are intrinsic to his workload.
“One day you can go out and feel every single twinge, which may not be a bad thing,” Collins says. “I’ll take the downhills a little easier, try to switch my muscle groups on the uphill a little bit more. The benefit of being high is you’re more in tune with your body. It keeps you more alert and aware.”
Cannabis can also be therapeutic, particularly in the form of rubs and creams that are higher in CBDs as opposed to the THC that gets you stoned. Collins uses topicals as well and finds them to be helpful as anti-inflammatories.
Still, cannabis is no cure-all. Like all runners, Collins is in a committed relationship with pain. He spends hours every day strapped into an evil spring-loaded contraption called the R8 that locks his body into place while the blades of an eight-sided roller goes to work on his muscles.
“It’s hard core, but it feels amazing,” he says with a glee that’s a little unnerving.
When Collins started his cannabis advocacy he wanted to bust the image of the lazy stoner, but that’s less important to him now that he’s establishing himself in the ultra world. He’s won 100-milers in Hawaii and Ouray, Colorado. as well as a 200-miler that nearly brought him to his knees. What motivates him now is finding the absolute limits of his body’s potential.
“We don’t know what it’s like to hurt,” Collins says as we begin our ascent. “Really hurt. True pain. I want to know what’s possible.”
We’re barely a mile into the run and I’m already feeling pain. My right hip is barking and my left glute wants no part of the pile of rocks blocking our path. Collins gives me a power-hiking tutorial as I adjust to the altitude.
“Power hiking is vital,” he says. “You get to a point where running makes no sense.”
Of course, Collins runs just about everything. On a ripper day, he’ll knock this loop down in 75 minutes and then take on the south end of Flat Tops for good measure. A typical outing means 20-40 miles in the mountains with thousands of feet of vertical gain.
What then, I wonder, does he think about when he’s running? He considers this for a moment.
“I come across as an asshole when I say this …. Nothing. That’s the best part. That’s the time in my life when I’m not thinking. I think at work. I think when I’m having a conversation. I don’t need to think when I’m running.”
There is a theory in endurance running that it’s not our bodies that break down in competition, but our minds sending out signals warning us to slow down before we’ve reached our limits. The flesh may be willing, but the brain is cautious.
What Collins describes as nothing is a mind that is free of distractions. Perhaps, if we can reframe our mindset to manage those distress signals we can go further and faster than we thought possible. Instead of dissociating, what if we can train our consciousness to dive deep enough to not just confront pain, but embrace it?
When I run high it’s as if a layer of negative static has been scraped away between my body and my brain and I am no longer afraid of pain. I even find comfort in its familiarity.
All of which raises a complex question: Is cannabis a performance-enhancing drug? It depends on who you ask.
In part because it’s illegal on a federal level here and abroad, cannabis is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances in competition, although not in training. (WADA recently removed CBDs from its list, although THC remains banned.) Collins is adamant he does not race high, nor does he intend to try.
“I have never taken any cannabis at mile 80, having been up for 20 hours with no sleep,” he says. “Who’s to say that won’t put me right on my butt? It is banned (in competition) and I don’t mind that. I have no problems with the rules. They don’t affect my daily life whatsoever.”
After winning the Georgia Death Race — billed as the toughest race east of the Rockies — Collins was awarded a “Golden Ticket” to the Western States 100, the most storied race on the circuit. Even with a number of victories already on his resume, this was a career-making performance.
Collins reached out to Craig Thornley, the race director at Western States, telling him, “I’m not here to compromise the integrity of your event,” and volunteered to be drug tested before and after the race.
The race organizers had announced there would be testing, but didn’t specify how many runners would be affected. They wound up testing the top 10 finishers in both the men’s and women’s races, at a cost of $15,000; a significant sum for the sport.
Collins finished sixth and passed the test, as he always does. Stanley finished third, making them arguably the fastest badass couple on the planet. She is not a regular cannabis user and doesn’t run high. “To each their own,” she says with a shrug.
The testing requirement was not about cannabis, per se. In recent years, there have been a handful of positive tests for blood doping techniques like EPO that have ravaged cycling. That realization has shaken ultrarunning to its core. PED use isn’t just against the rules, it’s against the spirit of the entire endeavor.
On the subject of PEDs, Collins sighs. It’s complicated and then again, it’s not. Testing costs money and there’s not a lot of money in ultra running. Nor is there a governing body. Who’s handling the tests, who’s paying for them, and who, if anyone, is looking out for the runners? Collins also draws a clear line of distinction.
“For me, it’s any steroid,” he says. “I’m not well versed in the subject which I think is a good thing. I don’t know shit about steroids. We’re in a sport without a lot of money. Why would you do it?”
Indeed, why do any of this? As we settle into that nice pace along the ridgeline, Collins brings me into his world.
In 1974, a man named Gordon Ainsley set out on foot from Squaw Valley through the Sierra Nevadas covering a distance of 100 miles. Western States was a horse race, but Ainsley’s came up lame the previous year so he decided to see if he could do it himself. The only requirement was that he needed to finish the course in less than 24 hours, like his equine competitors. Thus was born the idea of the ultramarathon.
There’s an element of Old West frontier myth associated with ultrarunning, but it’s underscored by the simple fact that a bunch of people set off to run in the woods and one of them will finish before anyone else. Collins wins a lot of his races, but it’s the stuff that happens between the start and finish that truly matters.
“My niche in this sport really falls under big and bad,” Collins says. “I don’t label myself as any kind of superhuman athlete. I thoroughly believe that I’m gritty as fuck. I can take a punch to the face and fight back the whole way.”
Collins has found that he is very comfortable being uncomfortable. A friend told him once that an endurance race was a series of snapshots, and for Collins those images began with a gentle push from his grandfather to sign up for his first road race. That was all of five years ago.
By his own admission, Collins was a little lost back then. He was living on the beach in North Carolina, going to school and chasing waves. He was, in his word, materialistic … and for Collins there is no greater insult. He surfed and played basketball, but he had never run for anyone other than his grandfather, who liked to time him on trips around the neighborhood.
One day his grandfather suggested signing up for a race. Collins went to the computer and found a local 8K. It was his first race ever and he blew away the competition, much to the astonishment of the other runners in the field and the race director. Everyone, really, but his grandfather.
These are the people who are important to Collins. There’s the gang from Fort Wayne, Indiana who introduced him to the mountains. Real OGs, these guys. They wouldn’t let Collins run a 50 miler until he did a 50K. Don’t be a flash in the pan when you can have a career.
He runs for his little brother who showed up to the Indiana Trail 100 right when Collins was ready to throw in the towel thanks to a golf-ball-sized knot hanging off the side of his Achilles. It was the first time his brother had seen him race and Collins decided then and there that he wasn’t done. He wrapped his leg in duct tape and finished second.
There’s this local woman, Eva, who comes to all his races. She made the best damn sweet potato soup, loaded with all kinds of oils and fats that got him through the 200 miler that stretched him to the breaking point. He runs for her too.
Then there’s Devon. They came to Steamboat together and shared a room, working three jobs and going out to the mountains every day. Mattresses on the floor and running shoes everywhere.
Collins guesses they’ve run 15,000 miles together over the last four years, including the time he trashed his hamstring on a 140-mile out-and-back from Johnstown, Pennsylvania to Ohiopyle State Park and had to quit after 100 miles. They were on pace to smash a 30-year record too. It happens.
When Collins qualified for Western, Devon dropped out of his own race to serve as his pacer. They met at Mile 62 and moved up eight spots to sixth.
Where does this drive come from if it doesn’t come from cannabis? It comes from them. It comes from somewhere primal deep within Collins. He dreams of going deeper into the mountains with Sabrina, leaving all the trappings of the world far behind.
“When you run an ultra, you’re stripped away of all your material comfort,” he says, sweeping his arm across the valley before we begin our descent. “This is what you got, and this is all you need.”
So, the moose.
About a mile into our downhill I get a glimpse of the real Avery Collins. On a particularly fast section, he launches off a rock and comes down in perfect rhythm before tearing down the mountain. “That’s my favorite part,” he says after he slows down so I can catch up.
For my part I am moving, bounding over rocks and navigating twists and turns. I settle into a strong pace and I’m sensing moves two or three steps ahead of real time. This is basic stuff for Collins, but the footing is gnarly and I don’t trust myself completely. My eyes are locked just a few feet in of me, tuning out everything but the next steps.
As we come flying toward a blind corner, Collins hisses, “Stop man, stop,” and I come to a screeching halt not 25 feet away from the biggest moose either of us have ever seen. Actually, it’s the only moose I have ever seen.
“More people die from moose encounters than any other animal in the mountains,” Collins tells me nonchalantly. The good thing, he says, is moose are functionally blind, so we slowly back up behind a tree and assess our options. To put in simple terms, this is a big fucking moose and he has the right of way.
“We’re going to have to wait this one out,” Collins concludes.
He gets no argument from me. I take a sip from my handheld and realize that Collins hasn’t touched a drop of water since we started our run. It also strikes me that he somehow spotted the moose through a thicket of forest while running several feet behind me. At that moment I felt incredibly fortunate to be running with Avery Collins.
My Garmin tells me later that we wait only a few minutes, but it feels like an eternity before brother moose finally snorts and loses interest in our presence. As he lumbers slowly back across the valley, Collins points to a clearing and we take a quick scenic detour back to the trail.
That encounter naturally led to a discussion about bears. Collins has seen a lot of bears. There was the grizzly at mile 112 of Fat Dog in British Columbia just eight miles from the finish gashing away with his claws at a fallen tree. At Western, when he was positioned in fourth and trying to chase down third, he and Devon met an unexpected visitor.
“Dude, he sat right in the middle of trail and just stared at us,” Collins says laughing. “I had to wait for the next guy back to catch up because we needed more people to scare it off. Devon and I were not getting the job done by ourselves.”
We still have a few miles left and the terrain gets tougher. There are creeks to cross on the backs of downed tree branches, my water gets light, and I am feeling the altitude.
Eventually the trail just ends and I realize that I’m no longer high, if I ever truly was in the first place. The cannabis may have brought me here, but the run is what lingers. It’s now embedded in my consciousness, just like Heartbreak Hill or any of the adventures still to come.
On a drive to Boulder the day after our run, Collins points toward the Gore Range. It’s one of the truly mysterious mountain ranges in Colorado with summits rising just shy of 14,000 feet and consisting of what one website described as, “dramatic serrated ridges … riddled with gnarled, tooth-like spires.”
He’d like to find out the fastest known time for crossing the range to see if he can beat it. I tell him the things he says don’t sound real.
“Yeah?” he laughs. “Not to me.”